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