, Volume 21, Issue 3, pp 699-704
Date: 01 Dec 2011

Rethinking the meaning of mechanism in antiquity

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Scholarship on the natural philosophy of antiquity has been dominated by a contrast of teleology and mechanism. Aristotle, reacting against Plato’s otherworldliness in ontology, defines an elegant teleological approach to nature according to which nature is an internal principle of motion in natural things (ta physika). The destination (telos) of a natural change is one of its causes. The alternative to natural teleology, mechanism, has been harder to define in the ancient period, but it is usually associated with the philosophy of the atomists and, more rarely, with some aspect of ancient mechanical practice, like the labor-saving aspect of simple machines or what we might call stored energy.

In the first part of her book, The Mechanical Hypothesis in Ancient Greek Natural Philosophy, Sylvia Berryman offers an insightful analysis of the limitations of this interpretive opposition. She makes clear what most students of ancient natural philosophy have noticed at some time, namely, that t