Sunday, March 06, 2011

Atomism and Dante’s Sixth Circle

Posted by on 03/06 at 11:33 AM

Atomism, the concept that things have smallest constituents, was introduced at the time of the ancient Greeks. Modern science has embraced atomism as a fundamental aspect of nature.  Yet for almost two millennia, mainstream European philosophers ignored or even shunned the idea. Why did it take so long to catch on?

The reason has perhaps more to do with who ended up trumpeting atomism than it has to do with the notion itself. In the battlefield of ideas, if a leading advocate is tremendously unpopular, opposing armies often see to it that all the notions he bears are equally trampled.

It is to atomism’s misfortune that its standard bearer for a time was Epicurus of Samos, founder of the much-maligned Epicurean school. He advocated atomism along with a set of widely scorned doctrines about the supremacy of pleasure over piety. Also he believed that the gods did not intervene in the lives of men. Thus he was widely condemned as a godless hedonist, discounting his atomist ideas.

Epicurus used atomism as a cleaver to divide the physical and spiritual realms. According to his theory, our bodies are composed of coarse atoms and our souls made of fine atoms. The gods consist of the most delicate atoms of all, floating in the spaces between physical worlds. Only in our thoughts and dreams do the mundane and godly come into contact. They do so in a way that the gods have no influence over people. Earth came into being through the random assembly of its own atoms and will pass away once they scatter into the void. The same with living beings; each must eventually perish due to material causes. Hence, Epicurus concluded, the gods have nothing to do with mortal existence and we need not fear or worship them.

In 56 B.C., a prominent Epicurean of the Roman era, Lucretius, wrote an epic Latin poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) expounding upon atomism, materialism, and mortal life. Although his contemporaries seem to have valued his work, once the Roman Empire became Christian, his writings were denounced for their support of atheism. Only a single copy survived the medieval period and was re-published in 1417.

Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, the Church continued to treat Epicurean philosophy as blasphemous. As an indication of Europeans’ disdain toward Epicurean philosophy as late as the 14th century, note Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s description of the sixth circle of his fiery Inferno where Epicurean souls are forced to reside forever with their rotting corpses:

“The private cemetery on this side
serves Epicurus and his followers,
who make the soul die when the body dies.”

(Dante's Inferno: the Indiana critical edition, translated by Mark Musa, Indiana University Press, 1995)

For those tormented spirits, it seems, their original sin was atoms not Adam’s. By contrast, according to Dante, non-atomist Aristotle has a relatively cushy spot in Limbo (non-Christians cannot enter Paradise), where he is sad but not tormented. Such was the attitude toward materialism in Dante’s times.

Atomism was resurrected in the 17th century, largely due to the writings of French philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), an avid reader of Lucretius. Gassendi muted theological objections to the subject by speculating that God created atoms as the building blocks of nature. His work coincided with a growing recognition among Christian believers that scientific experimentation provided a way of understanding and appreciating creation. Along with the discoveries of Kepler, Galileo, and others of his day, Gassendi’s sharp observations prodded Europe away from blind belief in Aristotle’s theories and toward an empirical view of nature. Ultimately these trends led to the founding of the modern scientific concept of atoms.

Tags: atomism, dante, epicurus, gassendi, lucretius


Comment posted by Jim Harrison on 03/17 at 02:20 PM

In his book Galileo Heretic Redondi suggests that part of what the church was upset about was Galileo’s supposed flirtation with atomism and that the big problem with atomism wasn’t the rep of Epicurus but the difficulties that atomic explanations created for the doctrine of transubstantiation. One can make sense of the sacrament in Aristotelian terms by appealing to the difference between substances and accidents, i.e. the bread can have the substance of Christ’s body but the accidents of bread. If the absolute reality of things is a function of their constituent atoms, this sort of explication fails.

I note that there were Christian writers who interpreted the faith in hedonistic terms, Lorenzo Valla for one. Epicurean ethics can be harmonized with the faith since the goal is, after all, heavenly happiness. The liturgical implications of atomism may have been a more serious problem.  It’s hard to put yourself in a mindset that takes such things seriously, but people certainly did. Leibniz, for example, went way out of his way to demonstrate that his methaphysical ideas didn’t threaten orthodox interpretations of the eucharist.

Comment posted by Paul Halpern on 03/17 at 03:55 PM


Thanks for your comments!

Fascinating interpretation.  I should look into Redondi’s book.  In terms of “hedonism” I believe that a sharp distinction was made between earthly pleasures (of the type typically associated with Epicureanism) and “heavenly happiness.” Indeed it is hard to place ourselves in that mindset.

Comment posted by Jim Harrison on 03/17 at 04:28 PM

Of course actual Epicureans, Lucretius notably, were not proponents of high living. There version of pleasure seeking has more to do with the avoidance of pain than the search for thrills. Warning about the irresponsible quest for active pleasure Lucretius wrote: “All in vain, for in the middle of the fountain of delight something bitter surges up that torments us even in the flowers.” (my translation)

Just as Platonism was identified with the Academy, Aristotelianism with the Lyceum, and Stoicism with the Porch, Epicureanism was called the Garden--I expect that Candide’s final advice “Let’s cultivate our garden” was an allusion to the modest pleasures recommended by Epicurus et. al.  Epicureanism was endlessly badmouthed as a sort of Playboy philosophy avant le lettre and Dante couldn’t have been familiar with Lucretius, but I thought it was worthwhile to set the record straight, not that any of this will be news to you.

Comment posted by Paul Halpern on 03/18 at 08:35 PM


Yes, the image of Epicureanism was very different from the reality.  Interesting that you mention Candide, as it was in part a satire of Leibniz’s idea of the “best of all possible worlds.” Not sure if the garden mentioned at the end of that tale was connected to Epicurus’s advice.


Comment posted by Jim Harrison on 03/19 at 01:10 AM

I don’t know of definitive evidence that the garden of Candide’s final statement is an allusion to Epicurus; but a cursory search of my books on the Enlightenment suggests that’s the usual modern interpretation. Granted that Epicurus was widely discussed in Voltaire’s time, he must have known that the line would make people think of Epicurus and whatever else he was, Voltaire was a very premeditated writer.

One other thing. Voltaire’s satire is aimed at Leibniz and his teleological explanations of how everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Aside from the hedonism, Epicurus was famous or infamous for denying teleology--the entry on Epicurus in Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary begins with a discussion of this issue. What better anti-Leibniz than Epicurus?

Comment posted by Paul Halpern on 03/19 at 03:47 PM


Your analysis of Voltaire is insightful.  Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Candide and Epicurus.


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