Reconciling Christianity with Epicurean philosophy: A closer look at Gassendi’s attempt

This blog discusses the combination of Gassendi’s religious belief with his Epicureanism. It explores how his commitment to Epicurean philosophy is distorted as a result, before determining whether his overall view is consistent. The original title of this essay was ‘Whole Resolved Into Parts: Pierre Gassendi and the Reconciliation of Atomism and Christianity’. 

Unknown artist; Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655); The Royal Society;

Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), 17th century French philosopher, priest, astronomer, mathematician, and scholar of ancient thought, is best known for his ‘Epicurean project’, an attempt to fuse Christian belief with Epicurean ideas. Through a close reading of chapter eight of the third book on Physics in his 1658 posthumous work The Syntagma Philosophicum, an attempt will be made to discern whether this enterprise of Gassendi’s is, on the whole, consistent. The main proposition is that, read historically, Gassendi’s synthesis is problematic, but approached through a mereological lens, it makes sense. Gassendi’s conception of atomism, and its attendant problems, are examined first. His reconciliation of parts (i.e. atoms) and the whole (i.e. universe) is assessed second. The problems of incorporeality and the void are analysed third. The paper concludes with an appraisal of Gassendi’s system overall.

Gassendi combines Epicureanism and Christianity by imposing ideas about the beginning of creation and a first cause on: motion, composition, and generation/corruption. In doing this he creates three problems. Firstly, motion. Epicurus held that ‘the atoms move continuously for all time’ ([N/A] 1988: 07). Gassendi showed that positing a first cause in God necessitates finite atoms and finite void. But the fact that all atoms are instilled with motion implies that no entity could have been powerful enough to manage this on an individual basis, so their motion must be eternal. Yet they cannot be like God, infinite and eternal, so a new theory of motion is therefore required. Secondly, composition. If God is omniscient, tendencies as random as the swerve would need to be recast to accommodate some form of predestination, jeopardising composition. Thirdly, generation and corruption. Epicurus held that pursuant to reductive composition, macroscopic bodies could be explained through their atomic parts, so incorporeal relations (e.g. astrological ones) cannot obtain, hence, no fear of the gods. Therefore, incorporeal relations in terms of generation must be accounted for.

Gassendi provides in chapter eight a highly original mereological account that attempts to remedy these distortions. Firstly, motion. ‘Atoms are mobile and active from the power of moving and acting’, writes Gassendi, ‘which God instilled in them at their very creation’ ([1658] 1972: 399). He shows that this was possible on an individual basis because God created the whole and the parts simultaneously:

[W]hen he created a mass of matter which could be broken down into tiny bodies, and which was therefore just as if it were constructed out of those tiny ultimate particles, he may be considered to have created these tiny bodies along with it.

Gassendi ([1658] 1972: 399)

This crucial insight addresses all three problems. Motion is possible because God’s intimacy with the whole guarantees that what is sanctioned at the universal level will be realised through the atomic one—irrespective of the way it (the whole) is formed by virtue of the motion of its constituent parts. In this way predestination is accommodated through final causes, as God fashioned atoms, and by extension the qualities of bodies (Figure 1), ‘to the degree that he foresaw would be necessary for every purpose and effect that he destined them for’ (Gassendi [1658] 1972: 401). The ‘chain’ of generation and corruption are accounted for by a comparable process of second causes (Figure 1), which ‘had its [the chain’s] beginning there, in that inexhaustible chaos of atoms, constantly supplying both the matter from which bodies were constructed and the motion, or cause, by which they were shaped’ (Gassendi [1658] 1972: 401). In this way the unfolding of the universe parallels the formation of a jigsaw puzzle, where the whole, implicit in the initial jumble of its parts, coheres eventually through multiple, enumerable paths.

Picture 1 God and the atom he hath created. Richard Feynman said that if, in some cataclysm, all scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, he would recommend the theory of the atom.

Yet questions concerning relations with the incorporeal, on this account, remain. Gassendi hints in chapter eight that clarification on the problem of the void is key to addressing this matter. The void forms part only of the substrate, and not the content, of the universe: it ‘merely supplies’ writes Gassendi, ‘a location and a principle of separation’ ([1658] 1972: 401). He concludes chapter eight with the concession that it is not true that ‘the mind and human reason are derived from the atoms or corporeal configurations’ ([1658] 1972: 408). Something else must be posited. To this end Gassendi subordinates the void to absolute space and time—which are infinite, independent of, and pre-conditional to, the universe (Lolordo 2007: 112). This contrasts to Epicurus, for whom space and void were correspondent: ‘the incorporeal cannot be thought of as independently existing,’ he wrote, ‘except for the void’ ([N/A] 1988: 14). Gassendi’s conception of space-time markedly widens his conception of incorporeality to include mind and soul. Beside the anima (the sentient soul or ‘flower of matter’) stands the animus—the rational soul, ‘the last touch of universal physics’ weaved into space-time, in harmony with the whole, ‘lack[ing] mass and parts into which it can be divided and analysed’ (Gassendi [1658] 1964: 628).

Figure 1 Gassendi’s system of atomism. Physics coloured blue; epistemology, orange; ethics, green.

These responses to the problems of motion, composition, and generation and corruption, are stylised in Figure 1. The middle array charts the unfolding of the complexity of the universe; the right, key concepts; and the left, explanatory inclusions. Dotted lines represent tangential ‘back-up’ lines of causality. The void is absent, for it is incorporeal: it does not reside among the corporeal entities of the universe, nor those infinite entities of the space-time continuum. It can be seen that this reconciliation of Christianity and atomism coheres because the universe, conceived atomistically, comprises merely the subset of a larger metaphysical tapestry—God’s whole.

If we detach Gassendi from Epicureanism as an historical tradition, and treat his embrace of atomism abstractly, his motivations make sense, and, when read on his own terms, is consistent. This is because atomism forms merely a special case—the general case being the extended incorporeality posited at the end of chapter eight of Book III. When read up close, Gassendi regularly privileges the whole at the expense of its atomic parts. Ultimately, he was far from an Epicurean. Fundamentally, Gassendi was an atomist. He did not fragment, but preferred to resolve, the whole of nature into its constituent parts.

Reference List

Epicurus. 1988, ‘Epicureanism: The Extant Letters’, in Inwood, B. and Gerson, L.P. (eds.), Hellenistic Philosophy Introductory Readings, 2nd edition, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, pp. 5-32.

Gassendi, P. 1964, Opera omnia (Collected Works), in Montmor, H.L.H. (ed.), Bad Canstatt: Friedrich Frommann Verlag.

———1972, ‘Book III: On The Material Principle Or The Primary Form Of Matter’, in Brush, C.B. (ed.), The Selected Works of Pierre Gassendi, New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, pp. 398-408.

Lolordo, A. 2007, Pierre Gassendi And The Birth Of Early Modern Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Further readingviewing



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