Why is the Latin phrase: horror vacui commonly interpreted as: nature abhors a vacuum?

It may well be Aristotle's intended message, given the context, but it seems like a bit of a jump. Doesn't it? I'm sure I must be wrong; Aristotle was famously well spoken and well educated, and modern academics and well educated people seem to accept this translation/interpretation. I just can't see how or why, so I invite you to correct me.

In case the reasons for my confusion aren't obvious; trying to reconcile it, my inner monologue went something like this:

  1. It's just two words: horror (fear?) & void (vacuum?).
    • fear void / horror void?
    • fear vacuum / horror vacuum?
    • maybe you could even stretch it as far as fear of emptiness, fear of open space, fear the void, fear nothing, fear is empty, fear is a vacuum, the vacuum of fear, horrors of the void, or something like that.
  2. There's no mention of nature, natura, naturae, etc.
  3. Why horror? Wouldn't timor or metu be more appropriate when talking about fears or phobias?
  4. Why vacui? Isn't vacuum a Latin noun already?
  5. Wouldn't it be more along the lines of something like:
    • naturae abhorreos vacui, or
    • natura abhorret vacuum?
  • 2
    You say it's "commonly interpreted", but I can't recall ever seeing such an interpretation. Can you mention examples, preferably notable ones, that do interpret it so?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 21, 2019 at 23:29
  • 2
    Um, you do realize that Aristotle wrote in Greek, not Latin, don't you?
    – cnread
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 0:31
  • @JoonasIlmavirta Like.. all of them. It's well known postulate of physics, philosophy, and even facetiously in the visual arts. I linked another question which mentions it, but I'll find you some journal articles or something more substantial, bear with me.
    – voices
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 0:44
  • @tjt263 Both "nature abhors a vacuum" and "horror vacui" are a thing and I have seen both several times, but I have never seen them connected. Although they both have a "vacuum" in them, they seem disconnected to me. Now it seems as if you drew this connections yourself, so I would like to know whether the connection is well established.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 0:57
  • Is there any evidence that Aristotle said Η φύση απεχθάνεται το κενό;
    – Hugh
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 1:00

1 Answer 1


Horror vacuī literally means "the fear of the void"; the ending is "genitive case", and is usually translated as "of" in English. It was originally a term used in art criticism: some artists dislike leaving any space empty, and want to fill every inch of the canvas with some sort of detail.

Aristotle never actually said "nature abhors a vacuum" (or its Greek equivalent); his Physica IV.8 goes into detail on why vacuums are impossible in his theory, but he never summarized the results into a single sentence like that.

The common modern phrasing comes from Rabelais in the sixteenth century; he summarized Aristotle's idea as natura abhorret vacuum. This was translated extremely literally to give the English "nature abhors a vacuum"; other writers co-opted the art term in order to have a convenient noun phrase for their idea.

The idea was never universally accepted (e.g. Lucretius argued against it), and it was pretty much disproven in 1643, when Torricelli created a vacuum in the process of inventing the barometer. But prominent scientists continued to take Aristotle's side up until the mid-1800s, including René Descartes and James Clerk Maxwell (as in Maxwell's Equations).

  • Based on this, do you see a connection between fear of the void and nature abhorring a vacuum? The question asks about the connection, while you seem to discuss the two separately. This is a good answer (+1!), but it could use a clearer conclusion.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 1:42
  • @JoonasIlmavirta Added a bit; how's that?
    – Draconis
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 1:44
  • The way I interpret it now, the two phrases were originally from different contexts but can now be used to refer to the same idea although the literal meanings are different. Is this what you intended?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 2:31
  • @JoonasIlmavirta Yep! That's my understanding of the history.
    – Draconis
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 2:54

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