Democritus was one of the ablest and least known of the Greek philosophers, whose position lies on the border-line between the mythical sagis of the elder time and the historic founders of Greek philosophy. His personal career is shadowy and uncertain; his speculations are fragmentary and dislocated; his works have been lost, or only survive in brief and disconnected fragments; his tenets are well known, but have often been exaggerated or distorted. .His influence on later philosophy has not always been duly appreciated; but it has been scarcely inferior to that of Socrates and the Socratic school. His characteristic doctrines were transmitted by underground currents to widely diffused sects. They have special claims to present consideration for their marked congruity with the rationalistic and agnostic schemes now in vogue. In all ages there is an unbroken traduction of earlier opinions, and an intimate connection between the accepted theories and the contemporaneous conditions of the societies in which they prevail. In both respects, the philosophy of Democritus was notable in the sara of its manifestation, and it may be of great service for the elucidation, in both, of the philosophical distemperature of the respective periods.
I. Life. — The dates of the birth and death of Democritus, and his length of days, are entirely uncertain, though he may be regarded as later than Anaxagoras, and contemporaneous with Socrates. He appears to have been born at Abdera about B.C. 460, and to have died about B.C. 357. He is variously stated to have attained ninety, ninety-nine, one hundred, one hundred and four, one hundred and eight, and even one hundred and nine years. He was the son of Hegesistratus (by some named Damuasippus, by others, Athenocritus), who was said to have entertained Xerxes on his flight from Salamis. Fables clustered round his name. Three autobiographical notices survive. The first states that he was forty years younger than Anaxagoras; the second, that the Little Diacosmus was composed "seven hundred and thirty years after the taking of Troy;" the third, "that he had traversed more countries than any of his countrymen'" (Herodotus would be included); "that he had known the greatest diversities of climate and soil, and had heard many sages; that he had never been surpassed in geometrical diagrams and demonstrations, not even by the Egyptian Arpedonaptae, with whom he had lived five years." Very little information is Contained in these statements. The death of his father left Democritus with an ample inheritance. He is reported to have taken the smallest share in the distribution of the property, as it was in ready money, immediately available for the travels which he promptly undertook. The rest of the estate he abandoned to his brothers. If this were the case, the epigrammatic observation of Horace would be deprived of its point (1 Epist. 12:12) .
Many legends were current in regard to the travels of D)emocritus among the Ethiopians, Egyptians, Chaldseans, Persians, and even Indian Gymnosophists. A very pretty story is told of an imaginary visit to the king of Persia; but the same tale is told, in slightly altered form, in many lands. Darius was inconsolable for the loss of his queen. Democritus promised to recall her from the dead, if he were supplied with all things needed for the avocation. Whatever was required was furnished in abundance; but one thing more was demanded the names of three persons who had never felt sorrow, to be inscribed on the tomb.
Democritus visited Athens (Fragm. Promisc. 7). He is reported to have resided there — to have known Socrates — but to have kept himself wholly unknown; "Constantem hominem et gravem! qui glorietur, a Gloria se abfuisse" (Cicero, Tusc. Disp. V, 36:104). His whole career is a fabric of fables (Aul. Gell. Nioct. Aft. X, 12:8). He is alleged to have shut himself up in tombs, that he might be free from interruption and distraction of mind. As Bayle suggests, the advantages of such a procedure are questionable. Bayle also characterizes as a "silly story" the tradition that he put out his eyes in order to promote his meditations (Cicero, De Fin. 5:29); Cicero prudently appends "vero falsone" as a restriction to his statement.
Democritus returned from his long travels enriched with great and varied knowledge, but stripped of means, which had been expended on his journeys. Thenceforth he may have been dependent upon his brother Damastes for support. The tradition represented that he was summoned before the magistrates of Abdera, for infrinoging. the laws by living without visible means of support. In his defence, he read before them his Μέγας Διάκοσμος. They were so much charmed by it that they presented him with five hundred talents, and decreed that he should be buried at the public expense. His want of means was due to no incapacity for gaining a livelihood, but to his being engrossed in his studies. He had gained an acquaintance. with the language of birds, and knew all secrets, like the wondrous women of Eastern story. He anticipated the recent wisdom of "weather forecasts" and "weather probabilities," and could tell when it would rain and when it would clear up. He might have made a brilliant speculator, for, on one occasion, foreseeing a disastrous season for olives, and that oil would bear a high price, he monopolized all the olives that could be procured (Pliny, Hist. Nat. 18:28). His only design, however, was to show that he could easily make money if he desired to do so. His poverty was deliberately accepted, and was welcome from his contempt of wealth. It was borne with joyous exhilaration; he was always seen with a smile on his face, and, hence, was designated "the laughing philosopher." Later philosophers supposed that he laughed at the vanities of life, and the weaknesses of mankind: "Adeo nihil illi serium videbatur, quae serio gerebantur" (Seneca, De Ira. 2:10; De Tranquill. Animi, 22). His long life passed away in the serene and sedulous prosecution of his speculative and physical investigations. It must have been diligently employed, if he composed the multitude of works which were generally accredited to him. Death came at last at his bidding, though it sparedhim till life became wearisome. He was represented as having starved himself to death:
"Sponte sua lito caput obvius obtulit ipso." (Lucret. 3:1052.)
He delayed his end for three days with the smell of bread or honey, at the request of his sister, the priestess of Ceres, who was unwilling that the festival in progress should be contaminated by death in the family.
II. Works. — A list of sixty treatises by Democritus is given by Diogenes Laertius, on ethical, physical, mathematical, musical, technical, and miscellaneous topics. These were arranged by Thrasyllus in Tetralogies, as was done by him, also, in regard to the works of Plato. An attempt has been made by Mullach to restore this distribution. Such a proceeding must be purely conjectural, as data are absent for even probable conclusions. Of these manifold volumes, only three hundred and twenty genuine fragments have been saved. These are, for the most part, extremely brief; the longest of them being on the subject of agriculture. They are inadequate to enable us to judge directly of either the literary or philosophical merits of the author. The testimonies of the ancients must, therefore, pass unchallenged. It is strong evidence of his high capacity that he received the designation of
πένταθλος from the Greeks, and was termed vir magnus imprimis, by Cicero. He was equally esteemed for his style, for his learning, and for his bold speculation. Plato proposed that his books should be burned, a proposal which may have sprung from jealousy, but arose more probably from thorough antipathy to his doctrines and apprehension of their pernicious effects. Many treatises were falsely ascribed to Democritus. From these may have been derived the forty-six spurious fragments gathered by Mullach.
III. Philosophy. — In the time and country of Democritus, philosophy still retained much of that indistinctness of character which had appertained to it when it signified nothing more than the earnest pursuit of knowledge. It was still thoroughly unsystematic. If logical inquiries had been already inaugurated, they had not yet assumed a fixed and coherent form.
The philosophy of Democritus may be divided into ethical and physical: the former embracing acute practical observations; the latter comprehending, as was the wont of early speculation, such theology as comported with his schemes — in both respects showing some connection with Parmenides and the Eleatics, though it might be erroneous to imagine any positive affiliation. The Eleatics had rendered philosophy too ideal and too impalpable. The Ionic school, in aiming at simplicity of doctrine; had fallen into narrow and arbitrary fantasies. A more tangible speculation than the Eleatic, a more thorough and acceptable exposition than the Ionic, was in demand. This requirement Leucippus and his successor, Democritus, consciously or unconsciously, endeavored to supply. The intellectual current ran in the direction of the atomistic philosophy. As all the writings of Leucippus were early lost, and as his opinions are only known through their development by his illustrious follower, the consideration of his views will be implicated with the appreciation of the doctrines of Democrituns.
The ethical philosophy of the laughing sage seems to have been of a purely practical cast, and to have been, in the main, the application of keen judgment to the ordinary conduct of life; thus approximating to the aphoristic wisdom of the early "Wise Men." Examples of such prudence are frequent, even in the scanty relics remaining, and have been compactly presented by Zeller: "Truth dwells in the bottom of a pit;" "Much learning is often mere folly" (Fr. 139-141); "The world is a stage, life a passage: you came, you saw, you departed;" "Fortune is an idol fashioned by the unwisdom of men" (Fr. 14). Here is the origin of the celebrated moral of Juvenal:
"Nos te, Nos facimuns, Fortuna, deam, coeloquo locamus."
"Not the act only, but the disposition, should be regarded" (Fr. 109); "Good and evil grow from the same root. Evil does not proceed from the gods, but from the blindness and malice of men" (Fr. 12, 13). The urgency of habitual self-restraint (Fr. 75), and of contentment (Fr. 24, 27, 29), are associated with the characteristic aim of the ethics of Democritus, the attainment of εὐθυμία (Fr. 20), healthy tranquillity. This serene temper may be compared with the Peripatetic εὐδαιμονία, or with the modern pursuit of "happiness," which is just as vague, as unsatisfactory, and as unscientific as any of its predecessors. Such tranquillity, however, explains the designation of Democritus as videus, and points towards the simple virtues of daily life. The ethical tone of Democritus is as innocent and pure as was his own conduct.
The physical philosophy of Democritus is the most characteristic, and has been the most influential and enduring branch of his speculations. It provides the mould for his psychological assumptions, and for his ethical conclusions. The negation of immaterial realities, or agnosticism in regard to them, necessitates a spectral phenomenalism and a dim universe. Democritus held that there was only one principle — the plenum or μεστόν, and the vacuum or κενόν:
Omnis, ut est, igitur, per se Natnlna, duabus Consistet rebus nam Corpora sunt et Inane." (Lucret. 1:420, 421; see Sext. Empir. Adv. Math. 7:135-139.)
The assertion of a vacuum was inevitable, as long as the existence, elasticity, and interpenetrability of gaseous fluids were unknown. The plenum was composed of an infinite number of atoms (indivisibilia) moving freely in infinite space — for space, or the extension of the universe, was regarded as iinfinite:
"Nam medium nihil esse potest, ubi Inane locus quo Infiuita. " (Lucret. 1:1069; comp. Aristot. De Caolo, 3:4.)
In this infinite space were contained an infinite number of worlds. The atoms were solid, impenetrable, homogeneous in quality, diverse in size and shape, though infinitesimal in magnitude (Aristot. Met. 1:4; Cicero, De
Fin. I, 6:17). They are eternal, immutable, and imperishable. Their origin is inscrutable, and beyond the domain of legitimate investigation (Aristot. Phys. 7:1). The atoms possessed of themselves an incessant downward motion. The differences of size and shape produced contacts and combinations. The whole process of nature was a cycle of compositions, decompositions, and recompositions (Lucret. 2:1000). Nothing was lost; nothing was gained. Omnia mutantur, nil interit. There are indications that Democritus attributed spontaneous motion, or a sort of rudimentary vitality, to atoms. The ceaseless and intricate movement of the atomic particles in space generated a gyrating motion of the incoherent mass — Δίνη — a whirl. This universal circumvolution probably suggested the vortices of Des Cartes, SEE DES CARTES, and furnishes a prelude to the modern nebular hypothesis. These eddies hurl the atoms with various collisions, winnow the subtle from the gross, and induce coherence in diversified conjunctions, whence arises, by further and modified concrescences, the endless multiplicity of things (Cicero, Acad. Qu. 4:38). By this restless circulation all things have been produced, and all the vicissitudes of things. The rapidity of the orbicular motion kindles the stars, and lights up the heavenly bodies. Through the effects of this motion the earth is permeated by fiery action and quickening heat. The matters of which it is compounded originate from the dissimilar forms and magnitudes of the atoms, which are round in fire, and differ in size and shape in air, earth, and water.
The microcosm accords with the macrocosm. Man is of like constitution with his habitation. Of this inexplicable marvel of the universe neither definition nor determination is attempted. He, too, is a postulate. He is accepted for what he is, or is supposed to be. He is a compound of water and mud. His life, or soul, is a fine, diffused, and segregated fire; vital sparks of atomic, not of heavenly, flame. This is extinguished by death, and perishes with the body. All bodies are mortal, but all are renascent, in formis mutatis. This seems only a rude and tentative way of indicating the doctrine now generally received, of the permanence and transmutation of matter:
"Semper motus connectitur omnis, Et vetere exoritur semper novus ordine certo."
Knowledge itself is the result of physical agitation. It is of two kinds: that derived directly from the mind, and that obtained from the senses. It is not obvious with what meaning the term "mind" is employed, whether as intuitive, or as reflective, or as reproductive. The conceptions of Democritus were by no means definite on the subject. The same vagueness and fluitancy attend all the tenets of Democritus not confined to purely physical topics. Perceptions are excited by effiuxesἔδωλα — projected from the things perceived (Fr. 14:40). Democritus, however, recognised sound as the vibratory motion of the air. Knowledge obtained through the senses — sensus tenebricosi (Cicero, Acad. IV, 10:31) — was deceptive, σκοτίη κρίσις. That from reason, γνώμη γνησίη merited credence, if definite and clear. Nevertheless, there could be no true knowledge,ἐτεῆ οὐδὲν ἴδμεν περὶ οὐδενός. How could it be otherwise with a system which made being and non-being equally existent, μὴ μᾶλλον τὸ δὲν ἢ τὸ μηδὲν ειναι. With such principles, physical and psychological, no real theology was possible. Yet Democritus was unwilling, or unable, to sever himself entirely from the popular belief. He was thus involved in an inconsistency, perhaps inevitable, which is strangely illustrated by a corresponding incongruity in Comte's Positivism. He did not absolutely exclude divinity from the universe, but he reduced it to a vague and empty superstition, which was rather a vague rehabilitation of popular fantasies than a reputable development of philosophy. Cicero deemed it more accordant with the stupidity of his countrymen than with his own acumen. His gods were idols, fashioned out of the -thinnest and subtilest atoms; and sometimes revealed themselves, especially in the dark. They were earthly ghosts! "The earth hath bubbles as the water hath; and these are of them." They were gigantic spectres, of human form, though far transcending human stature. Like goblins, fays, and peris, they were, mortal; but their duration exceeded the span of human life. They had voices, and could utter sounds intelligible to men; and they foretold future events., Such divine personages could not be the object of any theology, and in no respect detracted from the materialism of the school. The theology was a pretence or a mockery.
IV. His Influence. — Democritus is entitled to be placed by the side of Aristotle and Plato, in regard to the effect produced on later ages by his speculations. This effect, if less immediate and less ennobling than the action of the Peripatetic and Academic systems; has been more lasting in its specific character. If less stimulant to the highest intellectual aspirations, it has the merit of having more effectually moulded the procedures of scientific research. The physical philosophy of Epicurus was entirely deduced from it, with such alterations as gave the pretence of originality, and not of mere revival. Still, it was fully absorbed into Epicureanism, and so obviously as to be incapable of being ignored. "What is in the physics of Epicurus which does not descend from Democritus?" asks Cicero (De Nat. Deor. I, 25:73; 43:120). "Democritus, formed by Leucippus,left his inheritance of folly to Epicurus;" observes Lactantius (Div. Inst. 3:17; comp. De Ira Dei, 10). Wherever Epicureanism spread, through Hellenic lands and through the empire of Rome, the doctrines of Democritus were accepted-the suncta Denocriti Sententia (Lucret. 3:372), though modified by the derivative school. Their influence was not limited to the ancient world. They reappeared with Gassendi in the 17th century. They were revived in partial and disguised form in the atomic theory of Dalton, and in the nebular hypothesis. They recur in more than their pristine vigor and exclusiveness ini modern agnosticism, and in current physical schemes. The atomic speculations of Democritus are a rudimentary type of evolutionism, and of kindred dreams. It has already been stated that they furnished some of the notable suppositions of Des Cartes. They may be discerned in the System of Positive Philosophy. How thoroughly they are the progenitors, or, at least, the precursors of recent scientific devices, is manifested by the marvelous harmony of such opinions with the brilliant poem of Lucretius. This harmony is profoundly and instinctively felt. Its recognition is shown by the recent renewal of the earnest study of Lucretius; and by the numerous editions of his work, and the brilliant or recondite essays upon it, which have been welcomed in late years. For these reasons, the views of Democritus, and his place in the development of philosophy, cannot be safely disregarded in estimating either ancient or modern thought.
V. Literature. — Besides the historians of ancient philosophy, and especially Brucker, Ritter, and Zeller, the following special treatises may be advantageously consuited: Magnenus, Democritus Reviviscens (Paris, 1646); [in 1655, Peter Borel promised a treatise in 3 volumes, fol., De Vita et Philosophia Democriti]; Bayle, Dict. Hist. et Crit. s.v.; Goding, Diss. de Denocrito et ejus Philosophia (Upsala, 1703); Geffers, Quaestiones Democritae (Gottingen, 1829); Burchardt, Democr. Phil. de Sensibus Frqagm. (Minden, 1830); Fragm. der Moral des Abd. Democrits (ibid. 1834); Papencordt, De Atomorum Doctrina (Berlin, 1832); Hemisoth, Democriti de Anima Doctrina (Bonn, 1835); Mullach, Democriti Operum Fragmenta, etc. (Berlin, 1846), which alone is sufficient for all ordinary purposes; Johnson, Der Sensualismus des Demokrit. (Plauen, 1868);
Mullach, Fragmenta Democriti, apud Fragment a Philosophorum Graecorum, tom. 1 (Paris, 1875). (G.F.H.)