Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


The Atomists represent the last phase of Ionian speculation concerning nature. They accept the dualistic ideas which characterize the Later Ionian philosophy, but by their substitution of necessity for intelligent force they abandon all that dualistic philosophy had to bequeath to them, and fall lower than the level which the early hylozoists had reached.

It was at Miletus that the Ionian philosophy first appeared, and it was Miletus that produced Leucippus, the founder of Atomism, who virtually brings the first period of Greek philosophy to a close. So little is known of Leucippus that his very existence has been questioned.{1} His opinions, too, have been so imperfectly transmitted to us that it is usual to speak of the tenets of the Atomists without distinguishing how much we owe to Leucippus, who by Aristotle and Theophrastus is regarded as the founder of the system, and how much we owe to Democritus, who was the ablest and best-known expounder of atomistic philosophy.


Life. Democritus of Abdera was born about the year 460 B.C. It is said -- though it is by no means certain -- that he received instruction from the Magi and other Oriental teachers. It is undoubtedly true that, at a later time, he was regarded as a sorcerer and magician, -- a fact which may account for the legend of his early training. He was probably a disciple of Leucippus. There is no historical foundation for the widespread belief that he laughed at everything.{2}

Sources. If, as is probable, Leucippus committed his doctrines to writing, no trustworthy fragment of his works has reached us. From the titles and the fragments of the works of Democritus it is evident that the latter covered in his written treatises a large variety of subjects. The most celebrated of these treatises was entitled megas diakosmos. Mullach (Fragmenta, I, 340 ff.) publishes fragments of this and other Democritean writings.

Aristotle in the Metaphysics and elsewhere gives an adequate account of the doctrines of Leucippus and Democritus.


General Standpoint. One of the reasons which led the Eleatics to deny plurality and Becoming was that these are inconceivable without void, and void is unthinkable. Now, the Atomists concede that without void there is no motion, but they maintain that void exists, and that in it exists an infinite number of indivisible bodies (atomoi) which constitute the plenum. Aristotle is therefore justified in saying{3} that according to Leucippus and Democritus the elements are the full (plêres) and the void (kenon). The full corresponds to Eleatic Being and the void to not-Being. But the latter is as real as the former.{4} On the combination and separation of atoms depend Becoming and decay.

The Atoms. The atoms, infinite in number and indivisible, differ in shape, order, and position.{5} They differ, moreover, in quantity, or magnitude,{6} for they are not mere mathematical points, their indivisibility being due to the fact that they contain no void. They have, as we would say, the same specific gravity, but because of their different sizes they differ in weight.{7}

The Motion by which the atoms are brought together is not caused by a vital principle inherent in them (hylozoism), nor by love and hatred, nor by any incorporeal agency, but by natural necessity, by virtue of which atoms of equal weight come together. It is, therefore, incorrect to say that the Atomists explained the motion of the atoms by attributing it to chance. Aristotle gave occasion to this misunderstanding by identifying automaton and tuchê though it is Cicero{8} who is accountable for giving the misapprehension the wide circulation which it obtained.

The atomistic explanation was, therefore, that atoms of different weights fell with unequal velocities in the primitive void. The heavier atoms, consequently, impinged on the lighter ones, imparting to them a whirling motion (dinê). The Atomists, as Aristotle remarks,{9} did not advert to the fact that in vacuo all bodies fall with equal velocity. Nowhere in the cosmological scheme of the Atomists is there place for mind or design; it is utter materialism and casualism, if by casualism is meant the exclusion of intelligent purpose.

Anthropology. Plants and animals sprang from moist earth. Democritus, according to our authorities, devoted special attention to the study of Man, who, he believes, is, even on account of his bodily structure alone, deserving of admiration. He not only describes as minutely as he can the bodily organization of man, but, departing from his mechanical concept of nature, takes pains to show the utility and adaptation of every part of the human body. But over all and permeating all is the soul. Now the soul, for the Atomists, could be nothing but corporeal. It is composed of the finest atoms, perfectly smooth and round, like the atoms of fire.{10} Democritus, accordingly, does not deny a distinction between soul and body. He teaches that the soul is the noblest part of man; man's crowning glory is moral excellence. He is said to have reckoned the human soul among the divinities.{11} And yet, for Democritus, as for every materialist, the soul is but a finer kind of matter. Indeed, according to Aristotle,{12} the Atomists identified soul-atoms with the atoms of fire which are floating in the air.

The Atomists' theory of cognition was, of course, determined by their view of the nature of the soul. They were obliged to start out with the postulate that all cognitive processes are corporeal processes, and since the action of body upon body is conditioned by contact, they were obliged to conclude that all the senses are mere modifications of the sense of touch.{13}

The contact which is a necessary condition of all sense-knowledge is effected by means of emanations (aporroai, -- the term is Aristotle's), or images (eidôla, deikela). These are material casts, or shells, given off from the surface of the object; they produce in the medium the impressions which enter the pores of the senses. They are practically the same as the Epicurean effluxes, which Lucretius describes:

Quae, quasi membranae, summo de corpore rerum
Dereptae, volitant ultro citroque per auras.

Thought cannot differ essentially from sense-knowledge. They are both changes (heteroiôseis) of the soul-substance occasioned by material impressions. Logically, therefore, Democritus should have attached the same value to thought as to sense-knowledge, and since sense-knowledge is obscure (skotiê), he should have concluded that no knowledge is satisfactory. He saves himself, however, from absolute Scepticism, although at the expense of logical consistency; for he maintains that thought, by revealing the existence of invisible atoms, shows us the true nature of things. The doctrine which Aristotle{14} attributes to Democritus is his opinion as to what Democritus should have taught, rather than an account of what he actually did teach.{15}

Ethics. Although most of the extant fragments which contain Democritus' ethical teachings are merely isolated axioms without any scientific connection, yet our secondary authorities attribute to him a theory of happiness which is really the beginning of the science of ethics among the Greeks. From what Democritus says of the superiority of the soul over the body, of thought over sense, it is natural to expect that he should place man's supreme happiness in a right disposition of mind and not in the goods of the external world. "Happiness," he says,{16} "and unhappiness do not dwell in herds nor in gold; the soul is the abode of the Divinity." Happiness is in no external thing, but in "cheerfulness and well-being, a right disposition and unalterable peace of mind." The word which is here rendered cheerfulness (euthumia) is interpreted by Seneca and other Stoics as tranquillity. Democritus, however, was more akin to the Epicureans than to the Stoics, and it is probable that by euthumia he meant "delight" or "good cheer."{17} There is in the moral maxims of Democritus a note of pessimism. Happiness, he believes, is difficult of attainment, while misery seeks man unsought.

Historical Position. The atomistic movement is recognized as an attempt to reconcile the conclusions of the Eleatics with the facts of experience. It is not easy, however, to determine with accuracy how far the Atomists were influenced by their predecessors and contemporaries. Even if the dates of Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and Leucippus were known more definitely than they are, it would still be a matter of no small difficulty to show in what degree each philosopher depended on and in turn influenced the thought and writings of the others. One thing is certain: it was Atomism which more than any of the other pre-Socratic systems prepared the way for Sophism and the consequent contempt of all knowledge.

In the first place, atomistic philosophy was materialistic, and "Materialism ends where the highest problems of philosophy begin." Moreover, the armor of the Atomist offered several vulnerable points to the shafts of Sophism. He fallaciously concluded that atoms are uncaused because they are eternal; and, what is worse, he inconsistently maintained the difference in value between sense-knowledge and thought. The Sophists might well argue, as indeed some of them did argue, that if the senses are not to be trusted, reason also is untrustworthy, for the soul, according to the Atomists, is, like the senses, corporeal. Thus did atomistic philosophy prepare the way for Sophism.

{1} Cf. Burnet, op. cit., p. 350.

{2} Cf. Zeller, Pre-Socratic Phil., II, 213, n.

{3} Met., I, 4, 985 b, 4.

{4} Cf. Arist., Phys., IV, 6, 213 a, 31, for arguments by which the Atomists proved the existence of the void.

{5} Arist., Met., I, 4, 985 b, 14.

{6} Arist., Phys., III, 4, 203 a, 33.

{7} Arist., De Generatione et Corruptione, I, 8, 324 b and 325 a.

{8} De Nat. Deorum, I, 24, 66.

{9} Phys., IV, 8, 225 a.

{10} Arist., De An., I, 2, 403 b, 28.

{11} Cf. Zeller, op. cit., II, p. 262.

{12} De Respiratione, 4, 472 a, 30.

{13} Arist., Met., IV, 5, 1009 b, and De Sensu, 4, 442 a, 29.

{14} Met., IV, 5, 1009 a, 38.

{15} Cf. Zeller, op. cit., II, 272.

{16} Frag. 1.

{17} Cf. Sidgwick, Hist. of Ethics, p. 15.

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