Greek Philosophy 8: Democritus & Diogenes
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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”.
Diogenes of Sinope (412 – 323 BCE) also known as Diogenes the Cynic, was born in Sinope, an Ionian colony in what is today North Turkey on the Black Sea. He is not Diogenes Laertius, the biographer of philosophers we have heard much from, nor is he several different Diogenes who are less famous Greek philosophers.
Legend has it that Diogenes’ father was a banker in charge of the mint, making coins for the government, but Diogenes “defaced the currency” and was banished. One source says that Diogenes went to the Oracle at Delphi, and the pythias told him to deface the currency. Large numbers of coins have been found in the region that have been defaced, some with Diogenes’ father’s name on them as the minter. While some believe that Diogenes and his father were involved in counterfeiting, it is likely that this is a metaphor for Diogenes’ rejection of traditional life, the “way of his father”, the common currency used in the marketplace. Diogenes believed that people were corrupted by society, and should return to a simple life. It is also true that there were, understandably, warring factions of pro-Greek separatists and pro-Persian loyalists fighting over authority of the city, and the coins may not have involved Diogenes but rather political infighting. If this is true, the story stuck to Diogenes as a metaphor after the fact. Either way, sources tell us that Diogenes moved to Athens, where he became famous for his lifestyle and amusingly cynical interactions with others.
In Athens, Antisthenes (445 – 365 BCE), a student of Socrates, was the first to make Cynicism a distinct philosophy. Socrates did prefer the simple life, and despised wealth and excess. Diogenes became the most famous and emblematic cynic. While later cynics believed that Diogenes studied with Antisthenes, this is questionable. According to the story, Diogenes heard Antisthenes in the marketplace, and offered to become his disciple. Antisthenes tried to chase him away, beating him with his staff, and Diogenes replied that he was going nowhere, there being no staff hard enough to drive him away from Antisthenes’ wisdom. Diogenes admired Antisthenes for being the antithesis of the average Athenian, who increasingly had come to indulge in luxury and excess as Athens had become the wealthy center of the newly independent Delian League.
Diogenes when asked said he was a citizen of the world, literally a ‘cosmopolitan’ (like the socialite, not the beverage). Diogenes is thought by some to have invented the term by use of this expression. This was also a radical rejection of tradition, as most identified with their city and saw outsiders as barbarians.
None of his writings survive, but anecdotes about his life are found in the writings of others, particularly Diogenes Laertius (again, a different Diogenes). His life is quite famous. Many famous paintings from the Renaissance and in the realist style before impressionism of the late 1800s feature Diogenes and stories of his life.
Diogenes begged for a living, sleeping in a large jar on its side in public. He meant for his life to be seen in the center of town, hoping that his example would inspire others, and bragged about his immunity to the weather, unlike someone used to comfort and fine living. Diogenes would walk barefoot in snow and roll in hot sand to toughen himself. When asked if he was being too extreme, he replied that he was the lead singer of a chorus, who must sing louder than the others to give them the right note. When asked why he begged for his food, Diogenes said it taught people. When asked what it taught them, he replied, “Generosity”.
Someone in the biological sciences must have had an appreciation of Greek cynicism, as well as a decent sense of humor. ‘Diogenes’ is the genus of hermit crabs, those crabs that live like Diogenes the hermit, in a vessel they find and come to inhabit.
Diogenes originally owned a wooden bowl which he used to eat and drink, but smashed it after seeing a poor boy drinking from his cupped hands. He would eat in the marketplace, even though this was indecent according to Athenian custom, saying it was the only place he felt hungry. Clearly, the joke is that markets cause appetites.
In one of the most famous stories, Diogenes carried a lamp in the daytime around Athens and said he was looking for an honest man, the joke of course being that one could not be found in plain sight during broad daylight. This is very similar to Socrates, who wandered Athens in search of someone who truly knew something but could find no one.
Diogenes was against complicated theory, believing that true wisdom was rather found in the practice of a simple life ruled by reason and moderation. With Parmenides, it was already mentioned that when Diogenes was approached by a Parmenidean who argued that motion is impossible, Diogenes got up and left. This is both a refutation of the Eleatic challenge and an example of putting practice over theory.
Called “Diogenes the Dog”, it is unknown whether this was an insult that he came to accept as a badge of honor or he came up with the concept himself. The word ‘cynic’ comes from the ancient Greek kynikos, ‘dog-like’. Diogenes noted that dogs sleep anywhere, eat anything, and do their natural bodily functions in the open without shame. Dogs are honest and free of human anxieties, and so Diogenes believed people should study dogs to learn how to live. Diogenes said that while dogs bite their enemies, he bites his friends, shocking them to teach them about life.
Diogenes said that wealth was inferior to courage, custom inferior to nature, and passion inferior to reason. Several stories involve Diogenes being obscene, further rejecting custom and tradition to show people that they were attached to things that were meaningless. He said that if one walked around with one’s pinkie extended all day, no one would be offended, but if you walked around with your middle finger extended all day, everyone would be outraged. “What difference does one finger make?”, he asked. He was known for frequently flipping people ‘the bird’, a gesture which still means today what it meant in ancient Athens.
Adding to his reputation as a dog, he is said to have defecated in the theater and urinated on people who insulted him. In one tale, Diogenes was invited to a rich man’s party, but his behavior attracted the anger of one of the guests who began to call him a dog and throwing bones at him. Diogenes walked up to him, lifted his robe, and peed on him. Once, when invited into a man’s home and told not to spit on the floor, he cleared his throat and spit in the man’s face. Another time, when the Athenians had outlawed masturbation, he stood in the marketplace masturbating, calling on all honest men to join him. When asked later about this, he said that he wished it were just as easy to cure hunger by rubbing one’s empty stomach. This technique, like his walks with the lamp, failed to find an honest man in broad daylight.
Later cynics, who looked back to Diogenes for inspiration, would do all these things, go barefoot, urinate, have sex in public, and generally not give much of a damn about social conventions. This is similar to the dada artists of the early 1900s, the beatniks of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. Opposed to a society engaged in war and commercialism, these countercultural movements rejected acceptable societal norms and brought obscenity and sexuality to the fore, hoping to shock traditional people into greater awareness of the situation.
Marcuse, a German philosopher popular with the hippies who rejected the commercialism of ‘the Establishment’, argued that female genitalia is not obscene, but rather war and poverty that are obscene. The modern French philosopher Foucault, also influential to hippies, read Diogenes to resist power and authority. Sloterdijk, in his Critique of Cynical Reason (1987) argued we must return to Diogenes for inspiration today, and that actors who portray the obscene and terrible are engaged in the rejection and criticism of authority and tradition, just like Diogenes.
In Athens, Diogenes was said to have interrupted Plato’s lectures on more than one occasion, arguing against Plato’s interpretation of Socrates. Diogenes believed, perhaps correctly, that Antisthenes was Socrates’ true heir, and Plato had hijacked his legacy. Plato said that Diogenes was “Socrates gone mad”. Once, after Plato had argued that humans should be classified as featherless bipeds, Diogenes plucked a chicken and brought it to Plato during a lecture, saying, “Behold! I bring you a man”. One source says Plato changed the definition to include broad flat nails after this, though he may as well have gone with beak-less.
According to another story, Plato was teaching about ideal forms and pointed to several cups on a table, arguing that there were many physical cups, but only one idea and form of the cup, which was in the mind, superior to the physical copies. Diogenes, heckling Plato from the gathered crowd, said that he can see the cups, but not this superior ideal form. Plato replied that we can have it in our mind. Diogenes picked up a cup, noted that it was empty, and asked Plato where the emptiness of the cup comes from. Plato paused, unsure of the answer. Plato, like Parmenides, did not believe void to exist, as it had no form. Diogenes walked up to him, tapped him on the forehead, and said, “I believe that you can find the emptiness here, Plato”.
In another story, Diogenes was asked by some who had gathered if he could lead them to Plato. Diogenes led them to a deserted area of town, gestured into the empty air and said, “May I humbly present you the great philosopher Plato”. This is, of course, another jab at Plato’s idealism and putting theory and the ideal over the practical and the real.
In another, Plato came upon Diogenes washing vegetables in a stream. “Oh Diogenes”, said Plato, “If you only knew how to court kings, you would not have to wash vegetables”, to which Diogenes replied, “And Plato, if you only knew how to wash vegetables, you would not have to court kings”.
Diogenes was also said to have mocked Alexander the Great as he passed through Athens on his conquests, who was happy to have found the famous philosopher and offered to give him anything. Diogenes famously replied that Alexander could move so that he was no longer blocking his sunlight. This story contains a joke too, as Alexander had himself crowned a god and identified with the sun in Egypt, while Diogenes sees him as a hindrance to the sun. Alexander, impressed by Diogenes’ courage, said that, if he could not be Alexander, he would wish to be Diogenes. In another story, Alexander found Diogenes looking through a pile of bones, and when asked what he was doing Diogenes said that he was looking for Alexander’s father’s bones, but they seem no different than a slave’s. Alexander came from the North of Athens, and would have been considered a barbarian like Diogenes himself as well as Aristotle. It is likely these encounters never happened, but grew in later times after cynicism had become popular in lands formerly conquered by Alexander.
When he was near death, Diogenes told his friends that he wished to have his corpse thrown outside the city, where it would be eaten by birds and beasts. When some refused, Diogenes replied that he would not be aware of what was going on, so there was no problem. One source says that Diogenes died voluntarily by holding his breath, by our understandings today impossible as he would simply pass out and resume breathing involuntarily, but similar to accounts of Indian sages who could stop their breath and heart voluntarily when they chose to die. The ability to shut down one’s central nervous system at will would be a dramatic conquest of mind over body. Another source says that Diogenes died from a dog bite. The first seems to hold Diogenes in great esteem, the second an insult from a critic. Other sources say Diogenes died of old age.
As a philosophy, Cynicism held that happiness is found through being in accord with nature, simple and self-sufficient. Unnatural things such as power, fame and luxuries cause ignorance and discord with nature, which then causes unhappiness. This is quite similar to Democritus we just studied, who argued that if we are content with what we have we lose desire for what is excessive and unnecessary. As some scholars have noted, it is also very similar to Daoism of ancient China. Both body and mind must be disciplined such that they are tranquil and comfortable in the natural world, free of the bondage of desire. Diogenes said that bad people obey their desires as slaves obey their masters.
Later, Cynicism fed into Stoicism. Diogenes taught Crates in Corinth, who passed it to Zeno of Citium (a different Zeno than the student and possibly more of Parmenides), who turned it into Stoicism. Cynicism and Stoicism were both popular in ancient Rome at the height of the empire. Note that, just like with the beatniks and hippies, it is at the height of civilization that many turn away in disgust from excess and corruption. Some Roman critics called the Cynics “the Army of the Dog”.
As Christianity developed into a major religion in ancient Greece and Rome, it was influenced by both of these as well. Some scholars have argued that Jesus was a Jewish cynic, pointing to many details of his life and teachings. Mack and Crossan, two scholars who created the Jesus Seminar, argue that the historical Jesus was a Galilean who was influenced by Greek ideas and the Jewish prophetic tradition found in the Old Testament, and that later his life was turned into legend. If this is true, Empedocles might also have been an influence, as Jesus was a healer who taught that we are all divine. Some cynics were martyred in Roman lands for speaking out against authority, as Jesus and later Christians were. One major difference was cynic shamelessness, being naked and open about base matters. Christians, while embracing the poverty and simplicity of cynicism, did not approve of nudity and brute honesty, calling it immodesty and worthy of the label ‘dog’.