Democritus Biography

Democritus was a renowned Ancient Greek philosopher. Check out this biography to know about his childhood, life and achievements.

Quick Facts

Born: 460 BC

Nationality: Greek

Famous: Quotes By Democritus Philosophers

Died At Age: 90

Born in: Abdera, Greece

Famous as: Philosopher

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siblings: Damastes, Herodotus

Died on: 370 BC

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education: Pre-Socratic philosophy

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Democritus was a renowned Ancient Greek philosopher who is respected by many modern scientists and scholars for formulating the most accurate early atomic theory of the universe. One of the best known pre-Socratic philosophers, he was influenced by Leucippus of Miletus and had proposed revolutionary ideas which were in conflict with those by Socratic philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. What distinguished him from his contemporaries is the fact that he had visited many distant countries during his early life and shared ideas with scholars around the world, which might explain his rationalism, humanism, and love of freedom. Much of his work has been lost or available only as fragments, because of which the exact expanse of his knowledge might never be known. For the same reason, it is often difficult to distinguish his work from that of his mentor Leucippus, whose mere existence has been denied by Epicurus, the philosophical heir of Democritus. However, the philosophies and doctrines he covered can be tracked via numerous citations of his works by many later scholars, which point to the fact that he wrote over seventy books on natural philosophy. Based on the precision of many of his philosophical ideas, many consider him the 'father of modern science'.

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Early Life & Travels
  • Democritus was born in the 80th Olympiad (460–457 BC), even though some scholars believe that he was born in about 470 BC. There is confusion about his birthplace as well; while he is believed to be born in the city of Abdera in Thrace, some consider him a Milesian.
  • It is generally assumed that his father was from a wealthy noble family and had received Xerxes on his march through Abdera during the Second Persian War.
  • Some sources maintain that the Persian monarch had left several gifts for the Abderites, including a number of Magi, who are said to have taught him astronomy and theology.
  • Following the death of his father, he decided to spend his fortune in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, and embarked on a journey to distant countries. He visited Egypt, Persia, Ethiopia, and parts of Asia, and had reportedly travelled as far as India.
  • According to Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, he stayed in Egypt for about five years upon his visit. In his writings, he himself mentioned and praised Egyptian mathematicians for their profound knowledge.
  • Considering the fact that he wrote on Babylon and Meroe, it is assumed that he also spent some time in those places. Furthermore, he is said to have met with the Chaldean magi, one of whom, Ostanes, had reportedly taught him.
  • Even after returning to Greece, he continued to travel throughout the country in order to be better acquainted with its cultures. During this time he spent a lot of his fortune to acquire the writings of great Greek philosophers, studying which he further expanded his knowledge of natural philosophy.
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Interest in Natural Philosophy
  • Democritus eventually returned to his homeland, Abdera, after his wealth expired, following which his brother Damosis took him in. In order to avoid the law of Abdera which punished those who wasted their inheritance by depriving them of the rites of burial, he started giving public lectures to earn the favor of the people.
  • With his profound knowledge of various natural phenomena, he was able to successfully predict events like weather change, which made him famous among the local citizens. While he was highly esteemed by the common people, he avoided involving himself in public affairs and led a very simple and modest life dedicated to his studies.
  • 8He had a great sense of humor, for which he became known as ‘The Laughing Philosopher’. He earned the nickname ‘The Mocker’ from his fellow citizens for his ability to laugh at human follies.
Atomist Doctrine
  • It is popularly believed that he took forward his predecessor Leucippus’ idea of atomism that everything is composed of various invisible, imperishable and indivisible elements called atoms. However, as the historical authenticity of Leucippus is uncertain, many credit Democritus as the originator of the theory.
  • The atomists were more interested in the material and mechanistic cause of an event, asking what resulted in the occurrence of the event. In doing so, they stood in stark contrast to other renowned Greek philosophers like Aristotle or Plato who sought to explain the purpose of an event.
  • According to him, the atom is an inert solid which interacts with other atoms mechanically, via material links connected with single atoms as attachments. Along with his disciple Epicurus, he further elaborated on the shape and size of atoms, stating that different materials had differently shaped atoms, and maintained that atoms are perpetually in motion.
  • When compared to the other prevalent theories of the time, the atomist theory comes remarkably close in similarity with modern concepts of science, even though more akin to the modern concept of ‘molecules’ than ‘atoms’. However, rather than being based on empirical proof, it originated from the observation that because everything eventually decays and is sometimes recreated, there must be some invisible building blocks of materials that never decay.
  • A major part of the atomistic hypothesis is that there must be considerable amount of empty space between atoms, termed ‘the void’, which makes the perpetual motion of the atoms possible. The void is also necessary to explain the existence of liquid and gas, which can flow and change shape, and the fact that metals can be forged into any shape without losing property.
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  • His conception of the early universe was that atoms existed in a state of chaos before colliding with each other to form larger bodies like we can see around us. He perceived that there are many worlds that are constantly growing or decaying, and could be destroyed in a collision between two such worlds.
Work in Other Disciplines
  • Democritus is also credited with establishing the study of aesthetics because of his theoretical writings on poetry and fine arts prior to scholars like Aristotle made it mainstream. According to Thrasyllus, at least six of his works were about aesthetics as a discipline, but many of those remain only as fragments, due to which much of his thoughts on the topic is unknown.
  • Many early scholars have referred to his works in mathematics, including 'On Numbers', 'On Geometrics', 'On Tangencies', and 'On Irrationals', which points to the fact that he was a pioneer in mathematics and geometry. He is noted for observing that a cone or pyramid has one-third the volume of a cylinder or prism respectively with the same base and height.
  • He eventually developed a vast knowledge of herbs, plants, and minerals by experimenting on natural bodies, and recorded his findings in a number of books. Some of his works that have been cited by other scholars include 'On the Nature of Man', 'On Flesh', 'On the Senses', 'Causes concerned with Seeds and Plants and Fruits', and 'Causes concerned with Animals'.
  • He described early humans to be akin to animals, lacking in language and any notion of a community. According to him, after they were forced to form groups to ward off predators, they developed language and learned about various things through trial and error.
Perception of Knowledge, Ethics and Politics
  • Based on the fact that perception through the senses is subjective, Democritus distinguished two kinds of knowledge of truth: ‘legitimate’ and ‘bastard’. According to him, the perception of knowledge through the senses is insufficient, and therefore ‘bastard’, while the kind of knowledge acquired through intellect is ‘legitimate’ knowledge.
  • Concerning his views on ethics and politics, it is known that he supported the ancient Greek idea of democracy, stating that the powerful should help the poor and treat them with compassion. However, it is important to note that his idea of equality was not inclusive of women or slaves, even though he professed that liberty is preferable to slavery.
  • While he did not criticize the intent to make money, he was against hoarding of money for one’s progeny, and despised those who earned money in a disrespectable way. He was against violence, but saw war or execution of a criminal or enemy as necessary.
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  • According to him, goodness required practice and discipline, and was not necessarily an innate human nature. He believed that one should be content with what he has, and that envy will bring the society down as the society can only progress as a whole.
Major Works
  • Despite the fact that much of Democritus' work only survive through citation by later scholars, it is well known that he had gained an extensive knowledge about the natural order of things. He is respected by many twentieth century scholars as well for his groundbreaking ideas which were free from most of the shortcomings that contemporary Greek philosophy was prone to.
  • His most notable work is on his theory of atomism which established small invisible and indivisible atoms as the building blocks for all the elements in nature. Many scholars like British Historian Bertrand Russell praised his ideas for being remarkably close to that of modern science.
  • Apart from his notion of atoms, his idea of cosmology has also been praised by later scholars for its precision. Karl R. Popper admired his rationalistic philosophy on the evolution of humans as social animals, which asserted that languages, customs and laws are man-made institutions.
Personal Life & Legacy
  • Democritus remained unmarried for the entirety of his life, dedicating himself to the study of various philosophical doctrines. He is said to have lived over a hundred years by certain sources, even though according to Diodorus Siculus, he died at the age of 90, in around 370 BC.
  • Democritus remained unmarried for the entirety of his life, dedicating himself to the study of various philosophical doctrines. He is said to have lived over a hundred years by certain sources, even though according to Diodorus Siculus, he died at the age of 90, in around 370 BC.
  • While there has been a revival of interest in his work by twentieth century scholars for his precise theory of atoms, he was respected by most of his contemporaries as well. However, Plato, one of the most celebrated ancient Greek philosophers, is said to have hated him so much that he wished all his books be burned.
  • While there has been a revival of interest in his work by twentieth century scholars for his precise theory of atoms, he was respected by most of his contemporaries as well. However, Plato, one of the most celebrated ancient Greek philosophers, is said to have hated him so much that he wished all his books be burned.
  • Among the stories circulated about him, one mentions that he blinded himself with burning glass in order to avoid distractions in his pursuits and to master his intellectual faculties. While some agree that he might have limited eyesight in old age, the story is generally discredited on account of his ability to write books, conduct experiments and dissect animals throughout his life.

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Last Updated
- August 14, 2017

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