Monday, March 30, 2009

A little Democritus


The famed philosopher Democritus, who lived in the 5th century B.C.E., is best known to day for his theory of atoms. Hence he is called an atomist. Although many books talk about him in such a manner has to indicate that he was the originator of this idea of everything composed of atoms, i.e., amalgamations of very small particles he did not in fact originate the idea.1

It was in fact the philosopher Leucippus who originated the idea. Unfortunately Leucippus is a very shadowy figure and the tendency for later sources to talk about Leucippus and Democritus together does not make distinguishing them very easy. Further it appears that Leucippus wrote very little.2

Democritus seems to have been a little older than Socrates3, very little is known of his life,4 although he seems to have been a very prolific writer. The writer Diogenes Laertius supplies a very long list of Democritius’ works as follows:

Ethical Works

On the Disposition of the Wiseman
On the things in Hades
On Manliness / On Virtues
The Horn of Amaltheia
On Contentment
Ethical Commentaries

Natural Science

The Great World-ordering [probably actually by Leucippus]
The Little World-ordering
Description of the World
On the Planets
On Nature
On the Nature of Man
/ On Flesh
On Thoughts
On the Senses
/ On the Soul?
On Flavours
On Colours
On Different Shapes
On Changing Shape
On Images
/ On Providence
On Logic
/ The Rule

Unordered works

Heavenly Causes
Atmospheric Causes
Terrestrial Causes
Causes Concerned with Fire and Things in Fire
Causes Concerned with Sounds
Causes Concerned with Seeds and Plants and-
Causes Concerned with Animals
Miscellaneous Causes
On the Stone

Mathematical Works

On Different Angles / On Contact with Circles and- Spheres
On Geometry
On Irrational Lines and Solids
The Great Year
/ Astronomy [Calendar]
Contest of the Water clock
Description of the Heavens
Description of the Poles
Description of Rays of Light

Literary Works

On Rhythms and Harmony
On Poetry
On the Beauty of Verses
On Euphonious and Cacophonous Letters
On Homer / Correct Diction and Glosses
On Songs
On Verbs

Technical Works

On Diet
/ Dietetics
Medical Judgment
Causes concerning Appropriate and Inappropriate- Occasions
On Farming
/ Farming Matters
On Painting
The Use of Arms


On the Sacred Writings of Babylon
On Those in Meroe
Circumnavigation of the Ocean
On History
Chaldaean Account
Phrygian Account
On Fever and Coughing Sickness
Legal Causes
/ Problems5

A very interesting list which indicates the very wide ranging interests of Democritus. Unfortunately soon after Democritus’ death interest shifted from “Natural Philosophy” i.e., “Science” to Ethics and Metaphysics so that later Greek philosophers were far more interested in Democritus’ ethical works and what we now about Democritus’ atomic theory is from bare summaries and not from actual quotations. In fact the great majority of surviving direct quotations of Democritus’ works are in fact from his ethical works.6

In fact Democritus’ idea of atoms lead him to reject the idea of Gods or other supernatural forces controlling men’s lives and the behavior of the universe. Instead it was the material action of atoms that did so. Democritus apparently believed that such material action of atoms was discoverable through the use of human senses. Here was the possible foundations of something like modern “Science”. Alas it was premature and died being born.

So in this respect Democritus, although no Ionian was in fact the last of the Ionian Philosophers in that his main interest was in explaining the world around him. Subsequent generations of thinkers / philosophers were vastly less interested and instead shifted their interest to matters of metaphysics, ethics, the nature of virtue etc., so that Greek science was basically stillborn. Democritus’ skeptical approach was largely abandoned and so was his idea that the senses, although imperfect and sometimes deceiving, did tell us about the world.

In this particular essay I shall not examine Democritus’ “Science” but instead quote a few of his ethical statements and comment on them.

Medicine heals the diseases of the body, and wisdom takes away passions of the soul.7

This illustrates the traditional Greek attitude that passions are dangerous and need to be both understood and controlled. A wise man controls passions that uncontrolled lead to dangerous extreme behavior. Wisdom leads to moderation and that includes moderated passions.

Men enjoy scratching themselves – they get the same pleasure as those who are having sexual intercourse.8

This passage aside from its humorous aspects compares sex to scratching an itch and thus places it has something prosaic and hardly earth shaking. It also places sex as a type of physical pleasure and not has a sort of cosmic metaphor. Further by reducing sex to scratching an itch Democritus was perhaps implying that’s importance was vastly overrated and the wise man could do without.

Do not be eager to know everything lest you become ignorant of everything.9

Similar to the idea of a little knowledge is a dangerous thing or the idea of a dabbler of many trades is a master of none. In this case Democritus’ own prolific output in so many different fields just might indicate that this was a bit of self depreciation directed against himself.

Men fashioned an image of chance as an excuse for their own thoughtlessness; for chance rarely fights with wisdom, and a clear-sighted intelligence sets straight most things in life.10

A variation of God helps those that help themselves and that people make their own luck. This basically optimistic view of life was at variance with the then conventional Greek, and later Greco-Roman view, of fate. In this view men were nothing more than toys being tossed about by capricious “Fortune”. This pessimistic view of life went hand in hand with a depreciation of the virtue of knowledge of the outside world and the idea that anything could really change for the better. The turn inwards of Greek philosophy towards questions of ethics and self –understanding was also accompanied by an quietitude about accepting what happened to you as fate of which little could be done.

The world is a stage, life is our entrance: you came, you saw, you left.11

Yup that’s were Shakespeare got it! This thought goes with Democritus’ basically materialistic view of life. He seemed to think that the soul died with the body. And his vision of life as a play speaks to an awareness of the absurd / silly aspects of life and to the possible pointlessness of the whole enterprise. It also speaks to the idea that pointless or not life is worth living. Although I wonder if Democritus ever thought that if life was a play just who / what is the audience being performed for?

The world is change; life is opinion.12

Of interest in that it goes back to the ideas of the Ionian philosophers that change was continual and such notions as you never step into the same river twice.13 Further Democritus accepted the idea that many of the notions of how we order our lives are just opinion and not fact and we should relate to others through acceptance of that and exercise a measure of tolerance.

It is of interest that the idea of change being a basic property of the universe and essentially neutral was abandoned by later Greek Philosophy. Instead the idea arose that the seeking of permanent, eternal truths and facts was the point of philosophical inquiry. Instead of being a process of inquiry philosophy became a collection of “truthful” axioms. Thus life was no longer “opinion” and world was no longer “change”. Plato for example abominated change which to him meant degeneration. In his eyes what was to be sought was perfect unchanging “Forms”. Change of any description was bad and every effort had to be made to freeze things, to avoid dissention, conflict, disorder. Thus the search for the “perfect” state, “perfect” definitions, “perfect” laws. And the world was viewed as an inferior, decaying world of little real importance.

The cause of error is ignorance of what is better.14

This is similar to Plato’s idea that bad “evil” behavior is the result of ignorance of the “good” and not of innate evil. However in this case the moral attributes given by Plato are absent in that the here the neutral term error is used. This is probably related to philosophical stream of which Democritus was a part that concentrated on practicalities and not innate inward states. Plato was concerned with defining the “good” and could not conceive of men deliberately doing evil. Plato also was in search of absolute “good”. The earlier Ionian Philosophers with their notions of how things were frequently “relative” would have regarded such a search as potentially futile. Although they would have accepted the idea of certain attitudes and behaviors has “good”. Further Democritus seems to have viewed finding norms of behavior in a practical sense not in terms of searching for perfect definitions of concepts.

One should emulate the deeds and actions of virtue, not the words.15

A variation of deeds speak louder than words. Again a piece of practical advice. Rather than argue about what is virtue try to emulate virtue through action not through words. I strongly suspect Democritus would have found later Greek philosophy with its endless digressions about the nature of “virtue” etc., so many words that were nothing more than a substitute for action.

If you exceed the measure, what is most enjoyable will become least enjoyable.16

Similar to the idea of too much of a good thing. This goes with the Greek idea of things in moderation and that excess leads to corruption, satiation, boredom and a general lowering of the quality of life. The idea of indulgence leads to unhappiness is in general related to the notion that excess is a bad thing and that a life of measured moderation leads to happiness.

Men remember wrongs better than benefits. And that is just; for as those who repay their debts should not be praised, whereas those who do not should be blamed and suffer, so too it is with a ruler. For he was chosen not to do wrong but to do right.17

A very interesting point of view. What Democritus is saying is because rulers are expected to do what is right. When they are doing so they are doing nothing more than their jobs and what is expected and so should not expect praise. For by praising them you are saying what they are doing, i.e., doing the right thing is somehow unexpected hence praiseworthy. When it is merely what is expected. However bad acts are not expected and in fact violate the job description and so are worthy of loud denunciation. Democritus’ point is interesting but he seems to forget the all too human need for praise and ego boosting.

He who worthily administers the greatest offices has the greatest share of justice and virtue.18

Considering how Plato and many other Greek Philosophers viewed politics as somehow polluted and corrupting and saw little if any virtue in politicians or statesmen. Unless they were trying to create Plato’s ideal societies. In fact Plato thought Philosophers should avoid such entanglements and instead concentrate on navel gazing about being virtuous and avoiding the corrupt world of the senses. Here Democritus is advocating a connection with the world and the potential for good of political action. With the inward turn of Greek Philosophy this would largely fall by the wayside.

When those in power take it upon themselves to lend to the poor and to aid them and to favour them, then there is compassion and not isolation but companionship and mutual defence and concord among the citizens and other good things too many to catalogue.19.

A passage that illustrates the democratic sympathies of Democritus. I suspect Democritus had in mind the democratic city of Athens which was very successful in maintaining democracy and stability internally and avoiding the disastrous stasis or civil strife that pitted poor citizens against wealthy Aristocrats / Oligarchs in murderous mayhem for centuries. The Athenian democracy interestingly managed to do this and that the main leaders of the democracy were long established Athenian aristocratic families. Later Greek Philosophers including Plato generally abominated Athenian democracy and any attempt to give the poor a voice in government.

Justice is doing what should be done, injustice not doing what should be done but turning away from it.20

This makes a rather interesting contrast with Plato’s definition of “justice” in the Republic, where “justice” is defined as everyone doing what they are best fitted for. How you determine that is not explained except that the wise Philosopher Kings would somehow know through their philosophical speculations. It is interesting that whereas Plato defined “justice” as a property of a whole social system and took it away from the idea of “justice” as actions / omissions, i.e., the idea of “justice” being how people were treated and what was and was not done. Democritus keeps that common notion of “justice” here. Plato’s definition is part of the process by which Greek philosophy retreated from the practical world to the world of metaphysics and airy abstractions.

Democritus is again showing the spirit of the Ionian Philosophers with their emphasis of on practical action. It is also clear that Democritus did not view the idea of “justice” has a problematic concept but something fairly clear to everyone and not in need of obtuse analysis.

I could go on but that is a sample of some of the words of Democritus regarding ethics. For such a prolific writer it is remarkable that so little of what he wrote survived and even his ethical material, which had the most appeal to later Greco-Romans survives only in short quotes and pithy epigrams. It appears that even his ethical material was not that appealing and what generally circulated were collections of sayings. The full actual works were too out of touch with the otherworldly spirit of much Greco-Roman intellectual life after Plato. They lacked the inward focus of later intellectual life and so were little read in the original by later readers.

Democritus represents both the culmination of the Ionian Philosophers and the end. It appears that people preferred to read about his “scientific” books in summaries and amusing anecdotes. Very few seemed to have been interested in reading the originals. Very little work seems to have been done by the later atomist thinkers to build up from Democritus’ foundations. Instead they combined atomism with philosophical resignation and bootless speculation.

Ethically Democritus’ idea that action was both possible and desirable and his apparent rejection of philosophical resignation were ignored.

Thus did the Greco-Roman culture stagnate.

1. Jonathon Barnes Editor, Early Greek Philosophy, 2nd Revised Edition, Penguin Books, London, 2001, pp. 201-253, Waterfield, Robin, Editor, The First Philosophers, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, pp. 164-171, Kirk, G. S., Raven, J. E., Schofield, M., Editors, The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983, pp. 402-433.

2. IBID.

3. IBID. Kirk et al, p. 404.

4. Barnes, p. 203.

5. IBID. pp. 204-205.

6. IBID. p. 227.

7. IBID. p. 228.

8. IBID. p. 229.

9. IBID. p. 230.

10. IBID. p. 230.

11. IBID. p. 253.

12. IBID. p. 253.

13. IBID. p. 70, Greek Philosopher Heraclitus.

14. IBID. p. 251.

15. IBID. p. 250.

16. IBID. p. 238

17. IBID. p. 243.

18. IBID. p. 243.

19. IBID. p. 242.

20. IBID. p. 242.

Pierre Cloutier

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