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Democritus - Biography

Democritus (460 BCE 370 BCE) was an ancient Greek philosopher. He is known for his influence on modern science more than any other pre-Socratic philosopher. He was also known as the “Laughing Philosopher", for his tendency to mock fellow citizens for their follies. What Democritus left has not survived in all of its physicality, but he has been written about by Aristotle (Aristotle found him to be his biggest competitor in the natural sciences), Theophrastus, Diogenes, along with a few others. The exact details of his birth are not known but estimated to be sometime around 460 BCE in Abdera, Thrace. His father was wealthy and received Xerxes as he traveled through Abdera. Xerxes in turn, left behind some of his magi and it is said that Democritus had the good graces to have learned from them. After his father's death Democritus took off traveling in search of experience and wisdom. He traveled to Babylon, Egypt, Ethiopia and perhaps India as well using up his inheritance. Democritus is said to not have any care for wealth and preferred to put everything into his studies, investigations and explorations. He is said to have remarked that he would rather discover a new cause of nature than be King of Persia. In his travels he may have met Anaxagoras, been friends with Hippocrates, possibly visited Athens where Socrates and Plato would have been present if he had been there. Democritus was a disciple of little-known Leucippus and carried his atomist thought further devoloping it rather extensively.

Atomist philosophy borders heavily on what today is considered scientific although Leucippus and Democritus were not privy to empirical reasoning behind their theory of atoms. Powerful microscopes aside, however, Democritus drew from watching decay and mixing of the elements laid out by the Eleatics, for instance the mixture of water and earth in mud that is not easily separated once combined. Also building upon such Eleatics as Parmenides, Democritus held that nothing could come from nothing, that everything is already in the world and it is merely a matter of combination and re-combination of eternal bits of immutable stuff called atoms that remain indivisible in and of themselves, but are capable by hooks and barbs or balls and joints to combine to other atoms to make up the materials of life. He also supposed that the solidness of any given material was dependent upon the shapes of these atomic bits. Different from today's understanding of atomic structure, Democritus and other 'atomists' thought that atoms were indivisible (the Greek for 'atom' was atomon or atomos) and infinite in size and shape as well as firm and completely solid. These atoms, then, existed in a void moving about combining and recombining. This necessitated the existence of nothing, or a void with Democritus saying when naming 'nothing' as a no-thing, that the one (nothing) no more exists than the other (thing). The void was considered a condition for the possibility of motion with its essence as being one of yielding so that atoms may pass through and instead of being a concept of absolute space, it was probably more thought of as temporarily unoccupied spaces by atoms.

Atoms did not make up just everyday objects for Democritus, but influenced his thoughts on sight, senses and souls. As for perception, Democritus held to his strictly materialist philosophy maintaining that atoms, the hard bits of reality, were the reasoning behind our senses. It is due to the movement of the atoms through space or void that augur our experience of sight. Any large object would slough off their atoms which then are carried to our eyes. This would be an explanation for why objects far away are less clear in detail since their atoms would collide more with air atoms by the time they reached a pair of eyes. Democritus believed that all of the senses were due to touch and the physical experience of atoms encountering each other. Another example would be taste, where 'jagged' atoms would tear taste buds, creating a sensation of bitterness while rounder atoms would be sweeter. As for the explanation of souls, atoms take center stage once again. Instead of the soul being a sort of force or something immortal, Democritus felt that there were smooth 'soul atoms' and that when a human perished, these atoms would disperse out into the world and become parts of everything and/or anything else. It is this part of his investigations that perhaps led Plato and his belief in an immortal soul to allegedly call for the burning of all Democritus' texts.

The question of epistemology becomes difficult with Democritus in regards to his ultra-materialist stance. Knowledge is gained by perception which although he argued that the hard, unchanging atoms made up objects and provided the possibility for sight, was still unreliable based upon typical and nontypical observers as well as things that change, as in the sea. A way for Democritus to explain this was that just as the atoms had their own shape and size, therefore differing properties; so too do the beings that are receptive to these atoms and therefore depending on a person's reception an atom could be received myriad of ways. In this case, truth based on observation is subjective. Democritus felt that truth resided at 'the bottom,' and that by interpretation of sense data, that the truth could be arrived at. he distinguished between two kinds of knowing or understanding: gnesie and skotie - or genuine and bastard. The bastard knowing is reliant only upon perception and is insufficient in and of itself since it is merely based upon stimulations. The genuine or legitimate knowledge can be gained through reasoning, inductive reasoning to be exact. The process is as follows; one is stimulated by atoms, by sensations, but then uses intellect to draw conclusions by examining the appearance in conjunction with the laws that govern the appearance and come to a realization about the cause of the sensation. It is from this point, again, that we can see Democritus' radical influence on what is considered a modern scientific method.

As for the moniker, the "Laughing Philosopher," there a few conflicting stories and impressions of Democritus. It is most likely due to his emphasis on cheerfulness although Seneca wrote a darker interpretation saying that he would express his contempt for the follies of those around him by laughing at them. Democritus was also known as "the mocker." This laughter could have come as a result of his undying determinist and materialist composition. His ethics were centered on personal integrity and social responsibility with no otherworldly or supernatural influences. (This was another point of contention that Plato may have felt deeply.) His emphasis on cheerfulness was an emphasis on the 'good' or an absence of fear. Instead of doing 'good' because there exists a fear of the law, Democritus felt that people were able to be driven by an interior motive to not shame themselves or others. The goodness in people was not innate but only produced through practice and discipline and that in the presence of the wicked, one has a propensity to do the same. Democritus' cheerfulness also took form in a kind of hedonism albeit moderated and can be seen as being influential to Epicurus.

Democritus lived over a century and while there are varying tales of his death, the tale that pops up the most often is the one that recounts the disappointment of his sister that he was nearing death before she was to attend a festival. In compliance, Democritus took whiffs of freshly baked bread for three days before she returned and then perished. There are a few other unconfirmed tales about Democritus in his later life including that he blinded himself to improve his mental faculties (although there are accounts that he dissected animals and wrote books which conflict with blinding), searched for the 'Philosopher's Stone' or that he lived in caves. It is most likely true that he preferred the withdrawn, contemplative life although it is not proved that he retired to caves. he had gained some fame throughout his life giving public lectures. He did this to make a living and to not have seemed that he squandered his inheritance on travelling, a crime that would have denied his rite of burial. Through these he discussed his findings and actually became rather popular based on his predictions of weather which led people to think that he could predict any future events and offered him to direct public affairs. He declined.



Democritus was an ancient Greek philosopher. (460 BCE 370 BCE)