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Monday, 11 July 2011

Great Thinkers: Democritus

Democritus was the first person to develop a view of the world based on atoms, although he was more of a ‘natural philosopher’ than a true scientist.
He was born in Abdera in Thrace, northern Greece, in 460 BC, and died at the remarkable age of 90 (or perhaps even older). Democritus was a follower of Leucippus and together they put forward the concept of ‘atoms’. Contrary to many of their more famous rivals they interpreted Nature in a mechanistic way – believing that natural phenomena were free from the interventions of gods and supernatural causes. Their ideas on the nature of matter and the workings of the body etc., were thus remarkably close to our contemporary science-based world view. For over 1,000 years however the writings of their arch opponents Plato and Aristotle held sway, and matter was generally considered to be composed of four primordial components: water, air, fire and earth – in a world largely ruled by the whims of gods.

Democritus believed that things consisted of an infinite number of very small particles which he called atoms (from the Greek atomos indivisible). These atoms were seen as eternal, and it was believed that there were many different kinds of atom, which could move about randomly – occasionally colliding and joining to form a new substance. Whilst each atom was indestructible, the things they created by combining with others were not. Democritus summed up his views by saying “nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion”. 
His ‘atomic viewpoint’ gave Democritus interesting insights into areas such as reproduction and evolution. He said that all parts of the body contribute to the seed from which a new animal grows, and both parents contribute seed. Parental characteristics are inherited when one parent’s seed predominates over the other for a particular character. He thought that species do not exist for ever, unlike the atoms from which individuals are made. Democritus also wrote extensively on: ethics, the senses, theology (which he disliked), geometry and the nature of the soul or psychê. Although none of his original works have survived we know of them through the writings of Epicurus and others.

Democritus came from a well-to-do family, and travelled extensively around the classical world. He was known as ‘the laughing philosopher’, apparently due to the high value he placed on cheerfulness, and he believed that “the best way for a man to lead his life is to have been as cheerful as possible and to have suffered as little as possible...The right-minded man is he who is not grieved by what he has not, but enjoys what he has.” There is a lesson for all of us there somewhere!

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