Democritus Biography


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

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


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.


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.)