Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Henrik Lagerlund


  • Aurélien RobertEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-024-1151-5_58-2


At first sight, the philosophical idea that the world is composed of atoms, notably embraced by Greek and Roman authors such as Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, seemed to have disappeared during the middle ages. It has been frequently said that it only reappeared during the Renaissance and then in modern philosophy and chemistry. In fact, atomism never ceased to exist as a theory of matter, space and time, both in western Latin tradition and in the Arabic and Jewish medieval philosophy. Different versions of atomism were developed in these traditions: from theological explanations of creation to pure mathematical theories about the divisibility of the continuum, through physical theories of matter and time. The first detailed accounts of atomism come from the ninth- and tenth-century Arabic theologians of Baghdad and Basra, immediately followed by the Jewish schools, notably in Egypt. A similar revival of atomism appeared in the West from the twelfth-century philosophers of Chartres to the fourteenth-century Christian theologians of Oxford and Paris. Most of these medieval atomist theories have very little in common with ancient atomism, for they are usually linked with more complicated theological concerns, such as the eternity of the world, creation, the existence of prime matter, and more generally the finiteness of created things. On the other hand, they are similar to Platonic and neo-Pythagorean conceptions of reality as constituted from units and numbers, or from atoms and collections of atoms, which are equivalent to units in matter and space.

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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre d’Etudes Supérieures de la Renaissance (CNRS)ToursFrance