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Philosophical Connections

Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


DEMOCRITUS

(c. 460 — 370/ 60? B.C.)

 

ATOMISTIC MATERIALISM

The founder of the Atomist school of philosophy was probably Democritus's contemporary Leucippus, but it was left to Democritus to develop the theory. Both philosophers came from Abdera. Virtually nothing remains of the writings of Leucippus; and most of Democritus's surviving works are confined to ethics. We owe our knowledge of Atomism to a few of his other fragments but principally to the commentaries of Aristotle (especially his On Democritus [fr. 208], quoted by Simplicius, and in On Generation and Corruption, 316ff.). From a strictly historical point of view Democritus should not be classified as a Presocratic, but philosophically Atomism relates to the cosmology of the Eleatics rather than to the ethics of Socrates.

 

COSMOLOGY/ PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE

[1] Democritus argues that the cosmos is composed of an infinite number of atoms — indivisible ('uncuttable') and indestructible 'substances' (ousiai) composed of a common 'stuff' [a], and that its nature and change can thereby be explained in terms of mechanical causation and the arrangements of these particles [b]. They are in constant and eternal motion, have mass, and are of various sizes. They do not combine into a single substance but come together in a vortex and interlock for a limited time to form larger objects. They remain like this until the cohesion of the atoms is disturbed by an external force. Atoms also exist in a limitless space or void [c]. There has to be a void (a) for there to be motion, (b) to separate the atoms. In this way the individuality of the atoms is preserved. The void itself is not a thing like an atom because it does not have any properties. Nevertheless the Atomists thought of it as real. Humans, being also composed of atoms, manifest the universe as a whole — Democritus says man is a microcosm [d]. The atomist theory is not based on scientific experiments, but it was proposed by Democritus as an answer to the arguments of the Eleatics. Democritus also thought of the interaction of atoms as eternal and necessary [e] — which seems to leave no room for 'freewill' [e].

 

KNOWLEDGE/ PSYCHOLOGY

[2] Democritus's views on knowledge were developed largely in response to the Sophists. He accepted the 'effluence' theory but thought of these particles as atoms or images given off by objects [a]. Before they enter the sense organs they are distorted by the air. He tried to account for perception in terms of the motion of these images or differences in their surface texture. ['Secondary'] qualities such as colour and smell (as against the actual physical properties of the atoms themselves) are therefore all subjective or 'conventional' [nomos], and so we cannot know objects as they really are [b]. Even 'mind' cannot give us the truth, as what might be supposed to be 'mental', including the 'soul', itself consists of atoms [c] and can come into contact only with the atoms given off by objects. On the body's death the soul atoms disperse [d].

 

ETHICS — HEDONISM

[3] Democritus's ethics too was directed against the Sophists. The end of conduct is happiness (eudaimonia), by which he meant not sensual pleasure but 'well-being' [a]. This is to be acquired by attending to balance or harmony — a weighing up of the various pleasures. In this way, he said, we can achieve physical health and a certain calmness or 'cheerfulness' (euthumie) in the soul [b].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Zeno had tried to show that things can be divided up ad infinitum. Democritus said that atoms cannot be split. If by this he meant that we cannot even imagine atoms as divisible, then it is difficult to see how atoms could be said to have parts and be of different shapes and sizes. To recognise an atom as being large would surely allow us to break it up into something smaller in our thought. Some commentators have suggested that what the Atomists were rejecting was Zeno's claim that anything which has a size cannot be a genuine unit; and that they may well have believed the atoms to be theoretically but not physically divisible. A thing could be supposed to have parts without being broken down into them. According to Aristotle, however, the Atomists did not accept divisibility in either sense. Another problem with atomism is that the atoms are said to be eternal, but no explanation for their motion was put forward. There is also a difficulty in their ethics. The Atomists' view of the material world is that it is rather like a machine and that everything that happens is determined and predictable. If — as they supposed — the human 'mind' is equally to be understood in such materialist terms, then it might be argued that there could be no room in their system for freedom of choice [a]. This would seem to be inconsistent with exhortations that one should follow a particular kind of life so as to achieve cheerfulness.

 

READING

G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, & M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, ch. XV.

R. D. McKirahan, Philosophy before Socrates, ch. 16 (contains relevant quotations from Aristotle, Simplicius, et al.).

D. J. Furley, Two Studies in the Greek Atomists; ch. 6 reprinted in Mourelatos.

See also essay by G. Vlastos (in Furley and Allen).

 

CONNECTIONS

Democritus

 

[1a] Plurality of indivisible 'atoms' — common 'stuff' in eternal motion    Parmenides

   Anaxagoras

   Zeno

Epicurus

Cicero

   Leibniz

[1a d]

[1a 1b 1d]

[1b c 1c ]

[2a]

[1a]

[2]

 

[1b] Mechanical causes and cosmic change    Anaxagoras

Aristotle

Epicurus

   Hobbes

[2b]

[6a sec. 9]

[2c]

[2a 4a]

 

[1c] Micro/ macrocosm    Anaximenes

   Posidonius

   Nicholas of Cusa

[1c]

[1e]

[2h]

 

[1d] Void/ space    Parmenides

Aristotle

Epicurus

[1b]

[12b]

[2a]

 

[1e] Cosmos eternal and necessary

   Anaxagoras

Plato

Aristotle

[1a]

[5a]

[12c e]

 

[1e CSa] Freewill/ determinism not possible on materialist basis?

Aristotle

Epicurus

Cicero

   Hobbes

   D'Holbach

[sec. 10]

[2b]

[1b]

[5c]

[1b]

 

[2a] Perception theory — effluences

   Empedocles

Plato

Aristotle

Epicurus

[2a]

[6b 7b]

[16b-c 17b]

[1a]

 

[2b] Perception — primary and secondary qualities (latter subjective)

   Protagoras

Pyrrho

Epicurus

   Hobbes

   Descartes

   Locke

[2a]

[1a]

[1a]

[3a]

[2c]

[2b]

 

[2c] No knowledge through mind; soul itself composed of atoms    Anaxagoras

Plato

Aristotle

Epicurus

Cicero

   Hobbes

[2c]

[6a b 7a c-e 9a]

[15a]

[3a b]

[1e]

[5a]

 

[2d] Soul and death

Plato

Epicurus

Cicero

[9b sec. 10]

[3c]

[1e]

 

[3a] Happiness/ 'well-being'

   Socrates

   Plato

   Aristotle

Epicurus

Pyrrho

[2c]

[11f]

[18c 22a]

[4a]

[2c]

 

[3b] Cheerfulness/ tranquillity

Pyrrho

Epicurus

[2b]

[4a]