A book of philosophy should be in part a very particular species of detective novel, in part a kind of science fiction.
Gilles Deleuze

Philosophy consists of the history of failed models of everything.
Daniel Dennett



A proto-carvaka

Only the perceived exists; the unperceived does not exist, by reason of its never having been perceived.


Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain, and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.
Bentham 1789


Tara or old Stoneface; last vestige of Lokayata

Tara Prajnaparamita of Srivijaya

The poet has invented the nymph but nature had already made the ocean, the cloud and woman.
Anatole France

Carvaka art


Man follows the earth.
Earth follows the universe.
The universe follows the Tao.
The Tao follows only itself.
Lao Tse (25)

Chuang Zi

The purpose of words is to convey ideas.
When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words?
He is the one I would like to talk to.
Chuang Tzu



... enjoy life and take one's ease, for those who know how to enjoy life are not poor, and he that lives at ease requires no riches.

But I am not the owner of my own body, for I, when I am born, must complete it, nor do I possess things, for having got them, I must part with them again.

Sorrow and grief are contrary to human nature; ease and pleasure are in accord with it. These things have reality.
Yang Chu


Platonic solds in Timaeus

I fear the Greeks. Even when they bring gifts.
Vergil, the Aeneid.


What we shall see is something like a Battle of Gods and Giants going on between them over their quarrel about reality... One party is trying to drag everything down to earth out of heaven and the unseen, literally grasping rocks and trees in their hands... and strenuously affirm that real existence belongs only to that which can be handled and offers resistance to the touch. They define reality as the same thing as body...
...their adversaries are very wary in defending their position somewhere in the heights of the unseen, maintaining with all their force that true reality consists in certain intelligible and bodiless Forms... On this issue an interminable battle is always going on between the two camps.
Plato, Theaetetus

The early Greeks wrote the first chapter of materialism, but many more are still to be added.
Roy Wood Sellars

Mechanism as to motion, atomism as to structure, materialism as to substance, that is the whole system of Democritus. It is as wonderful in its insight, in its sense for the ideal demands of method and understanding, as it is strange and audacious in its simplicity. Only the most convinced rationalist, the boldest prophet, could embrace it dogmatically; yet time has largely given it the proof. If Democritus could look down upon the present state of science, he would laugh, as he was in the habit of doing, partly at the confirmation we can furnish to portions of his philosophy, and partly at our stupidity that cannot guess the rest.


Only fools live without enjoying life.


…he laughed like someone who had thought hard about life and seen the joke.
Pratchett. Equal Rites


Society of Epicurus

Let an impostor keep to probability and he will hardly impose. By dealing with the marvellous, he tickles the imagination, and carries away the judgment;
Read Frances Wright on Epicurus

Pleasures make the soul secure but pains ruin it.

Everything is a variation on the theme of matter.

We think highly of frugality not that we may always keep to a cheap and simple diet, but as a means to keep us free from hunger.

My native land does not have just one tower or one roof. Its citadel is as wide as the whole world, and all of us can spend our lives there.


Diogenes of Sinope

Neither seek nor want the approbation of any human being. We only think and believe what we want to believe and think.
When I look upon seamen, men of science, and philosophers, man is the wisest of all things. When I look upon priests, prophets, and interpreters of dreams, nothing is so contemptible as a man.
Diogenes of Sinope


The end may be defined as life in accordance with nature or, in other words, in accordance with our own human nature as well as that of the universe.
Zeno of Kithion

The word is a shadow of the deed.

Ideas are only the shadows of truth.

The mind is an idea of the body.
Demonstrations are the eyes of the mind


More about hedonism:

Stanford Encyclopedia
About Epicurus
Hedonism answers
Free dictionary
Paradise engineering
Alzaz et son Graal



Lucretius on coin

Image of Lucretius on a Roman coin



Jabir ibn Hayyan

The first essential in chemistry is that thou shouldest perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never attain to the least degree of mastery.
Jabir ibn Hayyan



From the beginning of the human history, all of those who claimed to be prophets were, in his worst assumption, tortuous and devious and with his best assumption, had psychological problems.
If the people of this religion are asked about the proof for the soundness of their religion, theiy flare up, get angry and spill the blood of whoever confronts them with this question. they forbid rational speculation, and strive for kill their adversaries. This is why truth became thoroughly silenced and concealed.


Giordano Bruno in Rome

The whole soul is in the whole body, in the bones and in the veins and in the heart; it is no more present in one part than in another, and it is no less present in one part than in the whole, nor in the whole less than in one part
There is no law governing all things.
Giordano Bruno



Vous ne pouvez pas douter sérieusement des choses extérieures dont l'existence nous est révélée par nos sens, car vous marchez sur la terre.
Pierrre Gassendi



Whatsoever is contrary to nature is contrary to reason, and whatsoever is contrary to reason is absurd.
Baruch Spinoza


Abbé Jean Meslier

La pensée ne doit jamais se soumettre, ni à un dogme, ni à un intérêt, ni à une idée préconçue, si ce n'est aux faits eux-mêmes; parce que pour elle, se soumettre, ce serait cesser d'exister.
Jean Meslier (1664 - 1729)



Aucun homme n’a reçu de la nature le droit de commander aux autres.
Denis Diderot



Il faut qu'une cause soit bien mauvaise pour vouloir la soutenir par l'ignorance et la misère.
Paul d'Holbach


de la Mettrie

Tout est plaisir pour un cœur voluptueux; tout est roses, œillets, violettes dans le champ de la Nature. Sensible à tout, chaque beauté l'extasie; chaque être inanimé lui parle, le réveille; chaque être animé le remue; chaque partie de la Création le remplit de volupté.
Julien Offray de La Mettrie


… atomism at a given level may not be a final or metaphysical truth, it will describe, on every level, the practical and efficacious structure of the world. We owe to Democritus this ideal of practical intelligibility; and he is accordingly an eternal spokesman of reason. His system, long buried with other glories of the world, has been partly revived; and although it cannot be verified in haste, for it represents an ultimate ideal, every advance in science reconstitutes it in some particular. Mechanism is not one principle of explanation among others. In natural philosophy, where to explain means to discover origins, transmutations, and laws, mechanism is explanation itself.

It is a pity that Democritus' physics was not absorbed by Aristotle. For with the flux observed, and mechanism conceived to explain it, the theory of existence is complete; and had a complete physical theory been incorporated into the Socratic philosophy, wisdom would have lacked none of its parts. Democritus, however, appeared too late, when ideal science had overrun the whole field and initiated a verbal and dialectical physics; so that Aristotle, for all his scientific temper and studies, built his natural philosophy on a lamentable misunderstanding, and condemned thought to confusion for two thousand years.
Santayana. The Life of Reason (1906)

But the history of philosophy has always been less progressive than periodic. The reappearance of an ancient concept in contemporary philosophy need not mean the sad revival of a pulverized nullity, but possibly the appearance of a genuinely new form of thought. No chemist, upon encountering the element known as argon, folds her arms skeptically or slams down a clipboard and shouts: "We've just done neon, and now you want to go back and bring us another inert gas? I thought we were beyond that!" It would be stupid to say that krypton, xenon, and radon are "reactionary" merely because their outer valence shell is just as complete as helium's already was; no scientist dismisses them as "retrograde" elements and fashionably prefers lithium or potassium as more progressive. In the same sense, we might think of Nietzsche as simply a more complicated version of Empedocles with extra protons, a revival of madness and eternal return in the heart of contemporary philosophy. By the same token, it is quite possible that philosophy will someday once again be dominated by the problem of universals, the theory of monads, neo-Platonist cosmologies, or proofs for the existence of God, though presumably always in a more red-blooded contemporary form. No one can say for sure.
Graham Harman


Ineffable reason

Reason, arising from the body, doesn't transcend the body. What universal aspects of reason there are arise from the commonalities of our bodies and brains and the environments we inhabit.
George Lakoff


Life emerged, I suggest, not simple, but complex and whole, and has remained complex and whole ever since - not because of a mysterious elan vital, but thanks to the simple, profound transformation of dead molecules into an organization by which each molecule's formation is catalyzed by some other molecule in the organization. The secret of life, the wellspring of reproduction, is not to be found in the beauty of Watson Crick pairing, but in the achievement of collective catalytic closure. So, in another sense, life - complex, whole, emergent - is simple after all, a natural outgrowth of the world in which we live.
Stuart Kauffman

Are there any problems left when the last sociologist is strangled with the intestines of the last bureaucrat?
Graffiti Sorbonne 1968

Le matérialisme c'est la résistance au christianisme, c'est la résistance à la religion, ... et on va donc discréditer cette philosophie, on va la détruire physiquement, réellement, on va la brûler on va pourchaser des philosophes, fermer des écoles car il y a dans le matérialisme une puissance subversive qu'il faut à tout prix étouffer.
Michel Onfray

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally–plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.
Ian Bogost

For fear of regressing into scientific naturalism, fire loses its power to burn houses and melt ore, and the moon is reduced to the literary descriptions of poseurs. For fear of scientific reductionism, gravity loses all power over bodies, and brains lose all power over minds.
Philosophy has gradually renounced its claim to have anything to do with the world itself.
Graham Harman

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
Karl Marx (Theses on Feuerbach,11)


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Materialism in philosophy

Materialism as a secular point of view, started with philosophy in the axial era. Materialism has been the foundation of modern civilization and emancipation. After a vigorous start it collapsed and was thoroughly suppressed by idealists until book printing made their censorship ineffective. The enlightenment was the start of a reborn materialism with a salutary effect on science, art, ethics, and health.

Is mainstream philosophy antimaterialistic?

All organisms spend their life making things, fooling around, or fighting each other but not philosophers who dislike action and prefer to use words only to solve problems that are artefacts caused by words. "Their brains are so big that they have room for ideas that no-one else would consider for five seconds". It is not unexpected therefore that materialism is only a minor subject in philosophy even though the first philosophers were materialists, starting in India and slightly later also in Greece and China. It is remarkable that materialism can be found in philosophical writings at all because the favourite subjects in philosophy are not what can be observed, studied, and known, dead or living matter, but rather god, virtue, mind, qualia, and other literary fantasies, together with the question of what philosophy is and why those who disagree are mistaken. The standard opinion of orthodox philosophers on materialism can be found here and on the page about objections. The hagiography of western philosophy mentions exclusively a few pre-platonists, Plato, and post-platonists: thinkers such as Pythagoras, Buddha, Zarathustra, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustinus, Thomas, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, Sartre, and the post-modernists. Some dualists who flirted with materialism were Erasmus, d'Autrecourt, Gassendi, Francis Bacon, Descartes, Boyle, and Marx. There also have been philosophers who were materialists, a few of them radical ones but as philosophers they are considered to be minor ones (Spinoza is the only exception). Examples are Brhaspati, Lao Tse, Democritus, the cynics, the sophists, the hedonists, Yang Zhu, Epicurus, Lucretius, Bruno, Hobbes, Bayle, Toland, Hume, Holbach, Diderot, Helvetius, Moleschott, Santayana, de Landa, Onfray, and the Churchlands. Although they were or are considered philosophers they have written things that are worth reading (see below). The following non-philosophical account of materialism is limited to little more than a list of names which may be useful for further reading; there is no point in repeating here what can be easily found in the online dictionary of philosophy and in Wikipedia.

India, cradle of the materialist tradition

Materialism is not a hobby of occidentals. Secular philosophy as a fact-based rational viewpoint started with the nastiks (from 900 BCE), the Indian version of the Greek preplatonic philosophers a few centuries later. Indian materialism was summarized in the Brhaspati sutra (600 BCE) which was lost and which explained the secular philosophy of Lokayata (some say it was written by a certain Carvaka). Its practitioners are also known as carvakas. Their worldview, in their words, is as follows:

intelligence comes from the body, life from the four elements, karma is a hoax as are the four castes, there is no rebirth. The enjoyment of heaven lies in eating delicious food, keeping the company of young women, using fine clothes, perfumes, garlands, sandal paste, etc. The pain of hell lies in the troubles that arise from enemies, weapons, diseases; while “liberation” is death which is the cessation of life-breath; The wise should enjoy the pleasures of the world, through the proper visible means of agriculture, keeping cattle, trade, political administration....

More details can be found in chapter 1 of Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha a fourteenth century collection of current philosophies written by Madhavacarya. However, the Gilgamesh epos, written more than 4000 years ago, already mentions Lokayata in the stories of Shamhat (tablet 1) and Siduri (tablet 10), two divine women that seem to have come from Harappa. Egyptians during the 11th dynasty were familiar with Lokayata as well. It must have originated in the pre-aryan culture of the Indus Valley according to archeology.

A well-known radical materialist in axial times was Ajita Kesakambali who said: “fools and wise alike, on the dissolution of the body, are cut off, annihilated, and after death they are not.” He denied the existence of an eternal soul separate from the body. Payasi, another carvaka, said: “Neither is there any other world, nor are there beings reborn otherwise than from parents, nor is there fruit or result of deed well‑done or ill‑done.... If the brahmins believe what they say they would kill themselves.” Understandably then in the Mahabharata, a carvaka represented a devil. Like the preplatonic Greek did later, the Indians advanced a mixed sceptic - sophist type of materialism. The Ajnana school with Sanjaya Belatthiputta as the protagonist had developed a four-valued logic that was discovered in the west only late in the twentieth century. Apart from this the similarity of Indian and Greek thought at the time is remarkable. There must have been more communication between East and West than meets the eye.

The carvakas conjectured that consciousness is an emergent effect of the elements that are not alive themselves. Rice and other ingredients to make wine cannot make you drunk but if they are combined using the correct procedure they form something that intoxicates. Similarly, the elements which are lifeless, create consciousness if they are combined into a human body. An amazing insight, missed by Plato and Aristotle. Emergence became a hot topic in occidental philosphy much later, at the start of this century. Another antispiritual feature of Lokayata is its claim that the source of all knowledge is experience by the body: only the sense-organs can apprehend objects because they themselves are composed of the same elements as those of nature. According to Brhaspati, seeing is the source of all knowledge. The carvakas were the first to reject induction, which was also avoided in more recent works by Henri Poincaré (mathematician), Whitehead (philosopher), George Shackle (economist), Nelson Goodman (philosopher), and Edward Lorenz (mathematician). Their distrust of induction protects against assigning inappropriate causes to observed phenomena; which is too often done.

The lokayatikas were the most radical full-frontal materialists, unsurpassed in the next 2500 years. Even the presocratic Greeks were less consistent because they kept their gods, albeit at a distance. Several other philosophical schools in India at that time were inspired by Lokayata. That is very obvious in the antivedic nastik schools, Ajivika, Buddhism, and Jainism, but also in four of the six Vedic darshanas such as the atheistic Samkhya (the basis of Yoga) and the more recent non-materialistic Vaisheshika-Nyaya school which proposed a rudimentary sort of atomism: there is one type of smallest particle having one of the four types of motion. This original glimpse of phase theory was not about substances but about minimal particles of the four elements which are properties or forms. For all its poetical worth, that version of atomism was therefore as unproductive for Indian science and technology as the Empedoclean elements were for European science. The assertion of the carvakas that elements make the world was spot on, their identification of those elements was deficient in our view; Leucippus did better although he must have known as much about matter as the carvakas did.

From the beginning, materialists had to defend themselves against the ideots as their early writings show. They still have to. The carvakas, who had the objectionable opinion that a man can own only so much of the earth that he can stand on, were thoroughly suppressed by landowners and the brahmins who burned all books on Lokayata. The nastiks had committed the ultimate sin according to brahminical orthodoxy. In India, the brahmins replaced enjoyment of life, the universe, and everything with religious dogma fortified by equally senseless rituals. Only a few non-religious disciplines were permitted that the priests did not reject as harmful. One of them was the logic of language, allowed to help understanding the vedas. Others were yoga and parts of tantrism which are in fact ancient techniques to improve body functions, methods which most likely originated during the Indus culture. They could survive after being disguised as spiritual systems (yoga darshana and vajrayana); a rare case of myths having a positive effect on something real. Lokayata has disappeared as an independent frame of mind but Jainism and Buddhism still exist. Both are related to Lokayata: jainists reject violence toward living things, which is a thoroughly materialistic principle that Buddhism has embraced as well. Some buddhist sutras argue for idealistic parodies of Lokayata. A significant part of mahayana buddhism is the cult of Tara which is strongly materialist; even its rituals are corporeal. The more intellectual aspects of Buddhism as developed by Nagarjuna are somewhat anti-idealistic. Buddhisms include many contrary trends and Buddhism cannot easily be characterized as a monolithic ideology. It could easily settle in China because it has a common denominator with taoism. Despite the strong antagonism against humanistic ideas in India and Pakistan (secular bloggers are routinely lynched in south-east Asia), interest in Lokayata and in related movements is now increasing.

Chinese materialism

During the Eastern Chou (or Zhou) dynasty, the axial era in China, the “hundred schools of thought”, included both idealistic traditions such as Confucianism and legalism and materialist traditions such as taoism, the anarchist tillers' school, and perhaps mohism,

Mo zi (470 - 391 BCE) was pacifist and the first utilitarist; he derived social and political consequences from (partly) materialist assumptions but was not a naturalist. His school promoted universal egalitarism with a radical form of the golden rule but he still considered a strong hierarchy a vital necessity. Another new way of thinking, Taoism, taught the individual how to improve his way of life. These lifestyles, that emphasized ethics, were an expansion of the Confucian revolt against the aristocracy. The ancient Chinese knew no orthoscience as the West was developing. They came to detest natural laws, perhaps because of their experience with laws imposed by the imperial administration. They were clearly more emancipated than occidentals. Chinese knowledge was mainly practical and Chinese thinkers in general have never had problems with technology, an attitude foreign to western intellectuals.

Taoism was described in the Nei Yeh (that emphasized the body and replaced spirits in nature by quasimaterial chi), in the work of Chuang Tzu (4th century BCE), and in the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tse. Another famous taoist was the hedonist Yang Zhu (370 - 319 BCE), who is known as the Chinese Epicurus. The neo-taoist Wang Chung (27-97 CE) emphasized the naturalistic side of taoism. The Huainanzi outlined taoist politics. At present three versions of taoism are known: an ethic, a body technique, and a religion. The first two are materialistic. Initially taoism was radically anti-idealistic (the tao is said to be ineffable and should be left alone and words are suspect), corporeal, practical, naturalistic, egalitarian, and anarchistic. Chapter 28 of the Tao Te Ching recommends to know the heavens but keep to the earth. The taoist sage is fully aware of the causality trap and knows how to avoid it. Taoists not only discovered the subconscious but explored it 23 centuries before Freud. In Europe they are only now catching up with their discovery of the autonomous nervous system and epigenetics. The taoistic attitude made the remarkable technology possible for which China was famous. A central concept in taoist psychology is Wu Wei, a practical directive: let things do their work by themselves and do not let ideas interfere. The Greek ataraxia would be the state of mind that is necessary for the practice of Wu Wei. Modern psychologists would perhaps say that Wu Wei is somatic anarchism: refuse to let the conscious overrule what the subconscious achieves effortlessly. If something which is conplicated has to be done, only all the embedded others, who have made the ego in the past, can do the job; the conscious part of the ego, that triees to separate itself from those others in the subconscious, should not interfere and stay out of the action because that part is more likely to be obedient to imposed platonic constraints.

There were some connections with philosophers in India at that time, which is not surprising, considering the extensive trade between the two countries. According to an apocryphal story Lao Tse went West and met the Buddha who sat under a tree sulking about the world. After Lao Tse had explained the Tao to him, the Buddha thought he understood and started Buddhism. This anecdote tells us that Buddhism is a form of Taoism with some hinduist features added such as karma, suffering, meditation, rebirth, and nirwana. Lokayata and buddhism were well-known in China since the first translation of a sutra in 65 CE. Later, in the early fifth century a legendary Buddhist monk Bodhidharma went to China and started Chan Buddhism, a version of Buddhism with a sufficiently strong Taoist flavour to be attractive for the Chinese. The Chinese did not fully share the taste of the Indians. The Buddha said: life is suffering, so stop living. Lao Tse said: life is as it is so stop worrying (after all, trying hard to stop suffering is itself a form of suffering). Chan buddhism was less buddhist than taoist. It became known in Japan as Zen Buddhism, which later adapted to shintoism. The oriental martial arts are inspired by Kung fu and Zen, in particular by their Wu Wei part. In modern China what rested of individualistic taoism seems to have been largely replaced by a collectivist combination of confucianism and legalism. The Japanese preferred to keep theocratic attributes: their emperor remains a descendant of Amaterasu notwithstanding the Imperial Rescript of 1946.

Materialism in Greece

Materialism in Greece started with the preplatonic philosophers. They were the first thinkers in Europe who assigned the constituents and source of the universe and everything to matter and not to some divine immaterial person, animal, or egg, as all creation myths like to postulate. Inspired by their contemporaries in India and China, the preplatonists discovered that their souls, spirits, and gods are material. The Greek version of materialism developed during eight centuries of mediterranean antiquity and spawned the natural sciences. Our Newton, Dalton, Darwin, and Einstein learned from their predecessors who had it from Aristarchus and Lucretius, who continued the work of Epicurus and Democritus, who in turn had studied with the Chaldeans and the Carvakas who knew what the Harappans had developed and so on. At the end of the axial era, idealism replaced materialism in Europe as it did in India and China. In Europe materialism was revived after the renaissance.

The most outstanding preplatonists (Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Anaximander, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Democritus) were paleo-scientists. They did not just fantasize at random to come up with some lucky hits as has been insinuated by philosophers who have not read Lucretius. Those Greeks looked carefully at their environment and used their brains with less prejudice than was usual at that time, or now for that matter. They travelled extensively over the entire known world to study it. Some presocratics have played with ideas but most were materialists at heart. Whatever later thinkers came up with, the ancient Greeks seem to have said it before. Statistical mechanics and complexity for example, formulated by Democritus, were rediscovered in the 19th and 20th century. However the ancient Greeks did not reject many objectionable traits of their heritage which were continued in western society: they remained religious, kept slaves, despised manual labour, and suppressed women. They invented a form of democracy for their elites but quickly got rid of it (it lasted two centuries then, the western Europeans reinvented it two millennia later). The ancient Greek form of materialism was just a start but a remarkably original one; after a long incubation time it would ultimately lead to the enlightenment in Europe.

Thales (624 – 546 BCE) was a Phoenician engineer in West-Anatolia who started Greek philosophy and, as Aristotle said, science. Thales introduced the formal derivation of theorems from axioms and made mathematics much more than mere arithmetic. He determined the height of the pyramids from a distance using similar triangles and devised methods for astronomical navigation. Thales also had the original intuition that the source of everything is water: "life is wet". Pythagoras (582 – 500 BCE) was the first professional philosopher as well as the greatest mathematician before Archimedes; he founded geometry and music theory. Heraclitus (around 500 BCE) stressed change in the world and deplored the absence of permanence. He was the only pessimist in this group and proposed fire as the basic constituent of all matter. Empedocles (490 – 430 BCE), a phenomenal scientist, was known for postulating the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) which, linked together with love and hatred, were supposed to compose everything. Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) added a fifth element, ether, and characterized the other four with pairs of the basic properties wet, dry, warm, and cold. Anaxagoras (500 – 428 BCE) was nick-named the great physicist. He saw that matter changes in natural processes such as in metallurgy and digestion and concluded that everything contains everything else. Diogenes of Sinope defended cannibalism with this argument. Anaxagoras called his atoms homeomers (miniatures of the objects that they build) and thought they were infinitely divisible. According to Anaxagoras mental development in humans became possible when they adopted bipedalism and freed their hands. The gods were given a more modest public function: Critias (some say Euripides) claimed in the Sisyphus fragment that gods were invented to prevent people to think that they could misbehave when there was no one around to see what they did. Democritus (460 – 370 BCE), who came from a town called Abdera in Thrace, was the cheerful founder of materialism, an anticreed. Together with his mentor Leucippus he corrected the materialist teachings of Anaximander and Anaxagoras and proposed atomism: "In reality there are only atoms and the void". This statement turned out to be the foundation of conscious technology as we know it. With Leucippus he started the Abderian way of thinking but did not organize one formal school as Plato and Aristotle did, he inspired four. The mathematician Bion (who was the first to describe the polar night) and Anaxarchus (380 – 320 BCE), the "happiness man", were his pupils. Democritus travelled to Persia and India where he must have met the carvaka’s, who flourished at that time, as well as the gymnosophists or Ajivikas, who probably taught him their version of atomism. Democritus saw dust and mist, smelled the world, felt the wind and rain, observed metabolism, and used his head when he developed atomism. This was not a mere speculative gamble but the result of a clearheaded reasoning starting from available facts; as he did when he concluded that women also contribute seed to their offspring while everyone else thought that women were merely nourishing substrates for sperm. Much later that remark by Democritus was related to the evolution of species by Maupertuis (1698 - 1759), a mathematician, naturalist, and founder of utilitarism. Democritus was the greatest genius of antiquity if not of all times. Even Aristotle thought so although being a platonist he did not understand atomism. Democritus said he would much prefer to find the explanation of even only one thing to becoming king of Persia; an equivocal remark which illustrates the general obsession of materialists with knowledge. Amazingly, or perhaps not so amazingly, Democritus’ views were violently opposed by the platonists until far into the 20th century. His hedonistic atomism has always been at least as dangerous as darwinism was in the nineteenth century. Both still are, not only in Islamic countries. Recently a movement in the USA was started to replace the evolution concept in biology by what is called "intelligent design" as a first step towards a return from enlightenment materialism to medieval theistic fundamentalism.

Several other philosophical schools in Greece had a radical materialistic character. These schools can be seen as inspired by, or even direct developments of the Abderian tradition: the sophists, the cynics, the sceptics, and the hedonists, were unconventional, upbeat, and fervently antiplatonic lovers of life. In these schools they wrote footnotes to Democritus; that was also done in the radical enlightenment much later, as Whitehead must have remarked.
The sophists were the intellectuals in the Greek world. They made fun of contemporary philosophers (such as Parmenides) who could prove impossibilities and disprove existing facts. Some sophists thought that in view of human nature, laws were necessary to prevent a war of all against all (Hobbes posited that much later). Well-known sophists were Protagoras of Abdera (490 – 415 BCE), who was discovered by Democritus and is now considered to be the first humanist, and Antiphon (480 – 411 BCE), the first tongue-in-cheek psychotherapist and lawyer. Antiphon anticipated Sartre by assigning the source of most human misery to acts by others (including imposed laws). He initiated psychotherapy by claiming to be able to heal sorrow by talking to patients. Being a lawyer he wrote four pleas for court cases he was involved in, for and against the accuser and for and against the accused. He said remarkably modern things: all human beings (nobles, commoners, barbarians, slaves) are equal; education is the most important activity in life and society; in public one should follow the agreed laws (nomoi) although they are arbitrary, in private one should follow nature (physis) which is necessary. A taoist echo. The sophist Hippias of Elis (460 – 399 BCE) corrected Antiphon on human equality: he claimed that in physis, human beings are equal, but when subject to laws, human beings are not equal; a remarkably early description of what is now seen as a consequence of the extended phenotype of humans.
The cynics were more radical social critics, they were the hippies of antiquity and the first anarchists in Europe. Their central ethical values were freedom and brotherhood. The legendary materialists Antisthenes (445 – 365 BCE), Diogenes of Sinope (412 – 323 BCE), Hipparchia of Maroneia, and Krates of Thebe (365 – 285 BCE) formed the core of that radical antiplatonist movement. They wrote a considerable number of books which were all destroyed of course. In the late nineteen-sixties the West had a short revival but it did not seem to have made a lasting impression on public taste either. Krates was the first male feminist (if those can exist). He specialized in witty attacks on moralism and lectured in verse as in his "The purse of the beggar". Krates was the tutor of Zeno of Kition (334 - 262 BCE), the founder of the stoic school, a continuation of the cynic school with psychological means. The stoics (who were anti-atomists) inherited from the sophists and cynics the idea that all men are equal.
The sceptics replaced certainties by general doubt in the spirit of materialism. Famous sceptics were Anaxarchus (380 – 320 BCE) and Pyrrho (360 – 275 BCE). Anaxarchus was a sanguine Abderian like Democritus and a very outspoken, almost cynic, disdainer of convention. Both were pupils of Democritus and joined Alexander in his expedition to India where they met and discussed with gymnosophists. Those Indian philosophers (as later Nagarjuna, one of the inspirators of chan buddhism) shared Pyrrho's practical skepticism. Diagoras of Milos (5th century BCE), a legendary atheist, was another pupil of Democritus.
The hedonists developed the ethical consequences of atomism which differed from the ethics of the cynics. The founder of the school of the Cyrenaic hedonists was Aristippus (435 – 356 BCE), a pupil of Socrates. He lectured on how to rearrange the environment in order to make life a permanent feast. Eastern hedonists were Siduri in the Gilgamesh epos, Yang Zhu, the carvakas, and a few Syrian and Persian medieval poets. The utilitarian tradition In the 19th century was a revival of the Cyrenaic school. Epicurus (341 – 270 BCE) was a modest hedonist and supporter of Democritus’ atomism. He rejected religion but carefully avoided to antagonize believers, as a taoist would. His views were egalitarian and anarchist avant la lettre and his teachings were thoroughly pragmatic. Metrodorus of Lampsacus (331 – 278 BCE), a pupil of Epicurus and friend of Anaxarchus held that perfect happiness means having a well-constituted body; in the 21st century neuroscientists showed how epigenetic gene expression supports that antiplatonic remark. Lucretius (95 – 55 BCE) wrote De rerum natura (in 1517 banned for christians) a poetic treatise on materialism that somehow escaped destruction. This stupendous epos is the materialist answer to solemn works such as the Vedas, the Bible, Mao’s red booklet and Mein Kampf. De rerum natura gives a grand summary of the Democritic paradigm at that time. The teachings of Epicurus and Lucretius had a considerable following in the Roman empire until the establishment of christianity. Why atomism was rejected by reactionary believers is expressed by Galenus (129–216 CE) who failed to see why a combination of atoms could have other properties than the atoms themselves. Quite unlike what Payasi said half a millenium earlier. The logic of emergence was suppressed by rising feodalism. Democritus' atomism as shown by Lucretius, was more than a proposal for rationalism, atheism, and pragmatism or a mere poetic description of the marvellous world, it was a novel liberating vision of reality.

The odd man out in ancient Greek philosophy was Plato (428 – 348 BCE). He created philosophical idealism (also called essentialism) and together with Aristotle reinstated ancient myths in a form which the Greeks considered intellectually respectable enough: material reality is merely the imperfect play of shadows of ideal forms. He wrote very well, many of his books survived, and he was a great success. Platonism has dominated western philosophy until now and still does; according to Whitehead, philosophy is a collection of footnotes to Plato. Plato was for Socrates (470 – 399 BCE) what Paul was for Jesus according to experts who know things like that. Plato proposed what we now call fascism or stalinism with his Republic and Laws and he was the first christian according to Nietzsche. Avid fans of Plato were Hitler, Pol Pot, and Breivik, they also wrote momentous footnotes to him. His school, the Academy, later taught neo-platonism, a proto-christianity. Religion and fascism mix well as both are patriarchies. Plato had a point when he thought that humans do not live exclusively in free open real space but also in their own mental world. However he claimed priority of the mental world and virtually denied the real one. Democritus reversed the platonic order and called the inner world illusion. Perhaps also an exaggeration.

Aristotle , the first platonic scientist, established the peripatetic school where he taught his view of the world. He lectured on work of Democritus omitting to acknowlege the originator of some of his ideas. He developed logic and used it to show that the earth is a sphere as Pythagoras had hinted earlier. His logic led him to claim that the purpose of thinking was to cool the blood. However, in contrast to Plato he thought that study of nature might contribute somewhat to knowledge. One of his successors as head of his school was Strato of Lampsacus (335 – 269 BCE), an atomist who taught a version of materialism that later was called hylozoism by Ralph Cudworth (1617 - 1688). The hylozoists assumed that life and spirit are immanent and not a complement to matter as the vitalists thought; that makes hylozoism a version of materialism. Strato, whose nickname was the physicist, was the tutor of Aristarchus (310 – 230 BCE) who formulated the heliocentric model. The christians were able to suppress it during 17 centuries, until Copernicus (1473 - 1543) publicly supported it and inspired many others.

Three varieties of materialism

The three axial world-views (in East Asia and Greece) were aimed at the emancipation of the individual which was seen as the elementary unit of society. They started from the same assumption but emphasized different consequences of materialism. Simply said, lokayata expressed its ontology, taoism its ethics, and preplatonic philosophy its epistemics. All three failed in the end as the freethinkers were unfamiliar with physiology and dynamics of collective systems; moreover, arguments in philosophical discussions at that time were less required than now to have empirical support. The carvakas in India postulated the body as the basis of all human activities and developed the subconscious. The Chinese solved the riddle of (non-) causality by positing their ineffable Tao, an apt choice which cleared up the relation between cognition and ethics. The Greek preplatonists were also interested in the social consequences of materialism such as lifestyle and ethics. The Greek bud of atomism was less radical than the two other varieties but much later it could develop into an enlightenment in Europe. Owing to ancient history, the cultural links between Eastern Asia and Europe are stronger than relations of either to the islamic world which has remained strongly feodal.

Medieval interlude

After the Roman empire collapsed, philosophy or what was left of it was reduced to justify faith; Persian and European intellectual giants could stay alive by becoming theologians. Inevitably, remnants of civilized action retired from the mediterranean basin back to the middle East, India, and China, where the sciences, technology, and trade flourished. European thought fell to pre-axial levels and there were no advances in materialism under paulinism as materialism was considered satanic and dissidents were persecuted for heresy, another word for all alternatives to ecclesiastical doctrines. A few times in the later middle ages, atomism was mentioned but in general commentators were ideologically correct and illicit thoughts, if any, were disguised. William of Conches (1080 – 1154 CE), for example, has mentioned Democritus in his lectures. In the middle east, the Arabs initially completed what the christian monks had started, the destruction of what was left of ancient civilization (burning paper is a great hobby of believers: in the nineteenth century monks made a bonfire of Mendels laboratory notes). Centuries later, the Arabs and Persians studied Greek knowledge from copied and translated books, saved by dissident Syrians such as Thabit ibn Qurra (826 - 901) from destruction by Byzantine christians. However the Syrians and Persians seemed to have been uncomfortable with the presocratics and the postsocratic materialist schools, they preferred to translate the books by mathematicians, astronomers, medics, and those by platonists and ignored books on subjects which were incompatible with their faith such as drama, history, natural science, and ethics. Aristotelian logic was useful for Islam as it was for paulinism earlier, but the parts on natural science remained haram as they were suspected of contradicting the holy books. The choice for neoplatonism lengthened the middle ages in the West by several centuries while intellectual feodalism still dominates the Islamic world. When the Arab occupiers of Spain retreated they left books behind that were translated into latin in the 12th and 13th centuries by Cremona and van Moerbeke which acquainted Europeans with the classics. Nevertheless there have been a few well-known islamic near-materialists (a near-oxymoron), mainly Persians. Their innovations in science were breathtaking. Al-Kindi (801 - 873) founded the Abbasid culture by introducing philosophy from Greece and decimal arithmetics from India. The superb Al Razi (865 – 925) was a Persian medic, epicurist, and chemist who synthesized sulfuric acid, alcohol, and kerosene by destillation and wrote a textbook on laboratory work. He held that religion is the cause of wars and kills science. He also claimed that who does not know chemistry cannot be a philosopher. Abu Ali al-Hasan or Alhazen (965 – 1042), a Persian physicist created the science of optics and was the first to describe the camera. He inspired the inventor of eyeglasses. Abu al-Ma'arri (973 - 1057), a Syrian skeptic and almost a materialist, wrote poems that seemed to be inspired by Lokayata. Omar Khayyam (1046 – 1131), a Persian mathematician, also wrote poetry in the Carvaka spirit and introduced more mathematics from India. Avicenna (980 – 1037), a Persian medical scientist and philosopher, modernized the work of Hippocrates and Galen. Ibn Tufail (1105 - 1185), a cryptomaterialist, tried to help islamic enlightenment by pointing out that reason would lead to knowledge. Averroes (1126 – 1198), another famous Spanish philosopher, wrote extensively on Aristotle. The most formidable character in this crowd was Jabir or Geber (721 – 815), a Persian Kurd. Jabir ibn Hayyan was an alchemist but also a craftsman working on matter which made him a chemist as well. He is known as “the father of chemistry” because he is said to have introduced laboratory work into the study of matter (forgetting the alchemists Cleopatra and Mary the Jewess half a millenium earlier in Alexandria). Jabir was inspired by an extensive knowledge of materials in Xi’an (or Chang'an) during the Tang dynasty which briskly traded with the Abbasid court in Bagdad. Both cultures culminated at that time, the middle ages were pitch-dark only in christian Europe. Notably, Geber did not use atomism in his work but simply reconsidered what was already known about matter technology in his time. In Europe the first to suggest that alchemy could be converted into chemistry was Roger Bacon (1214 - 1292). The logician William of Ockham (1288 - 1347), who again separated faith from reason, was cryptoatomist and nominalist and therefore antiplatonist; another harbinger of change. He is known for what was later called his razor, a subversive device for cutting out superfluous assumptions and idols from arguments: "do not propose unlikely axioms". Ockham's razor was a weapon lethal to all ideologies if used as intended. Engineers know it as the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Some people think his razor means that a simple explanation is more true than a complicated one. For them Ockham's razor justifies oversimplifications. Ockham escaped from Avignon before pope John 22 could burn him alive. Setting fire to people is another hobby of the faithful.

The renaissance

Steinberg CogitoThe renaissance in Europa continued medieval life with two new saints, Plato and Aristotle. Initially, witches were still briskly burned and many novel christian sects appeared which immediately started to kill each other. However there were also some European scholars who became interested in ancient thinkers. It was a time when classical materialism in Greek and Roman texts were discovered by humanists who were more interested in literary form than in the content of the classical texts. The novel invention of book printing at that time helped to make them widely available for study. The European humanists that unintentionally paved the way for the enlightenment that was to follow, were Valla, More, Fracastoro, Telesio, Ramus, Montaigne, Bruno, Sennert and Gassendi.

Nicholas of Cusa (1401 –1464), was one of the first modern thinkers: he was a crypto-atomist, lens maker, and supporter of the heliocentric model; he wrote De docta ignorantia in which he tried to remove God from the collection of entities that can be known. Lorenzo Valla (1407 - 1457) was an explicit epicurist, one of the first in the renaissance. He wrote about lust and proposed to choose freedom above all other ethical values. Valla discussed what was known about epicureanism at his time without having read Lucretius. Being a christian, Valla saw hedonism as the way to redemption (an opinion also held by Erasmus and Montaigne). Thomas More (1478 - 1535), who was the first to use the word democritism, wrote in his book Utopia about a fictitious people that were followers of Epicurus. To his astonishment he was told by Amerigo Vespucci that such people actually existed (probably the piaroa) and lived in the new world; two centuries later, Bougainville discovered epicurists in the other half of the world. Both hedonistic civilizations were quickly destroyed by western violence after being "discovered". Girolamo Fracastoro (1478 – 1553) was an atomist who proposed to connect atomism with chemical reaction; he supported Lucretius‘ suggestions on the spreading mechanism of contagious diseases. Bernardino Telesio (1509–1588) was a key figure in the renaissance that inspired many humanists. He strongly opposed Aristotelianism which was known in Europe since 1200 CE and blessed by the church. Telesio replaced Aristotelian form by the concept of force. Peter Ramus (1515 – 1572) got his doctors degree on the lemma that everything proposed by Aristotle was a lie; in 1543 he wrote two books against Aristotle which were officially burned. He was silenced by pope Franciscus I and murdered in St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. Montaigne (1533 - 1592) was a sceptic and epicurist; the annotations in his copy of De Rerum Natura showed his fascination with Lucretian materialism. Giordano Bruno (1548 - 1600) was epicurist and atomist and supported Copernicus. He wrote positively about Lucretius' atomism and extended it by giving each atom its own individual monad that he awkwardly called a sort of soul (in our updated vocabulary that monad is a characteristic set of quantum properties that follow from its electron configuration); his model was a novel version of hylozoism. His support of atomism was a sufficient reason for pope Clemens VIII to burn him alive. Daniel Sennert (1572 – 1637) had the bright idea that atoms, without changing themselves, combine with each other to form substances with novel properties. Gassendi (1592 – 1655), who claimed that natural science produces probable, not certain results, was also a card-carrying atomist. He called those linked atoms moleculae and tried to make atomism acceptable for the church by saying that God had created the atoms, an old idea of Al-Ashari (874 – 936). With Lorenzo Valla, Gassendi continued the clerical tradition to take from opponents what can no longer be denied or what is useful, and claim it as part of their own creed. Teilhard de Chardin did with darwinism what Gassendi did with atomism. The Roman catholic church recently pronounced meditation to be a form of prayer; a belated but unintended recognition of the material character of spirituality, an old idea of Epicurus.

Before the end of the era known as the renaissance, people gradually ceased burning witches in Europe because they suspected that calamities were not always caused by magic and because they could identify with the victims. Two signs of dawning materialism.


This period is the logical outcome of the process started in the renaissance: Greek thought finally became more accepted because people (some of them but at least enough) got used to the parts they had been able to read. A materialist in pre-enlightenment days was Hobbes (1588 – 1679) who was mainly concerned with politics. That made him thoroughly pessimistic. Descartes (1596 - 1650), mathematician and the first theoretical neuroscientist, had to assume the existence of an immaterial soul for scientific reasons. The enlightenment began with the rationalist Spinoza (1632 – 1677): the only god conceivable is nature as he put it (also suggested by Zeno of Kition). His God coincides with the Heavens of Lao Tse which made Spinoza the first European taoist. He managed to avoid being lynched by the Dutch christian rabble for his book on ethics. Damasio discussed the materialist aspects of his philosophy in chapters 4 and 5 of his "Looking for Spinoza". Deleuze (1925 - 1995) characterized Spinoza as a materialist in his lectures at a university of Paris in Vincennes. The romantic Kant (1724 – 1804) however, who is considered by some to be a philosopher of the enlightenment because he wrote sensible things about it, still regarded matter as a product of consciousness; a remarkable opinion for a contemporary of Lavoisier.

The first enlightenment, the one in the axial era, was a non-local revolution that changed almost all cultures in the old world. Then there was a medieval enlightenment restricted to the Middle East which doesn't count as it was quickly and efficiently suppressed by islamic fundamentalists after three centuries. The second enlightenment (usually called enlightenment by scholars), in eighteenth century France, was a revival of the Hellenic-European part of the axial revolution with additional Scottish, English, German, Italian, and Dutch contributions. Its centre was in Paris. Julien Offray de la Mettrie (1709 – 1751) was a full materialist, one of the first after epicureanism was wiped out by the christians. Being an army physician he became a materialist and a libertine after having observed “the overwhelming effects of the body on the mind”. For his ideas he was persecuted in France and after escaping to Holland, even there. Frederic II of Prussia invited him to become his court intellectual and to write on whatever he liked but when he did, he died. Materialism was a very dangerous conviction even during enlightenment as liberty, equality, and fraternity were expected to lead to anarchism. Voltaire was among his opponents. La Mettrie became notorious for his book in which he developed the thought that man is also a machine (Descartes had said that animals and the body part of humans were machines) and that after death, nothing of the soul remains (as the carvakas already pointed out 2400 years before La Mettrie did). His arguments were again ignored by mainstream philosophers and did not affect well-entrenched idealism although he had some supporters such as d’Holbach (1723 – 1789) and Helvetius (1715 - 1771).

Diderot (1713 – 1784) was a central thinker of the enlightenment. With the mathematician d'Alembert he edited the comprehensive Encyclopedia. Paul d’Holbach wrote “Système de la nature”, the first standard account of materialism after De Rerum Natura. He also contributed to the Encyclopedia with many articles on chemistry and mineralogy. At that time science was mainly about celestial mechanics, Newtonian point mechanics, action at a distance, and some magnetism and optics. Materialism only occurred in full force to scientists when they started to accept atomism after 1800. Then, chemistry could finally take off.

The nineteenth century

In the nineteenth century the public began to emancipate in Europe. The results of the enlightenment were made widely available by writers such as William Godwin (1756 - 1836), Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 - 1859) and John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873). Atomism was popularized by Jacob Moleschott (1822 - 1893) with his "Kreislauf des Lebens", and by Ludwig Büchner (1824 - 1899) with "Kraft und Stoff". Büchner showed that force is produced by matter and exists only because of matter; predictably he was fired for expressing that opinion in his book on matter and force. Vitzthum praised this book as the third treatise on materialism after those of Lucretius and d'Holbach.

Modern and postmodern materialism

Materialists have recently invaded philosophy to stir things up. Now there are several schools inspired by materialism that stress different aspects. The form of materialism which is least polluted by idols is eliminative materialism. Recent developments are connectionism, neurophilosophy (Churchland), and a sort of neo-materialism by de Landa. Object Oriented Ontology by Harman and Bryant (who writes the blog "larval subjects") is an indistinctly related version that is based on orthodox continental philosophies; it reintroduces platonic forms as hidden intermediates that interrelates isolated objects. Materialism has even crypto-vitalistic variants which take a more or less anthropocentric approach; examples are those of Timothy Morton, Jane Bennett, Michel Serres, Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour, and perhaps also Michel Onfray. There are philosophers now who seem to be returning to the presocratic source of their trade, at least some "useful ideots" who are not scared stiff by recent developments in neuroscience. Badiou has tried to make materialism philosophically respectable. Some recent writers on neomaterialism that are hooked on "tuba notes from the depth of the Rhine" blown by Heidegger, fail to advance a vision that is sufficiently original to warrant mention.

For those untutored in the profundities of western philosophy it appears to consist of two antagonistic traditions or schools, platonism and democritism.
The idealistic or platonic school is basically a continuation of prehistoric animism with rational means, it also has rules for a virtuous life. Platonists invent a virtual reality which we cannot know because it is assumed to exist outside the part of the cave in which we are imprisoned while facts and things that we can observe are mere shadows of that inaccessible reality on the walls of our cave. Platonists are infatuated with the idea of a human soul and the certainty of truth and permanence; and to get them, platonists readily give up their freedom of thought. Leaders and followers are exemplary platonists.
The smaller and much less pretentious materialist or democritic tradition is basically a practical sort of metatechnology. It supplies a philosomatic reference frame. For democritists reality is primarily whatever they can observe, they feel part of it. Democritists have a passion for understanding and knowing matter and the body. They are driven by curiosity and accept the uncertainty that follows from incomplete knowledge; they reject all supernatural rationalizations.
Ontology, ethics, and epistemology are very different in the two schools. Platonic ontology constructs forms and souls, democritic ontology sees atoms and the void. Platonic ethics has reified virtue and evil, democritic ethics has joy and pain. Platonic epistemology posits a-priori essences, democritic epistemology stresses sensual experience. The two school are only part of the same discipline for historic reasons but have contrary views: things are shadows of forms or forms are shadows of things.