Democritus Biography

Biography (Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

0111205849-Democritus.jpgDemocritus (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Life

Democritus (dih-MAHK-riht-uhs) was born to a wealthy family in the city of Abdera on the Greek mainland. He is believed to have traveled widely in Egypt and Asia Minor. He was a disciple of Leucippus, who is believed to have proposed the atomic hypothesis between 440 and 430 b.c.e., but about whom little is known. Democritus was a prolific author, writing more than seventy works on a wide range of subjects, including ethics, music, astronomy, and mathematics. He is thought by some to have reached the age of one hundred.

Influence

Democritus elaborated the atomic theory as formulated by Leucippus. His atoms were of several different kinds and were both indestructible and indivisible. The atoms had definite shapes and properties.

Because the world consisted of only atoms and empty space, there was no room for the gods or survival of the individual after death. Democritus’s atomic theory was adopted by Epicurus and his disciples. Much later, its materialism made it unacceptable to the authorities of the Catholic Church, who found Aristotle’s metaphysics of form and (infinitely divisible) substance more compatible with Catholic theology. Scientific acceptance of the atomic hypothesis would not come until the eighteenth century.

Further Reading:

Bailey, Cyril. The Greek Atomists and Epicurus. 1928. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964. Contains a thorough historical account of the origins of Greek atomism, the contributions and elaborations that derive specifically from Democritus, and the further adaptation of the...

(The entire section is 667 words.)

Democritus Biography (Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Democritus} Democritus worked out a far-reaching atomism, which he applied to science, metaphysics, and ethics. His view that the world is made up of changing combinations of unchanging atoms was addressed to one of the central questions of his age, how change was possible, and provided a model of reasoning that was mechanistic, materialist, and nonsupernatural.

Early Life

Democritus (dih-MAHK-ruht-uhs) was born, probably to wealthy parents, in the city of Abdera, Thrace. Although Leucippus, the philosopher who became his teacher, can properly be regarded as the founder of Greek atomism, Leucippus himself wrote very little, and very little is known about him. Democritus, however, was a prolific writer who developed a well-reasoned atomistic view and applied it to a wide variety of fields, including science, metaphysics, and ethics.

As a young man, Democritus traveled to Egypt, Persia, and Babylonia. Some ancient sources hold that he went as far south as Ethiopia and as far east as India, but modern scholars consider this doubtful. It is reported that Democritus boasted that he had visited more foreign lands and carried out more extensive inquiries and investigations than anyone else of his time. He traveled both for the “broadening” experience that falls to any inquisitive traveler and in order to receive instruction from those who were considered wise in many lands. When he returned to Greek soil, he himself earned a reputation for wisdom. He carried with him an aura of the exotic, having delved into cultures that the Greeks thought of as exotic and foreign: the cultures of Egypt, Persia, and Babylonia.

In character, Democritus is reported to have been a man of serenity, strength, and cheerfulness. The ancient Romans referred to him as “the laughing philosopher,” alluding, perhaps, to his attitude toward the typically human fault of taking oneself too seriously. As a thinker and writer, he addressed the most pressing philosophical and intellectual issues of the age in his works, which numbered at least fifty. Unfortunately, his texts have survived only in fragmentary form.

Life’s Work

During the years following his travels, when Democritus began to develop his philosophical system, the Greek intellectual world was occupied with grave difficulties arising from the philosophy of Parmenides of Elea and his followers, the Eleatics. Parmenides was a practitioner of strict deductive logic. Taking premises that he thought would be generally acceptable, he argued logically to necessary conclusions. Many people admired his strong reliance on reason and thought; nevertheless, Parmenides arrived at conclusions that were deeply problematic. He concluded that there is no such thing as change and that no more than one thing exists. This clearly conflicts with common experience, which seems to show constant change and plurality. Still, Parmenides held fast to logic and reasoning as sources of knowledge that are more reliable than sense experience. If reason rules out change and plurality, he thought, then change and plurality do not exist.

The basis of his argument—an argument with which Democritus and Leucippus had no choice but to grapple—is the idea that reason either apprehends something or it apprehends nothing. If it apprehends nothing, then it is not reason (that is, not an apprehending) after all. Thus, reason apprehends what exists, not nothing. Now if things came into existence or passed out of existence, or if things changed their qualities over time, then reason would have to think of the things or qualities as not existing at some time (that is, before coming into existence or after passing out of existence). Reason would then, however, be apprehending nothing—and this, it was said, cannot occur. Similarly, if more than one thing existed, and there was empty space between the things, reason would again have to apprehend nothing. The conclusion is that only one thing exists, and this one thing is eternal, never coming into existence, never passing out of existence, and never changing. This one thing Parmenides called “the One.”

One of the great achievements of Democritus and the atomists lies in overcoming this argument—an argument that probably seemed much more convincing to the ancient Greeks than to modern thinkers—while retaining some of its logical points and, at the same time, acknowledging the reality of change, plurality, and other commonsense ideas that Parmenides apparently denied.

It is a fundamental principle of Democritean atomism that “nothing exists but the atoms and the void.” The atoms (literally, in Greek, “the indivisibles” or “the uncuttables”) are the smallest units of matter, the smallest pieces of being, which cannot be further divided. The void, considered nonbeing, is thought to be just as real as the atoms. It was very important for Democritus that both exist: being and nonbeing, the atoms and the void. In a sense, the atoms are individually much like the One of Parmenides. They do not come into existence or pass out of existence, and they do not change (internally). Nevertheless, the void—a necessary feature of atomism—makes it possible for the atoms to combine and separate and recombine in changing arrangements.

As Democritus envisioned them, atoms differ from one another only in shape, size, and position. Qualities such as color and flavor were said to arise from the particular arrangements of (inherently colorless and flavorless) atoms and their interaction with the senses of the observer.

Atoms are constantly in motion, according to Democritus’s theory, and they do not require any force or intelligence to put them into motion. Surrounded by the void, they are not held in any one position but move quite freely. Atoms crash into one another, become entangled with one another, and sometimes establish regular motions or streams of motion. There is no limit to the void or to the...

(The entire section is 2471 words.)

Democritus Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

0111205849-Democritus.jpgDemocritus (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Democritus worked out a far-reaching atomism, which he applied to science, metaphysics, and ethics. His view that the world is made up of changing combinations of unchanging atoms addressed one of the central questions of his age—How is change possible?—and provided a model of reasoning that was mechanistic, materialist, and nonsupernatural.

Early Life

Democritus was born, probably to wealthy parents, in the city of Abdera, Thrace. Although Leucippus, the philosopher who became his teacher, can properly be regarded as the founder of Greek atomism, Leucippus himself wrote very little, and very little is known about him. Democritus, however, was a prolific writer...

(The entire section is 2464 words.)

Democritus Biography (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

Democritus traveled widely and studied mathematics in Egypt. He is reported to have written seventy-two works, only fragments of which remain. In developing the philosophy of atomism originated Leucippus of Miletus, Democritus reduced all reality to individual particles of matter that could be “cut” no smaller. These immutable “atoms” move in an infinite void, eternally coagulating to form and re-form worlds. Democritus also developed a theory of perception based on the interaction of atoms.

As a physical philosophy Democritus’ atomism can be viewed as a precursor to the law of the conservation of matter in modern chemistry and atomic physics. However, attempts to explain...

(The entire section is 675 words.)