History of materialism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC122-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 15, 2021, from

2. The concept of ‘matter’ and materialism in the ancient world

The concept of ‘matter’ has undergone significant changes and development in the course of the last 3,000 years. In the period bce a pervasive theory was that all non-material elements of reality were made up of four elements – earth, air, fire, and water – combining in various ways to create the objects of the world we perceive. Some early Greek philosophers proposed that among these four, one was primary. Thales, for example, is reputed to have claimed that water is the primary element, while Heraclitus thought the primary element was fire.

One of the earliest schools of philosophical materialism emerged in India, originating in the sixth century bce, and called the Carvaka, or Lokayata. It was the negative claim of materialism that dominated their thinking. The intellectual tradition in India in which philosophy and religion were intertwined was split between the orthodox and unorthodox traditions. The former were grounded in the teachings of the Vedas that arose in the middle of the second millennium bce, and which asserted the existence of an afterlife and the transmigration of souls. Some schools in this tradition were monotheistic. The unorthodox schools generally denied the existence of deities, but the principal schools, Buddhism and Jainism, in general accepted the existence of spiritual entities associated with reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. The Carvaka were alone in rejecting all forms of spiritualism and religion, and have been identified as the only true form of atheism in the tradition (Joshi 1966).

The Carvaka believed that the traditional four elements – earth, air, fire, and water – were the sole constituents of reality, and all things, including mental phenomena, derived from them. They also believed that perception was the only valid source of knowledge (Frazier 2013). In their ethical teaching, the Carvaka believed, in the light of their ontological teachings, that happiness was the only self-evident good, and our efforts should be directed towards achieving it. There are only fragments left of original Carvaka writings, and it is not clear how happiness is to be understood in this teaching. Sometimes they were depicted as hedonists, but this may have been a slur originating with their religious opponents. On the other hand, many of their followers may have taken the teachings to be a licence to live a life devoted to pleasure and the fulfilment of desires, free from ethical constraints. There is evidence that the Carvaka prized intellectual pleasures, and that many of them thought the pursuit of sensory pleasures was incompatible with perceiving, let alone causing, suffering to others. Rather than actually promoting hedonism, the Carvaka may be seen to be challenging and mocking ascetic and self-punishing styles of life in the religious traditions.

The Carvaka school seems to have persisted into the medieval period, and at times to have had a considerable following, but ultimately the influence of philosophical materialism faded in India. (Gokhale (2015) is a recent book-length treatment of the Carvaka tradition.)

The beginnings of materialism in the Western tradition lie in the fifth century bce. While there may have been precursors about whom there is no surviving evidence, it is usual to identify Leucippus and his student Democritus as the first materialist philosophers in Greece (though nothing is known directly about the former and of the latter’s many writings only fragments survive). With them, the positive claim of materialism takes precedence over the negative claim, and the ontological theory becomes much more sophisticated with the atomic theory of matter.

Democritus argued that matter is not infinitely divisible. He maintained there would be a finite conclusion to the process of dividing up a piece of matter. A point would be reached where there would be many tiny bodies, too small to be visible to humans, which would themselves be too small to be divisible further. These tiny particles were called atoms, atomos being the Greek word for ‘indivisible’.

Democritus believed there were infinitely many atoms, and that they came in infinitely many varieties, with different shapes and sizes. He believed the atoms were in constant motion in an infinite void, and that the objects we perceive are constituted by complexes of atoms brought together by collisions. He believed that everything happens necessarily due to the motion of atoms.

Atomism has been described as ‘the crown of Greek philosophical achievement before Plato’ (Kirk and Raven 1964). It can be seen as the first step in the long path to contemporary physical science. Democritus’ epistemology rested on the observation of nature, and he sought naturalistic explanations of the world, though he was aware of the limitations of the senses as a source of knowledge.

Democritus was known affectionately as the laughing philosopher. While his ethical teaching promoted the goals of cheerfulness and a life of untroubled enjoyment, some thought he may have been laughing in mockery at the foolishness of others.

Epicurus is considered the most important of the early Greek materialists. He developed and deepened both the positive and the negative claims of materialism, and established an important link between the ontology and the ethical question of how life should be lived.

With regard to the positive materialist ontology, he inherited the atomism of Democritus, although he denied that he was a follower of Democritus, who had lived a hundred years earlier. Epicurus’ revision of Democritus’ atomism is his idea of the swerve. Epicurus said that all atoms moved downwards at constant and equal speed, but on occasion they swerve and collide. It is from these collisions that everything in heaven and earth has come into being, and Epicurus claims that the idea of the swerve of the atoms allows for human freedom, thereby contradicting the determinism of Democritus’ theory in which everything is understood to happen by natural necessity. There are echoes of this link between the swerve and human freedom in contemporary speculations about a link between quantum randomness and free will.

With regard to the negative claim of materialism, Epicurus believed in the soul and the gods of the Greek tradition, but considered them all to be composed of atoms. In the case of the soul, the atoms that constitute it disperse on death and so there is no possibility of an afterlife. The gods are constituted by special atoms that are not subject to decay, and they live happy lives far removed from the world of humans in which they have no interest, and to which they are utterly indifferent. A consequence of this perspective is that all religious ritual, including worship and sacrifice, is futile.

In his ethical teaching, Epicurus, like all the materialists of the ancient world, promoted the idea of pursuing happiness and pleasure in life. There are three central tenets to his teaching. The first is for people not to fear death. Given that there is no afterlife, there need be no fear of punishment or retribution after life. Second, people should seek to live a pleasurable life; pleasure consists primarily in freedom from pain and tranquillity of mind, and there can be no tranquillity except through living a virtuous life. Third, the type of pleasure derived from gratifying our desires for food, drink, and sex is of an inferior kind. These desires are painful, and their gratification only leads to more desire. The superior pleasures are the quiet ones. He claimed that ‘Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends’ (Diogenes Laertius 1925).

The most important follower of Epicurus was the Roman poet Lucretius, who lived in the first century bce. His contribution to the materialist tradition was enormous though he articulated and promoted materialism rather than adding his own ideas. His poem Dr Rerum Natura, which means On the Nature of Things, is considered one of the greatest poems in the Western tradition.

Once the West passed into the Common Era, the teachings of Christianity, fused with aspects of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, became dominant, and materialism more or less disappeared from view. The intellectual tradition was kept alive in the monasteries, where monks were required to read, although argument and disputes were disapproved of. The writings of Plato and Aristotle and other pagan works were kept alive over the centuries by generations of scribes who copied them meticulously as the parchment on which they were written came to deteriorate and perish. One of these was Lucretius’ poem, all but lost for 1,400 years until an Italian man in search of ancient writings discovered a copy in an obscure German monastery in 1417 (see Greenblatt 2012).

Citing this article:
Brown, Robin Gordon and James Ladyman. The concept of ‘matter’ and materialism in the ancient world. History of materialism, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC122-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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