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Unsettling Cosmologies

Protagoras' relativistic approach to such fundamental issues as the moral basis of the rule of law in society was not the only source of disquietude for many Athenian men concerning the new intellectual developments. Philosophers such as Anaxagoras of Clazomenae1 in Ionia and Leucippus2 of Miletus3 propounded unsettling new theories about the nature of the cosmos in response to the provocative physics of the Ionian thinkers of the sixth century B.C. Anaxagoras' general theory postulating an abstract force he called “mind4” as the organizing principle of the universe probably impressed most people as too obscure to worry about, but the details of his thought seemed to offend those who held the assumptions of traditional religion. For example, he argued that the sun was in truth nothing more than a lump of flaming rock, not a divine entity. Leucippus, whose doctrines were made famous by his pupil Democritus5 of Abdera, invented an atomic theory of matter to explain how change was possible and indeed constant. Everything, he argued, consisted of tiny, invisible particles in eternal motion. Their random collisions caused them to combine and recombine in an infinite variety of forms. This physical explanation of the source of change, like Anaxagoras' analysis of the nature of the sun, seemed to deny the validity of the entire superstructure of traditional religion, which explained events as the outcome of divine forces.

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