(460.-370 BC), 

"The Laughing philosopher"

Home: Abdera, Thrace. 

School: Pythagorean

Influences on Democritus: Pythagoras and Parmenides.

Proposed physis: Atoms.

Rational/Empirical: Empiricist As well as a Determinist/monist. 

Based Perception on: Atoms emanate from objects through our senses into our brains. This is essentially correct with the sense of smell, it is incorrect with the other sensory organs.

Elementist (everything can be explained by its basic element (atoms)) 

Reductionist- Explains behavior in terms of LOWER level.

Influence: Long lasting. His empiricism was far ahead of his time. Holding Pleasure in moderation as the goal of human life was a popular concept.

Greatest achievement: Atomic theory, which anticipated the modern principles of the conservation of energy. The use of determinism would also lead to profound effects. The ramifications of the works of Democritus so frightened Plato that he had them burned.

Surviving works:He wrote extensively, but only fragments remain -Thank Plato.


Democritus was fortunate enough to inherited a small sum of money from his father. With this money, he was able to travel the world: Egypt, where he learned geometry, Persia, India, where he learned ascetisism and mysticism, and then to Athens. He finally returned home to Abdera to retire, but was without any funds. He read one of his 70 works to the assembly of citizens in his home town, and they voted him a stipend on which to retire. Because he constantly was laughing, especially at himself, he was known as the "laughing philosopher" again, a characteristic unlike nearly all other philosophers.

The 70 works that I previously mentioned spanned a wide scope of knowledge: ethics, physics, music, literature, history, medicine, mathematics and one I would like to read: on prognostication. We have it from the historian Aristoxenus that Plato desired to burn them all, since they were in discordance with his works. I will return to line of thought after I present the works of Democritus.

Democritus was concerned with the search for Thales' physis. In this search, Democritus was the first to come up with the bizzare atomic theory of matter - the concept that all things are composed of minute, invisible, indestructible particles of pure matter (atoma or "indivisibles"). Although atoms are made up of precisely the same matter, they differ in shape, size, weight, sequence, and position. Some are smooth for example, and these make up water. Others are dense and have hooks to cleave - such as in gold. Qualitative differences in what the senses perceive and the birth, decay, and disappearance of things are the results not of characteristics inherent in atoms but of quantitative arrangements of atoms. Democritus viewed the creation of worlds as the natural consequence of the ceaseless whirling motion of atoms in space. Atoms collide and spin, forming larger aggregations of matter.

Democritus reasoned that if the universe were finite, that an infinite number of atoms would fill it, no matter how small they were. Since the universe was not completley filled with matter, he argued that the universe must be infinite. This infinite world must also contain other planets with life as well. In fact, Democritus felt that there are an infinite number of worlds, at least one of which, and perhaps many more, are an exact copy of earth, with carbon copies of each of us. The concept of infinite universes is a provocative one - Nietzsche was fascinated by it as well.

The Main tenets of his atomic theoryEdit

- Atoms were "invisibly" small and all made up of the same stuff - correct 

(Atoms all have protons, neutrons and electrons. They basically differ only in that they have different numbers of these identical particles.)

- Atoms were nearly empty inside - correct

Atoms were in perpetual motion - in every direction throughout space. In modern terms, this is referred to as isotropism - a lack of direction (up, down, before, behind, etc.) - correct

- An atom's motion was continual and inherent. It has inertial mass, and did not need to be "pushed" - correct again

This argument annoyed Aristotle who felt that only divine objects ,the celestial bodies, required no motive force. Democritus' theory of atoms vulgarized all of matter by making everything, the celestial and the common, capable of having inertial mass. For this reason, Aristotle rejected Democritus. Aristotle was wrong. Democritus was correct. 

- Atoms did not have weight or gravity - wrong

Well, you can't win them all.

Whether Democritus was right on his last assumption about atoms is debatable - that the soul was made of atoms. Since man was made of atoms as well, Democritus consistently postulated a soul that was material as well. His opinion was not exactly new, the Greeks had previously defined it as "breath" which is matter, but by stating it thusly, Democritus was saying that spirit and soul were determined objects like all other material - i.e. there was no free will, soul, or even an afterlife. Yet, from what we do know of Democritus'work on ethics, this did not cause him much grief. (Ironically, it's the theists who believe in the existence of everlasting bliss, that tend to be quite miserable) He proposed that it was proper to be happy, not miserable in such a universe. Happiness, or "cheerfulness," as the highest good-a condition to be achieved through moderation, tranquillity, and freedom from fear.

Ok, now, to the question:

Why Plato would have these works burned?Edit

The works of Democritus were antithetical to the works of Plato. That much is clear.

Consider this surving fragment of Democritus, an imaginary dialectic between the intellect and the senses:

Intellect: Ostensibly there is color, sweetness, bitterness, actually there is only atoms and the void.
Senses: Poor Intellect, do you hope to defeat us while from us you borrow your evidence?

Through this understanding of the counterintuitive nature of the world, Democritus became a true scientist. Democritus was willing to reject appearances, and favor the ramifications of logical scientific inquiry. Plato was against systematic study of the world of matter and rejected that idea that the mind or spirt could be simply matter. Instead, Plato had a dim view of the material world, favoring a search for the mystery that lied underneath, what to him seemed to be the "True" nature of the universe. And counterituitive knowledge is not available to such limited thinkers.

Yet, none of this should cause him to burn the works of Democritus in itself.

So, what was the real reason?

Unfortunately, there can only be conjection here. But I would make a stab by extrapolating from the atomic work of Democritus that he was a vastly superior philosopher to Plato, and that the real motivation for Plato was not a discordance between his work and that of Democritus, but Plato's own recognition that his own work was inferior to that of Democritus. The works of Democritus most likely seemed dangerous and offensive to the effite Plato, who preferred to discuss profound matters such saying that the essence of "catness" explained what was common to cats, that making love to boys was preferable to making love to women, that it was better to lie to people than to tell then to trust them with the truth, better to have selfish, deceptive dictators run the country then to have a democracy, and that it was better to think really hard about something rather than just get off your ass and take a look at it. The truth is that Plato couldn't issue a good response to he turned to censorship through flames. You don't burn the books that that you can refute or disprove - you burn the one's that you can't deal with. You burn the ideas that eat you up alive in the middle of the night.

Special note: Aristotle and Democritus argued over other matters as well. For example, Democritus argued about the possibility of the existence of a vacuum and matter moving through one. Aristotle said that a vacuum was impossible. Democritus was again correct, at least in the manner that they were debating the concept. (In quantum theory we know there can be no true complete vacuum, because this would imply that we know both the exact position and direction of an "object" in the vacuum - i.e. zero.) Objects could move in a vacuum, in fact, they could move free of friction. Aristotle was not only wrong, his error would cause astronomy to hold erroneous views for nearly two millenia.