Materialism has a long and complex history. While it emerged organically in many parts of the world, its beginnings are generally associated with the Carvaka School of Ancient Indian Philosophy, who began studying materialism as early as 600 BCE (2600 years ago). Around 200 years later, quite a few Ancient Greek Philosophers such as Democritus, Epicurus, Thales, Lucretius, and even Aristotle also began contributing to classical ideas of Materialism.
Democritus developed the philosophical idea of atomism, which is the view that the smallest unit of physical existence is an atom, translating to “that which cannot be cut.” Epicurus built upon atomism by advocating for the idea that everything that truly exists consists of invisible and indivisible particles of free-falling matter called “atoms,” which bump into each other randomly. Scientists tend to support atomism today, as an updated version of the concept is taught in schools. Modern adaptations include the addition of protons, neutrons, and electrons.
The first documented materialist literature was written by Lucretius around 50 BCE, titled “De Rerum Natura” (“The Nature of Things”). In this poem, he recounts the philosophy of Democritus and Epicurus, agreeing that existence only consists of two things: matter and void. Anything that occurs is a result of matter in motion or different combinations of matter. This argument was used by Lucretius to explain phenomena such as wind, sound, and evaporation.5, 6 Aristotle’s famous theory of hylomorphism argues that every physical object is a combination of matter and form. If two things have the same form, it is because they come from the same “spawn.” So, for example, if two leaves look alike, they are only distinguished because they are separated into two different lumps of matter.6, 7
While materialism began to pop up in other parts of the world, such as in China and Arabia, the next major contribution would not show up for a few hundred years. This delay was due to Christianity’s condemnation of materialism, which contradicted the Christian belief in the existence of spirits. 17th Century philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Pierre Gassendi are recognized to have revived materialism, when they used material theory in opposition to French Philosopher René Descartes’ dualism.
The second most notable piece of literature in Materialism history is La Systeme de la Nature (“Systems of nature”) by French-German Philosopher Baron Paul d’Holbach. Written in 1770, the work was condemned by French King Louis XVI’s government and overshadowed by Descartes’ dualism theory, which continued to be more popular with the Christian masses. In his writing, D’Holbach argued that everything occurring in nature was the result of a chain reaction from the “flux of atomic motion.” His claims resembled that of Lucretius, as d’Holbach claimed that reality simply consisted of matter moving in space. His ideas also resemble that of Newton’s laws of motion and gravity.5, 6
Later on in 1859 and 1871 Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, respectively, which introduced his naturalistic account of the origins of biological species and structures, known today as “evolution” or “Darwinism”. Modern notions of materialism were largely strengthened by Darwin’s theory of evolution.8 Today, many believers in Darwinist evolution are materialists.6
By the end of the 19th century, philosophical materialism had returned to popularity. With the rising success of the scientific discipline, it is safe to say that the majority of scientists and philosophers today would say that they agree with some form of materialism.5