Democritus: Wikis


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Full name Democritus
Born ca. 460 BC
Abdera, Thrace
Died ca. 370 BC (Aged 90)
Era Pre-Socratic philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Pre-Socratic philosophy
Main interests metaphysics / mathematics / astronomy
Notable ideas distant star theory

Democritus (Greek: Δημόκριτος, Dēmokritos, "chosen of the people") (ca. 460 BCE – ca. 370 BC) was an Ancient Greek philosopher born in Abdera, Thrace, Greece.[1] He was an influential pre-Socratic philosopher and pupil of Leucippus, who formulated an atomic theory for the cosmos.[2] Democritus was also known for being the first person for putting his ideas about atoms.

His exact contributions are difficult to disentangle from his mentor Leucippus, as they are often mentioned together in texts. Their speculation on atoms, taken from Leucippus, bears a passing and partial resemblance to the nineteenth-century understanding of atomic structure that has led some to regard Democritus as more of a scientist than other Greek philosophers; nevertheless their ideas rested on very different bases.[3] Largely ignored in Athens, Democritus was nevertheless well-known to his fellow northern-born philosopher Aristotle. Plato is said to have disliked him so much that he wished all his books burnt.[1] Many consider Democritus to be the "father of modern science".[4]



Democritus was born in the city of Abdera in Thrace, an Ionian colony of Teos,[5] although some called him a Milesian.[6] His year of birth was 460 BC according to Apollodorus, who is probably more reliable than Thrasyllus who placed it ten years earlier.[7] John Burnet has argued that the date of 460 is "too early", since according to Diogenes Laërtius ix.41, Democritus said that he was a "young man (neos)" during Anaxagoras' old age (circa 440–428).[8] It was said that Democritus' father was so wealthy that he received Xerxes on his march through Abdera. Democritus spent the inheritancewhich his father left him on travels into distant countries, to satisfy his thirst for knowledge. He travelled to Asia, and was even said to have reached India and Ethiopia.[9] We know that he wrote on Babylon and Meroe; he must also have visited Egypt, and Diodorus Siculus states that he lived there for five years.[10] He himself declared[11] that among his contemporaries none had made greater journeys, seen more countries, and met more scholars than himself. He particularly mentions the Egyptian mathematicians, whose knowledge he praises. Theophrastus, too, spoke of him as a man who had seen many countries.[12] During his travels, according to Diogenes Laërtius, he became acquainted with the Chaldean magi. A certain "Ostanes", one of the magi accompanying Xerxes was also said to have taught him.[13]

After returning to his native land he occupied himself with natural philosophy. He traveled throughout Greece to acquire a knowledge of its culture. He mentions many Greek philosophers in his writings, and his wealth enabled him to purchase their writings. Leucippus, the founder of the atomism, was the greatest influence upon him. He also praises Anaxagoras.[14] Diogenes Laertius says that he was friends with Hippocrates.[15] He may have been acquainted with Socrates, but Plato does not mention him and Democritus himself is quoted as saying, "I came to Athens and no one knew me."[16]. Though Aristotle viewed him as a pre-Socratic[17], it should be noticed that since Socrates was born ca. 469 BC (about 9 years before Democritus), it is very possible that Aristotle's remark was not meant to be a chronological one, but directed towards his philosophical similarity with other pre-Socratic thinkers.

The many anecdotes about Democritus, especially in Diogenes Laërtius, attest to his disinterestedness, modesty, and simplicity, and show that he lived exclusively for his studies. One story has him deliberately blinding himself in order to be less disturbed in his pursuits;[18] it may well be true that he lost his sight in old age. He was cheerful, and was always ready to see the comical side of life, which later writers took to mean that he always laughed at the foolishness of people.[19]

He was highly esteemed by his fellow-citizens, "because," as Diogenes Laërtius says, "he had foretold them some things which events proved to be true," which may refer to his knowledge of natural phenomena. According to Diodorus Siculus,[20] Democritus died at the age of 90, which would put his death around 370 BC, but other writers have him living to 104,[21] or even 109.[22]

Popularly known as the Laughing Philosopher, the terms Abderitan laughter, which means scoffing, incessant laughter, and Abderite, which means a scoffer, are derived from Democritus.[23]

Philosophy and science

Democritus followed in the tradition of Leucippus, who seems to have come from Miletus, and he carried on the scientific rationalist philosophy associated with that city. They were both strict determinists and thorough materialists, believing everything to be the result of natural laws, and they will have nothing to do with chance or randomness. Unlike Aristotle or Plato, the atomists attempted to explain the world without the presuppositions of purpose, prime mover, or final cause. For the atomists questions should be answered with a mechanistic explanation ("What earlier circumstances caused this event?"), while their opponents searched for teleological explanations ("What purpose did this event serve?"). The history of modern science has shown that mechanistic questions lead to scientific knowledge, especially in physics, while the teleological question can be useful in biology, in adaptationist reasoning at providing proximate explanations, though the deeper evolutionary explanations are thoroughly mechanistic. The atomists looked for mechanistic questions, and gave mechanistic answers. Their successors until the Renaissance became occupied with the teleological question, which ultimately hindered progress.[24]


Atomic hypothesis

The theory of Democritus and Leucippus held that everything is composed of "atoms", which are physically, but not geometrically, indivisible; that between atoms lies empty space; that atoms are indestructible; have always been, and always will be, in motion; that there are an infinite number of atoms, and kinds of atoms, which differ in shape, and size. Of the mass of atoms, Democritus said "The more any indivisible exceeds, the heavier it is." But their exact position on weight of atoms is disputed.[1]

Leucippus is widely credited with being the first to develop the theory of atomism. Nevertheless, this notion has been called into question by some scholars. Newton, for instance, credits the obscure Moschus the Phoenician (whom he believed to be the biblical Moses) as the inventor of the idea.[25] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, "This theologically motivated view does not seem to claim much historical evidence, however."[26]

Democritus, along with Leucippus and Epicurus, proposed the earliest views on the shapes and connectivity of atoms. They reasoned that the solidness of the material corresponded to the shape of the atoms involved. Thus, iron atoms are solid and strong with hooks that lock them into a solid; water atoms are smooth and slippery; salt atoms, because of their taste, are sharp and pointed; and air atoms are light and whirling, pervading all other materials.[27] Democritus was the main proponent of this view. Using analogies from our sense experiences, he gave a picture or an image of an atom that distinguished them from each other by their shape, their size, and the arrangement of their parts. Moreover, connections were explained by material links in which single atoms were supplied with attachments: some with hooks and eyes others with balls and sockets.[28] The Democritean atom is an inert solid (merely excluding other bodies from its volume) that interacts with other atoms mechanically. In contrast, modern, quantum-mechanical atoms interact via electric and magnetic force fields and are far from inert.

Aristotle criticized the atomists for not providing an account for the cause of the original motion of atoms. The theory of the atomists appears to be more nearly that of modern science than any other theory of antiquity. However, their theories had no real empirical basis, so their belief was devoid of any solid foundation. The atomists were seeking plausible explanations for the world, and can be viewed as having hit on a hypothesis for which, two thousand years later, some evidence happened to be found.[29]

Void hypothesis

The atomistic void hypothesis was a response to the paradoxes of Parmenides and Zeno, the founders of metaphysical logic, who put forth difficult to answer arguments in favor of the idea that there can be no movement. They held that any movement would require a void—which is nothing—but a nothing cannot exist. The Parmenidean position was "You say there is a void; therefore the void is not nothing; therefore there is not the void." The position of Parmenides appeared validated by the observation that where there seems to be nothing there is air, and indeed even where there is not matter there is something, for instance light waves.

The atomists agreed that motion required a void, but simply ignored the argument of Parmenides on the grounds that motion was an observable fact. Therefore, they asserted, there must be a void. This idea survived in a refined version as Newton's theory of absolute space, which met the logical requirements of attributing reality to not-being. Einstein's theory of relativity provided a new answer to Parmenides and Zeno, with the insight that space by itself is relative and cannot be separated from time as part of a generally curved space-time manifold. Consequently, Newton's refinement is now considered superfluous.[30]


The knowledge of truth according to Democritus is difficult, since the perception through the senses is subjective. As from the same senses derive different impressions for each individual, then through the sense-impressions we cannot judge the truth. We can only interpret the sense data through the intellect and grasp the truth, because the truth (aletheia) is at the bottom (en bythoe).

“And again, many of the other animals receive impressions contrary to ours; and even to the senses of each individual, things do not always seem the same. Which then, of these impressions are true and which are false is not obvious; for the one set is no more true than the other, but both are alike. And this is why Democritus, at any rate, says that either there is no truth or to us at least it is not evident.”[31]
“Democritus says: By convention hot, by convention cold, but in reality atoms and void, and also in reality we know nothing, since the truth is at bottom.”[32]

There are two kinds of knowing, the one he calls “legitimate” (gnesie: genuine) and the other “bastard” (skotie: obscure). The “bastard” knowledge is concerned with the perception through the senses, therefore it is insufficient and subjective. The reason is that the sense-perception is due to the effluences of the atoms (aporroai) from the objects to the senses. When these different shapes of atoms come to us, they stimulate our senses according to their shape, and our sense-impressions arise from those stimulations.[33]

The second sort of knowledge, the “legitimate” one, can be achieved through the intellect, in other words, all the sense-data from the “bastard” must be elaborated through reasoning. In this way one can get away from the false perception of the “bastard” knowledge and grasp the truth through the inductive reasoning. After taking into account the sense-impressions, one can examine the causes of the appearances, draw conclusions about the laws that govern the appearances, and discover the causality (aetiologia) by which they are related. This is the procedure of thought from the parts to the whole or else from the apparent to non-apparent (inductive reasoning). This is one example of why Democritus is considered to be an early scientific thinker. The process is reminiscent of that by which science gathers its conclusions.

“But in the Canons Democritus says there are two kinds of knowing, one through the senses and the other through the intellect. Of these he calls the one through the intellect ‘legitimate’ attesting its trustworthiness for the judgement of truth, and through the senses he names ‘bastard’ denying its inerrancy in the discrimination of what is true. To quote his actual words: Of knowledge there are two forms, one legitimate, one bastard. To the bastard belong all this group: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. The other is legitimate and separate from that. Then, preferring the legitimate to the bastard, he continues: When the bastard can no longer see any smaller, or hear, or smell, or taste, or perceive by touch, but finer matters have to be examined, then comes the legitimate, since it has a finer organ of perception.”[34]
“In the Confirmations ... he says: But we in actuality grasp nothing for certain, but what shifts in accordance with the condition of the body and of the things (atoms) which enter it and press upon it.”[35]
“Democritus used to say that 'he prefers to discover a causality rather than become a king of Persia'.”[36]

Ethics and politics

The ethics and politics of Democritus come to us mostly in the form of maxims. He says that "Equality is everywhere noble," but he is not encompassing enough to include women or slaves in this sentiment. Poverty in a democracy is better than prosperity under tyrants, for the same reason one is to prefer liberty over slavery. Those in power should "take it upon themselves to lend to the poor and to aid them and to favor them, then is there pity and no isolation but companionship and mutual defense and concord among the citizens and other good things too many to catalogue." Money when used with sense leads to generosity and charity, while money used in folly leads to a common expense for the whole society— excessive hoarding of money for one's children is avarice. While making money is not useless, he says, doing so as a result of wrong-doing is the "worst of all things." He is on the whole ambivalent towards wealth, and values it much less than self-sufficiency. He disliked violence but was not a pacifist: he urged cities to be prepared for war, and believed that a society had the right to execute a criminal or enemy so long as this did not violate some law, treaty, or oath.[2][30]

Goodness, he believed, came more from practice and discipline than from innate human nature. He believed that one should distance oneself from the wicked, stating that such association increases disposition to vice. Anger, while difficult to control, must be mastered in order for one to be rational. Those who take pleasure from the disasters of their neighbors fail to understand that their fortunes are tied to the society in which they live, and they rob themselves of any joy of their own. He advocated a life of contentment with as little grief as possible, which he said could not be achieved through either idleness or preoccupation with worldly pleasures. Contentment would be gained, he said, through moderation and a measured life; to be content one must set their judgment on the possible and be satisfied with what one has—giving little thought to envy or admiration. Democritus approved of extravagance on occasion, as he held that feasts and celebrations were necessary for joy and relaxation. He considers education to be the noblest of pursuits, but cautioned that learning without sense leads to error.[2][30]


A right circular cone and an oblique circular cone

Democritus was also a pioneer of mathematics and geometry in particular. We only know this through citations of his works (titled On Numbers, On Geometrics, On Tangencies, On Mapping, and On Irrationals) in other writings, since most of Democritus' body of work did not survive the Middle Ages. Democritus was among the first to observe that a cone or pyramid has one-third the volume of a cylinder or prism respectively with the same base and height. Also, a cone divided in a plane parallel to its base produces two surfaces. He pointed out that if the two surfaces are commensurate with each other, then the shape of the body would appear to be a cylinder, as it is composed of equal rather than unequal circles. However, if the surfaces are not commensurate, then the side of a cone is not smooth but jagged like a series of steps.[37]

Anthropology, biology, and cosmology

His work on nature is known through citations of his books on the subjects, On the Nature of Man, On Flesh (two books), On Mind, On the Senses, On Flavors, On Colors, Causes concerned with Seeds and Plants and Fruits, and Causes concerned with Animals (three books).[2] He spent much of his life experimenting with and examining plants and minerals, and wrote at length on many scientific topics.[38] Democritus thought that the first humans lived an anarchic and animal sort of life, going out to forage individually and living off the most palatable herbs and the fruit which grew wild on the trees. They were driven together into societies for fear of wild animals, he said. He believed that these early people had no language, but that they gradually began to articulate their expressions, establishing symbols for every sort of object, and in this manner came to understand each other. He says that the earliest men lived laboriously, having none of the utilities of life; clothing, houses, fire, domestication, and farming were unknown to them. Democritus presents the early period of mankind as one of learning by trial and error, and says that each step slowly lead to more discoveries; they took refuge in the caves in winter, stored fruits that could be preserved, and through reason and keenness of mind came to build upon each new idea.[2][39]

Democritus held that the Earth was round, and stated that originally the universe was composed of nothing but tiny atoms churning in chaos, until they collided together to form larger units—including the earth and everything on it.[2] He surmised that there are many worlds, some growing, some decaying; some with no sun or moon, some with several. He held that every world has a beginning and an end, and that a world could be destroyed by collision with another world. His cosmology can be summarized with assistance from Shelley: Worlds rolling over worlds; From creation to decay; Like the bubbles on a river; Sparkling, bursting, borne away.[40]


  • Pythagoras
  • On the Disposition of the Wise Man
  • On the Things in Hades
  • Tritogenia
  • On Manliness or On Virtue
  • The Horn of Amaltheia
  • On Contentment
  • Ethical Commentaries
Natural science
  • The Great World-ordering (may have been written by Leucippus)
  • Cosmography
  • On the Planets
  • On Nature
  • On the Nature of Man or On Flesh (two books)
  • On the Mind
  • On the Senses
  • On Flavors
  • On Colors
  • On Different Shapes
  • On Changing Shape
  • Buttresses
  • On Images
  • On Logic (three books)
  • Heavenly Causes
  • Atmospheric Causes
  • Terrestrial Causes
  • Causes Concerned with Fire and Things in Fire
  • Causes Concerned with Sounds
  • Caused Concerned with Seeds and Plants and Fruits
  • Causes Concerned with Animals (three books)
  • Miscellaneous Causes
  • On Magnets
  • On Different Angles or O contact of Circles and Spheres
  • On Geometry
  • Geometry
  • Numbers
  • On Irrational Lines and Solids (two books)
  • Planispheres
  • On the Great Year or Astronomy (a calendar)
  • Contest of the Waterclock
  • Description of the Heavens
  • Geography
  • Description of the Poles
  • Description of Rays of Light
  • On the Rhythms and Harmony
  • On Poetry
  • On the Beauty of Verses
  • On Euphonious and Harsh-sounding Letters
  • On Homer
  • On Song
  • On Verbs
  • Names
Technical works
  • Prognosis
  • On Diet
  • Medical Judgment
  • Causes Concerning Appropriate and Inappropriate Occasions
  • On Farming
  • On Painting
  • Tactics
  • Fighting in Armor
  • On the Sacred Writings of Babylon
  • On Those in Meroe
  • Circumnavigation of the Ocean
  • On History
  • Chaldaean Account
  • Phrygian Account
  • On Fever and Coughing Sicknesses
  • Legal Causes
  • Problems[41]

Institutes named after Democritus

After Democritus are named the following institutions:


Democritus was depicted on the following contemporary coins/banknotes:

See also


  1. ^ a b c Russell, pp.64–65.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Barnes (1987).
  3. ^ Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield, The Architecture of Matter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 56.
  4. ^ Pamela Gossin, Encyclopedia of Literature and Science, 2002.
  5. ^ Aristotle, de Coel. iii.4, Meteor. ii.7
  6. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, ix.34, etc.
  7. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, ix.41.
  8. ^ John Burnet (1955). Greek Philosophy: Thales to Plato, London: Macmillan, p.194.
  9. ^ Cicero, de Finibus, v.19; Strabo, xvi.
  10. ^ Diodorus, i.98.
  11. ^ Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, i.
  12. ^ Aelian, Varia Historia, iv. 20; Diogenes Laërtius, ix. 35.
  13. ^ Tatian, Orat. cont. Graec. 17. "However, this Democritus, whom Tatian identified with the philosopher, was a certain Bolos of Mendes who, under the name of Democritus, wrote a book on sympathies and antipathies" – Owsei Temkin (1991), Hippocrates in a World of Pagans and Christians, p.120. JHU Press.
  14. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, ii.14; Sextus vii.140.
  15. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, ix.42.
  16. ^ Diogenes Laertius 9.36 and Cicero Tusculanae Quaestiones 5.36.104, cited in p. 349 n. 2 of W. K. C. Guthrie (1965), A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 2, Cambridge.
  17. ^ Aristotle, Metaph. xiii.4; Phys. ii.2, de Partib. Anim. i.1
  18. ^ Cicero, de Finibus v.29; Aulus Gellius, x.17; Diogenes Laërtius, ix.36; Cicero, Tusculanae Quaestiones v.39.
  19. ^ Seneca, de Ira, ii.10; Aelian, Varia Historia, iv.20.
  20. ^ Diodorus, xiv.11.5.
  21. ^ Lucian, Macrobii 18
  22. ^ Hipparchus ap. Diogenes Laërtius, ix.43.
  23. ^ Brewer, E. Cobham (1978 [reprint of 1894 version]). The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Edwinstowe, England: Avenel Books. pp. 3. ISBN 0-517-259-21-4. 
  24. ^ Russell.
  25. ^ Derek Gjertsen (1986), The Newton Handbook, p.468.
  26. ^ Sylvia Berryman (2005). "Ancient Atomism", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. – Retrieved on 15 July 2009.
  27. ^ Pfeffer, Jeremy, I.; Nir, Shlomo (2001). Modern Physics: An Introduction Text. World Scientific Publishing Company. p. 183. ISBN 1860942504. 
  28. ^ See testimonia DK 68 A 80, DK 68 A 37 and DK 68 A 43. See also Cassirer, Ernst (1953). An Essay on Man: an Introduction to the Philosophy of Human Culture. Doubleday & Co.. p. 214. ASIN B0007EK5MM. 
  29. ^ Russell, p.66.
  30. ^ a b c Russell, pp.69–71.
  31. ^ Aristotle, Metaphysics iv.1009 b 7.
  32. ^ Fr. 117, Diogenes Laërtius ix.72.
  33. ^ Fr. 135, Theophrastus12, De Sensu 49–83.
  34. ^ Fr. 11, Sextus vii.138.
  35. ^ Fr. 9, Sextus vii.136.
  36. ^ Fr. 118
  37. ^ Fragment 9, The Pre-Socratics, Philip Wheelwright Ed., Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 1966, p.183.
  38. ^ Petronius.
  39. ^ Diodorus I.viii.1–7.
  40. ^ Russell, pp.71–72.
  41. ^ Barnes (1987), pp.245–246
  42. ^ Bank of Greece. Drachma Banknotes & Coins: 10 drachmas. – Retrieved on 27 March 2009.
  43. ^ J. Bourjaily. Banknotes featuring Scientists and Mathematicians. – Retrieved on 7 December 2009.


  • BAILEY, C. (1928). The Greek Atomists and Epicurus. Oxford.
  • BAKALIS, NIKOLAOS (2005). Handbook of Greek Philosophy: From Thales to the Stoics: Analysis and Fragments, Trafford Publishing, ISBN 1-4120-4843-5.
  • BARNES, JONATHAN (1982). The Presocratic Philosophers, Routledge Revised Edition.
  • _____ (1987). Early Greek Philosophy, Penguin.
  • BURNET, J. (2003). Early Greek Philosophy, Kessinger Publishing
  • DIODORUS SICULUS (1st century BCE). Bibliotheca historica.
  • DIOGENES LAËRTIUS (3rd century CE). Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.
  • FREEMAN, KATHLEEN (2008). Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the Fragments in Diels, Forgotten Books, ISBN 978-1-606-80256-4.
  • GUTHRIE, W. K. (1979) A History of Greek Philosophy – The Presocratic tradition from Parmenides to Democritus, Cambridge University Press.
  • KIRK, G. S., J. E. RAVEN and M. SCHOFIELD (1983). The Presocratic Philosophers, Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition.
  • MELCHERT, NORMAN (2002). The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy. McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-19-517510-7. 
  • PYLE, C. M. (1997). 'Democritus and Heracleitus: An Excursus on the Cover of this Book,' Milan and Lombardy in the Renaissance. Essays in Cultural History. Rome, La Fenice. (Istituto di Filologia Moderna, Università di Parma: Testi e Studi, Nuova Serie: Studi 1.) (Fortuna of the Laughing and Weeping Philosophers topos)
  • PETRONIUS (late 1st century CE). Satyricon. Trans. William Arrowsmith. New York: A Meridian Book, 1987.
  • RUSSELL, BERTRAND (1972). A History of Western Philosophy, Simon & Schuster.
  • SEXTUS EMPIRICUS (ca. 200 CE). Adversus Mathematicos.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

There are many who know many things, yet are lacking in wisdom.
I would rather discover a single cause than become king of the Persians.

Democritus (~460 BC - 370 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. He is popularly known as "the laughing philosopher" for advocating a cheerful outlook, and for his rhetorical use of irony and ridicule. Of his voluminous writings, only a few fragments of his ethical theory and descriptions by other writers of his atomic theory remain.



  • Sweet exists by convention, bitter by convention, colour by convention; atoms and Void [alone] exist in reality.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 142
    • Variant: By convention [nomos] sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void.
      • Durant (1939)[2], Ch. XVI, §II, p. 353; citing C. Bakewell, Sourcebook in Ancient Philosophy, New York, 1909, "Fragment O" (Diels), p. 60
  • We know nothing accurately in reality, but [only] as it changes according to the bodily condition, and the constitution of those things that flow upon [the body] and impinge upon it.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 142
  • Medicine heals diseases of the body, wisdom frees the soul from passions.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 149
    • Variant: Medicine cures the diseases of the body; wisdom, on the other hand, relieves the soul of its sufferings.[citation needed]
  • Coition is a slight attack of apoplexy. For man gushes forth from man, and is separated by being torn apart with a kind of blow.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 150
  • Man is a universe in little [Microcosm].
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 150
  • Good breeding in cattle depends on physical health, but in men on a well-formed character.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 151
    • Variant: Strength of body is nobility only in beasts of burden, strength of character is nobility in man.
      • Durant (1939)[2], Ch. XVI, §II, p. 354; citing C. Bakewell, Sourcebook in Ancient Philosophy, New York, 1909, "Fragment 57"
    • Variant: In cattle excellence is displayed in strength of body; but in men it lies in strength of character.[citation needed]
  • Many much-learned men have no intelligence.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 152
    • Variant: There are many who know many things, yet are lacking in wisdom.[citation needed]
  • Immoderate desire is the mark of a child, not a man.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 152
    • Variant: It is childish, not manly, to have immoderate desires.[citation needed]
  • [I would] rather discover one cause than gain the kingdom of Persia.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 155
    • Variant: I would rather discover a single demonstration [in geometry] than become king of the Persians.
      • Durant (1939)[2],Ch. XVI, §II, p. 352, citinas G.Grote, Plato and the Other Companions of Socrates (London, 1875), vol. 1, p. 68; and citing C. Bakewell, Sourcebook in Ancient Philosophy, New York, 1909, p. 62.
  • Men have fashioned an image of Chance as an excuse for their own stupidity. For Chance rarely conflicts with intelligence, and most things in life can be set in order by an intelligent sharpsightedness.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 155
  • In a shared fish, there are no bones.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 157
  • Education is an ornament for the prosperous, a refuge for the unfortunate.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 161
  • Beautiful objects are wrought by study through effort, but ugly things are reaped automatically without toil.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 161
    • Variant: The good things of life are produced by learning with hard work; the bad are reaped of their own accord, without hard work.[citation needed]
  • The animal needing something knows how much it needs, the man does not.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 162
    • Variant: The needy animal knows how much it needs, but the needy man does not.[citation needed]
  • Moderation multiplies pleasures, and increases pleasure.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 163
    • Variant: Moderation increases enjoyment, and makes pleasure even greater.[citation needed]
  • The brave man is not only he who overcomes the enemy, but he who is stronger than pleasures. Some men are masters of cities, but are enslaved to women.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 163
    • Variant: The brave man is he who overcomes not only his enemies but his pleasures. There are some men who are masters of cities but slaves to women.[citation needed]
  • It is hard to fight desire; but to control it is the sign of a reasonable man.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 165
    • Variant: It is hard to fight with desire; but to overcome it is the mark of a rational man.[citation needed]
  • The laws would not prevent each man from living according to his inclination, unless individuals harmed each other; for envy creates the beginning of strife.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 166
    • Variant: Envy is the cause of political division.[citation needed]
  • To a wise man, the whole earth is open; for the native land of a good soul is the whole earth.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 166
    • Variant: To a wise and good man the whole earth is his fatherland.
      • Durant (1939)[2], Ch. XVI, §II, p. 352 (footnote); citing F. Uberweg, History of Philosophy, New York, 1871, vol. 1, p. 71.
  • The man who is fortunate in his choice of son-in-law gains a son; the man unfortunate in his choice loses his daughter also.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 169
  • If your desires are not great, a little will seem much to you; for small appetite makes poverty equivalent to wealth.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 170
    • Variant: By desiring little, a poor man makes himself rich.[citation needed]
  • Disease of the home and of the life comes about in the same way as that of the body.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 170
    • Variant: Disease occurs in a household, or in a life, just as it does in a body.
  • No power and no treasure can outweigh the extension of our knowledge.
    • Durant (1939)[2], Ch. XVI, §II, p. 354; citing J. Owen, Evenings with the Skeptics, London, 1881, vol. 1, p. 149.


  • Nothing exists except atoms and empty space, everything else is opinion.
    • (Paraphrased?)[citation needed]


  1. a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Tr. Kathleen Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the Fragments in Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Harvard University Press, 1948; republished by Forgotten Books, 2008, ISBN 1606802569 (full text online at GoogleBooks)
  2. a b c d e Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Part II – The Life of Greece, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

DEMOCRITUS, probably the greatest of the Greek physical philosophers, was a native of Abdera in Thrace, or as some say - probably wrongly - of Miletus (Diog. Laert. ix. 34). 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 B.C., 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 Laertius, numbered seventytwo, and were characterized by a purity of style which compares favourably 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: I. 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 i pes, plenum); not-Being is the Void (nEvov, 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 (hence the name IITOµos, "indivisible"); 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 (v6,4; the only things that exist in reality (TEfj) are the atoms and the void. 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 (Slvn) 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 (airobpoac, airoppocac) or images (e'bwXa), 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 (SELKeAov) 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 (UKOTG1j) cognition, resting on sensation alone, and genuine (yvrjoL), 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 colour. 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 colours result from various mixtures of these four, and are infinite in number. Colour 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 antitheistic. 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 humour, 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 (see Ethics).


Fragments edited by F. Mullach (1843) with commentary and in his Fragmenta philosophorum Graecorum, i. (1860). See also H. Ritter and L. Preller, Historia philosophiae (chap. i. ad fin.); P. Lafaist (Lafaye), Dissertation sur la philosophie atomistique (1833); L. Liard, De Democrito philosopho (Paris, 18 73); H. C. Liepmann, Die Leucipp-Democritischen Atome (Leipzig, 1886); F. A. Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus (Eng.trans. by E. C. Thomas, 1877); G. Hart, Zur Seelenand Erkenntnislehre des Democritus (Leipzig, 1886); P. Natorp, Die Ethika des Demokritos (Marburg, 1893); A. Dyroff, Demokritstudien (Leipzig, 1899); among general works C. A. Brandis, Gesch. d. Entwickelungen d. griech. Philosophic (Bonn, 1862-1864); Ed. Zeller, Pre-Socratic Philosophy (Eng. trans., London, 1881); for his theory of sense-perception see especially J. I. Beare, Greek Theories of Elementary Cognition (Oxford, 1906).

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




From Ancient Greek Δημόκριτος (Dēmokritos).

Proper noun

Wikipedia has an article on:





  1. A Greek philosopher (c.460-c.370 BC). The originator of the atomic theory together with his teacher Leucippus.


Simple English

Full name Democritus
Era Pre-Socratic philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Pre-Socratic philosophy
Main interests metaphysics / mathematics / astronomy
Notable ideas Atomism, Distant Star Theory

Democritus (Greek: Δημόκριτος) was a Greek philosopher (born at Abdera in Thrace ca. 460 BC - died ca 370 BC). Democritus was a student of Leucippus and both believed that all matter is made up of tiny, indestructible bits which he called atoma or "indivisible units", from which we get the English word atom.

Atomic theory

Democritus is well known for his atomic theory. Democritus said that:

  1. Everything is made of tiny bits he called atoma (indivisible units).
  2. These atoma are indestructible.
  3. Different shapes of atoma give them different properties. He guessed that things that tasted sweet were made of round atoma, while things that tasted bitter were made of sharp atoma.
  4. Changes we see are caused by the movement of the very tiny atoma.

Democritus had no hard evidence. He came to these ideas simply by thinking about them. However, his ideas turned out to be somewhat close to what was discovered over 2000 years after his death.


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