Microcosmology: Atom In Jain Philosophy & Modern Science ► 01 ► [1.1.2] Atom in Modern Science - Ancient Development - The Atomists

Posted: 29.05.2007

The founders of atomism were two - Leucippus and Democritus. It is difficult to disentangle them because they are generally mentioned together. They drew clear line between spirit and matter, picturing the latter as being made up of "basic building blocks".

Democritus who was a contemporary of Socrates and who flourished about 420 B.C., took the final step towards the concept of atom, the indivisible smallest unit of matter. His atom is eternal and indestructible but it has a finite size. Thus the idea, of the elementary particle as the fundamental building block of the matter, was voiced for the first time in the history of western philosophy twenty-three centuries ago. (The Jain Theory of Paramdnu is more ancient. See Chapter II)

The atoms of Democritus were purely passive and intrinsically dead particles moving in the void. They were all of the same substance but had different sizes and shapes. Each atom was eternally unchanging and, in fact, a Parmenidean one. Each atom was impenetrable and indivisible, because it contained no void. Between atoms there was empty space or void through which they could move, collide with each other and occupy different positions, and may combine with each other sometimes, according to some natural laws. But they had no other physical properties. They had neither colour, nor smell, nor taste. The properties of matter, which we perceive by our senses were supposed to be produced by the movements and positions of the atoms in space.

Democritus is quoted to have said: "A thing merely appears to have colour, it merely appears to be sweet or bitter. Only atoms and empty space have a real existence".

The basic ideas of atomic theory were taken over and modified in part by the later Greek philosophers. Epicurus (342-270 B.C.) followed Democritus in believing that the world consisted of atoms and void, but he did not believe, as Democritus did, that atoms were at all times completely controlled by natural laws.

Plato (428-348 B.C.) who was not an atomist himself combined ideas that were near to atomism with the doctrines of the Pythagorean School and the teachings of Empedocles. Pythagoreans had established the connection between religion and mathematics which ever since has exerted the strongest influence on human thought. There was also much mysticism in the doctrines of the Pythagorean School which for us is difficult to understand. But by making mathematics a part of their religion, they touched upon an essential point in the development of human thinking.

Plato knew of the discovery of the regular solids made by the Pythagoreans and of the possibility of combining them with the elements of Empedocles. He compared the smallest part of the element earth with the cube, of air with the octahedron, of fire with the tetrahedron and of water with the icosahedrons and so on. The common characteristics of the regular solids, which represent the four elements and the atoms of Democritus was that both were indestructible. But the smallest parts of matter were not the fundamental Beings, as in the philosophy of Democritus, but were mathematical forms. Here it is quite evident that the form is more important than the substance of which it is the form.

The Democritean atoms were associated with external forces, which caused their motion. These were assumed to be of spiritual origin and different from matter. In subsequent centuries, the dualism between mind and matter became an essential element of western thought.

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