Democritus c. 460 b.c.-c. 370 b.c.
Democritus is best known for the atomic or atomistic theory he co-developed with his teacher, Leucippus. Although a contemporary of Socrates, Democritus is considered among the last of the pre-Socratics. It is generally believed that Leucippus contributed more to atomism's founding than Democritus, but that Democritus was more responsible for the theory's refinement. Although their work was based on the earlier theories of the Milesians, the two made notable advancements, particularly in their explanation of density. The atomic theory is mechanistic: it holds that all matter is composed of an infinite number of indivisible and indestructible atoms of various shapes moving about in an infinite void, in an infinite universe, always and forever colliding with each other, and sometimes joining to form combinations. Nothing happens by chance, nor on purpose, and all can be explained in terms of mechanical principles, one thing causing another. Democritus's philosophy, including his belief that the soul itself is composed of atoms, angered some philosophers including Plato—who pointedly did not mention him— and Aristotle, who, in his writings, criticized Democritus and his theory. Most of the few hundred fragments that remain of Democritus's writings deal with ethics rather than atomism. His ethics stress moderation and the practice of that which is beneficial to society. Democritus also asserted that man's belief in divinities is due to his ignorance about nature, and his emphasis on cheerfulness as the goal for all individuals led to his nickname, the Laughing Philosopher.
Democritus was born on the northern shore of the Aegean Sea in Abdera, a city of ancient Thrace which was also home to the Sophist Protagoras. Little else is known about his life, except that he traveled on one occasion to talk with Anaxagoras, the leading scientist of Athens, but was rebuffed. It is believed that Democritus was fairly wealthy and that he traveled extensively in the East—to Egypt, Babylon, India, and Persia. He lived a long life, probably ninety years or more.
Democritus is said to have written many books (seventy, according to Diogenes Laertius), including one entitled Little Cosmology as a nod to Leucippus's Great Cosmology. The ancients report he was fascinated by all subjects, and wrote on music and on all aspects of science, including biology and astronomy. Only fragments of his work survive, however, and most of these are concerned with ethics. In these terse fragments, Democritus discusses laws and his belief that individuals will obey them because it is in their collective self-interest to do so. He explains the importance of maintaining a balance between too much and too little material wealth, and also promotes altruism.
Democritus's ideas failed to please those who attempted to explain the nature of things by looking at their function, as well as those who tried to explain the world in terms of a divine power. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all disagreed with him. In modern times he is credited with starting on the correct path: without modern scientific tools, Democritus could do little more than practice atomism as a philosophy. Robert L. Oldershaw points out, though, that “he had a remarkably modern understanding of concepts like the conservation of mass/energy, the indirect nature of perception, the continual formation of and destruction of physical systems, the reality of empty space, the basic theory of colours and the fundamental principles of causality and determinism.” Most scholars have acknowledged the impossibility of determining exactly where Leucippus's ideas end and Democritus's begin, but they continue to debate whether or not Democritus authored the ethical fragments often attributed to him. One group believes he was not the author since there is little similarity between the atomic theory writings and the ethical fragments, and further, they question why so many of these fairly unremarkable ethical pieces exist. The opposition maintains that Democritus was responsible for both sets of writings; that they lack similarity because they are concerned with vastly different topics; that they nonetheless do contain some similar elements; and that the Cynics may have preserved the ethical fragments, which would explain why so many of them are extant. Some scholars concentrate on Democritus's political theory, so far as it can be deduced. Eric A. Havelock investigates Democritus's views on laws intended to promote good behavior in society, while Michael Nill studies Democritus's views governing higher and lower forms of pleasure and their function in a well-run community. Jonathan Barnes explores the dilemma the atomists faced concerning belief and the imprecise nature of knowledge. There is disagreement on exactly what Democritus meant in certain instances—understandable given the dearth of surviving texts. Richard D. McKirahan takes a close look at the extant fragments of Democritus and places them alongside the work of contemporaneous and near-contemporaneous commentators in an attempt not only to explain atomism but to explain what the ancients thought it meant. C. C. W. Taylor contributes a similar effort in his study of Democritus's theological writings.
∗Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (prose) 1952
Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the Fragments in Diels, “Fragmente der Vorsokratiker” (translated by Kathleen Freeman) 1957
The Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus (translated by C. C. W. Taylor) 1999
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SOURCE: “The Political Theory of Democritus,” in The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics, 1957. Yale University Press, 1964, pp. 125-54.
[In the following excerpt, Havelock examines Democritus's political statements and concludes that he was satisfied to leave some problems unsolved.]
The political theory of Democritus has been preserved by antiquity in the form of some twenty-three aphorisms, or programmatic statements, attributed to his name. These are contained in a large ‘chrestomathy’ or anthology of useful statements compiled perhaps in the early fifth century of our era by John of Stobi [4.1 On Polity; 4.2 On Laws; 4.5 On Government]. The reader whose conception of Greek philosophy follows traditional lines will, when he looks at this allegedly Democritean material, be tempted to say to himself: ‘Democritus was famous in antiquity for a materialist metaphysic. He taught the doctrine of a mechanical universe in which infinite atoms moving through infinite space perpetually collided to form combinations essentially fortuitous. Whatever be the precise meaning of these statements about man in society, their doctrine must derive from the general theory of his system. Let us, therefore, in attempting to interpret the political theory of Democritus, first assume that it depends on his atomic principles and reflects the same mechanism and determinism.’
But when we consider the...
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SOURCE: “Democritus and the Atomic Theory: Materialism,” in The Philosophers of Greece, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1964, pp. 78-92.
[In the following excerpt, Brumbaugh summarizes Democritus's atomist philosophy, considers some criticisms of it, and relates it to the development of Greek mechanical devices.]
There is no chance, but all is from necessity.
Nothing exists but atoms and the void.
Applying the logic developed in the Eleatic school by Parmenides and Zeno to the ideas of matter that had been formulated by the Milesians, Leucippus and Democritus produced a new philosophy—materialism. Their thesis was that all reality consists of hard indivisible particles, moving and colliding in empty space. This was the first philosophical or scientific statement of the atomic theory. But in this Greek form, the theory is somewhat different from later versions. And it is important not to confuse it with later philosophical ideas or with the theories of twentieth-century atomic physics.
When Democritus of Abdera was a young man, he journeyed to Athens, hoping to talk with Anaxagoras, the leading scientist and philosopher of the circle of artists and intelligentsia that Pericles, the Athenian statesman, had gathered...
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SOURCE: “Cosmology from Parmenides to Democritus,” in The Presocratics, Duckworth, 1972, pp. 127-48.
[In the following excerpt, Hussey summarizes the atomistic theory and explains in what ways it was revolutionary.]
THE ATOMISTS: LEUCIPPUS AND DEMOCRITUS
Of the life of Leucippus we know next to nothing, and there is little trustworthy information about that of Democritus. Both were citizens of Abdera, a small city on the northern shores of the Aegean, which like Elea had been founded by refugees from old Ionia. Democritus was perhaps the younger and, born like Socrates around 470, he lived on well into the fourth century.
Leucippus and Democritus were responsible for the Atomistic theory. Even though they were contemporaries of Socrates, their speculations are traditionally and reasonably grouped under the heading ‘Presocratic’, for the Atomistic theory is the last and greatest original effort in that kind of physical speculation which originated with the Milesians. The respective shares of Leucippus and Democritus in its creation cannot be certainly defined, but it seems likely that the leading ideas of the theory were due to Leucippus, and that Democritus, a more prolific and many-sided but less original thinker, worked out the applications in greater detail. There are a few inessential points on which the opinions of the two are said to have differed,...
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SOURCE: “The Bounds of Knowledge,” in The Presocratic Philosophers: Volume 2: Empedocles to Democritus, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979, pp. 234-62.
[In the following excerpt, Barnes discusses Democritus's skepticism regarding humankind's ability to know anything with certainty.]
Metrodorus of Chios, a pupil of Democritus (e.g., Clement, 70 A 1) who held solidly to the main tenets of atomism (e.g., Theophrastus, A 3), purveys an extreme scepticism which foreshadows, in its ingenious comprehensiveness, the most extravagant claims of Pyrrho: at the beginning of his book Concerning Nature Metrodorus said:
None of us knows anything, not even that very fact whether we know or do not know; nor do we know what not to know and to know are, nor, in general, whether anything is or is not.
(505: B 1)1
Of Metrodorus' book little else survives and nothing tells us what his scepticism rested upon, or why he wrote Concerning Nature at all. His scepticism, however, like his atomism, was inherited. For according to Democritus,
In reality (eteêi) we know nothing; for truth is in a pit.
(506: 68 B 117)
Our main source for Democritus' scepticism is Sextus; and I...
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SOURCE: “Democritus and the Origins of Moral Psychology,” in American Journal of Philology, Vol. 106, No. 1, 1985, pp. 1-31.
[In the following essay, Kahn explores Democritus's texts as a source for moral psychology and ethics in the time of Socrates.]
The fragments of Democritus constitute the most important body of material for the history of philosophical ethics and psychology before the dialogues of Plato. This fact has not received the attention it deserves, largely because interest in Democritus has focused on his physical doctrines. The physical theory is known to us from Aristotle and the doxography, but the fragments themselves speak primarily about matters of conduct, moral psychology, and the conditions of happiness. Now of pre-Platonic philosophers whose written work has reached us, only Heraclitus and Democritus deal with such themes. We have every reason to believe that Socrates did so too, but there is no pre-Platonic documentation for his views. Of course, we also have ethical and psychological comments in the works of fifth century orators, poets, and historians and in the occasional words of a sophist such as Antiphon arguing that justice is not advantageous. But before the dialogues of Plato, the only substantial texts dealing with ethics and psychology from a speculative or philosophical point of view, and hence the oldest documents in the history of moral philosophy properly...
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SOURCE: “Democritus,” in Morality and Self-Interest in Protagoras, Antiphon and Democritus, E. J. Brill, 1985, pp. 75-91.
[In the following excerpt, Nill examines Democritus's moral theory, particularly concerning pleasure and the ability of an individual to attain an ideal state.]
Democritus (c. 460-396 b.c.) was a younger contemporary of Protagoras; both were born in Abdera.1 Although he had encyclopedic interests and was the author of many works, the 298 fragments ascribed to him in Diels-Kranz are at most all that has survived of his writings.2 Almost all of these fragments concern ethical matters. But despite this, Democritus has generally not been known for his moral theory. He has always, and rightly, been considered an important figure in the history of natural philosophy for his theory of atomism.
Commentators on the ethical fragments have often found them to be of little or no philosophical importance3 and have sometimes questioned their authenticity. The issue of whether these fragments are authentic is not important in the context of the present study, which is only interested in these fragments insofar as they represent the views of an early Greek moral theorist concerned with the issue of the compatibility of self-interest and morality. Thus, it would make little difference here whether the fragments be attributed to Democritus or one...
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SOURCE: “Democritus and the Impossibility of Collision,” in Philosophy, Vol. 65, No. 252, April, 1990, pp. 212-17.
[In the following essay, Godfrey explains a modern argument concerning the mathematical indivisibility of atoms and compares it to Greek thought on the subject.]
The Abderite philosophers Leucippus and Democritus sought to solve many of the problems facing Greek thought in the fifth century b.c. by taking all things to be made up of atoms of matter moving in a void. One of the major controversies surrounding their work is whether their atomism was logical or merely physical. Did they consider their atoms to be mathematically indivisible?
An important cause of difficulty here is that Democritus seems to have been fully involved in the mathematics of his day1 and to have been aware of the discussion of infinite divisibility and points with no magnitude, found, for example, in the paradoxes of Zeno.2 It seems unlikely that such a man would cheerfully hold that his atoms could have shape without having parts and without having magnitude. The different shapes of atoms was a major part of his physical theory, which makes it difficult to see how he could have held that they were partless and thus mathematically indivisible.
On the face of it, the Abderites would have done more towards solving the logical problems of the day if the...
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SOURCE: “Remarkable Ingratitude: Bacon, Prometheus, Democritus,” in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 32, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 79-90.
[In the following essay, Barbour explores the influence of Democritus on Francis Bacon's essay on Prometheus.]
Despite Robert Kargon's argument that Bacon abandoned atomism, the seventeenth-century reformer never got Epicureanism off his mind.1 More carefully than any of his contemporaries, Bacon explored the relations between the atomism, hedonism, and theology of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, which appear in a wide arrange of contexts and with an array of values in Bacon's works. At times Bacon praises the sect for their close observations of nature, or for their refusal of Aristotle; but he also scolds them for their anthropomorphisms or for their dogmatism. They succeed, Bacon believes, in looking beyond the formal bogeys of Plato and Aristotle into the particles and motions of nature, but err in idolizing the private blessings of their masters. Unlike his contemporaries, Bacon was capable of culling out the various strands of the philosophy; and though he sometimes confused the three major atomists, the reformer of science privileged Democritus as the father unspoiled by the prodigal errors of his Epicureanized sons.2 But no matter what his preferences, the Greek philosophy of atomism and pleasure forced Bacon to...
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SOURCE: “Fifth-Century Atomism: Leucippus and Democritus,” in Philosophy before Socrates: An Introduction with Texts and Commentary, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994, pp. 303-43.
[In the following excerpt, McKirahan explicates passages concerning atomic theory by Democritus and ancient Greek commentators.]
The third and most ambitious response to the Eleatic challenge was the atomic theory, invented by Leucippus and developed by Democritus. Leucippus is a shadowy character1 who we are told was from (a) Miletus, (b) Elea, and (c) Abdera2, though these claims could simply reflect the facts that (a) his philosophy was strongly of the Ionian type, (b) he was keenly aware of the Eleatic challenge, and (c) his pupil Democritus was from Abdera. Of his dates we are equally in the dark. Democritus, born c. 460, was his student. It is likely that Leucippus proposed the atomic theory in the decade 440-430. He wrote works called The Great World System and On Mind.
Democritus' birthdate is inferred from his own statement3 that he was young in the old age of Anaxagoras (born c. 500). Diogenes Laertius reports that Anaxagoras was forty years older than Democritus.4 Since this makes Democritus ten years younger than Socrates, the title “Presocratic” is not quite correct. He lived to a ripe old age (perhaps over 100), therefore well...
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SOURCE: “Did Democritus Ascribe Weight to Atoms?” in Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 75, No. 3, September, 1997, pp 279-87.
[In the following essay, Chalmers attempts to eliminate contradictions concerning the weight of atoms in Democritus's theory by making fine distinctions in particular definitions.]
The problems concerning the question of whether or not Democritus ascribed weight to atoms are twofold. First, if we take their words at face value, it would appear that the ancient Greek commentators on Democritus disagreed on the matter. Aristotle and his pupil Theophrastus both made statements that can readily be taken as attributing weight or heaviness to Democritean atoms, as did Simplicius, who had access to a work by Aristotle on Democritus which is now lost. Aetius, by contrast, claimed the contrary. Second, modern commentators are in disagreement concerning how this difficulty is to be resolved.
Kirk, Raven and Schofield [9, p. 141] have identified and translated the key passages from the Greek commentators. According to Aristotle, Democritus claimed that ‘each of the indivisibles is heavier in proportion to its excess’. The remark of Theophrastus that ‘Democritus distinguishes heavy and light by size’ can be taken as claiming the same thing, whilst the claim of Simplicius that ‘Democritus’ school thinks that...
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SOURCE: “Democritus—Scientific Wizard of the 5th Century b.c.,” in Speculations in Science and Technology, Vol. 21, No. 1, March, 1998, pp. 37-44.
[In the following essay, Oldershaw explains the methodology that enabled Democritus to achieve extraordinary results considering the unavailability of all but the most rudimentary form of mathematics.]
LAUGHTER IN THE GARDEN
An elderly man sat in a beautiful garden on the outskirts of Abdera, Greece, staring fixedly at various parts of his natural surroundings. He often chuckled to himself and occasionally burst out laughing to the heavens. At first his neighbours just winked at each other and smiled, but as this odd behaviour persisted they became concerned for the old man's well-being. Eventually the authorities were summoned and the man in the garden was politely questioned about his eccentricities. The report of the investigation concluded that the man had some very strange ideas, including more than a few heretical ones. However, he was judged to be friendly, remarkably sharp in debate, and no threat to himself or his neighbours. Little did they know that he would one day be regarded as one of the greatest intellects of ancient Greece.
The man in the garden was Democritus, the “laughing philosopher” of Abdera, whose life encompassed roughly 458 to 368 bc. He led a small school of natural...
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SOURCE: “Ode to a Grecian Atomist,” in The Humanist, Vol. 59, No. 1, January-February, 1999, pp. 34-35.
[In the following essay, Hall answers moral arguments against modern science that parallel objections made against atomism in the time of Democritus.]
The ancient Greek atomism of Democritis and Leucippus was an attempt to reconcile observations of the physical world with the existing philosophical wisdom concerning change in the world. Although the methods of reasoning they used were not those of the modern scientific method, it is remarkable how close many of the properties of their atoms come to matching those of the atoms of modern science. At the very least, it seems from a modern viewpoint that atomism should have prevailed, if only as a good working hypothesis. Why was it so thoroughly rejected?
One of the most telling arguments used against the claims of the ancient Greek atomists is almost identical to that leveled against materialist, reductive science, and naturalism today: if the world is only atoms and the void, then why tell the truth and why fight for Athens? If there is no component of divine intention to be found in an atomist understanding of physical change, then how can there be any morality?
The answer to this “moral argument” against a godless scientific understanding of the universe has always been clear, but today it is seldom given...
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SOURCE: “Commentary,” in The Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus, University of Toronto Press, 1999, pp. 157-234.
[In the following excerpt, Taylor examines Democritus's ideas on the gods and religion.]
Democritus' theology is naturalistic, in its accounts both of the nature of the gods and of the origins and grounds of belief in their existence. Despite obscurity over some details (see below), it is clear that he believed that there are gods, which are living, intelligent, material beings (of a peculiar sort), playing a significant role in human affairs. They are atomic compounds, and like all such compounds they come to be and perish. They did not, of course, create the physical world (of which they are part), nor, though they are intelligent, do they organize or control it. (For discussion of the atomists' denial of providence, see above on Chance and Necessity.) They are as firmly part of the natural order as any other living beings.
What kind of beings, then, are they? The answer to this question connects with the discussion of the previous section, since there is clear evidence that Democritus believed the gods to be living eidōla, probably of gigantic size, possessing intelligence, moral character, and interest in human affairs.1 Diogenes of Oenoanda (211) criticizes this theory from an Epicurean standpoint; perception,...
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Ganson, Todd Stuart. “Democritus against Reducing Sensible Qualities.” Ancient Philosophy 19, No.1 (1999): 201-15.
Examines Democritus's views regarding sensory awareness and contends that they are not those of a reductionist.
Hahm, David E. “Chrysippus' Solution to the Democritean Dilemma of the Cone.” Isis 63, No. 217 (June 1972): 205-20.
Explains how Chrysippus solved a problem posed by Democritus by reformulating it.
McGibbon, Donald. “Pleasure as the ‘Criterion’ in Democritus.” Phronesis 5, No. 2 (1960): 75-77.
Attempts to demonstrate that two statements made by Democritus concerning pleasure are not in conflict with each other.
O'Keefe, Timothy. “The Ontological Status of Sensible Qualities for Democritus and Epicurus.” Ancient Philosophy 17, No. 1 (Spring 1997): 119-34.
Investigates the reasons for Democritus's skepticism and explains how Epicurus modified and improved Democritus's ontology.
Procopé, J. F. “Democritus on Politics and the Care of the Soul.” Classical Quarterly 39, No. 2 (July-December 1989): 307-31.
Examines Democritus's views on government, democracy, the public good, and justice.
Ring, Merrill. “Redoing Science.” In...
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