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Democritus(dĭmŏk`rĭtəs), c.460–c.370 B.C., Greek philosopher of Abdera; pupil of Leucippus. His theory of the nature of the physical world was the most radical and scientific attempted up to his time. He avoided the abstractions of his predecessors, Anaxagoras (mind) and Empedocles (harmony and discord), by employing consistent mechanistic postulates that required no supernatural intervention. He held that all things were composed of atoms; these he asserted to be tiny particles, imperceptible to the senses, composed of exactly the same matter but different in size, shape, and weight. They were underived, indivisible, and indestructible. Democritus postulated the constant motion of atoms and, on this basis, explained the creation of worlds. He held that the whirling motion caused by the falling of atoms resulted in aggregations—the heavier atoms forming the earth and the lighter ones the heavenly bodies. He taught that what the senses perceive as quality is merely the result of a specific quantitative distribution of atoms. Sense perception yields only confused knowledge, telling us merely how things affect us; thought alone can apprehend the nature of things. Democritus' ethics were moderately hedonistic, teaching that the true end of life is happiness achieved in inner tranquility.
See A. T. Cole, Democritus and the Sources of Greek Anthropology (1967).
Born circa 460 B.C., in Abdera (Thrace); died circa 370 B.C. Ancient Greek materialist philosopher and one of the first exponents of atomism.
From the fragmentary data that have been preserved concerning Democritus’ life it is known that he made numerous journeys to various countries (including Egypt, Babylonia, Iran, India, and Ethiopia) and that his knowledge was encyclopedic. Democritus studied all branches of learning existing at his time—ethics, mathematics, physics, astronomy, medicine, philology, technology, and musical theory. Only about 300 fragments of the numerous works by Democritus (Diogenes Laértius counts as many as 70) have come down to us. Many authoritative classical sources praise the simplicity, clarity, and beauty of Democritus’ style, which in its poetic quality resembles that of Plato.
In the history of thought Democritus stands at a turning point, when ancient Greek nature philosophy was evolving toward the concept of the individual and of individual being. This was reflected in the idea underlying Democritus’ philosophy—the concept of the atom as an indivisible material individual (the Greek atomos, as well as the Latin individuus, means indivisible). The atom was defined as being neither created nor perishing, as something indestructible and not subject to the influence of any external force. The atom is absolute being, in contrast to void, which is absolute nothingness, that is, absolute nonbeing. Thus for Democritus the atom is simply a geometric body that is also indestructible, eternal, and totally lacking in physical properties. Democritus denied the infinite divisibility of matter. Atoms differ from each other solely by their shape, arrangement, and position in empty space, as well as by their size and by their weight, which depends on their size. Their shapes are infinitely varied, with depressions or protuberances. Democritus also called atoms “figures” (Greek, schemata) or “images” (Greek, eidola), from which it follows that Democritus’ atoms were infinitely small figures incapable of further division.
In contemporary scholarship there has been a great deal of dispute as to whether Democritus’ atoms were physical or geometric bodies; Democritus himself, however, had not yet arrived at differentiating between physics and geometry. Individual integral bodies, as well as the entire world, are made up of atoms moving in various directions, that is, from their vortex, created as a result of natural necessity by the coming together of similar atoms. The motion of the atoms is eternal, and innumerable worlds arise. Atoms are invisible to men, but human relationships are explained by effluences from the atoms, that is, by “images,” which act upon our sense organs and cause corresponding sensations, so that nothing sweet or bitter, white or black, exists of itself, but only atoms and void.
The soul also consists of atoms—fiery, thin, round, and smooth—and after death it disintegrates into atoms. Thus the soul is not immortal. Although for Democritus thought is based on sensations and is completely corporeal, he nevertheless valued it above all else; sensations of themselves are false. With Democritus, ethics first became a distinct branch of knowledge. Democritus saw the greatest happiness in the freedom from everything sensory and accidental and in the calm clarity of the spirit. He was one of the first to speak of historical progress in the sciences, arts, and crafts, whose origin he attributed to necessity and to man’s needs. V. I. Lenin placed a high value on Democritus’ materialism and used his name in designating the materialist tradition in the history of philosophy, “Democritus’ line” (Poln. sobr. soch. 5th ed., vol. 18, pp. 131, 375–76).
WORKSDie Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 9th ed., vol. 2. Edited by H. Diels. Berlin, 1959. Chapter 68, pp. 81–229.
Russian translations of all the fragments by Democritus are in A. O. Makovel’skii, Drevnegrecheskie atomisty. Baku, 1946. Pages 209–365.
REFERENCESMarx, K., and F. Engels. Iz rannikh proizvedenii. Moscow, 1956. Pages 17–98.
Lur’e, S. la. Demokrit. Moscow, 1970.
Timoshenko, V. E. Materializm Demokrita. Moscow, 1959.
Asmus, A. F. Demokrit. [Moscow] 1960.
Losev, A. F. Istoriia antichnoi estetiki (ranniaia klassika). Moscow, 1963. Pages 428–500.
Natorp, P. Forschungen zur Geschichte des Erkenntnisproblems im Altertum. Berlin, 1884. Pages 164–208.
Löwenheim, L. Die Wissenschaft Demokrits. . .. Berlin, 1914.
Langerbeck, H. Studien zu Demokrits Ethik und Erkenntnislehre. Berlin, 1935.
A. F. LOSEV
Democritus (c. 460–c. 370 B.C.E.) was one of the earliest Western philosophers, favorably remembered by scientists as the ancient father of atomic theory. Historians often refer to all Greek philosophers who lived prior to Socrates as the pre-Socratics, and Democritus is included in this group. The pre-Socratics, who as a group were active from approximately 600 to 400 B.C.E., attempted to find universal principles to explain the whole of nature.
According to their philosophy, the apparent chaos of the world conceals a permanent and intelligible order, which can be accounted for by universal causes operating within nature itself and discoverable through human reason. They openly disagreed with the content and the method of mythology, maintaining that natural processes were no longer to be at the mercy of gods with human passions and unpredictable intentions. The pre-Socratics were skeptical about dreams, and they usually took a more speculative view of them.
According to Democritus, dreams can be regarded as the emanations from all persons and objects that are able to penetrate the dreamer’s body and consciousness. Democritus offered the same explanation for the phenomenon of dreaming animals. Through the pores of the body, the sleeper can perceive a series of images, which may be affected by the person’s bodily state and the quality of the air. Also, according to Democritus, images that came through the pores sometime in the past are kept alive in the memory.
Democritus maintained that dream-images seem to be objects of mental apprehension rather than images received in a waking state, and he claimed that they are, to an extent, independent of the senses which are implicitly denounced as the barrier separating individuals from true reality although they are still received in a way very similar to sense-perception. According to Democritus, images of living beings also bring those persons’ mental dispositions to the dreamer, that is, their thoughts, reasoning, and impulses.