The Laughing Philosopher: Democritus of Abdera and the Indivisible Atom

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Plato demanded Democritus' writings should be burned. Photo by Douglas Cameron, with permission, all right reserved.

Plato demanded the burning of Democritus’ writings. Photo by Douglas Cameron, used with permission.

Democritus of Abdera, (c.460BC – 370BC) who was a younger contemporary of Socrates, was extraordinary and a maverick of his time.

He infuriated Plato, who demanded the burning of Democritus’ work.

Other intellectuals ignored Democritus, so he became, in a sense, intellectually isolated.

His central tenet was, according to Jostein Gaardner in Sophie’s World, that “transformations in nature could not be due to the fact that anything actually “changed.” From this, evolved an amazing theory for those ancient times.

While we don’t know a great deal about Democritus from his own writing, as only fragments survive, what we do know from the writings of others, such as his rival, Aristotle, boggles the mind.  

There are other compilations that are allegedly the work or sayings of Democritus, but academics still debate their authenticity.

Democritus – a Great Natural Philosopher

Democritus, who lived hundreds of years before Jesus Christ was born, claims the existence of atoms and space. His teacher was Leucippus, also an atomist. However, it was Democritus who developed and elaborated on the theory and who we now consider the founder of this ancient and inspired concept.

In Philosophy, 100 Great Thinkers, Jeremy Harwood says, “What makes him important… is his assertion that countless, indivisible atoms, which are constantly in motion and travelling in an infinite void, are the basic stuff of the universe… all material objects are simply temporary concentrations of atoms, which are destroyed when the atoms disperse.”

Jostein Gaardner explains that the word “atom” actually means “un-cuttable.” Therefore, the parts which compose matter could not be indefinitely reduced into smaller parts. If it could, then, according to Democritus, we would end up with “soup.”

A Kind of Reincarnation Enabled by “Hooks and Barbs”

These atomic building blocks would be eternal, because nothing, according to Democritus, can come from nothing. He believes that when a living entity dies, its atoms disintegrate and reform in new bodies through using their hooks and barbs. Jostein Gaardner likens this theory to Lego blocks, that can be used over and over.

Today we can establish that Democritus’ atom theory was more or less correct,” says Gaardner. Without a doubt, the philosopher had no time for the theories that suggested a force or a soul, and able to influence natural situations. Laws of necessity are obeyed, so the process is not entirely random, but everything happens “mechanically.”

In her article, Democritus, Sylvia Berryman explains: “Democritus apparently recognized a need to account for the fact that the disorderly motion of individual distinct atoms could produce an orderly cosmos in which atoms are not just randomly scattered, but cluster to form masses of distinct types. He is reported to have relied on a tendency of ‘like to like’ which exists in nature: just as animals of a kind cluster together, so atoms of similar kinds cluster by size and shape.”

Bertrand Russell in History of Western Philosophy, makes an interesting modern-day connection: “It seems more probable… atoms were originally moving at random, as in the modern kinetic theory of gases.” Russell adds that there is no “up or down” in Democritus’ infinite void or space, in which the atoms move.

So, in conclusion, we can see that there are two realities for Democritus, that of atoms and that of voids.

Democritus believes the atoms of the moon shrink and enter the human eye. Photo by Frank Parker, with permission, all rights reserved.

Democritus believes the atoms of the moon shrink and enter the human eye. Photo by Frank Parker, used with permission.

Respect for Natural Laws

Further, Russell points out, the atomists were, in their time, reproached for leaving everything to chance. (Here, Russell is including the teacher, Leucippus.) Russell disputes this accusation, claiming the atomists were “strict determinists, who believed that everything happens according to natural laws.”

Democritus says the same thing happens with our sense perception. We sense things “due to the movement of atoms in space,” says Gaardner, using, as an example, the moon, whose atoms penetrate the eye when one is looking at it. The soul, that rather inept entity, also consists of atoms – in fact, it is composed of “special round, smooth, “soul” atoms,” says Gaardner. All these atoms went flying out of the body in all directions before forming a new soul.  

Some of Democritus’ ideas about the behaviour of atoms are quite bizarre, such as that: “…only those (atoms) that shrink sufficiently can enter the eye,” according to Sylvia Berryman.

The conclusion, according to some academics, is that there is no specific, immortal soul in Democritus’ theory and, therefore, no life after death. However, Sylvia Berryman points out that Aristotle’s writing states that Democritus thought the soul was mainly composed of fire atoms.

So, did the philosopher believe or disbelieve that we have a soul? The evidence is not conclusive.

“Democritus seems to have considered thought to be caused by physical movements of atoms also. This is sometimes taken as evidence that Democritus denied the survival of a personal soul after death, although the reports are not univocal on this,” says Berryman.

The Most Scientific Theory of Antiquity

The atomists’ theory is more in tune with today’s modern science than any other put forward in antiquity. Bertrand Russell says, “Aristotle and others reproached him (Leucippus) and Democritus for not accounting for the original motion of the atoms, but in this the atomists were more scientific than their critics. Causation must start from something, and wherever it starts no cause can be assigned for the initial datum… the Creator Himself is unaccounted for.”

The Importance of Cheerfulness

Democritus claims that “equality is noble;” this does not include women or slaves, but of course, this was the general attitude of the culture and time in which he lived. Yet it seems that in many ways, his ideas caused him to live as a loner with definite ideas of what the world is like.

He also coins very specific terms of reference for two kinds of knowledge: “Bastard knowledge” means knowledge obtained from sense perceptions, and “legitimate knowledge” means knowledge through the intellect.

Democritus insists on the importance of cheerfulness, and describes it as the ultimate good. Cheerfulness is, he says, as quoted by Harwood, “…a state in which the soul lives peacefully and tranquilly undisturbed by fear, superstition or any other feeling.” This happiness, says, Democritus, “does not reside in possessions.”

The Laughing Philosopher

Jeremy Harwood describes Democritus as the “last of the great pre-Socratic philosophers,” but we also know him, endearingly, as “The Laughing Philosopher,” due to his insistence on the value of cheerfulness.

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© Copyright 2014 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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