Born: c. 460 BC
Birthplace: Abdera, Thrace
Died: c. 370 BC
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Philosopher, Mathematician
Nationality: Ancient Greece
Executive summary: Early atomic theorist
Democritus, probably the greatest of the Greek physical philosophers, was a native of Abdera in Thrace, or as some say -- probably wrongly -- of Miletus. Our knowledge of his life is based almost entirely on tradition of an untrustworthy kind. He seems to have been born about 470 or 460 BC, and was, therefore, an older contemporary of Socrates. He inherited a considerable property, which enabled him to travel widely in the East in search of information. In Egypt he settled for seven years, during which he studied the mathematical and physical systems of the ancient schools. The extent to which he was influenced by the Magi and the Eastern astrologists is a matter of pure conjecture. He returned from his travels impoverished; one tradition says that he received 500 talents from his fellow citizens, and that a public funeral was decreed him. Another tradition states that he was regarded as insane by the Abderitans, and that Hippocrates was summoned to cure him. Diodorus Siculus tells us that he died at the age of ninety; others make him as much as twenty years older. His works, according to Diogenes Laėrtius, numbered seventy-two, and were characterized by a purity of style which compares favorably with that of Plato. The absurd epithet, the "laughing philosopher", applied to him by some unknown and very superficial thinker, may possibly have contributed in some measure to the fact that his importance was for centuries overlooked. It is interesting, however, to notice that Bacon (De Principiis) assigns to him his true place in the history of thought, and points out that both in his own day and later "in the times of Roman learning" he was spoken of in terms of the highest praise. In the variety of his knowledge, and in the importance of his influence on both Greek and modern speculation he was the Aristotle of the 5th century, while the sanity of his metaphysical theory has led many to regard him as the equal, if not the superior, of Plato.
His views may be treated under the following heads:
1. The Atoms and Cosmology (adopted in part at least from the doctrines of Leucippus, though the relations between the two are hopelessly obscure). While agreeing with the Eleatics as to the eternal sameness of Being (nothing can arise out of nothing; nothing can be reduced to nothing), Democritus followed the physicists in denying its oneness and immobility. Movement and plurality being necessary to explain the phenomena of the universe and impossible without space (not-Being), he asserted that the latter had an equal right with Being to be considered existent. Being is the Full (plenum); not-Being is the Void (vacuum), the infinite space in which moved the infinite number of atoms into which the single Being of the Eleatics was broken up. These atoms are eternal and invisible; absolutely small, so small that their size cannot be diminished; absolutely full and incompressible, they are without pores and entirely fill the space they occupy; homogeneous, differing only in figure (as A from N), arrangement (as AN from NA), position (as N is Z on its side), magnitude (and consequently in weight, although some authorities dispute this). But while the atoms thus differ in quantity, their differences of quality are only apparent, due to the impressions caused on our senses by different configurations and combinations of atoms. A thing is only hot or cold, sweet or bitter, hard or soft by convention; the only things that exist in reality are the atoms and the void. John Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities is here anticipated. Thus, the atoms of water and iron are the same, but those of the former, being smooth and round, and therefore unable to hook on to one another, roll over and over like small globes, whereas the atoms of iron, being rough, jagged and uneven, cling together and form a solid body. Since all phenomena are composed of the same eternal atoms (just as a tragedy and a comedy contain the same letters) it may be said that nothing comes into being or perishes in the absolute sense of the words (cf. the modern "indestructibility of matter" and "conservation of energy"), although the compounds of the atoms are liable to increase and decrease, appearance and disappearance -- in other words, to birth and death. As the atoms are eternal and uncaused, so is motion; it has its origin in a preceding motion, and so on ad infinitum. For the Love and Hate of Empedocles and the Nous (Intelligence) of Anaxagoras, Democritus substituted fixed and necessary laws (not chance; that is a misrepresentation due chiefly to Cicero). Everything can be explained by a purely mechanical (but not fortuitous) system, in which there is no room for the idea of a providence or an intelligent cause working with a view to an end. The origin of the universe was explained as follows. An infinite number of atoms was carried downwards through infinite space. The larger (and heavier), falling with greater velocity, overtook and collided with the smaller (and lighter), which were thereby forced upwards. This caused various lateral and contrary movements, resulting in a whirling movement resembling the rotation of Anaxagoras, whereby similar atoms were brought together (as in the winnowing of grain) and united to form larger bodies and worlds. Atoms and void being infinite in number and extent, and motion having always existed, there must always have been an infinite number of worlds, all consisting of similar atoms, in various stages of growth and decay.
2. The Soul. Democritus devoted considerable attention to the structure of the human body, the noblest portion of which he considered to be the soul, which everywhere pervades it, a psychic atom being intercalated between two corporeal atoms. Although, in accordance with his principles, Democritus was bound to regard the soul as material (composed of round, smooth, specially mobile atoms, identified with the fire-atoms floating in the air), he admitted a distinction between it and the body, and is even said to have looked upon it as something divine. These all-pervading soul atoms exercise different functions in different organs; the head is the seat of reason, the heart of anger, the liver of desire. Life is maintained by the inhalation of fresh atoms to replace those lost by exhalation, and when respiration, and consequently the supply of atoms, ceases, the result is death. It follows that the soul perishes with, and in the same sense as, the body.
3. Perception. Sensations are the changes produced in the soul by external impressions, and are the result of contact, since every action of one body (and all representations are corporeal phenomena) upon another is of the nature of a shock. Certain emanations or images, consisting of subtle atoms, thrown off from the surface of an object, penetrate the body through the pores. On the principle that like acts upon like, the particular senses are only affected by that which resembles them. We see by means of the eye alone, and hear by means of the ear alone, these organs being best adapted to receive the images or sound currents. The organs are thus merely conduits or passages through which the atoms pour into the soul. The eye, for example, is damp and porous, and the act of seeing consists in the reflection of the image mirrored on the smooth moist surface of the pupil. To the interposition of air is due the fact that all visual images are to some extent blurred. At the same time Democritus distinguished between obscure cognition, resting on sensation alone, and genuine, which is the result of inquiry by reason, and is concerned with atoms and void, the only real existences. This knowledge, however, he confessed was exceedingly difficult to attain.
It is in Democritus first that we find a real attempt to explain color. He regards black, red, white and green as primary. White is characteristically smooth, i.e. casting no shadow, even, flat; black is uneven, rough, shadowy and so on. The other colors result from various mixtures of these four, and are infinite in number. Color itself is not objective; it is found not in the ultimate plenum and vacuum, but only in derived objects according to their physical qualities and relations.
4. Theology. The system of Democritus was altogether anti-theistic. But, although he rejected the notion of a deity taking part in the creation or government of the universe, he yielded to popular prejudice so far as to admit the existence of a class of beings, of the same form as men, grander, composed of very subtle atoms, less liable to dissolution, but still mortal, dwelling in the upper regions of air. These beings also manifested themselves to man by means of images in dreams, communicated with him, and sometimes gave him an insight into the future. Some of them were benevolent, others malignant. According to Plutarch, Democritus recognized one god under the form of a fiery sphere, the soul of the world, but this idea is probably of later origin. The popular belief in gods was attributed by Democritus to the desire to explain extraordinary phenomena (thunder, lightning, earthquakes) by reference to superhuman agency.
5. Ethics. Democritus's moral system -- the first collection of ethical precepts which deserves the name -- strongly resembles the negative side of the system of Epicurus. The summum bonum is the maximum of pleasure with the minimum of pain. But true pleasure is not sensual enjoyment; it has its principle in the soul. It consists not in the possession of wealth or flocks and herds, but in good humor, in the just disposition and constant tranquillity of the soul. Hence the necessity of avoiding extremes; too much and too little are alike evils. True happiness consists in taking advantage of what one has and being content with it.
Lunar Crater Democritus (62.3N, 35.0E, 35km dia, 1950m height)
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