Karl Marx
Part II: On the Difference between Democritean and Epicurean Physics In Detail

Chapter Three: Atomoi archai [indivisible principles] and atoma stoicheia [indivisible elements]


Schaubach, in his treatise on the astronomical concepts of Epicurus, to which we have already referred, makes the following assertion:

"Epicurus, as well as Aristotle, has made a distinction between principles [Anfänge] (atomoi archai, Diogenes Laertius, X, 41) and elements (atoma stoicheia, Diogenes Laertius, X, 86). The former are the atoms recognisable only through reason and do not occupy space.(1) These are called atoms not because they are the smallest bodies, but because they are indivisible in space. According to these conceptions one might think that Epicurus did not attribute any spatial properties to the atom.(2) But in the letter to Herodotus (Diogenes Laertius, X, 44, 54) he gives the atoms not only weight but also size and shape.... I therefore consider these atoms as belonging to the second species, those that have developed out of the former but can still be regarded again as elementary particles of the bodies.(3)

Let us look more closely at the passage which Schaubach cites from Diogenes Laertius. It reads: For instance such propositions that the All consists of bodies and non-corporeal nature, or that there are indivisible elements and other such statements.

Epicurus here teaches Pythocles, to whom he is writing, that the teaching about meteors differs from all other doctrines in physics, for example, that everything is either body or void, that there are indivisible basic elements. It is obvious that there is here no reason to assume that it is a question of a second species of atoms. (4) It may perhaps seem that the disjunction between ‘The All consisting of bodies and non-corporeal bodies’ and ‘that there are indivisible elements establishes a difference between soma and aroma stoicheia, so that we might say that soma stands for atoms of the first kind in contrast to the atoma stoicheia. But this is quite out of the question. Soma means the corporeal in contrast to the void, which for this reason is called asomaton’. (5) The term soma therefore includes the atoms as well as compound bodies. For example, in the letter to Herodotus we read: ‘The All is body ... if there were not that which we call void, space and non-corporeal nature.... Among bodies some are compound, others the things out of which the compounds are made, and these latter are indivisible and unchangeable.... Consequently these first principles are necessarily of indivisible corporeal nature’ (6)

Epicurus is thus speaking in the passage cited first of the corporeal in general, in contrast to the void, and then of the corporeal in particular, the atoms.

Schaubach’s reference to Aristotle proves just as little. True the difference between arche and stoicheion, which the Stoics particularly insist upon,(7) can indeed also be found in Aristotle,(8) but he nonetheless assumes the identity of the two expressions.(9) He even teaches explicitly that stoicheion denotes primarily the atom.(10) Leucippus and Democritus likewise call the Fullness and void. (11)

In Lucretius, in Epicurus’ letters as quoted by Diogenes Laertius, in the Colotes of Plutarch,(12) in Sextus Empiricus,(13) the properties are ascribed to the atoms themselves, and for this reason they were determined as transcending themselves [sich selbst aufhebend].

However, if it is thought an antinomy that bodies perceptible only to reason should be endowed with spatial qualities, then it is an even greater antinomy that the spatial qualities themselves can be perceived only through the intellect.(14)

Finally, Schaubach, in further support of his view, cites the following passage from Stobaeus: ‘Epicurus [states] that the primary (bodies) should be simple, those bodies compounded from them however should have weight’

To this passage from Stobaeus could be added the following, in which atoma stoicheia are mentioned as a particular kind of atom: (Plutarch.) De placit. philosoph., I, 246 and 249, and Stob., Physical Selections, I, p. 5.(15) For the rest it is by no means claimed in these passages that the original atoms are without size, shape and weight. On the contrary, weight alone is mentioned as a distinctive characteristic of the atomoi archai and aroma stoicheia . But we observed already in the preceding chapter that weight is applied only in regard to repulsion and the conglomerations arising therefrom.

With the invention of the atoma stoicheia we also gain nothing. It is just as difficult to pass from the atomoi archai to the aroma stoicheia as it is to ascribe properties directly to them. Nevertheless I do not deny such a differentiation entirely. I only deny that there are two different and fixed kinds of atoms. They are rather different determinations of one and the same kind.

Before discussing this difference I would like to call attention to a procedure typical of Epicurus. He likes to assume the different determinations of a concept as different independent existences. just as his principle is the atom, so is the manner of his cognition itself atomistic. Every moment of the development is at once.. transformed in his hands into a fixed reality which, so to say, is separated from its relations to other things by empty space; every determination assumes the form of isolated individuality.

This procedure may be made clear by the following example.

The infinite, to apeiron, or the infinitio, as Cicero translates it, is occasionally used by Epicurus as a particular nature; and precisely in the same passages in which we find the stoicheia described as a fixed fundamental substance, we also find the apeiron turned into something independent.(16)

However, according to Epicurus’ own definitions, the infinite is neither a particular substance nor something outside of the atoms and the void, but rather an accidental determination of the void. We find in fact three meanings of apeiron.

First, apeiron expresses for Epicurus a quality common to the atoms and the void. It means in this sense the infinitude of the All, which is infinite by virtue of the infinite multiplicity of the atoms, by virtue of the infinite size of the void.(17)

Secondly, apeiria is the multiplicity of the atoms, so that not the atom, but the infinitely many atoms are placed in opposition to the void.(18)

Finally, if we may draw from Democritus a conclusion about Epicurus, apeiron also means exactly the opposite, the unlimited void, which is placed in opposition to the atom determined in itself and limited by itself.(19)

In all these meanings -and they are the only ones, even the only possible ones for atomistics-the infinite is a mere determination of the atoms and of the void. Nevertheless, it is singled out as a particular existence, even set up as a specific nature alongside the principles whose determination it expresses.

Therefore, even if Epicurus himself thus fixed the determination by which the atom becomes stoicheion as an independent original kind of atom-which, by the way, is not the case judging by the historical superiority of one source over the other, even if Metrodorus [26] the disciple of Epicurus-as it seems more probable to us — was the first to change the differentiated determination into a differentiated existence(20); we must ascribe to the subjective mode of atomistic consciousness the changing of separate moments into something independently existing. The granting of the form of existence to different determinations has not resulted in understanding of their difference.

For Democritus the atom means only stoicheion a material substrate. The distinction between the atom as arche and stoicheion as principle and foundation belongs to Epicurus. Its importance will be clear from what follows.

The contradiction between existence and essence, between matter and form, which is inherent in the concept of the atom, emerges in the individual atom itself once it is endowed with qualities. Through the quality the atom is alienated from its concept, but at the same time is perfected in its construction. It is from repulsion and the ensuing conglomerations of the qualified .atoms that the world of appearance now emerges.

In this transition from the world of essence to the world of appearance, the contradiction in the concept of the atom clearly reaches its harshest realisation. For the atom is conceptually the absolute, essential form of nature. This absolute form has now been degraded to absolute matter, to the formless substrate of the world of appearance.

The atoms are, it is true, the substance of nature,(21) out of which everything emerges, into which everything dissolves(22); but the continuous annihilation of the world of appearance comes to no result. New appearances are formed; but the atom itself always remains at the bottom as the foundations(23) Thus insofar as the atom is considered as pure concept, its existence is empty space, annihilated nature. Insofar as it proceeds to reality, it sinks down to the material basis which, as the bearer of a world of manifold relations, never exists but in forms which are indifferent and external to it. This is a necessary consequence, since the atom, presupposed as abstractly individual and complete, cannot actualise itself as the idealising and pervading power of this manifold.

Abstract individuality is freedom from being, not freedom in being. It cannot shine in the light of being. This is an element in which this individuality loses its character and becomes material. For this reason the atom does not enter into the daylight of appearances(24) or it sinks down to the material basis when it does enter it. The atom as such only exists in the void. The death of nature has thus become its immortal substance; and Lucretius correctly exclaims:

When death immortal claims his mortal life (De verum nature III, 869).

But the fact that Epicurus grasps the contradiction at this its highest peak and objectives it, and therefore distinguishes the atom where it becomes the basis of appearance as stoicheion from the atom as it exists in the void as arche — this constitutes his philosophical difference from Democritus, who only objectives the one moment. This is the same distinction which in the world of essence, in the realm of the atoms and of the void, separates Epicurus from Democritus. However, since only the atom with qualities is the complete one, since the world of appearance can only emerge from the atom which is complete and alienated from its concept, Epicurus expresses this by stating that only the qualified atom becomes stoicheion or only the atomon stoicheion is endowed with qualities.


Part II: Chapter 4 Time


(1) Ametocha kenou [Stobaeus, Physical Selections, I, p. 306] does not at all mean “do not fill space”, but “have no part of the void”, it is the same as what at another place Diogenes Laertius says: “though they are without distinction of parts”. In the same way we must explain this expression in (Plutarch,) On the Sentiments of the Philosophers, I, p. 236, and Simplicius, p. 405.

(2) This also is a wrong consequence. That which cannot be divided in space is not therefore outside of space or without spatial relation.

(3) Schaubach, 1.c., [p]p. [549-550.

(4) Diogenes Laertius, X, 44.

(5) ibid., X, 67. But it is impossible to conceive anything that is incorporeal as self-existent, except empty space.

(6) Ibid, X, 39, 40 and 41.

(7) Ibid., VII, [Ch.] 1 [134]. There is a difference, according to them (i. e., the Stoics), between principles and elements; the former being without generation or destruction, whereas the elements are destroyed when all things are resolved into fire.

(8) Aristotle, Metaphysics, IV, 1 and 3.

(9) Comp. 1. C.

(10) Ibid., V, 3[1014 31-34; 1014, 5-6]. Similarly those who speak of the elements of bodies mean the things into which bodies are ultimately divided, while they are no longer divided into other things differing in kind; ... for which reason what is small and simple and indivisible is called an element.

(11) Ibid., I, 4.

(12) Diogenes Laertius, X, 54.

Plutarch, Reply to Colotes, 1110. ... that this view is as inseparable from Epicurus’ theories as shape and weight are by their (i.e., the Epicureans) own assertion inseparable from the atom.

(13) Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors, p. 420.

(14) Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel, XIV, p. 773. ... Epicurus ... [assumed that] they [i.e., the atoms] cannot be perceived.... P. 749. ... but they [i.e., the atoms] have their own shape perceivable by reason.

(15) (Plutarch,) On the Sentiments of the Philosophers, I, p. 246 [71. The same (Epicurus) asserts that there are four other natural beings which are immortal-of this sort are atoms, the vacuum, the infinite and the similar parts; and these last are- [called] homoeomerias and likewise elements. 12. Epicurus [thinks that] bodies are not to be limited, but the first bodies are simple bodies, and all those composed of them possess weight....

Stobacus, Physical Selections, 1, p. 52. Metrodorus, the teacher of Epicurus, [says] ... that the causes, however, are the atoms and elements. P. 5. Epicurus [assumes] ... four substances essentially indestructible: the atoms, the void, the infinite and the similar parts, and these are called homoeomerias and elements.

(16) Comp. .1C.,

(17) Cicero, On the Highest Goods and Evils, I, vi. ...that which he follows the atoms, the void ... infinity itself, that they [i.e., the Epicureans] call apeiria

Diogenes Laertius, X, 41. Again, the sum of things is infinite.... Moreover, the sum of things is unlimited both by reason of the multitude of the atoms and the -tent of the void.

(18) Plutarch, Reply to Colotes, 1 1 14. Now look at the sort of first principles [you

People adopt] to account for generation: infinity and the void -the void incapable of action, incapable of being acted upon, bodiless; the infinite disordered, irrational, -incapable of formulation, disrupting and confounding itself because of a multiplicity that defies control or limitation.

(19) Simplicius, 1.c., P. 488.

(20) (Plutarch,) On the Sentiments of the Philosophers, p. 239 [I, 5]. But Metrodorus says ... that the number of worlds is infinite, and this can be seen from the fact that the number of causes is infinite.... But the causes are the atoms or the elements. Stobacus, physical Selections, I, p. 52. Metrodorus, the teacher of Epicurus, [says] ... that the causes, however, are the atoms and elements.

(21) Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, 1, 820-821. For the same elements

compose sky, sea and lands, rivers and sun, crops, trees and animals....

Diogenes Laertius, X, 39. Moreover, the sum total of things was always such as it is now, and such it will ever remain. For there is nothing into which it can change. For outside the sum of things there is nothing which could enter into it and bring about the change.... The whole of being consists of bodies.... 41. These elements are indivisible and unchangeable, and necessarily so, if things are not all to be destroyed and pass into non-existence, but are to be strong enough to endure when the composite bodies are broken up, because they possess a solid nature and are incapable of being anywhere or anyhow dissolved.

(22) Diogenes Laertius, X, 73. ... and all things are again dissolved, some faster, some slower, some through the action of one set of causes, others through the action of others. 74. It is clear, then, that he [Epicurus] also makes the worlds perishable, as their parts are subject to change.

Lucretius, V, 109-1 10. May reason rather than the event itself convince you that the whole world can collapse with one ear-splitting crack!

Ibid., V, 373-375. it follows, then, that the doorway of death is not barred to sky and sun and earth and the sea’s unfathomed floods. It lies tremendously open and confronts them with a yawning chasm.

(23) Simplicius, 1.c., p. 425.

(24) Lucretius, II, 796. ...and the atoms do not emerge into the light....