Epicureanism and ‘The Swerve’

Extract – Lucretius, On The Nature Of Things: In “On the Nature of Things,” Lucretius argues that everything around us is the result of (in Greenblatt’s words) “an unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter,” causing atoms to clump together or break apart, forming all the recognizable objects of the world. Living things themselves emerged in this way, and are in a process of continuous change as a result of untold numbers of chance “swerves.”

Extract: Everything that occurs is the result of the atoms colliding, rebounding, and becoming entangled with one another, with no purpose or plan behind their motions. (Compare this with the modern study of particle physics.) His theory differs from the earlier atomism of Democritus because he admits that atoms do not always follow straight lines but their direction of motion may occasionally exhibit a ‘swerve’ (clinamen). This allowed him to avoid the determinism implicit in the earlier atomism and to affirm free will.[9] (Compare this with the modern theory of quantum physics, which postulates a non-deterministic random motion of fundamental particles, which do not swerve absent an external force; randomness originates in interaction of particles in incompatible eigenstates.)

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