Berryman (2016a)

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Berryman, Sylvia. (2016) Ancient Atomism. In Zalta (Ed.) (2017). Retrieved from

Title Ancient Atomism
Resource Type collection article
Author(s) Sylvia Berryman
Year 2016
Collection Zalta (Ed.) (2017)


A number of important theorists in ancient Greek natural philosophy held that the universe is composed of physical ‘atoms’, literally ‘uncuttables’. Some of these figures are treated in more depth in other articles in this encyclopedia: the reader is encouraged to consult individual entries on Leucippus, Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius. These philosophers developed a systematic and comprehensive natural philosophy accounting for the origins of everything from the interaction of indivisible bodies, as these atoms—which have only a few intrinsic properties like size and shape—strike against one another, rebound and interlock in an infinite void. This atomist natural philosophy eschewed teleological explanation and denied divine intervention or design, regarding every composite of atoms as produced purely by material interactions of bodies, and accounting for the perceived properties of macroscopic bodies as produced by these same atomic interactions. Atomists formulated views on ethics, theology, political philosophy and epistemology consistent with this physical system. This powerful and consistent materialism, somewhat modified from its original form by Epicurus, was regarded by Aristotle as a chief competitor to teleological natural philosophy.