A Flummox of Philosophers: #4 The Atomists

Democritus and Epicurus are my two philosophers from Ancient Greece featured in this post who both subscribed to the belief that everything consisted of atoms and void, with “atomon” meaning “indivisible”. As you will probably realise the same term was used by the 19th Century scientists to describe their findings of elemental particles of matter.

The Atomists postulated that atoms “came together” to form different material objects in the natural world ….. a rock, a plant, a hand, an orange …. all created by different arrangements of atoms that travelled through a “void” and with different amounts of void between them. Their belief in a void was new too, a form of nothingness or non-existence. Revolutionary!

Democritus went much further and asserted that even our thoughts/mind were composed of atoms, so that an idea, an emotion, a judgement, a decision …. were all created by atoms flowing together in the void temporarily, then dissipating again. 

“Democritus’ atomic theory has other modern connotations. For he also held that every event in the universe is causally determined by preceding events, on account of the fact that material objects behave according to the impacts of atoms upon each other, much as one billiard ball striking another causes each to alter its course. A more sophisticated version of this view, called ‘determinism’, has been both vigorously defended and denied in the recent history of modern philosophy and remains a live issue to this day.”


Of course we probably all know Epicurus more for his so called Hedonistic philosophy and approach to life. Often labelled as a “pleasure seeking” philosophy nothing could be further from the truth with Epicurus shunning a more comfortable life for one involving “freedom from pain” whether physical or mental. He invited followers from all walks of life to join him in The Garden where they ate and lived frugally. Epicurus combined his Atomists views with hedonism via an early perspective of “free will” where he did not believe everything was determined by the gods. So, our thoughts and actions, according to Epicurus, did not occur because atoms ran in straight parallel lines but because of atoms colliding and swerving! How bizarre is that? 

Next up ….. The Stoics and the odd Cynic!

Categories: Philosophy

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2 replies

  1. Made me think about people. Each life touches other lives and makes adjustments to our journey. Thank you for your contribution!

    Liked by 1 person

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