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Democritus what did he do \Democritus' Atomic Theory

Democritus the laughing philosopher (460 - 370) BCE

Democritus was an ancient Greek philosopher from Abdera, Thrace (now part of modern-day Greece). He first proposed his atomic theory in the 5th century BC. This groundbreaking idea asserted that the universe is composed solely of material substances, which he referred to as atoms. According to Democritus, these atoms have no composition but are indestructible, eternally existing and continually in motion. He hypothesized that atoms differed from each other in size, shape, and position which accounted for the differences between different objects and substances.

Democritus laughing and atomic theory
democritus philosopher

Who is Democritus and what did he discover

Democritus is a much more definite figure. He was a native of Abdera in Thrace; as for his date, he stated that he was young when Anaxagoras was old, say about 432 B.C., and he is taken to have flourished about 420 B.C. He travelled widely in southern and eastern lands in search of knowledge; he perhaps spent a considerable time in Egypt, and he certainly visited Persia. He then returned to Abdera, where he remained. Zeller calls him "superior to all earlier and contemporary philosophers in wealth of knowledge, and to most in acuteness and logical correctness of thinking."

As it is said, The founders of atomism were two, Leucippus and Democritus . It is difficult to disentangle them, because they are generally mentioned together, and apparently some of the works of Leucippus were subsequently attributed to Democritus. Both of have almost same theory.

The fundamental ideas of the common philosophy of Leucippus and Democritus were due to the former, but as regards the working out it is hardly possible to disentangle them, nor is it, for our purposes, important to make the attempt. Leucippus, if not Democritus, was led to atomism in the attempt to mediate between monism and pluralism, as represented by Parmenides and Empedocles respectively. Their point of view was remarkably like that of modern science, and avoided most of the faults to which Greek speculation was prone. 

what is Democritus atomic theory

Democritus' Atomic Theory is a bold and revolutionary idea that shaped ancient Greek thought and our understanding of modern reality. A ground breaking notion during its time, this theory proposed the existence of tiny, indivisible particles – atoms – as the building blocks of everything from humans to rocks. Learn more about this historical concept and its implications today with these fascinating facts about Democritus' Atomic Theory.

Democritus contribution to the atom

Democritus believed that  everything is composed of atoms, which are physically, but not geometrically, indivisible; that between the atoms there is empty space; that atoms are indestructible; that they always have been, and always will be, in motion; that there are an infinite number of atoms, and even of kinds of atoms, the differences being as regards shape and size. 

according to Democritus "The more any indivisible exceeds, the heavier it is." But the question whether atoms are originally possessed of weight in the theories of the atomists is a controversial one.

The atoms were always in motion, but there is disagreement among commentators as to the character of the original motion. Some, especially Zeller, hold that the atoms were thought to be always falling, and that the heavier ones fell faster; they thus caught up the lighter. ones, there were impacts, and the atoms were deflected like billiard balls. But there is considerable reason to think that weight was not an original property of the atoms of Democritus. It seems more probable that, on their view, atoms were originally moving at random, as in the modern kinetic theory of gases.

 Democritus said there was neither up nor down in the infinite void, and compared the movement of atoms in the soul to that of motes in a sunbeam when there is no wind. This is a much more intelligent view than that of Epicurus, and I think we may assume it to have been that of Democritus.

As a result of collisions, collections of atoms came to form vortices. The rest proceeded much as in Anaxagoras, but it was an advance to explain the vortices mechanically rather than as due to the action of mind.

It was common in antiquity to reproach the atomists with attributing everything to chance. They were, on the contrary, strict determinists, who believed that everything happens in accordance with natural laws. Democritus explicitly denied that anything can happen by chance. Leucippus, though his existence is questioned, is known to have said one thing: "Naught happens for nothing, but everything from a ground and of necessity.

" It is true that he gave no reason why the world should originally have been as it was; this, perhaps, might have been attributed to chance. But when once the world existed, its further development was unalterably fixed by mechanical principles. Aristotle and others reproached him and Democritus for not accounting for the original motion of the atoms, but in this the atomists were more scientific than their critics. Causation must start from something, and wherever it starts no cause can be assigned for the initial datum. The world may be attributed to a Creator, but even then the Creator Himself is unaccounted for. The theory of the atomists, in fact, was more nearly that of modern science than any other theory propounded in antiquity.

Democritus was concerned to find a way of reconciling the arguments of Parmenides with the obvious fact of motion and change.

What is Democritus theory of motion

Democritus thought he had a theory which harmonized with sense-perception and would not abolish either coming-to-be and passing-away or motion and the multiplicity of things. He made these concessions to the facts of perception: on the other hand, he conceded to the Monists that there could be no motion without a void. The result is a theory which he states as follows: "The void is a not-being, and no part of what is is a not-being; for what is in the strict sense of the term is an absolute plenum. This plenum, however, is not one; on the contrary, it is a many infinite in number and invisible owing to the minuteness of their bulk. The many move in the void (for there is a void): and by coming together they produce coming to- be, while by separating they produce passing-away. Moreover, they act and suffer action whenever they chance to be in contact (for there they are not one), and they generate by being put together and becoming intertwined. From the genuinely one, on the other hand, there could never have come to be a multiplicity, nor from the genuinely many a one: that is impossible."

Life developed out of the primeval slime. There is some fire everywhere in a living body, but most in the brain or in the breast. (On this, authorities differ.) Thought is a kind of motion, and is thus able to cause motion elsewhere. Perception and thought are physical processes. Perception is of two sorts, one of the senses, one of the understanding. 

Perceptions of the latter sort depend only on the things perceived, while those of the former sort depend also on our senses, and are therefore apt to be deceptive. Like Locke, Democritus held that such qualities as warmth, taste, and colour are not really in the object, but are due to our sense-organs, while such qualities as weight, density, and hardness are really in the object.

Democritus was a thorough-going materialist; for him, as we have seen, the soul was composed of atoms, and thought was a physical process. There was no purpose in the universe; there were only atoms governed by mechanical laws. He disbelieved in popular religion, and he argued against the nous of Anaxagoras.

 In ethics he considered cheerfulness the goal of life, and regarded moderation and culture as the best means to it. He disliked everything violent and passionate; he disapproved of sex, because, he said, it involved the overwhelming of consciousness by pleasure. He valued friendship, but thought ill of women, and did not desire children, because their education interferes with philosophy.

What did Democritus think about matter

In the first place, if we hold that all objects are composed of parts, and that all becoming is due to the mixing and unmixing of pre-existent matter, we must have a theory of particles. And we do hear vaguely of physical particles in the doctrine of Empedocles, but no definition is given of their nature, and no clear conception is formed of their character. Secondly, the moving forces of Empedocles, Love and Hate, are fanciful and mythological. Lastly, though there are in Empedocles traces of the doctrine that the qualities of things depend on the position and arrangement of their particles, this idea is not consistently developed. For Empedocles there are only four ultimate kinds of matter, qualitatively distinguished. 

The differential qualities of all other kinds of matter must, therefore, be due to the mixing of these four elements. Thus the qualities of the four elements are ultimate and underived, but all other qualities must be founded upon the position and arrangement of particles of the four elements. This is the beginning of the mechanical explanation of quality. But to develop this theory fully and consistently, it should be shown, not merely that some qualities are ultimate and some  derived from position and arrangement of particles, but that all quality whatever is founded upon position and arrangement. All becoming is explained by Empedocles as the result of motion of material particles. To bring this mechanical philosophy to its logical conclusion, all qualitativeness of things must be explained in the same way. Hence it was impossible that the philosophy of mechanism and materialism should stand still in the position in which Empedocles left it. It had to advance to the position of Atomism. The Atomists, therefore, maintain the essential position of Empedocles, after eliminating the inconsistencies which we have just noted. The philosophy of Empedocles is therefore to be considered as merely transitional in character.

Democritus summary

Democritus- such, at least, is my opinion-is the last of the Greek philosophers to be free from a certain fault which vitiated all later ancient and medieval thought. All the philosophers we have been considering so far were engaged in a disinterested effort to understand the world. They thought it easier to understand than it is, but without this optimism they would not have had the courage to make a beginning. 

Their attitude, in the main, was genuinely scientific whenever it did not merely embody the prejudices of their age. But it was not only scientific; it was imaginative and vigorous and filled with the delight of adventure. They were interested in everything meteors and eclipses, fishes and whirlwinds, religion and morality; with a penetrating intellect they combined the zest of children. From this point onwards, there are first certain seeds of decay, in spite of previously unmatched achievement, and then a gradual decadence. What is amiss, even in the best philosophy after Democritus, is an undue emphasis on man as compared with the universe.

The modern physicist, while he still believes that matter is in some sense atomic, does not believe in empty space. Where there is not matter, there is still something, notably light-waves. Matter no longer has the lofty status that it acquired in philosophy through the arguments of Parmenides. It is not unchanging substance, but merely a way of grouping events. Some events belong to groups that can be regarded as material things; others, such as light waves, do not. It is the events that are the stuff of the world, and each of them is of brief duration. In this respect, modern physics is on the side of Heraclitus as against Parmenides. But it was on the side of Parmenides until Einstein and quantum theory.

External link

Xenophanes philosophy

Anaximenes philosophy


A History of Western Philosophy Book by Bertrand Russell
Graham, D. W. (ed.), The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy: The Complete Fragments and Selected Testimonies of the Major Presocratics, 2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010
Barnes, J., The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd edn, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982
Hussey, E., The Presocratics, London: Duckworth, 1995 Kirk, G. S., J. E. Raven and M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers,
2nd edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984 Osborne, C., Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004

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