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Leucippus - Biography

Leucippus (in ancient Greek: Λεύκιππος / Leúkippos) was a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher (c. 460-370 BC.), considered the inventor of philosophical atomism, although Anaxagoras (c. 500- c. 428 bc) had in fact already developed a similar theory. Little is known indeed of Leucippus’ life and work. According to the traditional story, Leucippus was born in Miletus around 460 BC. AD. Given the fact that we have only few fragments here and there giving biographical information about the philosopher, it has been argued by some that Leucippus could be considered to have been as much a man as a woman.

The very existence of Leucippus is in fact questionable. According to the Greek biographer Diogenes Laërtius, who lived around the beginning of the third century AD, the Greek thinker Epicurus (341-270 bc) doubted Leucippus’ existence. However, both Greek philosophers Aristotle (384-322 bc) and Theophrastus (c. 370-c. 287 bc) explicitly cite Leucippus as the source of the atomic theory. Leucippus is also often credited with a treatise on the intellect. According to Leucippus’ theory, the first principles of reality are fullness, emptiness and movement.

The arrangement of atoms in Leucippus makes everything in the universe and produces simulacra. These are actually, according to Leucippus, small particles suspended in the void that enter human beings to bring information. In this way, simulacra stimulate the five human senses. Truth, for Leucippus, is therefore only to be found in the phenomena themselves.

Moreover, the differences between things, in Leucippus’ account, are ultimately distinguished through the deciphering of combinations of qualities that make up the atoms in question. For instance, their weight, their shape, their speed, their direction, as well as their respective position, give each thing its unique characteristic. According to traditional accounts the philosophical idea of simulacra is linked to Leucippus’ contemplation of a ray of light that made visible airborne dust.

Leucippus was probably a pupil of the pre-Socratic philosopher Zeno of Elea (ca. 490 BC–ca. 430 BC). For some, however, Leucippus was also under Pythagorean influence. Leucippus founded a school at Abdera, Greece, and was perhaps the master of Democritus (c. 460– c. 370 bc). In any case the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) called the master and his probable famous disciple “two doubles.” As credited founder of the atomic theory, Leucippus believed that matter is made up of atoms that move in a vacuum. Leucippus also believed in both becoming and plurality.

As we have seen, Leucippus was probably the founder of atomism, although the name of Mochos, a Phoenician about whom we know even less about is referred by the physician and philosopher Sextus Empiricus (c. 160-210 AD) as the inventor of the concept of the atom. The problem is that we do not have any of Leucippus’s works as such. Instead, Leucippus’ research are included within those of Democritus’. As a result, it is virtually impossible to distinguish their respective opinions.

Nevertheless, Leucippus’ thinking is seen as radical for these ancient times because it withdrew from the gods their spiritual power. Indeed, Leucippus makes of the soul a material thing and makes such other worlds as heaven and hell impossible. With Leucippus the gods, the soul and the other worlds thus become perceptible, concrete realities. In diminishing the importance of the gods, Leucippus secures for man the dimension of the real. Let us note, however, that Leucippus’ critical thinking did not come about in a vacuum. It arose at a time when myths, fables and religions were beginning to be questioned.

Leucippus’ atomism was taken up and popularized by his student Democritus. To the original physical and cosmological theories, Democritus will add the ethical consequences that he believed could be drawn from Leucippus’ physics. However, it is also possible that Leucippus already had an ethic that followed logically from his materialist physics.

Leucippus’ materialist physics, can indeed be seen to logically bring forth an ethics, as did many philosophers at that time. Thus, according to Leucippus, gods can from now on only exist in physical forms. Furthermore, they cannot deal with humans anymore, that is to say, they cannot judge them and send them all kinds of suffering and disaster. For Leucippus this puts man having to face himself. Man is now under his own judgment and not that of a deity.

One could argue that this kind of physics leads us to a hedonistic ethics, namely to a morality of joy. After all, Leucippus said that joy is authentic. At the same time, in what way, we might ask, could joy be inauthentic? What is a theory of beauty before Plato and his theory of ideas? It is difficult to say because of the absence of enough written elements and historical context about Leucippus’ life and work.

The extraordinary vagueness of Leucippus’ biography, who, if he existed, lived at the same time as the Sophists, would therefore have been in the same situation as them, that is, of being considered as a stranger, namely someone about whom we do not speak of or that we try to assimilate. We can at least infer, therefore, with reasonable certainty that Leucippus died in the 5th century BCE.

Leucippus was a Greek Theorist. (First half of 5th century BCE)