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materialism

Oxford Classical Dictionary


materialism  
James I. Porter
Subject: Greek Literature, Philosophy Online Publication Date: Dec 2015
DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.013.6982

Text and bibliography updated to reflect current scholarship. Keywords and summary
added.

Updated on 24 May 2018. The previous version of this content can be found here.

Summary and Keywords

Materialism, the belief that matter is a primary constituent of reality, is a constant feature
of ancient Greek and Roman thought, and also one of its most contested and productive
ideas: matter was a never-ending source of fascination and ambivalence in antiquity,
while modernity inherited these same obsessions. Homer is an intuitive materialist. Later
philosophers were divided over the definition and value of matter. Because a “pure”
definition of matter proved so difficult to maintain in any coherent fashion, cross-overs
between materialism and immaterialism, mostly unacknowledged, were the rule in
antiquity. Immaterialism gradually gained the upper hand, thanks to the offices of
Platonism, then of Christianity, and, from the advent of the secular age, of classicism. But
not even immaterialism could rid itself of the lures of matter. Only now are the attractions
and complexities of matter and materialism in ancient thought and experience being
appreciated once again.

Keywords: aesthetics, body, classicism, Christianity, gods, metaphysics, physics, sensation

Homer
The belief in matter as a constituent of experience and reality was strongly rooted in
Greek and Roman thought, but it was also highly contested. Matter was explicitly named
for the first time by the earliest Greek philosophers, the so-called Presocratics (see Arist.
Metaph. 983b6–18). Prior to then the concepts of matter and materiality existed, but only

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materialism

intuitively. Homer’s world is densely material and crowded with things, which provide
affordances for action, for pleasure, and for art—whence the distinctively Homeric
“pleasure in materials.”1 Bodies, objects, things, and their properties furnish a sense of
materiality (of what is hard, resistant, or malleable and what is subject to agency,
alteration, and destruction). Matter is a source of value, but also, in its perishability, of
concern. Notably lacking in Homer is any sense of the immaterial and the incorporeal
(gods are fleshly; souls are bits of breath; fame endures only through audible song).
Homer is therefore arguably the first materialist in the West, albeit an intuitive and highly
ambivalent one.

Early Greek Philosophy


Over the next centuries, a new sense of materiality gradually emerged, in tandem with a
growing sense of the immaterial (the rare [to araion], the incorporeal [to asōmatos], the
empty [to kenon]), and eventually of form as an immutable substance or essence
(eukuklos sphaira: Parmenides; number and limiters: Pythagoreans; idea, eidos, morphē:
Plato, Aristotle). Many of the earliest philosophers sought to explain the natural, sensible
world in terms of its physical constituents or principles (archai), often reductively so
(candidates included earth, water, air, fire, infinitely divisible stuff, indivisible atoms, the
unlimited (to apeiron), and so on). Just as their theories clashed, so did their
vocabularies: no consensus term for matter emerged until after Aristotle (hulē; Latin:
materia). But the problem of matter was never resolved, perhaps because matter is by
nature an insoluble problem, admitting of different expressions at different levels of
application: from early on, it could apply to the basic stuffs of the universe (whether or
not these were accessible to the senses), to existing objects (sometimes called chrēmata,
“things,” Anaxagoras DK 59B12), or to the sensible aspects of existing things as caused
by their disposition (be this their elemental mixture or their qualitative changes). Not
even Aristotle’s own view is definitive: his concept of matter is idiosyncratic and
notoriously elusive (it is either a kind of substance, a proximate body, a subject of a
predicate, or a potentiality), nor does it map neatly onto earlier or later conceptions. The
difficulties of pinning down matter go beyond those of anachronism, because there is
something essentially unstable in the concept itself. A conceptually pure notion of matter
would be an ideal construct of thought, a metaphysical abstraction, hence self-defeating.

Contesting “Matter”
Far from being a fly in the ointment, the vagaries of matter may be the greatest virtue of
the concept. Since matter could not be found as a self-evident attribute of the world, it
had to be struggled over: matter became a generative element in ancient thought and
experience, and a high-stakes one at that. The nature and definition of matter as a

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scientific entity gave rise to unhealable doctrinal differences among the philosophical
schools, starting with the earliest Greek philosophers, as did the question of its value
(was matter a positive or negative attribute of things?). Those who put matter in any form
at the foundations of the universe can be assumed to have been “materialists,” as we
would call them today, and to have given matter a positive value. But materialism in no
way guaranteed unanimity of opinion: “materialisms” in the plural is closer to the mark,
given the wide disparity of views that were available. The twin problems of what matter
was and which kind of matter should be given preeminence, if any at all, was as much the
source as it was the product of the intellectual contests in antiquity. A further
complication is one of the least noticed features of this history: there were no “pure”
forms of materialism or of immaterialism in antiquity: materialism was habitually lured
into a kind of immaterialism, and the reverse was true as well.

From the first, the definition and mechanics of matter could divide and unite, at least in
philosophy. Thus, early Greek philosophers split over the question whether fire, air, water,
earth, “seeds,” “roots,” or atoms were the first and ultimate principles of things, but they
also argued over how these elemental principles came into being, whether they passed
away or merely changed places, and how they separated or combined to form larger
entities. The sophists were interested less in the physical constituents of reality than in
culture, society, and human experience. Nevertheless, empirical sensation played a
crucial role in their theories, which were, in the last analysis, studies of the living,
breathing animal called man. Protagoras’ doctrine of sensation is a good example.
Diogenes Laertius (9.52 = DK 80A1) reports that “Protagoras held that the soul is nothing
apart from its sensations (aisthēseis),” by means of which truths about the world might be
found: subjectivism is in this way grounded in material epistemology, which is to say, in
the embodied subject.

Gorgias could press the paradoxes of not-being to an uncomfortable extreme (On Not-
Being, or On Nature), but he never conceded away the significance of material reality (to
ektos). Persuasion at times has a strong material agency (Helen §§8–14), but it must also
compete with the senses for control over the mind (Helen §§15–17). Matter here is a
puzzle for logos, its object, medium, and insuperable obstacle all rolled into one (see MXG
980b, ed. Diels). Gorgias’ stance leaves open but unanswered the question whether
discourse (logos) has its own material consistency, and so too whether the mechanisms of
its efficacy can be reliably understood and exploited.

Hippias of Elis explored some of this linguistic materiality in his studies of the musical
qualities of language (Plato mentions his interest in the dynamics of sound at the level of
letters, syllables, rhythms, and musical scales; Hp. mi. 368b; see PLATO, KNOWLEDGE
AND ITS OBJECTS). Elsewhere Hippias defines beauty as what pleases the eye and ear
(Hp. mai. 298a), a definition that he shared with other sophists, from Prodicus to
Thrasymachus and Licymnius. The Hippocratics vied with the philosophers, but not for
the title of being materialists: locating nature in the human body made them materialists
by default.

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Cynics and other minor Socratics were closer to the sophists in awarding primacy to
concrete, material reality than they were to Socrates and Plato: they tended to be hard-
nosed adherents of sense and common sense. Where Plato looked for a formal definition
of man (“a featherless biped animal”—the absence of “soul” is striking but not
inexplicable; see Phdr. 256d5; [Plato] Def. 415a11; Aristotle, Metaph. 1037b22), Diogenes
of Sinope adduced a plucked chicken and brought it into Plato’s lecture hall as
demonstrable proof of the contrary (D.L. 6.40). Antisthenes is reported to have said, “I
see a human, but I do not see humanity” (fr. 50C Decleva Caizzi), in line with the
preeminence he awarded, against Plato, to sensible particulars. Taking an inward turn,
the Cyrenaics taught that sensations (aisthēseis) of one’s own experiences (pathē) provide
the only certainty there is.

Plato shunned material reality. Aristotle embraced it. But Aristotle never allowed matter
to be the primary cause of a thing: that he reserved for the formal and final causes in his
explanatory framework. This caveat aside, the inhabitable world for Aristotle could only
be explained as a composite of matter and form: nothing can have form that does not
have body. Thus, in contrast to Plato and the Eleatic monists (Parmenides, Zeno, and
Melissus), Aristotle insists that soul cannot act or be acted upon without the medium of a
body, while touch is the primary form of sensation; indeed, it is “the most indispensable”
faculty of sense in a living creature (De an. 413b4, 414a3). Aristotle is thus committed to
matter but in a non-reductionist way. Epicureans and Stoics perpetuated the earlier
materialist traditions, conferring ultimate reality on material first principles, understood
either as atoms and void or as bodies (corpora) animated by intelligent fire. Peripatetics
and Neoplatonists further refined Aristotle and Plato’s essentialism.

Extreme reductive materialism is hard to find in antiquity, not least because matter could
barely explain the most significant phenomena known to the mind: the leap from inert
matter to life and consciousness was a challenge, while the sense that nature was
palpably real stood in tension with the desideratum that nature must be rationally
comprehensible according to a principle of explanation that could not readily be sought
out in matter (be this god, reason, fate, design, or the logical coherence of reality). In
place of extreme materialism, one finds desperate measures. Most frequently, appeal was
made to processes or principles that could not be observed and that were tenuously
material. Air is a material substance and a cosmological primitive for Anaximenes; but it
also borders on the incorporeal, as Olympiodorus recognized (fr. 3 DK): gods after all
“arose from air,” as did the heavenly bodies (ibid., A9–10, etc.). Matter could be divided
into infinitely many parts, as in Anaxagoras, with the result that matter came to be
conceived as something that was reducible and irreducible at once: it is “impossible to
grasp,” even for Mind itself (DK 59A41b). The intuitive idea that matter is what you can
touch and feel is here subverted by a process that raises fundamental doubts about
sensuous reality tout court, even as matter is reduced to something like a formal theorem
or a mere mathematical possibility. Matter, plainly, was as indispensable as it was elusive.

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In its most attenuated forms, matter approximated the immaterial, no longer embodying
matter pure and simple, but rather its essence: matter here became sublime.

The same dilemma holds for the atomists (see ATOMISM). Reality may be made up of tiny
and invisible bodies (atoms); but it also constitutively requires the presence of their
absence (void). Void is a metaphysical principle, not a material one: it is a not-being that
somehow is. Not even the atomists could remove from their system this singular objection
to the materiality of the universe: at some level, the universe is irreducible to matter.
Epicurus’ later rejection of the physical reductionism of Leucippus and Democritus is not
a reversal of an inherited position; it is its logical outcome. The Stoics admission of
“incorporeals” (place, void, time, and lekta, or “sayables”) into their material universe
follows the same pattern of logic: the world cannot be thought without reference to its
material constituents, but neither is it exhausted by these (see STOICISM). And in
general, for all the Stoics’ insistence on physical continuism (the idea that the world is
materially continuous and free of gaps or void), here, as in atomism, there is no continuity
running from sensation to its causes: our intuitions about matter and our sensations of it
can be fundamentally mistaken, even if our reasoned cognitions are not. (For one thing,
Stoic matter is infinitely divisible, well beyond the reach of perception; for another, it is
intrinsically featureless [apoios, “unqualified”]). Ancient materialism needn’t amount to
phenomenalism or sensualism, and it displays an unexpected tolerance for the
immaterial.

Non-Reductionist Approaches to Matter


Nor were all early Greek philosophers material reductionists. In affirming the superiority
of immaterial Being (Truth) over empirical Not-Being (Appearances), the Eleatics
(Parmenides, Melissus, Zeno) rejected the apparent, material world, but were obliged to
establish it e contrario in order to abolish it. Later generations reenacted variants of
these Titanic squabbles over matter (Pl. Soph. 246a-c), but they invariably reproduced the
paradoxes of the earlier arguments. Plato’s accounts of transcendental Being are richly
imagistic and for that reason compelling; but his portraits involve illicit importations of
features from the phenomenal and sensuous world. Can the Forms even be conceived
apart from empirical reality (see Phdr. 246c–d1)? The same question can be asked of the
Neoplatonists in later antiquity, for instance Plotinus, who recognized, along with Plato,
that reality stripped of all beauty is empty, while beauty dazzles in a way analogous to
sense perception. At the very least, beauty is inconceivable apart from matter. At Enn.
1.6.3 Plotinus defines beauty as “the inner form (eidos) divided by [or “distributed
through”] the mass of external matter.” At times, the purest hypostasis of Plotinian Being
appears to be not a reduction of material reality but its utter consummation (e.g., Enn.
5.8.4.21–35).

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A question that needs to be asked of all Platonizing pictures is whether they are truly
dualistic at all. The impression they give is that the material world can be surpassed by
acceding to the immaterial world that lies above or beyond the world we inhabit. But
what they seem to wish to account for is, on the contrary, the complete immanence of
intelligible reality to the whole of reality, in which case the dualism vanishes. The same
logic of immanence may be the guiding principle of all forms of Greek and Roman
philosophy apart from the Skeptics, who refrained from opining on the nature of
experience or reality. If this is right, then the distinction between matter and the
immaterial is an inadequate one. Neither can live in the other’s absence; their differences
are tendential rather than absolute. This does not diminish the power or the attraction of
the distinction. It merely complicates it and makes it more interesting.

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Ethics and Ecology


Philosophers did not own a copyright on materialism, nor were they the sole inspiration in
ancient reflections on matter and materiality. After all, materiality, like dirt, is an essential
ingredient of everyday life: living, breathing, and sensing are part of what it is to live in a
body and to move about in the environment of the world; practical activity and practical
consciousness just are the conditions of the animal condition that is called human, while
materiality names a realm of affordances without which life would be (literally) senseless.
Only philosophers, theologians, or delusional individuals would deny this.

Materialism, when it is waved as a banner, is as much a bludgeon as a tool of explanation.


A good deal of early Greek philosophy, while posing as cosmology or metaphysics, is of an
ethical cast, and it derives its power from a reconceived view of nature and the cosmos.
The roots of modern ecology lie here. These early philosophies of nature and their later
Roman counterparts ceaselessly remind us that the universe is unthinkably immense, that
the human perspective is radically limited and partial, that our individual agency is
bounded by conditions and determinants that exceed it, and that we are material
components of a greater whole—a humiliating if ethically useful prospect.

Many of these philosophies are ready made critiques of representational structures that
reach deeply into society, culture, and religion. It’s hard to claim victory over nature or
your peers when you are being told that your body is a chance collocation of natural
elements that is pitched on the brink of eternal dissolution and recycling. As Seneca says,
“Now you will realize that we are mere bodies, insignificant and frail, fleeting, destined to
be destroyed with no great exertion” (Natural Questions 6.2.3, trans. Hine). Marcus
Aurelius completes the same thought: souls are but transient things, they come and go,
they enter into individual bodies and then “are diffused and . . . burned up when they are
taken back into the generative principle of the universe,” thereby ceding a place to souls
to come (Meditations 4.21, trans. Hard). Stoic invulnerability to nature is premised on a
radical identification with nature, and hence on a radical vulnerability at the level of the
individual. And the same can be said of most ancient philosophies of nature, which stand
out today for having bravely celebrated the materiality of the universe in all its radical
contingency. To appreciate matter in any form is inevitably to appreciate its obligatory
relationship to evanescence. Were it not doomed to decay or to vanish, whether as a
constituent or a compound, matter would be immortal and immaterial.

Art and Aesthetics


Materialist tendencies after Homer continued to flourish elsewhere, especially in art and
aesthetics, given the powerful roles that were allotted to experience and the senses in the
arts. This is what might be termed the native sensualism of Greek and Roman aesthetics.

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As Richard Gordon has pointed out, Pliny’s famous chapters on art history (NH 34–36),
the source of so much of our own, are part of a taxonomy of stones and metals—very
unlike our own. Works of art are for Pliny in fact composed of elemental stuffs, virtually in
Presocratic fashion (compare Empedocles’ analogy between nature and painters, fr. 23
DK). Much of our view of ancient aesthetics is influenced by Plato and Aristotle, and for
that reason out of touch with the ancient realities. Plato had little patience for aesthetic
objects as sources of phenomenal experiences. Aristotle struck a middle way, conceding
the relevance of aesthetic materialism despite his formalist allegiances: no tragedy, he
grudgingly acknowledged, could take place without some amount of music, dance, or
spectacle, but it was the form of the action that defined the essential character of
tragedy, not the “accidents” of performance by which it was enmattered. The poetry and
the visual art from antiquity tell a different story, however. To speak of materialism in art
is practically to utter a tautology. To deny it in favor of other factors (meaning or form) is
to ignore the fact that these other factors “matter” only to the extent that they are
materially palpable and perceptible: there is a materiality to meaning and to form, as
well.

Tools for New Approaches


Excavating the perspectives that have been crowded out since antiquity, owing to the
presumed predominance of Plato and Aristotle (who themselves consciously eclipsed
competing views), is an ambitious but not impossible task. The evidence for these is not
lacking; only the “permission” to seek it out is. Collections of materials such as are found
in Lanata, Overbeck, and Pollitt provide rich starting points, as do the countless
documents of the rhetorical traditions, which fed into and out of the adjacent traditions in
art. Epigraphic and other sources are also richly revealing. How might inherited views of
matter have influenced ancient experiences of material objects (ruins, topographies,
collections, artifacts, cult objects)? The question remains an open one, and with it a whole
area of study. Xenophanes may have paved the way with his inquiries into fossils and
geology (DK 21A33), although Homer muses about physical ruins to poetic effect too (Il.
2.811–814; Il. 23.331–332). Contemporary approaches (phenomenologies of materiality,
the new materialisms, posthumanism, ecological and environmental criticism), some of it
derived from antiquity and much of it flourishing outside of Classics, could lead the way
to a better grasp of classical materialities. Classical studies are just now catching up with
these most recent trends. New and developing work in affect, object, and thing theory in
the various sub-disciplines of classics (archaeology, literature, and philosophy) is at the
vanguard of the field’s latest turn to theory, while science studies are just now getting off
the ground there as well.

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“Underground” Materialisms
The hidden and yet to be explored continuities, rather than epochal ruptures, between
ancient and modern approaches further suggests that there is a need for a historically
oriented study of materialisms past and present, even beyond the recovery of what
Althusser called the “underground current of materialism” in Western philosophy. The
last comprehensive philosophical history of materialism was produced by Friedrich Albert
Lange in the 19th century, an influential but flawed work that improbably tried to marry
Kant with ancient materialism. Nietzsche once called for “a history of sensation.” Taking
either of these models to heart would entail a reconfiguration of the disciplines in classics
as well as a redescription of the objects of classical study themselves. Some of this work
is already underway.

The invisibility of ancient materialities has historical and, one might add, material causes.
One of these is the powerful influence of Christianity, which in its hostility to
philosophical materialism did much to suppress its influence, although on a practical level
Christian materialities flourished despite the stigmas of matter.2 A second cause, even
after the secular Enlightenment, was the proximity of classical studies and the traditions
of classicism. Classicism, at least since 18th-century Weimar, was premised on the
exclusion of matter: matter, like dirt, was always embarrassingly out of place in classical
contexts. In this tradition, statues, once unearthed, gleam brightly, clothed in the
transparency of light itself. Texts are Platonic objects, archetypes of meaning and purged
of physical contamination. Ideals, whether political, social, or ethical, defy temporal
change, being pure abstractions that are unconditioned, and undisgraced, by material
contingencies of any kind.

The Immaterialism of Classicism


The bias towards the immaterial lies at the foundation of classicism, which in its modern
form originated with Winckelmann and Wilhelm von Humboldt, but whose greatest
philosophical defense arrived only with Hegel. Classical art for Hegel was located not in a
material body, but rather in a certain luminosity, a kind of glow that irradiated and finally
abolished the object in question: this was the object’s “soul.” “Sculpture,” he writes in his
Lectures on Fine Arts (1830), is the representation of a pure form, preferably one that is
“hewn from white marble” (2:706), while its substance is that of “congealed light,” which
is a “non-material matter” (2:622). The negation of matter, light is “absolutely weightless,
not offering resistance” as matter does. On the contrary, light is “pure identity with itself
and therefore purely self-reposing, the earliest ideality, the original self of nature” (2:808;
emphasis in original). Thus, a Greek temple in the slender Ionic style a does not touch the

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ground; it “rises light and free,” its “load of heavy masses” seemingly “overcome” (2:679),
and so on.

Judgments like these were from the first attached not only to individual objects from
antiquity, but also to antiquity as a whole, with the result that the ancient world
threatened to become rarified out of existence in its entirety, a point that was genially
mocked by Kierkegaard in 1841:

The Grecian sky is high and arched, not flat and burdensome; it rises ever higher,
does not anxiously sink down; its air is light and transparent, not hazy and close.
Therefore the longings to be found here tend to become lighter and lighter, to be
concentrated in an ever more volatile sublimate, and tend not to evaporate in a
deadening lethargy . . . But this sheer abstractness that it desires becomes
ultimately the most abstract, the lightest of all—namely, nothing.

(The Concept of Irony, 66)

The logic of classical immaterialism, captured here in all its flaws, is unsustainable. The
actual allure of Classics lies in its sensible materialities, even when—and for some, most
especially when—these suggest their negation. Hegel confesses as much. Beauty, he
claims, is “the sensuous manifestation (Erscheinen) of the Idea”; it not only does but it
cannot help but “realize itself externally” (1:111). The thought recalls Plotinus as quoted
above, and it ultimately derives from Plato (e.g., Symp. 206e). The lesson is clear:
modernity inherited antiquity’s deepest ambivalences towards matter, but also an
irrepressible fascination with it—a fact that is attested elsewhere, for example in the not
so very secret romance with ancient atomism that was shared by 19th-century poets
(Blake, Shelley, Tennyson), scientists (Darwin), and philosophers (Marx, Nietzsche,
Bergson), and that has found new adherents among contemporary thinkers today, not
least among exponents of the new materialisms (Serres, Althusser, Bennett, Goldstein).
Rapprochements like these are insistent reminders that the past and the present are not
abstractions, nor are they inert. A return to matter and materiality as a generative
problem in antiquity can help guarantee that the classical past will not disappear into the
ether.

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Marx, Karl, and Norman D. Livergood. “The Difference between the Democritean and
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Notes:

(1.) Hanna Philipp, TEKTONON DAIDALA: Der bildende Künstler und sein Werk im
vorplatonischen Schrifttum (Berlin: Bruno Hessling, 1968).

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(2.) See Carolyn Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late
Medieval Europe (Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2011); Liz James, “Senses and Sensibility
in Byzantium,” Art History 27, no. 4 (2004): 523–537; Bissera Pentcheva, The Sensual Icon
(University Park: Penn State University Press, 2010); and Erwin Panofsky, Abbot Suger on
the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and its Art Treasures (2d ed.), ed. G. Panofsky-Soergel
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979).

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