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The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Epicurus’ Soul Atoms


The concept of the soul has long fascinated humanity, occupying a central place in the collective consciousness. In the framework of ancient Greek history of thought, the notions of it formed a vibrant and evolving tapestry. The ideas surrounding the soul that emerged from ancient Greek thought exerted a profound influence on subsequent intellectual developments, particularly within the realm of Christianity and Western European philosophy. From the Scholastic thinkers of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance humanists and the Enlightenment philosophers, the soul remained a focal point of inquiry and speculation. Even in modern times, the legacy of the Greek understanding of the soul persists, shaping the contemporary conceptions and debates. The exploration of consciousness, the mind-body problem, and ethical considerations all bear traces of the enduring influence of Greek philosophy on the existent beliefs on the matter.

This series of articles seeks to explore the multifaceted concept of the soul in ancient Greek literary, ritual, and philosophical traditions. Beginning with foundational literary works such as those of Homer and Hesiod and progressing through the profound theories put forth by philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and others, it aims to unravel the diverse and evolving understanding of the soul in ancient Greece.

The series is divided into the following chapters:

6. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Epicurus’ Soul Atoms

7. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Air and Fire of Pneuma

8. The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Plotinus and Neoplatonism

The Soul as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Epicurus’ Soul Atoms

In the landscape of ancient Greek philosophy, Epicurus, born in 341 BCE on the island of Samos, emerges as a profound thinker challenging the prevailing understanding of the world in his time. This chapter delves into Epicurus' distinctive materialistic perspective on the soul, asserting that, according to Epicurus, the soul comprises fine material particles scattered throughout the human body (Asmis, 2020). This unique standpoint prompts a meticulous analysis of Epicurean texts to unveil the nuances of his soul theory. Epicurus not only explores the composition of the soul but also staunchly rejected the prospect of an afterlife. According to his teachings, the soul ceases to exist upon the conclusion of life — a departure from prevalent beliefs positing enduring existence beyond death (Konstan, 2022). This denial of an afterlife sets the stage for an exploration of mortality and its implications for the human experience.

This entry seeks to unravel the profound implications of Epicurus' theory on soul atoms — the fundamental building blocks of the soul. The concept of atomism, deeply ingrained into Epicurean thought (Konstan, 2020), becomes a focal point as its implications for understanding sense-perception and cognition are dissected. To illuminate this philosophical journey, the investigation relies on an examination of Epicurean texts, spanning from the foundational works of On Nature (unknown date) to the letters and doctrines passed down through his disciples. This chronological exploration sheds light on the ideas that shaped Epicurus' perspective on the soul.

Figure 1: Portrait of Epicurus (Unknown artist, Late 3rd century–early 2nd century).

Atomism and the Composition of the Soul

The cornerstone of Epicurean philosophy lies in its distinctive development of atomism, an ideology that permeates the essence of the philosopher's theory on the soul. Originating from the teachings of Leucippus and Democritus, philosophers of the fifth century BCE, Epicurean atomism postulates that the universe is comprised of indivisible, microscopic particles known as atoms. These atoms coexist with empty space or void, representing the absence of matter. Epicurus differentiated between atoms, which are naturally indivisible, and the minimum conceivable expanse of matter. Atoms possessed these minima as parts, but were not minima themselves. Epicurus also acknowledged the discontinuity of time and motion at the atomic level, suggesting that atoms move in discrete hops and at a uniform speed. He grappled with the complexities of atomic motion, including how atoms overtake each other, and proposed a solution involving a random swerve. He extended his exploration to gravity, suggesting that statistically favoured directions after collisions could establish a sense of down. The absence of a global orientation in the universe became inconsequential, as individual worlds would be similarly oriented. Macroscopic objects, while composed of swiftly moving atoms, exhibited restricted and deflected motions due to interactions with neighbouring atoms, resulting in vibrations. The philosopher utilised a limited set of elementary principles to explain natural phenomena, rejecting concepts like force and attraction among atoms (Konstan, 2020).

Epicurus, prioritising sensory evidence, crafted his natural philosophy based on observable phenomena. He employed counter-witnessing and inconceivability as tools in his method of demonstration. His postulates of bodies and void as fundamental principles rested on sensory testimony, and he inferred the nature of imperceptible entities, such as atoms, through analogy. Epicurus' commitment to the reliability of the senses guided his exploration of the physical world, providing a foundation for his atomic theory and a framework for understanding secondary properties and perception. While Epicurus laid the groundwork for his atomic system, he faced inherent paradoxes and unanswered questions. Despite these challenges, Epicurus grounded his philosophy in the tangible and observable, emphasising the primacy of sensory experience in shaping his understanding of the natural world (Konstan, 2022).

Figure 2: The philosopher Epicurus (Scilla, A., 1670-1680).

This atomic perspective seamlessly transitions into Epicurus' exploration of the soul, challenging the notions of dualism in ancient philosophical discourse. Dualism existed as a prevailing viewpoint on the nature of the soul (psychê) and mind (dianoia). Its advocates posited the concept that these facets of human existence were distinct entities, separate from the physical body. This view found resonance within various philosophical traditions from Pythagoreans (Kahn, 2001) to Plato (Ostenfeld, 2018), and others. However, Epicurean philosophy, notably championed by Epicurus, took a contrasting stance. According to Epicureanism, the essence of the soul is fundamentally material, comprised of atoms and void. It exists as a corporeal entity intertwined with the body. Despite this connection, the soul maintains its unique form of corporeal existence, distinct from the body it animates. Additionally, within this framework, the mind is recognised as an integral aspect of the soul. Despite their departure in composition from the physical body, both soul and mind firmly reside within the realm of materiality. Epicurus, as a steadfast proponent of dualism, underscores the material nature binding the soul and mind to the tangible realm (Asmis, 2020).

Epicurus' conception of the soul as a fine body introduces a multifaceted perspective on its composition. As articulated by Epicurus and echoed by Lucretius, a notable follower of Epicureanism, the soul is linked to breath, heat, and air, forming an amalgamation of finely composed elements. Additionally, a component, described as an unnamed element, plays a crucial role in sense-perception. This interplay of elements within the soul highlights its dynamic nature, serving as a seat for non-rational powers that vary across different bodily parts. Rationality, identified as residing in the chest, becomes a focal point where diverse elements converge, forming a cohesive yet diverse entity. Epicurean thought thus unveils a holistic view of the soul's composition, rejecting dualism and embracing a materialistic perspective that weaves the ethereal and the tangible within the essence of human existence (Asmis, 2020).

Figure 3: Engraving of the Roman poet Lucretius (Burgers, M., 1682).

The Epicurean Soul and Ethics

Epicurus contends that the atoms constituting the soul are exceptionally fine and distributed throughout the body, serving as the conduits for sensations, including pleasure and pain. When the arrangement of the body's atoms is disrupted to the extent that it can no longer sustain conscious life, the soul atoms disperse, losing their ability to experience sensation. Notably, a segment of the human soul concentrates in the chest, housing the higher intellectual functions and introducing the potential for errors in judgment. The corporeal nature of the soul yields significant implications for Epicureanism. Firstly, it forms the basis for Epicurus' argument against the soul's survival after death, putting emphasis on the delicate texture of the soul and its dependence on the body for existence and sensation. Consequently, notions of posthumous punishment or remorse are dismissed. Secondly, the soul, being responsive to physical impressions, underscores the absence of purely mental phenomena, with all experiences rooted in embodied states. Pleasure and pain, rather than abstract moral principles, guide sentient beings, directing the human mind — situated in the chest — to pursue the maximisation of pleasure and minimisation of pain, albeit with the inherent risk of miscalculation due to false beliefs and cognitive errors (Konstan, 2022).

Epicurean ethics embraces hedonism, proposing that the complete elimination of pain in both the body and soul represents the ultimate state of pleasure. This enduring satisfaction, distinct from the sensory delights associated with external experiences, aligns with Epicurus' overarching aim of cultivating a life free from physical anguish and mental turmoil. The philosopher's materialistic conception of the soul, comprising fine atoms, serves as the foundation for his ethical framework. Enjoyable experiences, be they physical or mental, trace their origins to the body, with mental gratification intertwined with the expectation and recollection of bodily pleasures. Epicurus valued mental satisfaction, contending that the mind, capable of reflecting on past and future joys, contributes to a continuous and interconnected array of satisfying experiences. Nevertheless, Epicurus asserts that both mental and physical gratifications are inherently linked to the body and its myriad encounters. Moreover, Epicurus' categorisation of desires underscores the significance of bodily well-being. Natural desires, encompassing essential needs like food and shelter, prioritise the body's care. In contrast, unnecessary desires, fuelled by baseless opinions, hold minimal significance in Epicurean ethics. This classification reinforces the notion that all forms of satisfaction, including those of the mind, ultimately find their roots in bodily encounters (Wilson, 2015).

Figure 4: Hide and Seek in the Garden of Epicurus, Leontium and Ternissa (Stott, W.).

While potential objections to Epicurean hedonism often centre on charges of egoism, his perspective on justice, framed as a beneficial component of mutual associations, reflects the belief that social contracts and agreements emerge to enhance communal well-being. Consequently, Epicurean ethics seamlessly integrates individual quests for contentment with the communal fabric of mutual agreements and associations (Wilson, 2015).

In Epicureanism, the soul's experiences of pain and pleasure are tied to the correctness of its beliefs. The soul undergoes sensations that align with the accuracy of its convictions. When the soul harbours erroneous beliefs, a sense of pain ensues, reflecting the discordance between its perceptions and the actual state of the world. In contrast, the soul experiences pleasure when it holds correct beliefs, signifying a harmonious alignment with reality. This interplay between belief and emotional experience underscores the importance Epicurus places on the pursuit of true knowledge and the elimination of false notions. The Epicurean emphasis on the reliability of sensory evidence and the avoidance of groundless opinions reflects a philosophical commitment to fostering a state of contentment by ensuring the soul's alignment with the verifiable aspects of the external world (Asmis, 2020).

Figure 5: The Academic Grove in Athens (Hugh, W. W., 1829).

The Role of Experience and the Validation of Knowledge

Epicurean epistemology –– or theory of knowledge ––, rooted in empirical foundations, aligns closely with the philosopher's broader materialistic and atomistic worldview. At the core of Epicurean thought lies the concept of phantasiai, referring to mental images or impressions derived from sensory experiences. Epicurus stated that these phantasiai constitute the basis for knowledge, serving as the raw material upon which human understanding of the external world is constructed. The empirical emphasis underscores the importance of direct sensory engagement with the physical environment, suggesting that genuine knowledge arises from the sensory data received by the mind (Long & Sedley, 1987).

Notably, the unnamed substance as articulated by Lucretius is an indeterminate element that plays a crucial role in sense-perception within the soul. The nameless substance, by its very nature, eludes precise definition or identification, aligning with the broader Epicurean rejection of abstract, non-material entities. It functions within the soul as a component involved in the processes of perception, particularly in the realm of sense impressions. The details regarding the exact properties or characteristics of this substance remain somewhat elusive in the surviving sources, leaving room for interpretation and scholarly inquiry. It contributes to the dynamic nature of the soul (Asmis, 2020).

Figure 6: Epicurus (Cardon, A., 1813).

In tandem with phantasiai, the Epicureans introduced the notion of prolepseis, which are anticipations or preconceptions formed through repeated sensory encounters. These preconceptions, arising from past experiences, contribute to the framework through which individuals interpret and anticipate future sensations. Epicurus believed that prolepseis play a key role in shaping human cognition, acting as a bridge between sensory experiences and the development of understanding. This interplay between sensory impressions and anticipatory preconceptions forms the basis for the acquisition of knowledge within the Epicurean framework (Long & Sedley, 1987). Prolepseis can be thought of as cognitive templates or mental patterns that individuals develop through their cumulative sensory experiences. An example might be a person repeatedly encountering the sensation of warmth and the visual perception of a glowing object. Over time, the mind forms a prolepsis associating the sensation of warmth with the visual appearance of a glowing object. Consequently, when this individual encounters a similar sensory experience, the prolepsis serves as a mental shortcut, allowing them to swiftly interpret and anticipate the sensation based on past associations. Another example could be a prolepsis related to taste. If someone consistently experiences the combination of a certain flavour and the sensation of pleasure, a prolepsis may form linking that particular taste with positive feelings. Subsequently, encountering that taste in the future may evoke anticipations of pleasure based on the established prolepsis. The role of prolepseis becomes particularly apparent in situations where sensory information is ambiguous or incomplete. In such cases, these anticipatory preconceptions help individuals make sense of their experiences by drawing on past associations.

The soul, as conceived by Epicurus, becomes involved in the processes of knowledge formation. Composed of fine atoms, the soul engages in cognitive functions that are influenced by the sensory data received from the external world. This materialistic perspective on the soul underscores its role as an active participant in the complex interrelation between sensory experiences and the construction of knowledge. Epicurus rejected innate ideas and posited that all knowledge is derived from sensory perceptions, aligning his epistemological stance with a radical empiricism. Epicurean ethics reflects the consequential impact of sensory experiences and the soul's engagement with the external world. The pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, as advocated by Epicurus, are informed by the empirical understanding of the world, emphasising the role of sensory data and the soul in shaping ethical considerations. Thus, the system of Epicurean philosophy weaves together empirical epistemology, the materialistic conception of the soul, and ethical principles, providing a comprehensive framework for understanding the human experience.

Figure 7: Epicurus (Unknown artist, ca. 1655).

Epicurus, diverging from more abstract and speculative approaches to knowledge, prioritised sensory experience as the foundation for validating beliefs. The Epicurean stance on knowledge reflects a commitment to a materialistic worldview, emphasising the tangible and perceptible aspects of reality. The senses, according to Epicurus, serve as reliable guides to understanding the external world. Sensations, whether derived from vision, touch, hearing, or other sensory modalities, provide the raw data upon which knowledge is constructed. This empiricist approach rejects abstract reasoning divorced from sensory evidence, aligning with Epicurus' broader rejection of metaphysical entities and speculative philosophies. The validation of knowledge, within the philosophy’s framework, involves a careful consideration of the reliability of sensory perceptions. Epicurus recognised the potential for errors in perception, acknowledging that sensory information can be distorted or misleading. However, he proposed a method of verification through a process of counter-witnessing and inconceivability. By cross-referencing and critically examining sensory data, individuals could sift through the nuances of perception, discerning reliable information from potential distortions.

The validation of knowledge in Epicureanism, therefore, rests on the meticulous examination of sensory perceptions, the recognition of potential distortions, and the application of empirical methods to ensure the reliability of beliefs. This approach aligns with the broader Epicurean project of grounding philosophy in the observable aspects of the natural world, highlighting the primacy of sensory experience as the touchstone for validating human understanding. In addition to this, the Epicurean philosophy uses a methodological approach known as the pollachos tropos, or the method of multiple explanations. This method challenges the monachos tropos, which posits a singular correct causal account for phenomena, asserting that there is only one acceptable explanation for a given set of circumstances. Epicurus departs from this stance, particularly in the context of meteôra, commonly interpreted as celestial phenomena. The crux of the pollachos tropos lies in the assumption that certain phenomena can be accounted for in various ways, all deemed acceptable in the absence of contradictory evidence. While Epicurus acknowledges the importance of identifying the primary cause and offering a singular correct explanation for fundamental truths in atomic physics, he contends that meteôra, given their complexity, can be produced by multiple causes, thus necessitating a method that allows for diverse and even competing explanations. This methodological pluralism aligns with the empirical underpinnings of Epicurean epistemology, emphasising the careful consideration of sensory perceptions and the willingness to entertain multiple explanations when warranted by empirical evidence. The validation of knowledge, therefore, not only demands meticulous scrutiny but also accommodates the complexities of the natural world through a methodological approach that mirrors the pollachos tropos (Tsouna, 2023).

Figure 8: Epicurus (Fermor-Smith, D., 2018).

Overall, the exploration of Epicurean philosophy unveils a web of interconnected ideas spanning metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology. At its core, Epicureanism represents a departure from prevailing ancient philosophical traditions, preferring a materialistic worldview rooted in sensory experience. The examination of the soul, tied to atomistic principles, reveals Epicurus' commitment to a holistic understanding of human existence, rejecting dualistic perspectives in favour of a materialistic unity between body and soul.

The Epicurean approach to ethics, marked by hedonism, prioritises the pursuit of pleasure as the highest good. The nuanced classification of desires, distinguishing between natural and unnecessary ones, highlights the centrality of bodily well-being in Epicurean ethical considerations. Moreover, the connection between individual pleasure and social contracts underscores the pragmatic and social dimensions of Epicurean ethics, challenging potential accusations of egoism by emphasising the cooperative nature of human interactions. In the realm of knowledge, Epicureanism champions empiricism, positioning sensory perceptions as the foundation for understanding the world. The validation of knowledge relies on meticulous scrutiny of sensory data, with Epicurus introducing methods such as counter-witnessing to navigate potential distortions. The cautious approach to language, encapsulated in the concept of empty sounds, underscores the importance of clear communication in preventing misconceptions and enhancing the accuracy of knowledge.

Epicurus introduced a unique atomistic perspective that challenged prevailing views on the essence of the cosmos. Exploring the foundations of Epicurean philosophy reveals that his atomism not only influenced his understanding of the soul but also made a significant contribution to ancient philosophical discussions. The juxtaposition of Epicurean atomism with alternative philosophical frameworks not only accentuated the diversity of intellectual currents in the ancient world but also underscored the enduring relevance of Epicurus' intellectual legacy.

Bibliographical References

Asmis, E. (2020). Psychology. In P. Mitsis (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of Epicurus and Epicureanism (pp. 189-220). Oxford University Press.

Kerferd, G. B. (1971). Epicurus' doctrine of the soul. Phronesis, 16(1), 80-96. Brill.

Dorandi, T. (2020). Epicurus and the Epicurean school. In P. Mitsis (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of Epicurus and Epicureanism (pp. 13-42). Oxford University Press.

Kahn, C. H. (2001). Pythagoras and the pythagoreans: A brief history. Hackett Publishing Company.

Konstan, D. (1973). Some aspects of Epicurean psychology. In W. J. Verdenius & J. H. Waszink (Eds.), Philosophia Antiqua: A Series of Monographs on Ancient Philosophy (Vol. XXV). E. J. Brill.

Konstan, D. (2020). Atomism. In P. Mitsis (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of Epicurus and Epicureanism (pp. 59-80). Oxford University Press.

Konstan, D. (2022). Epicurus. In E. N. Zalta & U. Nodelman (Eds.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2022 Edition). Retrieved from

Long, A. A., & Sedley, D. N. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers: Volume 1, Translations of the Principal Sources with Philosophical Commentary. Cambridge University Press.

Lorenz, H. (2009). Ancient theories of soul. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 ed.).

Ostenfeld, E. N. (2018). Ancient Greek Psychology and the Modern Mind-Body Debate. Baden-Baden: Academia Verlag.

Tsouna, V. (2023). The method of multiple explanations revisited. In F. Masi, P.-M. Morel, & F. Verde (Eds.), Epicureanism and Scientific Debates. Antiquity and Late Reception: Volume I. Language, Medicine, Meteorology (pp. 221–256). Leuven University Press.

Wilson, C. (2015). Epicurean ethics. In Epicureanism: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions (Oxford). Oxford Academic.

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