Ancient Atomism and its Critics

Course Description: 

This course will consider the origins and development of the theory that the universe was composed of indivisible bodies known as “atoms”. Atomism would, of course, go on to have a long and illustrious afterlife, but in the ancient world it faced strong opposition by the continuum theories of Aristotle and Galen, and from the sceptical arguments of the New Academy. This course will study the texts of ancient atomists and their critics, considering the arguments for and against atomism, how the physical theory developed over time, and what factors might have led to the discrediting of the theory in the ancient world and its revival in the 16th and 17th centuries. We will trace the beginnings of Atomism in 5th century Greece in the fragments of Leucippus and Democritus; then consider its use in Epicureanism, studying the arguments for the existence of atoms and void found in the writings of Epicurus, Lucretius, and Philodemus. Finally, we will turn to the consideration of how this ancient theory was received in the late antique, medieval and early modern periods, ending with its role in inspiring the “corpuscularianism” of Boyle, Locke, and Newton. 

A large amount of the course will be focused on the reconstruction of doctrines found in these fragmentary and difficult Greek and Latin texts. We will be faced by such questions as: in what sense were atoms indivisible - physically or conceptually? Was the atomic theory of indivisibility limited to physical bodies, or were time and space also considered to be made up of indivisible units? Did the atomic physical theories of these thinkers influence their ethical thought? As we reconstruct the thought of the atomists we will also consider the challenges that were raised to these ideas, and the criteria for success which were applied to physical theories in the ancient and early modern worlds. Although we will discuss the terminology of the original Greek and Latin, no prior knowledge of these languages or of the subject is required. As such this course should be of value to MA and PhD students interested in the history of science, philosophy, and the ancient world.

Learning Outcomes: 

By the end of this course, you should have an understanding of the historical development of atomist and continuum theories of the natural world in the Greco-Roman world, and of their influence upon later philosophical and scientific thought. You should also gain a familiarity with the various debates in the reconstruction of ancient atomism, and of the challenges of dealing with fragmentary source material. More generally you will gain an insight into the problems that motivated scientific inquiry in the ancient world and the standards that were applied to assessing the success of a scientific theory. You will also have the opportunity in a research paper to suggest your own reconstruction of a problematic text; develop your own interpretation of a difficult argument; or produce your own study of the impact of ancient atomist ideas on later philosophical or scientific thought.


In addition to conducting the weekly readings and participating in class discussion, it is expected that students will produce a research paper on a subject connected to the course and present their work in a 20 minute presentation in our final session. The aim of this form of assessment is to help students to develop their oral presentation skills, and to learn the valuable professional skill of preparing a research paper and abstract for an academic conference. An abstract for this research paper should be submitted by the end of the 7th week of the semester.