Democritus

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Philosopher, Physicist, Mathematician, Astronomer (c.460 BC – c.370 BC)

The last of the pre-Socratic philosophers and co-representative of the atomic school of philosophy, Democritus was one of the most influential thinkers of Ancient Greece of all time. Together with his teacher and mentor Leucippus they introduced the atomic theory with the scientific meaning it has today. Like Aristotle, Democritus was a polymath who excelled in various different sciences, namely philosophy, physics, mathematics, astronomy, astrophysics, geography, oceanography, politics, psychology, ethics, art and pharmacy. Democritus was nicknamed “the laughing philosopher”; he laughed at everything because he considered everything around him risible.

He was born in Abdera to a rich family and was trained in the school of Leucippus and Anaxagoras. He devoted all of his family’s wealth to his spiritual travels in Asia Minor, Egypt, Persia, India, and Ethiopia, where he met some of the greatest minds of his era including Heraclitus, Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander and the Pythagoreans. Because Democritus had spent all of family’s fortune on knowledge, he was contemned by his fellow citizens and his brother was forced to provide for him. Nevertheless, Democritus, a man who had sacrificed materialistic life for spiritual development proved his value to the others when he predicted the celestial observations and earned olive oil in very cheap price, similarly to Thales of Miletus. When he read his book Μέγας Διάκοσμος (The Great Cosmos) to his fellow citizens, they acknowledged its price to 500 talanta (his inherited fortune was just 100 talanta).

Democritus’ (and Leucippus’) work can be broadly divided into scientific and metaphysical. While Leucippus was the one who introduced the atomic theory, it was Democritus who developed it and expanded it. In short, the basis of his philosophy is that everything is made of void and atoms. Void and atoms – the smallest unit of existence, those that cannot be divided further – are the origin (ἀρχὴ) of everything that exists. Everything else that exists is an illusion which we decode into reality using of senses and which we perceive as reality. Time is also an illusion (φάντασμα) while solid objects are actually not solid. Nevertheless, atoms themselves according to the philosopher have no perceptible quality. Instead, Democritus considered the atoms as immaterial archetypes which project shadowy representations of reality. He called the atoms “ideas”, similar to Plato’s theory of forms.

Atoms are infinite in number and infinite in shapes. In his book Μέγας Διάκοσμος (The Great Cosmos) Democritus describes the creation of worlds and stars by means of the spinning motion of the atoms. When atoms come into close proximity with each other – without ever coming into contact – they create complex objects such as human beings or superstructures of the macrocosmos. The existence of objects with different shape and sizes are the result of fusion of atoms with different shape, position and order. Wind, water, fire, earth and aether are all the result of such fusion of atoms. Additionally, the sun, the moon as well as the soul are made of atoms. Democritus also spoke about the atomic weight and the motion of the atom.

There exist an infinite number of parallel worlds which are continuously being created and destroyed when they collide with each other. They are very different from one another in size, and in their content, some of which do not possess a moon or a sun, while others do not support life. What Democritus meant with the term “worlds” is ambiguous as it could also mean galaxies or solar systems. Democritus believed in the principle of causality, according to which nothing happens without a cause (ἀνάγκη) and that everything happens because of necessity.

Democritus wrote at least 70 books, of which only fragments remain as references in the works of others. On physics, his most famous books were Μέγας Διάκοσμος (The Great Cosmos) and Μικρὸς Διάκοσμος (The Small Cosmos). These books, in addition to the atomic theory they included some of the most groundbreaking theories in physics such as a detailed description on the creation of worlds with its phases, the structure and characteristics of Democritus’ cosmologic system, the creation of stars and galaxies as well as numerous theories concerning celestial observations. Other books on physics include on planets, on cosmography, on nature, on human nature, on senses, on celestial mechanics, thermodynamics, acoustics, classical mechanics, on biology, zoology and geology. Furthermore, he wrote 5 mathematical books on geometry, arithmetic and logic, 8 books on astronomy, 6 books on engineering and art and 1 book on pharmacy. He developed a very significant political philosophy in which he believed that the archon must serve as the soul of the republic he rules.

Democritus’ philosophy and ethics aimed at making man a spiritually balanced and virtuous being. He taught what was right and just, but he did not impose it on others unless they chose to implement it in their lives. The main axes of Democritus’ philosophy are ethic consciousness, moderation, time – that is, the most suitable time to do something – and eudemonia. Democritus had a profound knowledge on the soul. He knew very well its weaknesses and struggled to help others improve them. He saw every individual as an atom – indeed in Greek language the word ἄτομον (atom) also means person – who each had their own shape, size and role on society. Man himself is a small representation of the universe.

Democritus attempted to conceive the true meaning of God and the Divine Beings. He managed to do so to a great scale. According to him, God is to the world whatever the soul is to man. The origin of the soul is from the Divine Beings. Therefore it is divine. Soul is what drives the human body. It is the link between the invisible divine world where the Divine Beings inhabit and the visible mortal world. It can be compared to an electrical current that empowers a computer. The soul is immortal and genderless. It is, however, wearable/ perishable (φθαρτὸς) together with the human body.

Through meditation, during his endoscopic flights, Democritus discovered the existence of divine entities, which are invisible but co-exist in the mortal world. Democritus called them daemons or eidola and correspond to the same beings mentioned by Socrates, Plato, Poseidonius and Pletho – Gemistus. Temples and statues act as channels which allow these beings to come to our world. Some men can communicate with them. Divine Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Orpheus and all of the wise ancient Greek poets received the information for their poems by means of this “divine inspiration”. Some of them are benevolent and some of them malevolent and depending on this, they guide the souls of men on actions. They are not imperishable but they are long-living beings. Democritus said that the air is full such beings.

It is asserted that, like all of Ancient Greece’s brightest stars, Democritus had been given this philosophy following this divine contact. But for this to occur, such men must have one of their senses much more developed than that of common men and Democritus assured us that there are more than 5 senses in the human being.

Bibliography

  1. Ayfantis, Georgios. Anthropos & Epistimi – Enimerosis: Prehistory and History of Man, Science & Civilization. Athens: Hellinikon Selas, 2009. Print.
  2. “Democritus”. Helios New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Passas I. Athens, 1946. Print.
  3. Diogenes Laertius, Lines of Eminent Philosophers. R.D. Hicks, Ed. Perseus.tufts.edu. Web. Retrieved on October 5, 2016.
  4. Georgakopoulos, Konstantinos. Ancient Greek Scientists. Athens: Georgiades, 1995. Print.
  5. Makrygiannis, Demetrios. Cosmology and Ethics of Democritus. Athens: Georgiades, 1999. Print.
  6. Pleures, Konstantinos. Greek Philosophers. Athens: Hilektron Publications, 2014. Print.
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Democritus

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