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Mechanical Philosophy


The mechanical philosophy derived from the views of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–271 B.C.E.), who sought the key to the good life. He considered the good life to be one that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. Epicurus believed that the greatest sources of human unhappiness, apart from bodily pain, are fear of the gods and anxiety about punishment after death. To eliminate these causes of distress, he sought to explain all natural phenomena in naturalistic terms—the chance collisions of material atoms in empty space (his version of atomism), thus eliminating the gods' interference in human lives. He claimed that the human soul is material, composed of atoms that are exceedingly small and swift. The Epicurean soul did not survive death. Thus there is no reason to fear punishment in the afterlife. Epicurus believed that the atoms have always existed and that they are infinite in number. Epicureanism, while not strictly atheistic, denied that the gods play a role in the natural or human worlds, thus ruling out any kind of divine intervention in human life or providence in the world. Because of its reputation as atheistic and materialistic, Epicureanism fell into disrepute during the Christian Middle Ages. The writings of Epicurus and his Roman disciple Lucretius (c. 96–c. 55 B.C.E.) were recovered and published during the Renaissance, which began in fourteenth-century Italy.

Following the development of heliocentric astronomy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, many natural philosophers believed that Aristotelianism, which rests on geocentric assumptions, could no longer provide adequate foundations for natural philosophy. Among the many ancient philosophies that were recovered by Renaissance humanists, Epicurean atomism seemed particularly compatible with the spirit of the new astronomy and physics. Early advocates of the mechanical philosophy included David van Goorle (1591–1612), Sebastian Basso (fl. 1550–1600), Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), and various members of the Northumberland Circle of which Walter Warner (c. 1557–c. 1642), Thomas Harriot (1560–1621), and Nicholas Hill (c. 1570–1610) were members. Although each of these men favored some version of atomism, none of them developed a systematic philosophy. Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637), a Dutch schoolmaster, advocated a mechanical view of nature and wrote about it extensively in his private journal, which was not published until the twentieth century. Beeckman's personal influence was enormous, however, and he was instrumental in encouraging a pair of French natural philosophers, Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) and René Descartes (1596–1650), to adopt the mechanical philosophy.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mathematics to Methanal trimerMechanical Philosophy - Background, Major Advocates Of The Mechanical Philosophy, Later Developments, Bibliography