Biography of Democritus, Greek Philosopher

The Greek 10 Drachma coin was illustrated with a bust of Democritus.
The Greek 10 Drachma coin was illustrated with a bust of Democritus.

Wrangel / Getty Images Plus

Democritus of Abdera (ca. 460–361) was a pre-socratic Greek philosopher who traveled widely as a youth and developed a philosophy and some rather forward-looking ideas about how the universe worked. He was a bitter rival of both Plato and Aristotle

Key Takeaways: Democritus

  • Known For: Greek philosopher of Atomism, the Laughing Philosopher 
  • Born: 460 BCE, Abdera, Thrace
  • Parents: Hegesistratus (or Damasippus or Athenocritus)
  • Died: 361, Athens
  • Education: Self-educated
  • Published Works: "Little World-Order," at least 70 other works which are not extant
  • Notable Quote: "Life in a foreign land teaches self-sufficiency, for bread and a mattress of straw are the sweetest cures for hunger and fatigue."

Early Life 

Democritus was born about 460 BCE at Abdera in Thrace, the son of a wealthy, well-connected man named Hegesistratus (or Damasippus or Athenocritus—sources vary.) His father had large enough parcels of land that he was said to be able to house the Persian king Xerxes' formidable army in 480 when he was on his way to conquer Greece. 

When his father died, Democritus took his inheritance and spent it traveling to distant lands, slaking his nearly endless thirst for knowledge. He traveled over much of Asia, studied geometry in Egypt, went to the Red Sea and Persia regions to learn from the Chaldeans, and may have visited Ethiopia.  

After returning home, he traveled widely in Greece, meeting many of the Greek philosophers and becoming friends with other pre-socratic thinkers such as Leucippus (died 370 BCE), Hippocrates (460–377 BCE), and Anaxagoras (510–428 BCE). Although none of his dozens of essays on everything from mathematics to ethics to music to natural science have survived to the present day, pieces and second-hand reports of his work are convincing evidence.

Democritus
Engraving from a bust in the Museum at the Vatican of the Greek philosopher Democritus.  Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

The Epicurean 

Democritus was known as the Laughing Philosopher, in part because he enjoyed life and followed an epicurean lifestyle. He was a cheerful teacher and writer of many things—he wrote in a strong Ionic dialect and style that the orator Cicero (106–43 BCE) admired. His writing was often favorably compared to Plato (428–347 BCE), which did not please Plato.

In his underlying ethical nature, he believed that a life worth living was a life enjoyed and that many people crave a long life but don't enjoy it because all the pleasure is overshadowed by a fear of death.

Atomism 

Along with the philosopher Leucippus, Democritus is credited with founding the ancient theory of atomism. These philosophers were trying to form a way to explain how changes in the world are generated—where does life arise and how? 

Democritus and Leucippus maintained that the entire universe is made up of atoms and voids. Atoms, they said, are elementary particles that are indestructible, homogeneous in quality, and move around in the spaces between them. Atoms are infinitely variable in their shape and size, and everything that exists is made up of clusters of atoms. All creation or genesis results from the coming together of atoms, their colliding and clustering, and all decay results from the clusters eventually breaking apart. To Democritus and Leucippus, everything from the sun and the moon to the soul are made up of atoms.

Visible objects are clusters of atoms in different shapes, arrangements, and positions. The clusters act on each other, said Democritus, by pressure or impact from a series of external forces, such as a magnet on iron, or light on the eye. 

Democritus and Heraclitus
"Democritus and Heraclitus." Oil on canvas by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, called Lo Spagnuolo (1665-1747). Toulouse, musee des Augustins. adoc-photos / Getty Images

Perception 

Democritus was supremely interested in how perception occurs, in such a world with atoms in it, and he concluded that visible images are created by the peeling off of layers from objects. The human eye is an organ that can perceive such layers, and communicate information to the individual. To explore his notions of perceptions, Democritus is said to have dissected animals and was accused (apparently falsely) of doing the same to humans.

He also felt that different taste sensations were the product of differently shaped atoms: some atoms tear the tongue creating a bitter taste, while others are smooth and create sweetness. 

However, the knowledge gained from perception is imperfect, he believed, and to gain true knowledge, one must use the intellect to avoid false impressions from the outer world and discover a causality and meaning. The processes of thought, said Democritus and Leucippus, is also a result of those atomistic impacts.

Death and Legacy

Democritus is said to have lived a very long life—some sources say he was 109 when he died in Athens. He died in poverty and blindness but was highly esteemed. The historian Diogenes Laertius (180–240 CE) wrote a biography of Democritus, although only fragments survive today. Diogenes listed 70 works by Democritus, none of which made it to the present, but there are multitudes of revealing excerpts, and one fragment relating to atomism called the "Little World Order," a companion to Leucippus' "World Order."

Sources and Further Reading

  • Berryman, Sylvia. "Democritus." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Zalta, Edward N. Stanford, CA: Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2016. 
  • Chitwood, Ava. "Death by Philosophy: The Biographical Tradition in the Life and Death of the Archaic Philosophers Empedocles, Heraclitus, and Democritus." Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 2004. 
  • Luthy, Christoph. "The Fourfold Democritus on the Stage of Early Modern Science." Isis 91.3 (2000): 443–79.
  • Rudolph, Kelli. "Democritus' Ophthalmology." The Classical Quarterly 62.2 (2012): 496–501.
  • Smith, William, and G.E. Marindon, eds. "Democritus." A Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology, and Geography. London: John Murray, 1904.
  • Stewart, Zeph. "Democritus and the Cynics." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 63 (1958): 179–91.
  • Warren, J. I. "Democritus, the Epicureans, Death, and Dying." The Classical Quarterly 52.1 (2002): 193–206.