The Story of Space: Elaborations of Void in Hellenistic Philosophy

Antal Strohmayer, The Philosopher’s Garden, Athens, 1834. Epicurus’ school was called “The Garden,” where women and slaves were among those welcomed to the minimalist, tranquil life of philosophy.

Once we get to Modern Philosophy, concepts of space become more familiar and consequently feel more “real.” It is difficult for us to relate to space as a whirling receptacle steered by Goddesses; or to Aristotle’s containing surfaces comprising place. We speak of space and place as if these conceptions are complimentary and not countering theories. Space is absolute, place is relative. How was their opposition resolved?

The task at hand is to tell the story of how we get from Plato and Aristotle to Cartesian space, characterized not by containment but by extension. And how then to the debate over whether space is absolute (e.g., Kant) or relative (e.g., Leibniz)? The period spanning Hellenistic, Neoplatonist, and Medieval Philosophy, texts are lost and later recovered, ideas are displaced and their reception delayed, sometimes for millennia.(1) In lieu of reading what amounts to volumes of the original texts across hundreds of years, we will follow Edward S. Casey’s The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History, which offers a clear and thorough exposition of this history. (2)

Below is a resume of the topics we’ve covered in previous posts. Now let us make the leap from Aristotle to Epicurus in Hellenistic Philosophy.

Spatial concepts in Presocratic and Classical Greek Philosophy

From Epicurus’ Recovery of the Void As Vacuum to Extension

As you may recall from my piece on Aristotle’s container view of space as place, of the four candidates that Aristotle considers for space (form, matter, interval, extendable limit), he dismisses the idea that space could be an interval straightaway and without argument. He does so because he is invested in upholding the Parmenidean denial of the void, and the interval of space would have reinstalled the atomist void. Also, since he refutes the void elsewhere, he may have felt it was not necessary to rehearse the arguments here. He would have taken his dismissal of the interval-void as a given.

None of the Atomists were alive to defend the void against Aristotle’s arguments, and this is where Epicurus (341–270 BC) comes in. Founder of the Hellenistic Philosophy school that is his namesake, Epicureanism, Epicurus found himself in a bit of a pickle. The seeming irreconcilability between Atomism and Aristotelianism was causing him mental anguish. Since he taught that the highest good is the quiet pleasure of tranquility, a tranquility achieved by minimizing mental disturbances and bodily pain, he set out to reconcile Atomist and Aristotelian views on the void.

Epicurus with all the coconuts.

In this way, Epicurus comes to be a stand-in for the Atomist in one of the most important debates between Presocratic and classical Greek philosophers. Remember, this is taking place a hundred years after the fact, so you can see what I mean about the lines of argumentation not falling forward in a straight line…

We thought the matter was done and over, the void vanquished, with Aristotle’s dismissal of the interval delivering an easy, final blow. “But what if the interval is not “empty” space?” came a little voice to tell him on his deathbed. (Total conjecture, I know, but Epicurus is known to have visited Athens in 322 B.C., the year of Aristotle’s death.) Epicurus believed, with the Atomists, that all that is is atoms and void. (It was a great relief to realize that humans have nothing over any other creature or thing in the cosmos, since we’re all equally just atoms and void — more on this in subsequent posts. ) Epicurus concedes that the void functions a lot like Aristotle’s place, but it is not reducible to it, and reasserts the existence of the void: “if there were no void, there would be no motion; but there is motion; therefore there is void.”(3)

Think of the cosmos like an organism, analogous to a human body. The stomach of the human can be “empty,” or at least not filled, whereupon you would have a hungry human.(4) What you have here is a vacuum, a space that is not currently occupied (but that could potentially become occupied) inside of what is a larger organism. All is made of atoms and void, but void is not empty; rather,it is unoccupied space. David Sedley puts it well where he writes that a vacuum: “occupies some parts of space just as effectively as body occupies others.”(5)

With this, Epicurus will perform an important mental shift: it is not so much that the atoms are contained “in” space or place (and remember, the atoms are always in motion, so they are “in” space only in the sense that they endure existing “through” it), but it is more correct to say that atoms are surrounded by an absence of body, which is what he describes as vacuum through which atoms move. There is no empty space, just potentially occupied or unoccupied space.

Roman physician and philosopher Sextus Empiricus will bring together the three different kinds of space-void — void in the sense of vacuum, an unoccupied but not necessary empty space that forms part of a larger unity or organism. Aristotelian place, that in which things are located, or locutionary space. And finally, chora as originally named by Plato, the space through which things move.(6) Isn’t it interesting to note how philosophical concepts — in this case the concepts of space and void — are grafted onto older ones?

Titus Lucretius Carus

Two hundred years later, the Roman poet and Epicurean Lucretius (99–55 B.C.) re-describes Epicurus’ vacuum as diastemic space: the Greek preposition dia- means “through”, and -stemic comes from the root stema which means “to stand.” He also translates the Greek into Latin using the term for extension, writing in his poem “On the Nature of Things”: “Whatever will exist will have to be in itself something with extension (augmen), whether large or small, so long as it exists.”(7) Casey brings it all together very nicely below:

“For Epicurus and Lucretius alike there is an intimate link between the noun “extension,” the preposition “through,” and the concept “space.” If placial being is mainly a matter of the “in” — this much we may grant to Aristotle — spatial being is a matter of the “through,” that is, a matter of being “extended,” stretched out such that something exists through the interval or gap that space provides.” (8)

And that is the story of how we get from space and place as different kinds of containers, to space as extension.


(1) For example, the work of Epicurus’ student, Lucretius, was recovered from the ashes and miraculously preserved until the time that when it’s “intolerable” ideas could again be considered. You can read the fascinating story of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2011). See below for a video of his lecture based on this work.

(2) Casey, Edward S. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (University of California Press, 1998).

(3) Furley, “Aristotle and the Atomist on Motion in a Void,” in Cosmic Problems, 78. As quoted in Casey, 82.

(4) Casey, 82.

(5) David Sedley, “Two Conceptions of Vacuum,” Phronesis 27 [ 1 982]: 1 92 n 1 8, 82; as quoted in Casey, 82.

(6) Casey, 83.

(7) Lucretius, De rerum natura, bk. 1 , lines 3 l-34, as translated in Long and Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, 1:28.

(8) Casey, 84.




Phenomenology, Existentialism, Feminism, Poststructuralism & Critical Theory. #publicphilosophy or bust

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