Epicurus' World

The story goes that the renowned physicist Richard Feynman was once asked to summarize the most important finding of modern science in a single sentence. Feynman replied, “The universe is made of atoms.”

Although there are many other scientific discoveries that are arguably of equal importance, Feynman’s choice makes a lot of sense. The discovery of atoms is so familiar to us that it’s easy to overlook its breathtaking significance. We know, at the smallest scale where it still makes sense to talk about distinct objects, what are the fundamental building blocks that matter is made of, and we have described their interactions with astounding precision. Our understanding of everything from why the stars shine, to how DNA replicates, to why a table is solid, relies on our knowledge of the way atoms behave.

Atomic theory is now so well-established, and so widely accepted, that it’s easy to forget how controversial a notion it originally was. In fact, atomism was once synonymous with atheism, and it was the bête noire of Western religion not just for centuries, but for millennia.

It was in the fifth century BCE that the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus first proposed the idea that matter was composed of indivisible particles called atoms. But these ideas came to their fullest flowering in the mind of their successor, Epicurus, who lived around 300 BCE. In Epicurean philosophy, the world was ultimately comprised of atoms and the void. All that exists and all that occurs – from flowing water to burning fire to human thought – is due to the movement and collision of atoms and the endless, ever-changing array of patterns they arrange themselves in. The ruling principles of the Epicurean cosmos are natural law and random chance, not purpose or plan, and we who live in it and are part of it can find happiness by learning to accept whatever happens with virtue and tranquility. Epicurus did believe that the gods existed – he saw this as the only way to explain the widespread dreams and visions of them – but in his philosophy, they were not supernatural spirits but material beings composed of atoms, just like humans. More importantly, they did not take any interest in human affairs; they were more like images than actual persons.

In scientific terms, it’s impressive how much Democritus and Epicurus got right. They correctly anticipated the very discovery that Richard Feynman called the most important element of modern science. Epicurus even believed that atoms sometimes exhibited “random swerves”, a startling point of agreement with modern quantum mechanics. If he had claimed that a god told him all this, it would have been by far the most impressive example of theism anticipating later scientific discovery, and genuinely difficult for an atheist to explain.

Yet to the theologians and churchmen who came after him, Epicurus’ ideas were the depths of heresy. His materialist notion of the cosmos – no creator deity, no life after death, everything that exists made of patterns of atoms – was anathema to the monotheist conception of an orderly cosmos arranged and guided by God. For centuries, being accused of “Epicureanism” was a very serious charge indeed. For example, the Jewish writings known as the Mishnah, in 200 CE, had this to say:

And these are the people who do not merit the world to come: The ones who say that there is no resurrection from the dead, and those who deny the Torah is from the heavens, and Epicureans.

Indeed, the Jewish word for “heretic” – apikoros – appears to be a Hebrew transliteration of “Epicurean”. The Hebrew benediction known as the Amidah, which is recited three times daily by observant Jews, contains a prayer which asks that “may all the apikorsim be destroyed in an instant” (source).

As Christianity became ascendant, it treated Epicureans no less kindly. Acts 17:16-18 records how the first Christians viewed them:

“Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods.”

Early Christian apologists such as Tertullian, Jerome and Augustine reviled Epicurus, calling him a “pig” and an advocate of “depravity and gluttony”, and his philosophy a “frigid conceit” (source; see also).

Throughout the Middle Ages, as Christianity gained secular power, the ridicule and persecution grew worse. The Byzantine emperor Justinian I, who actively suppressed non-Christian faiths, closed down the philosophy schools of Athens, including the Epicurean Garden, which had survived for eight hundred years. The twelfth-century philosopher Nicholas of Autrecourt, who taught an atomist doctrine similar to Epicurus’, was condemned and forced to recant and burn his writings. In the Divine Comedy, Dante depicts Epicurus and all his followers “who with the body make the spirit die” as imprisoned in flaming tombs for all eternity. As late as the 1600s, Epicurean theories were reviled, as one pamphleteer wrote: “Let that beastly Epicure’s mouth be now sealed up in dumb silence.”

Yet Epicurus, that sly old Greek, had the last laugh. The church persecuted his followers and sought to stamp out his teachings, but not only did Epicureanism survive, it was vindicated. The universe is made of atoms after all. Natural phenomena like weather, the growth of crystals, even the currents of human motion and thought can be traced back to patterns of atoms and their ceaseless ebb and flow. As in many other areas, this is one where religion arrogantly thought to wade in before science had had its say, and was forced to retreat. We do not live in the medieval church’s world, where our bodies are just so much fleshly dust powered by immaterial currents of spirit, and the heavenly bodies move in spheres of celestial ether. We live in a grand cosmic clockwork of atoms and molecules, a vast mesh whose unfolding is determined by random chance and the immutable laws of cause and effect. We live in Epicurus’ world.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Wayne Essel

    So, where did the thought that all matter is composed of atoms come from? While it has proved true, I don’t see a path to the conclusion that wasn’t pure postulation. What inspiration would cause that? At the time there was absolutely no way to verify the hypothesis.

    What is it that makes someone like Epicurus, or anyone for that matter, accept the idea that atoms have always existed and are part of an infinite universe? I struggle with that one, since from my perspective I can only imagine matter as an extension of energy/consciousness…

  • Wayne Essel

    Forgot to mention that I thought it a wicked coincidence that Epicurus’ name and the word for heretic, apikoros, are so similar.

  • prase

    @ W.Essel:

    I believe that the old Greek atomism was a rather random guess, or pure postulation if you want. First true evidence came with the invention of chemistry two millenia later.

    What is it that makes someone like Epicurus, or anyone for that matter, accept the idea that atoms have always existed and are part of an infinite universe? … I can only imagine matter as an extension of energy/consciousness…

    That’s interesting, since I can imagine energy only as a characteristic of matter, and don’t even try to imagine consciousness. Concerning things like infinity or eternity or whatever is far from everyday experience, perception of what is natural or easily imaginable usually strongly varies and depends on individual biases, which we all have a lot of. So you needn’t be surprised that Epicurus (or any other philosopher) postulates something which seems strange to you.

  • Leum

    The idea of an eternal universe has been relatively common among skeptics over the last few millennia. It seems paradoxical to me, too, resting as it does on the unstable foundation of infinity. Why accept the idea? Because without evidence for a creator, and without an understanding of stellar nucleosynthesis and the expanding universe, the most logical conclusion was an eternal universe, paradoxes or no. There are, after all, plenty of things in the natural world that appear paradoxical until further investigation demonstrates otherwise.

    However, in modern cosmology, energy proceeds matter. Only when the universe was sufficiently cool were hydrogen and helium able to form.

  • Eric

    Plus the Epicureans got a bit of modern genetics right too, and backed it with some pretty sound observation. They there were distinct “seeds” of heritability that could fail to be expressed in one generation and then express themselves in the next when recombined with different seeds. They also taught that males both contributed equal amounts of seeds and argued against the idea a woman was merely the soil in which a child grew.

    On the downside, they were a flat-earther minority in their own time. Other ancient schools were way better at astronomy.

  • Wayne Essel

    One of the links in Ebonmuse’s post refers to Epicurus having been called “a Christian before Christ “. Ironic that the attacks should be so virulent.

  • nfpendleton

    “I can only imagine matter as an extension of energy/consciousness…”

    Wayne?

    Really?

    This statement is complete New Age meaninglessness.

    Energy = the capacity to do work. Ask a physicist, not a healing crystal salesperson.

    Consciousness: byproduct of the workings of the physical mind. Read some Steve Novella, or other serious neuroscience researcher.

    Between xianity and this, it’s sometimes hard to keep up with the woo.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Question: Was Epicurean philosophy reviled because of atomic theory, or because of its denial of a divine role in the human world and the universe? Or are those two concepts too deeply intertwined in the philosophy to separate?

    And you’re totally right about the “if he had ascribed this theory to divine visions, it would have made one of the best arguments against atheism around” thing. That had never occurred to me… but it’s true. We’re always saying, “If the Bible had just said something about E=mc squared, that we’d take seriously.” It’s eerie that Epicurus got this so close. And it makes me realize: One or two lucky predictions of later- discovered scientific truths isn’t, by itself, good enough evidence of divine communication or intervention. I’m going to have to set my own personal “what would it take to convince me God was real? standards up a notch.

  • Wayne Essel

    Is it necessary that Epicurus’ hypothesis was based on a purely random notion? Or is it possible that it was revelatory?

  • Brad

    If he had claimed that a god told him all this, it would have been by far the most impressive example of theism anticipating later scientific discovery, and genuinely difficult for an atheist to explain.

    That’s quite an amazing point, actually. I’m not sure how to get over the fact that the Greeks, high point and prototype of intellectual civilization that they already were for their time, actually harbored a faction of atomists that held a non-intuitive truth so far ahead of their scientific maturity. Like every one else, I wonder where they could find the reasons to support such an idea by their knowledge of the universe. If I were told all things are like sand as a child, I’d wonder why everything was so diverse in texture, weight, etc. and still held together. In fact, as a kindergartener, I held the exact opposite idea to be truth: that everything was continuous substance and just occasioned to break apart or meld together sometimes. Futhermore, it’s quaint imagining how the ancients could have even come up with the concept even before standing by it!

    Interestingly, if the Greeks truly didn’t have the rational and evidentiary means to support atomic theory, then it follows that the ancient’s positive belief in it was perpendicular to philosophical rationalism, to say the least. On the other hand, if a portion of Greeks could guess correctly that all matter is composed of atoms, then how much weight should we give to religious texts which purport or are purported to possess otherwise inaccessible scientific knowledge? The Greeks set a pretty high bar.

  • exrelayman

    “Is it necessary that Epicurus’ hypothesis was based on a purely random notion? Or is it possible that it was revelatory?”

    Possibly it was revelatory. Possibly pink unicorns exist. The realm of the ‘possible’ is not very rigorous is it?

  • Polly

    I don’t think the idea was that uncommon or all that counter-intuitive. Other major civilizations thought there were a certain number of basic elements (usually 4) composing all of matter – including China and India. One thought was that different proportions of these elements accounted for the different properties of objects. There were some schools that thought all 4 elements had to be present in everything while others thought some materials exluded certain elements. In any case, the alternative to atomic theory was infinite divisibility which is a heck of a lot less intuitive.
    Certainly, no one could’ve imagined the subatomic world or the complex bonding and types of bonds that atoms go through.

    For goodness sake, fire was considered an element! To me, it would’ve made no difference if the insight were attributed to revelation. It’s completely human and predictable, from my POV. Actually, up through right before phlogiston theory, I couldn’t help thinking how dumb and superstitious (al)chemists were.

  • Leum

    Is it necessary that Epicurus’ hypothesis was based on a purely random notion? Or is it possible that it was revelatory?

    But we have no reason to think it was revelation; Epicurus never claimed it was. To assume it was revelation we’d have to assume Epicurus and co. were lying about how they came by the idea. Just like we have no reason to assume that Plato came by the idea of forms through revelation and would have to call him a liar to claim so.

  • lpetrich

    I like this: Predicting Modern Science: Epicurus vs. Mohammed by historian Richard Carrier. Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things beats the Koran and the Bible by a wide margin in its scientific anticipations.

    But I don’t think that I like the attitude of Epicurus and Lucretius toward science — they did not like the idea of pursuing it as an end in itself. Instead, they seemed to have regarded it mainly as a way of debunking needless fears of temperamental gods and some miserable existence after death.

    In fact, Lucretius treated Epicurus as a savior figure, which I find annoying.

    I much prefer the attitude of one of their predecessors, Democritus. He reportedly preferred discovering a causality to being King of Persia.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Question: Was Epicurean philosophy reviled because of atomic theory, or because of its denial of a divine role in the human world and the universe? Or are those two concepts too deeply intertwined in the philosophy to separate?

    I think what most riled Epicurus’ critics was his claim that atoms and the void are the only fundamental components of reality, and that everything else, including the gods, is just combinations of these. His assertion that the human soul is also made of atoms, and dissolves upon bodily death, probably came a close second. Epicurean theory didn’t allow for anything like spirit, so it would naturally be threatening to belief systems based on supernaturalism.

    Like every one else, I wonder where they could find the reasons to support such an idea by their knowledge of the universe. If I were told all things are like sand as a child, I’d wonder why everything was so diverse in texture, weight, etc. and still held together. In fact, as a kindergartener, I held the exact opposite idea to be truth: that everything was continuous substance and just occasioned to break apart or meld together sometimes.

    From what I understand, the Greek atomists were the people on one side of a philosophical debate over whether matter is continuous and infinitely divisible, or whether there is a smallest possible piece of matter that was not itself made of smaller parts. (Plato’s Timaeus, for example, took the other view, pointing out that a right triangle can be subdivided into two smaller right triangles an infinite number of times.) That’s just what atomos means: “uncuttable”.

    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy also has an article:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atomism-ancient/

  • abusedbypenguins

    Albert Einstein was not the first and won’t be the last. He wrote that he imagined what it would be like to travel along side a beam of light as it traveled through space and through his imagining he wrote his theories. Not to hard to suppose someone a few thousand years ago imagining things as they got smaller and smaller and were made up of bits of matter. We know these bits of matter are made up of tiny bits of energy. The primary grain that was grown at that time was rye. The primary beverage was watered beer and/or wine. LSD is manufactured from the mold on rye bread. Eat moldy rye bread, drink some wine, what would you see?

  • Justin

    “I can only imagine matter as an extension of energy/consciousness…”
    Wayne?
    Really?
    This statement is complete New Age meaninglessness.
    Energy = the capacity to do work. Ask a physicist, not a healing crystal salesperson.

    Well, technically, matter and energy are two sides of the same coin according to special relativity. I realize that isn’t very relevant to Wayne’s statements. Just thought I’d offer that bit.

  • Justin

    abusedbypenguins, I’m not sure I follow your last post.

  • Brad

    The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name. It may be a unique collection of atoms, such as the Matterhorn, that lasts long enough to be worth naming. Or it may be a class of entities, such as rain drops, that come into existence at a sufficiently high rate to deserve a collective name, even if any one of them is short-lived. The things that we see around us, and which we think of as needing explanation – rocks, galaxies, ocean waves – are all, to a greater or lesser extent, stable patterns of atoms.

    ~ Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (p12)

  • lpetrich

    Was there any empirical support for pre-Dalton atomism?

    In any case, John Dalton in 1803 showed how atomism could account for the recently-discovered Law of Definite Proportions. Joseph Proust had discovered around then that some “mixtures” of elements come in definite proportions, though others did not. When iron rusts, it consumes an amount of oxygen in proportion to the rusted iron. John Dalton explained that by proposing that a certain number of iron atoms combines with a certain number of oxygen atoms when making rust. He was even able to make an empirically-based table of relative masses of atoms, something that no previous atomist seems to have tried.

  • http://unreligiousright.blogspot.com/ UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 5/30/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • Johan

    When I saw the title, I thought it would be about the Epicurean philosophy in general, and not atomism. Anyways, interesting read.

    As for the following discussion whether atomism is just pure speculation or not, I think that to an extent, it is speculative. Neither Epicurus or Democritus could actually conduct experiments to test it. However, it is not necessary that it was conjured out of nothing. One could observe, for instance, that if you cut something, for instance a tree, apart into two, then one of these into two, then one of these into two, it becomes smaller and smaller. It isn’t very far-fetched to guess – based upon that – that the tree in end is made up of very small parts that can’t be divided, i.e atoms.

  • lpetrich

    Johan, why do you say that? The first guess that one may have is that matter is infinitely divisible, that one can never stop dividing it.

    But mixtures would naturally be explained by atomism. If you dissolve salt in water, you could conclude that the salt atoms get mixed with the water atoms. That’s actually pretty close to the truth; water “atoms” are nowadays called molecules, and table salt breaks down into sodium and chlorine atoms.

    In fact, atomism even explains the phenomenon of diffusion. If you open a bottle of perfume at one end of a room, it will make first that part of it smell like perfume, and later the rest of the room. The perfume atoms would bounce off of the air atoms and slowly travel. And the same for introducing anything else with a strong-enough smell. We’d now say “molecules”, but that principle is correct.

    A counterargument to the mixture and diffusion arguments would be how light can travel through other materials; that could be an argument that continuous materials can overlap.

    I don’t know if any pre-Dalton atomist noted how nicely atomism explains mixtures and diffusion, however.

  • Ross

    Well, technically, matter and energy are two sides of the same coin according to special relativity. I realize that isn’t very relevant to Wayne’s statements. Just thought I’d offer that bit.

    On the contrary, I suspect it’s highly relevant. It seems to be a standard New Age tactic to take an established fact of science (mass-energy equivalence, in this case), then redefine some of the terms (and ‘energy’ is a favourite here) to create a new piece of spiritual mumbo-jumbo.
    I recall a time when a friend of a friend tried to explain to me how we’re all immortal, since our energy cannot be destroyed. I don’t recall having any great success in convincing her that the energy that physicists are talking about in the conservation of energy is entirely separate from the New Age concept of ‘energy’.
    Quantum mysticism is another fine example of this kind of recasting of the laws of physics into a realm where they no longer apply.

  • Ross

    As to whether Epicurus was simply a lucky guesser, I would have to say “yes”, but the odds against it were only about 50-50. Once the question is asked “is matter infinitely divisible”, there really are only 2 answers. Therefore, if Epicurus had claimed divine influence for atomism then this would be unconvincing as evidence for a god or gods since it was so easily guessed at. The real genius here is even asking the question in the first place (does anyone here know who originally asked it?) but that’s not something that would have required any divine influence, merely a sharp mind.
    What’s also interesting to note is that what we call ‘atoms’ are not actually the indivisible atoms envisioned by Epicurus, since we have rather famously split them. So far as we know, electrons and quarks are a better match, but it is of course difficult to prove this for certain. That said, it is fundamental to quantum physics that Epicurian atomism holds at some level or another.
    One unanswered question in modern physics is the size of the fundamental particles; are they point-like, or do they have a finite (nonzero, but tiny) size? A quick trawl of Wikipedia reveals that Democritus believed they had size, and some Indian Buddhists believed they were point-like. If and when this question is finally settled by physics, it will hardly constitute vindication of the complete philosophy behind either of these viewpoints.

  • lpetrich

    The closest thing to those Greek and Indian philosophers’ atoms is likely the elementary particles of the Standard Model and its extensions. Those philosophers’ atoms were more-or-less impenetrable solid objects, while elementary particles are understood with quantum field theory, which states that they have both particle and wave properties.

    Wave-particle duality is something that no philosopher had ever anticipated.

    Furthermore, elementary particles can easily be created and destroyed by appropriate interactions, instead of being uncreated and indestructible or close to that, as those atomists had believed.

  • Scott

    Atomos = uncuttable
    I think a debate about whether matter could be split in half over and over and over again would quite rightly come to the point where somebody could come to the conclusion that it can’t. I Have to agree with Ross here, it was only a 50-50 guess and Epicurious happened to be on the right side.

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  • Ron

    Atomism is an answer to how substances can have motion. Continuosly divisible matter provides no mechanism for motion, because there is no void to move into. Thus atoms and void is the only logical conclusion, according to Epicurus. Plus it is easier to explain all sorts of other phenomena, from perception to physical/chemical changes, via atomism. The theory would have been accepted much earlier if Epicurean doctrines did not conflict with the political goals of Christian church fathers.