Chapter 7. DEMOCRITUS(? 460-357
Democritus was the son of Hegesistratus, though some
say of Athenocritus, and others again of Damasippus. He was a native
of Abdera or, according to some, of Miletus. He was a pupil of
certain Magians and Chaldaeans. For when King
Xerxes was entertained by the father of Democritus he left men in
charge, as, in fact, is stated by Herodotus1
; and from these men, while still a boy, he learned
theology and astronomy. Afterwards he met Leucippus and, according
to some, Anaxagoras, being forty years younger than the latter. But
Favorinus in his Miscellaneous History
that Democritus, speaking of Anaxagoras, declared that his views on
the sun and the moon were not original but of great antiquity, and
that he had simply stolen them. Democritus also pulled to pieces the
views of Anaxagoras on cosmogony and on mind,
having a spite against
him, because Anbaxagoras did not take to him. If this be so, how
could he have been his pupil, as some suggest ?
Demetrius in his book on Men of the Same Name
and Antisthenes in his Successions of
, he travelled into Egypt to learn geometry from
the priests, and he also went into Persia to visit the Chaldaeans as
well as to the Red Sea. Some say that he associated with the
Gymnosophists in India and went to Aethiopia. Also that, being the
third son, he divided the family property. Most authorities will
have it that he chose the smaller portion, which was in money,
because he had need of this to pay the cost of travel; besides, his
brothers were crafty enough to foresee that this would be his
Demetrius estimates his share at over 100 talents, the whole
of which he spent. His industry, says the same author, was so great
that he cut off a little room in the garden round the house and shut
himself up there. One day his father brought an ox to sacrifice and
tied it there, and he was not aware of it for a considerable
until his father roused him to attend the
sacrifice and told him about the ox. Demetrius goes on : "It would
seem that he also went to Athens and was not anxious to be
recognized, because he despised fame, and that while he knew of
Socrates, he was not known to Socrates, his words being, `I came to
Athens and no one knew me.'"
"If the Rivals
be the work of Plato," says Thrasylus,
"Democritus will be the unnamed character, different from Oenopides
and Anaxagoras, who makes his appearance when conversation is going
on with Socrates about philosophy, and to whom Socrates says that
the philosopher is like the all-round athlete.2
And truly Democritus was
versed in every department of philosophy, for he had trained himself
both in physics and in ethics, nay more, in mathematics and the
routine subjects of education, and he was quite an expert in the
arts." From him we have the saying, "Speech is the shadow of
action." Demetrius of Phalerum in his Defence of
affirms that he did not even visit Athens. This is to
make the larger claim, namely, that he thought that great city
beneath his notice, because he did not care to win fame from a
place, but preferred himself to make a place famous.
character can also be seen from his writings. "He would seem," says
Thrasylus, "to have been an admirer of the Pythagoreans. Moreover,
he mentions Pythagoras himself, praising him in a work of his own
seems to have taken all his ideas from him and, if chronology did
not stand in the way, he might have been thought his pupil." Glaucus
of Rhegium certainly says that
he was taught by
one of the Pythagoreans, and Glaucus was his contemporary.
Apollodorus of Cyzicus, again, will have it that he lived with
He would train himself, says Antisthenes, by a
variety of means to test his sense-impressions by going at times
into solitude and frequenting tombs.
The same authority states that,
when he returned from his travels, he was reduced to a humble mode
of life because he had exhausted his means ; and, because of his
poverty, he was supported by his brother Damasus. But his reputation
rose owing to his having foretold certain future events ; and after
that the public deemed him worthy of the honour paid to a god.4
There was a law, says Antisthenes, that no one who had squandered
his patrimony should be buried in his native city. Democritus,
understanding this, and fearing lest he should be at the mercy of
any envious or unscrupulous prosecutors, read aloud to the people
his treatise, the Great Diacosmos
, the best of
all his works ; and then he was rewarded with 500 talents ; and,
more than that, with bronze statues as well ; and when he died, he
received a public funeral after a lifetime of more than a century.
Demetrius, however, says that it was not Democritus himself but his
relatives who read the Great Diacosmos
that the sum awarded was 100 talents only ; with this account
Aristoxenus in his Historical Notes
affirms that Plato wished to burn
all the writings of Democritus that he could collect, but that
Amyclas and Clinias
the Pythagoreans prevented
him, saying that there was no advantage in doing so, for already the
books were widely circulated. And there is clear evidence for this
in the fact that Plato, who mentions almost all the early
philosophers, never once alludes to Democritus, not even where it
would be necessary to controvert him, obviously because he knew that
he would have to match himself against the prince of philosophers,
for whom, to be sure, Timon5
meed of praise6
Such is the wise Democritus, the guardian of
discourse, keen-witted disputant, among the best I ever read.
As regards chronology, he was, as he says himself in the Lesser Diacosmos
, a young man when Anaxagoras was
old, being forty years his junior. He says that the Lesser Diacosmos
was compiled 730 years after the
capture of Troy. According to Apollodorus in his Chronology
he would thus have been born in the 80th
but according to Thrasylus
in his pamphlet entitled Prolegomena to the Reading
of the works of Democritus
, in the third year of the 77th
which makes him, adds
Thrasylus, one year older than Socrates. He would then be a
contemporary of Archelaus, the pupil of Anaxagoras, and of the
school of Oenopides ; indeed he mentions Oenopides.
alludes to the doctrine of the One held by Parmenides and Zeno, they
being evidently the persons most talked about in his day ; he also
mentions Protagoras of Abdera, who, it is admitted, was a
contemporary of Socrates.
Athenodorus in the eighth book of
relates that, when Hippocrates came
to see him, he ordered
milk to be brought, and,
having inspected it, pronounced it to be the milk of a black
she-goat which had produced her first kid ; which made Hippocrates
marvel at the accuracy of his observation. Moreover, Hippocrates
being accompanied by a maidservant, on the first day Democritus
greeted her with "Good morning, maiden," but the next day with "Good
morning, woman," As a matter of fact the girl had been seduced in
Of the death of Democritus the account given by
Hermippus is as follows. When he was now very old and near his end,
his sister was vexed that he seemed likely to die during the
festival of Thesmophoria and she would be prevented from paying
the fitting worship to the goddess. He bade her be of good cheer and
ordered hot loaves to be brought to him every day. By applying these
to his nostrils he contrived to outlive the festival ; and as soon
as the three festival days were passed he let his life go from him
without pain, having then, according to Hipparchus, attained his one
hundred and ninth year.
In my Pammetros
I have a piece on him as follows9
Pray who was so wise, who wrought
so vast a work as the omniscient Democritus achieved ? When Death
was near, for three days he kept him in his house and regaled him
with the steam of hot loaves.
Such was the life of our
His opinions are these. The first principles of
the universe are atoms and empty space ; everything else is merely
thought to exist. The worlds are unlimited ; they come into being
and perish. Nothing can come into being from that which is not
nor pass away into that which is not. Further, the
atoms are unlimited in size and number, and they are borne along in
the whole universe in a vortex, and therby generate all composite
things--fire, water, air, earth ; for even these are conglomerations
of given atoms. And it is because of their solidity that these atoms
are impassive and unalterable. The sun and the moon have been
composed of such smooth and spherical masses [i.e.
atoms], and so also the soul, which is
identical with reason. We see by virtue of the impact of images upon
All things happen by virtue of necessity, the
vortex being the cause of the creation of all things, and this he
calls necessity. The end of action is tranquillity, which is not
identical with pleasure, as some by a false interpretation have
understood, but a state in which the soul continues calm and strong,
undisturbed by any fear or superstition or any other emotion. This
he calls well-being and many other names. The qualities of things
exist merely by convention ; in nature there is nothing but atoms
and void space. These, then, are his opinions.
Of his works
Thrasylus has made an ordered catalogue, arranging them in fours, as
he also arranged Plato's works.
The ethical works are the
Of the Disposition of the
Of those in Hades.
Tritogeneia (so called
because three things, on which all mortal life depends, come from
II. Of Manly Excellence, or Of Virtue. Amalthea's Horn
(the Horn of Plenty).
Ethical Commentaries : the work on Wellbeing is not to be
So much for the ethical works.
works are these :
III. The Great Diacosmos (which the school
of Theophrastus attribute to Leucippus).
Description of the World.
IV. Of Nature, one book.
Of the Nature of
Man, or Of Flesh, a second book on Nature.
Of the Senses (some editors combine these two under the title Of
V. Of Flavours.
Different Shapes (of Atoms).
Of Changes of Shape.
Confirmations (summaries of the aforesaid works).
or On Foreknowledge of the Future.
On Logic, or Criterion of
Thought, three books.
So much for the
The following fall under no head :
Causes of Celestial Phenomena.
Causes of Phenomena in the
Causes on the Earth's Surface.
with Fire and Things in Fire.
Causes concerned with Seeds, Plants and
Causes concerned with Animals, three books.
Concerning the Magnet.
works have not been arranged.
The mathematical works are
VII. On a Difference in an Angle, or On Contact with
the Circle or the Sphere.
VIII. On Irrational Lines and Solids, two
Year, or Astronomy, Calendar.
Contention of the Water-clock
[and the Heaven].
IX. Description of the Heaven.
Description of the Pole.
Rays of Light.
These are the mathematical works.
literary and musical works are these :
X. On Rhythms and
On Beauty of Verses.
Euphonious and Cacophonous Letters.
Concerning Homer, or On Correct Epic Diction, and On Glosses.
So much for
the works on literature and music.
The works on the arts are
Of Diet, or
Causes concerned with
Things Seasonable and Unseasonable.
XIII. Of Agriculture, or
Concerning Land Measurements.
on Tactics, and
On Fighting in Armour.
So much for
Some include as separate items in the list the
following works taken from his notes :
Of the Sacred Writings
Of those in Meroë.
A Voyage round the
Of [the Right Use of] History.
A Phrygian Treatise.
Concerning Fever and
those whose Malady makes them Cough.
Legal Causes and
Problems wrought by Hand.11
The other works which some attribute
critus are either compilations from
his writings or admittedly not genuine. So much for the books that
he wrote and their number.
The name of Democritus has been
borne by six persons : (1) our philosopher ; (2) a contemporary of
his, a musician of Chios ; (3) a sculptor, mentioned by Antigonus ;
(4) an author who wrote on the temple at Ephesus and the state of
Samothrace ; (5) an epigrammatist whose style is lucid and ornate ;
(6) a native of Pergamum who made his mark by rhetorical