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Atomism in Ancient Greek Philosophy

David Sedley

Pages 70 - 73

Parmenides (early to mid 5th century BC) argued that belief in a physical world which varies over space and time is untenable: since not-being is a self-eliminating concept, that only leaves being, which without the addition of not-being can admit of neither differentiation nor division. “‘Nor is it divisible, since it is all alike”, Parmenides wrote (B8.22). Atomism arose in the mid to late 5th century largely as a response to this, its proponents being the obscure Leucippus and his pupil, the celebrated polymath Democritus. Not-being, these atomists maintained against Parmenides, is a coherent notion, and the familiar physical world is precisely a combination of being and not-being, or – translated from metaphysical into physical terms – a combination of body and void. Parmenides, they implicitly acknowledged, was in a way right about the indivisibility of being, because division occurs not within being, but at the interstices, which consist of not-being. That is, a pure portion of body cannot be divided, but compound bodies, consisting of body plus void, can be divided at the void gaps. The portions of pure body are “atoms”, ‘atoms’, literally ‘uncuttables’ or ‘indivisibles’, and an infinite number of them distributed across an infinite universe have combined to produce infinitely many worlds. Their indivisibility makes them unchangeable and indestructible, and hence suitable as permanent primary elements underlying all phenomenal change.

1Christ’s College, University of Cambridge

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3 Konstan, D., (1982), “Ancient Atomism and its Heritage: Minimal Parts”, Ancient Philosophy 2: 60-75.

4 Long, A.A. and D.N. Sedley, D.N., (1987), The Hellenistic Philosophers, 2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

5 Makin, S., (1989), “The Indivisibility of the Atoms”, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 71: 125-49.

6 Mau, J., (1954), Zum Problem des Infinitesimalen bei den antiken Atomisten, Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

7 Sedley, D., (2008), “Atomism’s Eleatic Roots”, in Curd, P. and Graham, D.W. ed., The Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 305-32.

8 Sorabji, R., (1983), Time, Creation and the Continuum, London: Duckworth.

9 Taylor, C.C.W., (1999), The Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus, Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press.

10 Verde, F., (2013), Elachista. La dottrina dei minimi dell’Epicureismo, Leuven: Leuven University Press.


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