Greek Philosophy – Democritus


Democritus (460 – 370 BCE) has been mentioned as the laughing philosopher, as opposed to Heraclitus, who is said to be the weeping philosopher.  Democritus was known in his hometown of Abdera as ‘the Mocker’, laughing at the foolishness of people as he studied and traveled in search of wisdom.  Abdera was a city to the north of Athens in Thrace (recall that Xenophanes said the Thracians portray the gods as having red hair).  Leucippus, the original Greek atomist from Miletus taught Democritus, and the two shared a common conception of the cosmos (along with atomists from India, like Kanada of the Vaisheshika school).  Aristotle, who was also from north of Athens, knew him and his work well.  Plato hated him and wanted his books burned.


Democritus’ father was very wealthy and had ties to Persia.  He was said to have received Xerxes and entertained him and his army as Xerxes was passing through on his way back from overrunning Athens and others supporting the Ionian rebellion.  In gratitude, Xerxes left behind several Magi, Zoroastrian scholar priests.  Democritus was said to have been taught by Ostanes, a Zoroastrian Magi.  Once source quotes Democritus as saying he would rather make a single great discovery than be Emperor of Persia.  This repeats the theme found with Heraclitus and Empedocles, placing scholarship before political power.  Democritus also traveled extensively, which he could afford, going to Persia, India, Egypt, and Ethiopia.  He lived in Egypt for some years, and praised Egyptian mathematics, like Pythagoras.  Some say he studied with Anaxagoras in Athens, but all Democritus tells us is that when he went to Athens, no one knew him.


For the atomists, there are two primary elements, two arche, being and nonbeing.  Atoms are beings, alike in being indivisible pure ‘beings’, but unlike in shape.  Nonbeing is the void in which the atoms move, combining and recombining.  The atoms are infinitely many, while the void is singular.  Atoms are indivisible, an answer to Parmenides’ Eleatic challenge regarding division as an infinite regress.  Atomists argued that reality is not infinitely divisible, but rather there is a smallest unit, the ‘atom’, a name which literally means ‘without’ (a) ‘cut’ (tom).  Strangely, modern science has kept the name while dividing things into smaller pieces.

Fire Flames

Also unlike our modern understanding, atoms connected physically with hooks and sockets, not by electromagnetic force.  The shape and features of atoms give substances their properties, either by purity or mixture.  Metal atoms have hooks and rigid connections, water atoms are slippery and round, and salt atoms are sharp, hence the taste.  Life and consciousness is made of fire atoms, which exist in plants, animals and humans.  The fire in us is what allows human beings to move and think.  Notice like Anaxagoras, who Democritus praises, salt is as basic as fire.  Democritus extends Anaxagoras’ theories with atomism.  However, unlike Anaxagoras but like Heraclitus, Democritus makes the soul from fire rather than abstract ‘mind’.

Leucippus and Democritus noted that material things decompose given time, but are also regenerated.  Things seem to both mix and unmix, becoming pure substances again.  This is because at the atomic level things do not mix or degenerate, hence their ability to become concentrated and pure again.


Atoms exist in void, the reason that things are able to move and change.  If there were no space between the atoms, there would be no room in which for them to recombine and change position relative to each other.  While Parmenides argued that void is non-being, and therefore can’t exist, the atomists argued that motion is a given and evident fact, so void must indeed exist as an actual emptiness, must be as a non-being.  Void, like the atoms, is infinite and eternal.  In reply to the Eleatic challenge, the atomists held that being and nonbeing do not mix.  Rather, they remain entirely distinct while the atoms continuously recombine, changing position relative to each other.  Motion thus does not require being to be nonbeing as Heraclitus said and Parmenides mocked him for saying.  However, this does create another question: Why have there always been separate and eternal atoms, and how are they indivisible?  The atomists do not answer.


Like Democritus, Newton argued that there was indeed void, absolute space, while Einstein later disagreed, saying that space and time are linked and have properties.  Currently, physicists side with Einstein as to the non-existence of absolute void but not with his Parmenidean conception of block time.

Anaxagoras sphere

Interestingly, Democritus is somewhat the opposite of Anaxagoras even as he borrows from him.  Anaxagoras, remember, believed that Parmenides was right insofar as total separation between things is an illusion because all things are only relatively separate.  For Democritus and the atomists, atoms remain completely distinct even when linked together, so the complete unity of things is an illusion.  For Anaxagoras, what appears to us to be complete separation is ignorance of the underlying connection.  For Democritus, what appears to us to be complete unity is ignorance of the underlying separation.  Heraclitus would argue that each grasps one half of the picture, each with their own relative truth and relative delusion.

Giant Buddha Indian Temple

A consequence of this would be that our own individual minds, which to us appear to be single unified wholes, are in fact a large number of fire atoms linked together, as is each thought and emotion we experience within the mind.  Similar to Buddhism, this would mean that we do not have a single, unified self, and the illusion arises from our inability to see ourselves at the atomic level.  Our self-awareness, our thoughts about ourselves, and our desire for self-preservation are made of distinct things that appear to us in our ignorance as wholes.  Buddha argued that the individual self is in fact a pile of experience which accumulates and then dissipates back into the cosmos, durable enough to reincarnate but ultimately impermanent.

democritus globe

Democritus thought that the world was round, and that there were other worlds, some with many suns and moons, others without any sun or moon.  This is like some Indian thought, and Democritus was said to have traveled to India.  Worlds are formed by the collision and combination of atoms in the void.  All worlds are born this way, and then die when they collide with other worlds.  Did he believe that the cosmos was in the process of forming larger and larger worlds, with future worlds made of this and others growing larger and larger?  What would the result of this process have been?  This is similar but different to Empedocles, who argued that love will result in a reunified world.  For Democritus, the world is amassing in size but the atoms remain eternally distinct even if increasingly joined in combination with one another.  Alternately, large and small worlds could decay, breaking into parts that later would recombine into all sizes of worlds, large and small.

lithium atoms Berkeley

Democritus argued that we cannot know ultimate truth, as it is beyond our perception, just as the atoms and other worlds are themselves beyond our perceptions.  Like Empedocles, Democritus thought that true knowledge does not come through the senses, but through the mind, through reason.  The atoms influence us as we interact with them, technically as our atoms interact with foreign atoms, but we cannot perceive the interactions.  Rather, we must use reason to figure it out.  This is still true today with modern physics, as we do not perceive quarks but rather their effects after colliding them together in accelerators.  Neither the original microscope nor the electronic microscope allows us to see at the subatomic level, though we can today see the outlines of atoms using electronic microscopes in places such as Berkeley.

paul feyerabend

The skeptical philosopher of science Feyerabend noted that the size of electrons has been shrinking in recent decades, not that the electrons themselves are smaller but our estimates of their size have shrunk.  When Bohr first conceived of the atom as a small solar system, a model that already violates the literal use of the term ‘atom’, he could see solar systems in outer space but not under a microscope.  We may be just beginning to realize that atoms are not small solar systems, nor do electrons have a simply negative charge.  Consider that magnets have both a positive and negative charge, which is why they only link when the poles are aligned correctly.  Strangely, atoms may be singular wholes like Democritus believed, but are still divisible if broken or smashed through collision.

democritus bust

Some sources say that Democritus blinded himself so that he could pursue his studies without distraction, which would fit with putting reason above the senses.  This seems entirely unlikely however, as like Empedocles he believed that one should reason beyond what is perceived, not ignore perception entirely.

Democritus argued that the fire atoms that make our minds are impressed upon by formations of atoms from outside, which forms images or ‘idols’ of things, our mental conceptions.  Aristotle later followed a similar theory, similar to the much later British empiricist Hume, that the mind is imprinted by things and concepts come from these impressions.

Democratus laughs with globe

Democritus said, “Reason is a powerful persuader”, thinking similar to that of the modern philosopher Nietzsche who was mentioned with Heraclitus, as well as the skepticism of Xenophanes and Heraclitus, who say that our understandings are always inferior copies and that human beings conceive of the gods by way of statues and idols which are mere human made images.  Also similar to these philosophers, Democritus argued that the things which are good in some situations are bad in others, giving deep water as an example of something both useful and dangerous.  Bad can come of things that we believe are simply good when we are ignorant.

roman augurs

According to some sources, Democritus believed that the gods are enormous beings that live in the air, which communicate through dreams and images, the source of belief in gods and in prophecy.   According to others, Democritus did not believe the gods were real, but rather people witnessed extraordinary things in the air like thunder and lightning and attributed it to human-like beings.  Either way, he was critical of observing animals for omens.  Our word ‘inauguration’ comes partly from the Latin ‘Augur’, a Roman priest who would examine the flight and behavior of birds when a new official came to power to predict good or bad fortune.

confucius right side

Democritus also famously said with regard to the gods, “Man is what we know”, very similar to Confucius of China who argued we should worry about this life rather than the next and learn to feed human beings before attempting to feed the spirits.  However, Democritus believed that the verses of Homer were too beautiful to not be divinely inspired and was reported to have said, “Only those who hate injustice are loved by the gods”.  Like Xenophanes, he seems to believe that there are gods and divinity, but our understandings are quite limited.  This is similar to Heraclitus, although Heraclitus believed Homer should be beaten for being impious.

pythagorean teaching

Like Empedocles, Democritus was critical of tyranny, arguing that equality is superior to tyranny.  Unfortunately, like the American founding fathers, Democritus did not extend this equality to women, slaves or foreigners.  He mockingly said that some cities are ruled by men who are slaves to their women, and that being “ruled by a woman is the final insult for a man”.  He also said that women should not be permitted to argue, as it was a terrible thing.  He does not mention whether women are terrible at arguing, or that their arguments have terrible consequences for men, regardless of their quality.  Epicurus, who we will study near the end of the course, explicitly invited women and slaves into his garden which served as his school and the center of Epicureanism.

Democritus pinting

Democritus believed that a life of moderation and discipline results in true happiness.  Just as medicine heals sickness in the body, wisdom removes desire from the mind.  Wisdom is superior to knowledge, as he says, “Many have much learning and no thought…One should cultivate much thought, not much learning”.  Attachment to worldly things and undisciplined anger brings destruction.  Democritus said that scratching an itch gave the same pleasure as sex, and that desire for wealth was worse than poverty, downplaying physical pleasure.  While well bred animals have strong bodies, excellent people have great minds.

Beijing, Confucius Temple

The things necessary for life can be easily found, and it is only unnecessary things that bring us great pain and misery in life.  This did not mean one could not celebrate or indulge, as he did say, “A life without a feast is a long road without an inn”, but not to the degree of immoderate imbalance and not to the detriment of wisdom, saying, “Violent appetite blinds the soul to everything else”.  Profiting from doing wrong is the worst of all things.  Also similar to Confucius, Democritus said that one should examine one’s own mistakes rather than those of others, and that the truly strong person is not one who conquers enemies but conquers the self and the passions.  Rather than pray to the gods, improving the self will bring all the contentment one could ask for.

spider web

Originally, Democritus argued, human beings were equal, living a simple life devoid of language or technology in which they had to band together against wild beasts.  They slowly made discoveries by trial and error, learning to build shelter, make fire, farm crops, raise livestock, and communicate.  Democritus saw himself as an heir to this continuing project, the development of civilization.  He even argued that human beings became civilized by imitating animals, learning weaving from spiders, singing from birds, and building from bird’s nests (ancient Greece was sadly devoid of beavers).

Julius Caesar

After Plato and Aristotle, we will study Epicurus and the Stoics, who borrowed much from Democritus and the atomists, including both atoms and the ideal of moderation in life.  It is through Epicurus and Aristotle that Democritus’ thought became influential on later periods.  Later Pyrrhonists saw Democritus, as well as Xenophanes and Zeno, as forerunning skeptics of their own tradition.  Like Heraclitus, who says that nature loves to hide, Democritus said, “In reality, we know nothing, for truth is in the depths”, arguing that we must remind ourselves that we are always relatively removed from the reality that surrounds us.  Also, like Heraclitus, Democritus said, “The world is change, life is opinion”, and “The world is a stage, life is our entrance: You came, you saw, you left”, a saying far more cynical than Julius Caesar’s “I came, I saw, I conquered”.

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