Crying Heraclitus and laughing Democritus
Crying Heraclitus and laughing Democritus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Democritus (460-370 BCE) was a Greek Presocratic philosopher born in Thrace whose surviving fragments reveal that he wrote on physics, math, ethics and music.

His atomic theory, coming to us through Aristotle, posits an infinite number of differently shaped and everlasting atoms(tiny indivisible particles) that randomly combine to create an infinite number of worlds throughout time. Each world displays natural laws but since randomly generated, they are not intelligently directed by a creator.

Democritus was keenly aware of the now common distinction between macroscopic and microscopic reality. This is quite remarkable considering he lived over 1,900 years before the first primitive microscope was invented in 1590 CE. As he writes in Fragment 9:

Conventionally sweet, conventionally bitter, conventionally hot, conventionally cold, conventionally color, but really atoms and void.¹

He was also aware of the need for some kind or locus of consciousness (i.e. the soul) which he sees as the underlying cause of life as perceived through the five senses. For Democritus the soul is composed of tiny round atoms, and instead of being eternal, is subject to death. And again, remarkably, Democritus believed that the soul perceives things when its atoms are impacted by the atoms of worldly objects.²

David John Furley notes that Democritus’ theories met with significant opposition. With the exception of Epicurus and Lucretius, the leading figures of the ancient world preferred the ideas of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics over his own. And by the time of the scientific revolution, when the importance of his ideas became clear, almost all of his complete works were lost.³

¹ John Palmer ” Democritus of Abdera ” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Ed. Michael Gagarin. © Oxford University Press 2010. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome: (e-reference edition). Oxford University Press. Toronto Public Library. 5 July 2012

² David John Furley, The Oxford Classical Dictionary Oxford University Press 1996, 2000.

³ Ibid.


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