This is an exploration of the Atomic theory of the Ancient Epicureans. Epicureanism was a school of philosophy that was founded around 307 BC in Athens by Epicurus, and lasted until about 300 AD-ish. The Epicureans were famous (or infamous) for their philosophy of materialistic hedonism. In this article, I’ll mainly be examining the materialistic foundations upon which the Epicurean philosophical system was founded, and why the Epicureans thought that understanding the world on the basis of materialism was the key for tranquility of mind.
I have a soft spot for the Ancient Epicureans. And it’s not so much because I completely agree with their philosophy either. Part of it is how they are pretty much the philosophical punching bags of the Ancient World. Practically everyone of their contemporaries just has awful things to say about them, and honestly, I think most of the awful things that they have to say are completely unjustified, and even worse, sometimes just downright slanderous.
Diogenes Laertius, a biographer of philosophers writing around the 3rd century AD provides us with a long list of slanderous things that were said about Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism. Here’s a few things that were said:
“…he went around to houses with his mother, [scamming people], and that he taught grammar school with his father for a miserable fee; also that one of his brothers was a pimp…Epictetus (a famous Stoic philosopher), too, called him a ‘foul mouthed bastard…’ […] Epicurus vomited twice a day because of his high living…Epicurus was ignorant in many ways about his subject and even more about life…” (DL 10.3-7)
But Diogenes Laertius, being somewhat fair in his assessment of Epicurus, also provides us with another picture of the hedonistic philosopher. He says of Epicurus the following as well:
“The man Epicurus has plenty of witnesses to his unparalleled benevolence toward all: his country, which honored him with bronze statues; his friends, so many in number that they could not even be counted by whole cities; his intimates, all of whom remained bound to him by the siren call of his teachings…and there is his gratefulness to his parents, his generosity to his brothers, and his kindness to his house slaves… ” (DL 10.9-10)
And it is this picture of Epicurus, as a somewhat saint-like figure, that I find compelling, not so much because I instinctively think it is accurate. All I have are reports from Ancient writers, fragments here and there, with no one alive to either corroborate or contradict after all. But according to those that vouched for him, the basis for Epicurus’ saint-like demeanor was his materialistic view of the world. For Epicurus, the entirety of reality consisted of nothing but atoms and void (emptiness), and it was from this ontological viewpoint that Epicurus, and by extension his followers, claimed that happiness sprang from.
Now, previously I have written about the Dichotomy of Pleasure and Pain in Epicurean ethics, and how it guided Epicurean moral behaviors, but now I’m going to dig deeper. Because, although pleasure and pain provides the railing for right and wrong for the Epicureans, pleasure and pain only have the normative weight that they do because of Epicurean materialism. So, let’s take a look at what Epicurus thought reality consisted of, and why he thought his view of it contributed to tranquility of mind. I will mostly be using information from Epicurus’ ‘Letter to Herodotus,’ (H.) a short work that acts as a rough outline of the Epicurean philosophical system.
Creation Ex Materia
Epicurus begins with the principle that “nothing is generated from the nonexistent” (H. 39) Another way to say this is that nothing can come from nothing, or that if there is something existent, like say, the cosmos, then it did not come into being merely out of nothing. There must have been something ‘there,’ some pre-existent material, that the cosmos originated from. This principle wasn’t entirely Epicurus’ invention. As early as 500 BC the Greek philosopher Parmenides had formulated this postulate and it was by and large, an orthodox philosophical view. But Epicurus also has a very good reason for believing this aside from philosophical orthodoxy.
According to Epicurus, “otherwise, anything could be generated from anything and not require seminal particles.” (H.39) So, while Epicurus is following along with philosophical tradition that there is ‘something,’ that must precede phenomena, he is explicit that this ‘something’ is material and also contains within it, the seminal mechanism by which other things are generated.
Here’s the thing, and I think this is following along with what Epicurus has in mind, if we remove the Creation Ex Materia principle, then we really have no basis for believing that there is some sort of orderliness to the cosmos. And I don’t mean orderliness like there is an underlying rational force running the cosmic show, making decisions about when this or that will happen. I mean orderliness in the sense that if we see a pine cone fall to the earth, we expect a pine tree, not a palm tree, to grow on that spot. Similarly, if we see smoke coming out of a building, we expect there to be a fire causing that smoke.
The world appears orderly to us because of this underlying principle, according to Epicurus, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to make sense of our everyday experiences. But what are these ‘seminal particles,’ that Epicurus is going on about? Well, this is his theorized ‘material’ by which everything in the world comes into being, which he calls atoms. After all, everything had to come from something, but doesn’t that something also have to come from something-else and so on and so on? Eventually, Epicurus thinks, you’ve got to reach some primary material, some elementary irreducible thing which all other things are made from.
But why must it be material and why must it be the cause of orderliness and regularity in the cosmos? Why does Epicurus think that it must be some bodily thing which is the ultimate irreducible constituent from which all other things are mechanically constructed compounds? As Epicurus puts it, “the fact of sensation itself universally attests that there are bodies, and it is by reference to sensation that we must rationally infer the existence of imperceptible bodies.“(H.40)
So, Epicurus is working from his sensory experience, and it is the same sensory experience that everyone presumably has. All we seem to perceive are bodies (material things), and when we take something like say, a rock and sand it down, all we are left with are smaller pieces of rock until finally they are almost imperceptible. Epicurus, working from the Creation Ex Materia principle, infers that every material thing we see must merely be a compound of a much smaller material thing which human eyes just can’t perceive. But if all we ever perceive are bodies, there is no reason to think that the imperceptible thing is anything other than a body of some sort.
But if this imperceptible body, this ‘seed,’ is the only thing in the cosmos aside from void (the medium through which the seeds move through), then, for Epicurus, it is also the cause of orderliness. A divine being like Plato’s divine craftsman for example, doesn’t need to intervene and bring orderliness into the universe, the interplay between these ‘seeds’ and the empty space they move through is sufficient for Epicurus to explain all phenomenon. But what exactly is the nature of these ‘seeds,’ or atoms, as Epicurus calls them?
The Ancient Greek word for atom is ‘atomos,’ and ‘atomos’ is a privative term, meaning that it composed of ‘a,’ which in Ancient Greek designates a lacking or loss of, and ‘tomos,’ which can mean something like slice, part, or that which is a cut of something. So an ‘a-tomos’ is really just something which cannot be cut down any further, it is an irreducible thing, quite literally, an uncuttable. This is the sense in which Epicurus is using the word, as that most basic thing which is the material for everything else.
Now, Epicurus did not come up with the concept of atoms himself. As early as 450 BC Greek philosophers like Empedocles, Anaxagoras, had theorized that physical objects must consist of rhizomata, or ‘roots,’ but their versions had been much more rudimentary and, in some respects, much cruder. For example, Anaxagoras had maintained that each ‘root’ must correspond to a distinct element, so there were distinct particles of earth, air, fire, and water as well as bone and flesh and…well you get the idea. Anaxagoras thought of ‘roots’ this way because otherwise how could the existence of bones in a compound body make sense unless there was some degree of bone particles mixed into the body? Clearly, this way of conceiving of primary material was bound to be unwieldy and impractical.
Later Greek philosophers like Leucippus and Democritus further refined this view of primary material into the Greek ‘atomic’ theory. So atoms are the conceptual descendants of the rhizomata, but they are further stripped down into bare ontological essentials, size, shape, and motion. Epicurus took this pre-existing ‘atomic’ theory and ran with it, because, honestly, physical phenomena could be explained in a much more economical fashion in this way.
Take for example the so-called ‘blood-particle.’ In Anaxagora’s cruder view, humans eat grain foods like bread and are nourished by it because it contains blood-particles. But on this picture, if we gathered enough grain together and ground it up, we should expect some small signs of blood. As the Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius argues in his work “De Rerum Natura,” this clearly doesn’t happen, (DRN 1.880) so it can’t be that the irreducible particles that constitute compound things are anything like elements that we are used to. There must be some uniformity to the atoms that comprise things.
This is why Epicurus endorses this simplified picture of atoms, because when taking any physical object and breaking it down to primary qualities, for Epicurus at least, size, shape, and motion seem to not only be universal, but have sufficiently explanatory power. Yet this doesn’t answer the question as to what atoms actually are made from themselves, or where they come from. This is actually Epicurus’ ontological stopping point. Since atoms are the most basic constituents of reality, there doesn’t seem to be a need to say more about why they are the way that they are.
And in fact, precisely because they are irreducible, and not compound things themselves, they are eternal, and because they are eternal, it implies that even though things break down, fall apart, die, what they are made of is simply recycled by the cosmos into something else, as is also confirmed by empirical observation. As Epicurus puts it, if all the matter in the cosmos was not in a state of conservation, then the cosmos should have dwindled away to nothing long ago. (H.39) So, for Epicurus, the cosmos is eternal and in a state of constant renewal by its own internal mechanism, there is no requirement that anything, “outside the totality […] could intrude and effect change.” (H.39) In short, there is no need for some divine being to be involved in the running of the cosmic show.
But this still doesn’t explain how compound things come into being does it? So far we only have an explanation of what primary material should be, on Epicurus’ empirical view, but we still don’t know what keeps the game going, the game of compound things being generated and then disassembled.
The Infinite Void
Aside from the existence of atoms, Epicurus also holds to the existence of what in the Ancient Greek is called ‘kenon,’ commonly translated as emptiness, space, or void. I think it’s important to try to get at an idea of how Epicurus conceives of the void and why void is the key to understanding how it is that atoms are all that are needed for the universe to function.
When I first read Epicurus I merely assumed that what he was doing, in conceiving of the void was that he was taking the empirical observation that there are empty spaces, like say, in a large room, in which physical things, like other people, pass through, and transposing it into a generalized account of how the world is. In this regard, Epicurus seemed like he had a ‘common sense’ view of reality.
But Epicurus provides, in H.40, a different reason why void should exist. First, he does remark that ,“the fact of sensation itself universally attests that there are bodies,” that is, sensation tells most of us that there are physical things, and that this is, on his view good enough to make it indisputable. But from the indisputability of the existence of physical things, he thinks, we are compelled to “infer the existence of imperceptible bodies.” The existence of physical things which clearly exist is the foundation for the inference that there are other sorts of things which we don’t have immediate perceptual access to, which we are affirming the existence of on the basis of logical reasoning, not on sensation.
So, we are conceptually primed to allow that there can be such a thing that exists and that doesn’t actually need to be sensed, not on faith, but on the basis of what we can actually sense. After all, if we’ve inferred, along with Epicurus, that atoms, which are seemingly imperceptible, exist, we’re already kind of working with this viewpoint. Epicurus follows this up with correlating void to such a thing that has existence, is objectively real, but that doesn’t need to be sensed.
But even if, intellectually we allow that void must have a reality, we could waver on the basis that physical things have reality because they interact with other physical things. How does void interact with things in this way? Epicurus reminds us that, “if what we call the void […] were nonexistent, bodies would not have anywhere to exist, nor would they have a medium through which to move, as they manifestly do.” What this means is that void does in fact interact with physical things, it’s interacting being thought of as the site upon which perceptible things are observed moving about.
This argument rests more on on a conceptual understanding of what it is to be any sort of object rather than on mere empirical observation, as I originally thought Epicurus was getting at. It’s difficult to conceive of ‘something’ existing without a corresponding ‘place’ for that ‘something’ to exist in. But because Epicureanism demands that for anything to really be a ‘something’ it needs to be able to interact with ‘something-else,’ Epicurus is able to point out that void, which seems like it would be ‘nothing,’ is actually ‘something,’ but a ‘something’ of a different sort than perceptible ‘somethings.’
So void has a positive conceptual reality quite different than the every-day conception we have of void as a ‘lacking,’ a conception that can actually be challenged and was challenged in Epicurus’ day. Some philosophers, like Aristotle, didn’t think there was such a thing as void and instead they thought of reality as being a plenum, that is, that matter filled up the entirety of the universe with no space in between anything. Think of a jello cup and then expand it to fill up the entire cosmos. Yeah, something like that.
For Epicurus then, the medium of void is what allows the free movement of atoms, of their combining and falling away from each other. And it is this coming together and coming apart that generates all phenomenon throughout what Epicurus thinks is an infinite cosmos. But what actually compels the atoms to come together in the first place? Epicurus doesn’t think there is a third cosmic participant after all, just atoms and void. And atoms by themselves are moving, but not necessarily towards each other, not unless something pushes them towards each other. This call for the introduction of a further concept, the swerve.
It isn’t completely clear if Epicurus introduced the concept of clinamen, which is typically translated as ‘swerve,’ because it doesn’t get explicitly called that until a few hundred years later by Lucretius. But Lucretius considered himself to merely be reporting the Epicurean account of reality, and there are hints of the swerve in the writings of Epicurus. (H.43) Basically, the jury is still out on if Epicurus came up with this concept, although to be quite honest, since much of the Epicurean account of physical phenomenon kind of hinges on the swerve, it’s best to simply assume that Epicurus held some view that was comparable to it. Disagree at your own discretion.
So what is the swerve? The swerve is an irreducible physical event , it is an unpredictable occurrence in which atoms randomly move towards a direction that they were not meant to go based on whatever trajectory they were following. When they do this, it creates a cascading effect in which atoms begin colliding with one another, beginning the compounding process that eventually culminates in observable physical objects, like worlds, animals, and human beings.
In this way, Epicurus thinks that there is no need to refer to any outside force to explain the world, it can be explained on completely materialistic mechanical terms. But physical theory, as Epicurus thinks of it, is not merely theorizing for the sake of theorizing. Epicurus isn’t a scientist per se, he thinks of his project along ethical lines, as aimed towards the betterment of the human condition.
At the closing of the “Letter to Herodotus,” Epicurus says that the point of his physical theories is to combat what he calls “spiritual confusion.” (H.81) More specifically, he is concerned with dispelling the superstitious belief that there are inherently any intelligent or divine powers out there in the cosmos that have control over how the world works. Epicurus thinks that there are ‘god-like’ beings that exist, but they are in many ways similar to humans, merely being constituted of finer atomic materials and living what he calls ‘blessed’ lives just out of sight of our perceptual reality. But these ‘gods’ are not really important to you and me on this picture, because they don’t really have a say, or much less even care, in our individual lives.
So, Epicurus is not an atheist per se, but on the basis of his materialistic mechanical physics, he seems to come close to it, with gods that aren’t involved in cosmic or human affairs. But Epicurus thinks that this is happy news. After all, if the gods really don’t matter, what’s the use of “imagining some frightful everlasting fate,” like hell? It is a concern that we shouldn’t bother anxiously thinking about, according to Epicurus, because Epicurean atomism shows, in a way that is taken to be coherent, that we have no good reason to think we matter enough in the grand cosmic theme of things.
Furthermore, because human beings are also made of compounded atoms, and nothing else, there is no good reason to think that there is anything like a soul that survives death. Actually, even if there is a soul, Epicurus thinks that it will also be made of atoms, and if this is the case, then it will also eventually come apart and be recycled into the cosmos. So there is no survival after death, or more specifically, our concerns, which are tied up with our existence, end at the point of death. Death just isn’t relevant to us on Epicurus’ view, and it is irrational to worry about anything but the life that we live and what kind of enjoyment we can get from it through the Dichotomy of Pleasure and Pain.
As Epicurus puts it, “mental serenity means achieving release from all such fears and keeping the most important general principles constantly in mind.” (H. 82) So, Epicurus finds the implications of his physical theory consistent as well as comforting. I certainly don’t buy into Epicureanism, but if I’m being fair, I can certainly confirm that not only am I fascinated by the Epicurean model of reality, but in many ways I am also sympathetic to Epicurus’ motivations to resolve anxiety concerning the fear of death and of the uncertainty of life after death.
Even some of the Epicurean philosophical adversaries, like the Stoic Seneca said good things about them from time to time such as when he quotes Epicurus in his moral letters: “This is also a saying of Epicurus: ‘If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to [the opinion of others] you will never be rich.” (Letters 1.16) Seneca may not have agreed with Epicurean philosophy, but by being philosophically inclined towards fairness, he was able to draw out from Epicureanism wisdom that in actuality enriched his own philosophical views.
So, in this regard, I think that there is some value in studying the Epicurean worldview. Maybe I don’t agree that materialistic mechanism implies the soft atheism that Epicurus endorses, or that atheism resolves all of my anxieties about death, but I do agree with Epicurus that many of the anxieties that he talks about are of extreme importance, and that it is of great value to put our rational energies into examining and hopefully resolving them someday.