Atomism Democritus And Epicurus Essay Research

Atomism: Democritus And Epicurus Essay, Research Paper

Atomism: Democritus and Epicurus

Philosophy 116

October 17, 1996

In the Atomists, we see pluralism taken as far as it could possibly go.

We see Democritus and Epicurus divide all the world, as well as the universe,

into two categories; atoms and empty space. Everything else is merely thought

to exist. The atoms are eternal, infinite in size and number and they are

moving through the empty space. There is no motion without empty space. Both

Democritus and Epicurus agreed that motion was impossible in a plenum, but it is

here that their theories diverge. In the cause of the motion, we begin to see a

variety of opinions.

Both Democritus and Epicurus agreed that the ?qualitative world of sense

perception arises from the motion of qualitatively neutral atoms. They believe

that the immense qualitative variety results from the ?jostling’ of atoms…as

they collide and bounce apart, and so, constantly form new groupings? (Jones 84).

They believe it to be a mechanical process occurring completely by chance.

Furthermore, although new groupings are constantly being formed, only the few

that can survive are considered the ?right? combinations. These are the

combinations we recognize through our senses as being ?real?, although they are

not. However, the way in which this complex motion begins is a source of

controversy and disagreement amongst the Atomists.

Democritus assumes that the atoms’ motion is perpetual. The atoms are

never at rest. He presumes that their nature is to move, thereby avoiding ?the

problem of explaining the origin of the complex motion of atoms by simply

affirming that it is in their nature to move so? (Jones 85). He believes that

atoms are born along with the whole universe in a vortex. The vortex is not an

outside influence, but rather the motion of the atoms themselves. He never

accounts for the initiation of this motion. He simply states that it is an

inherent quality of the atoms themselves.

Epicurus, on the other hand, wanted to find a reasoning behind the

initial movement of the atoms; to find the cause of the initial collisions

which start the creation process of the universe.

Through observation of objects falling ?down? within our limited

perceptual space, Epicurus concluded that in the vastness of infinite space

there can be no ?down? since there is no point from which, or to which, an

object (in this case an atom) is falling. Since an objects’ natural state

seemed to be rest, Epicurus decided that it was not motion, but lack thereof,

that is in a things’ true nature. Therefore it is motion which requires an

explanation (Jones 85).

Since it is agreed that the atoms must collide in order to form ?objects?

that possess different qualities, the frequency of these collisions must be

infinitely large. How else can one account for the variety of objects

recognized as ?normal?? The space in which the atoms are traveling is large

beyond our every conception of size, and the atoms are small on the very same

scale. The probability of even two of these atoms colliding while they fall

through the void is minute, if not non-existent.

Epicurus attempts to explain these collisions with his ?swerve? theory.

In this, he holds there is an arbitrary, imperceptible swerve in the straight ?

falling? path of the atoms. Rather than contribute the collisions to the nature

of the atoms themselves, he is attempting to account for the frequency of

collisions, and in effect increase the probability of two atoms colliding in

infinite space.

There are many problems with this postulation. In effect, it is no

better an argument than Democritus’ nature theory. If we begin to assume that

events simply ?happen? arbitrarily, we do not gain any deeper insight than we do

by saying that these events are in the nature of things. Both of these

positions lead us away from Atomism, since we are beginning to affirm the

creation of something out of nothing, a position to which the Atomists are

diametrically opposed.

Modern philosophers like Dr. Jones, allow for Epicurus’ swerve theory

since ?given one swerve the system can develop, for it is plausible to suppose

that colliding atoms react in different ways. ?Some leap back at great space

apart, others are thrust but a short way from the blow’? (Jones 88). Ambiguous

as it is, Epicurus could not logically come to another conclusion without

violating his earlier teachings.

Another point on which the Atomists disagree is the nature of

qualitative differences such as weight and color. Although both Democritus and

Epicurus agree that atoms are without these qualities, their explanations of the

phenomenon of their existence are quite different.

Democritus, attempting to maintain the integrity of Atomistic physics,

says that qualitative differences are, in fact, illusions. Neither atoms, nor

empty space possess these characteristics, therefore, Democritus concludes, they

must be illusions. He supports this theory by saying that the motion of the

atoms that constitute the sensed object causes some of the atoms of that object

to be flung into the path of the atoms of the sensory organ, which in itself is

a collection of atoms in motion. Thereby, the collision of the atoms which are

moving from the object being sensed set the atoms of the sense organ in motion.

The motion perpetuates the illusion of qualitative variety. With this argument,

Democritus is able to account for the differences of opinion regarding an

objects’ qualities. What smells sweet to one, may smell foul to another.

Antithetically, Epicurus attempts to explain sensory phenomenon in a

clearer way. His explanation, however, again deviates from the core

declarations of Atomism. Epicurus agrees that atoms themselves have no

qualitative differences. Nonetheless, he declares that groups of atoms can

develop a quality such as color. He theorized that the qualities we perceive

are a by-product of the motion and collision within atomic groups themselves.

As the group moves, the qualities change. These qualities Epicurus called ??

properties’ not ?accidents’ of combinations or collections of atoms. A property

is a characteristic that some entity necessarily has; an accident is a

characteristic that is temporary and transient. Thus, in accordance with these

definitions, color is a property of atomic collections (for all such collection

have some color or other), and ?red’ is an accident. Though a collection is

necessarily colored, it is not necessarily “red? (Jones 89).

Therefore, Epicurus attributed the qualitative differences not to our

perception, but to the atoms themselves. We come to an impass here. We have

already decided that all that exists are atoms and empty space. Epicurus then

goes on to state that the qualities are not illusions, yet they do not exist as

part of the atoms, nor do they exist within the void. Where, then, are these

qualities? Epicurus ambiguously calls these qualities ?accompaniments? yet

never explains how they can exist outside of reality and still be considered


Epicurus changed the doctrine of Democritus in many ways in an attempt

to clarify some of the more questionable postulations. Epicurus’ theory is not

necessarily superior, but certainly progressive. There is room for discourse on

a variety of the Atomists’ theories. Since they are the first school of thought

from which we have so much written record, there is bound to be divergence of

opinion. The areas I have discussed relate only the area of physics. Epicurus

attempts to resolve some of the dilemmas Democritus leaves unresolved in ethical

and psychological dilemmas as well.

Of course, lingual and interpretive constraints play a part in all

philosophical theory of the classical period. Yet in our “modern” world, we

rely heavily on the ideas set forth by these great thinkers. It would be

foolish to take one concept as superior over another because the scope of ideas

given to us by these thinkers is too great a wealth to judge subjectively.



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