Democrĭtus in Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities

(Δημόκριτος). A celebrated philosopher, born at Abdera, about B.C. 494 or 490, but according to some, B.C. 470 or 460. His father was a man of noble family and of great wealth, and contributed largely towards the entertainment of the army of Xerxes on his return to Asia. As a reward for this service the Persian monarch made him and the other Abderites rich presents and left among them several Chaldaean Magi. Democritus, according to Diogenes Laertius, was instructed by these in astronomy and theology. After the death of his father he determined to travel in search of wisdom, and devoted to this purpose the portion which fell to him, amounting to one hundred talents. He is said to have visited Egypt and Ethiopia, the Persian Magi, and, according to some, even the Gymnosophists of India. Whether, in the course of his travels, he visited Athens or studied under Anaxagoras is uncertain. There can be little doubt, however, that during some part of his life he was instructed in the Pythagorean tenets, and particularly that he was a disciple of Leucippus (q.v.). After a long course of years thus spent in travelling, Democritus returned to Abdera, richly stored with the treasures of philosophy, but destitute even of the necessary means of subsistence. His brother Damosis, however, received him kindly and liberally supplied all his wants. According to the law of Abdera, whoever should waste his patrimony should be deprived of the rites of burial. Democritus, desiring to avoid this disgrace, gave public lectures to the people, chiefly from his larger Διάκοσμος, the most valuable of his writings; in return he received from his hearers many valuable presents and otlrer testimonies of respect, which relieved him from all apprehension of suffering public censure as a spendthrift. Democritus, by his learning and wisdom, and especially by his acquaintance with natural phenomena, acquired great fame and excited much admiration among the ignorant Abderites. By giving previous notices of unexpected changes in the weather, and by other artifices, he had the address to make them believe that he possessed a power of predicting future events; and they not only looked upon him as something more than mortal, but even proposed to invest him with the direction of their public affairs. From inclination and habit, however, he preferred a contemplative to an active life, and therefore declined these public honours and passed the remainder of his days in solitude. It is said that from this time he spent his days and nights in caverns and sepulchres; and some even relate that, in order to be more perfectly master of his intellectual faculties, he blinded himself by means of a burning-glass. The story, however, is utterly incredible, since the writers who mention it affirm that Democritus employed his leisure in writing books and in dissecting the bodies of animals, neither of which could well have been effected without eyes. Nor is greater credit due to the tale that Democritus spent his leisure hours in chemical researches after the philosopher's stone-the dream of a later age; or to the story of his conversation with Hippocrates, grounded upon letters which are said to have passed between the father of medicine and the people of Abdera on the supposed madness of Democritus, but which are evidently spurious. The only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from these and other tales is that Democritus was a man of lofty genius and penetrating judgment, who, by a long course of study and observation, became an eminent master of speculative and physical science; the natural consequence of which was that, like Roger Bacon in a later period, he astonished and imposed upon his ignorant and credulous countrymen. Petronius relates that he was perfectly acquainted with the virtues of herbs, plants, and stones, and that he spent his life in making experiments upon natural bodies. Democritus has been commonly known under the appellation of "The Laughing Philosopher," and it is gravely related by Seneca (De Ira, ii. 10; De Tranq. 15) that he never appeared in public without expressing his contempt of the follies of mankind by laughter. Thus much, in fact, may be easily believed: that a man so superior to the generality of his contemporaries, and whose lot it was to live among a race of men who were stupid to a proverb, might frequently treat their follies with ridicule and contempt. Accordingly, we find that among his fellow-citizens he had the name of Γελασῖνος, or "the mocker" (cf. Juv. x. 33, 34). Democritus appears to have been in his morals chaste and temperate, and his sobriety was repaid by a healthy old age. He lived and enjoyed the use of his faculties to the term of a hundred years, and at last died through mere decay. Democritus expanded the atomic theory of his master Leucippus (q.v.), to support the truth of which he maintained the impossibility of division ad infinitum; and, from the difficulty of assigning a commencement of time, he argued the eternity of existing nature, of void space, and of motion. He supposed the atoms, originally similar, to be endowed with certain properties, such as impenetrability and a density proportionate to their volume. He referred every active and passive affection to motion, caused by impact, limited by the principle he assumed, that like can only act on like. He drew a distinction between primary motion and secondary; impulse and reaction; from a combination of which he produced rotary motion. Herein consists the law of necessity, by which all things in nature are ruled. From the endless multiplicity of falling atoms have resulted the worlds which we behold, with all the properties of immensity, resemblance, and dissimilitude which belong to them. The soul consists (such is his doctrine) of globular atoms of fire, which impart movement to the body. Maintaining his atomic theory throughout, Democritus introduced the hypothesis of images (εἴδωλα), a species of emanation from external objects, which make an impression on our senses, and from the influence of which he deduced sensation (αἴσθησις) and thought (νόησις). He distinguished between a rude, imperfect, and therefore false perception and a true one. In the same manner, consistently with his theory, he accounted for the popular notions of the Deity; partly through our incapacity to understand fully the phenomena of which we are witnesses, and partly from the impressions communicated by certain beings (εἴδωλα) of enormous stature and resembling the human figure which inhabit the air. To these he ascribed dreams and the causes of divination. He carried his theory into practical philosophy also, laying down that happiness consisted in an equability of temperament (εὐθυμία), whence he deduced his moral principles and prudential maxims. It was from Democritus that Epicurus (q.v.) borrowed the principal features of his philosophy. The fragments of Democritus have been collected and published by Mullach (Berlin, 1843), with notes. See Ueber weg, History of Philosophy (Eng. trans., N. Y. 1872), vol. i. pp. 67-71; and the dissertation by E. Johnson, Der Sensualismus des Demokrit (Plauen, 1868).

Read More about Democrĭtus in Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities