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02/12/2007
Democritus

Bala Katerina
Source: C.E.T.I.
© Eastern Macedonia – Thrace Region
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Democritus is an atomic philosopher who was born in 460 B.C. in Avdira, Thrace, and was in the same age with Socrates. He wrote many essays which are abstractly saved today along with references to them in the works of posterior to Democritus writers (i.e Diogenes from Laerti). A catalogue of his works and many of his abstracts reveal that he was a universal spiritual man. Many parts of human life, such as ethics, poetics, war art, painting, physics, mathematics, grammar and phonetics were the objects of his philosophy. His knowledge, sharpness and spirit establish him as one of the most important philosophers. He is also regarded as the precursor of Aristotle.


The atomic philosophers, like the Ionians, were searching for an answer to the question: How possible is the change of things. This question occupied philosophical thought, especially after the eleatic theory. According to the members of the eleatic school, a being is unique, immovable and invariable. In Parmenidis’ ontology, denying the multiplicity of ‘being’ is based on the fact that beyond being there is nothing. Not being, blank, does not exist, since reality is full of being. Multiplicity of things surrounding us appears as being, but it is just a phenomenon.
The atomic theory targets to bringing the eleatic point of view of unique and invariable being with the basic characteristics of the empirical reality, as it is given in the sensory one.
Democritus is not trying to shake Parmenidis’ aspect on the unity of being. The basic concept of the atom of Democritus keeps its basic ontological characteristics of Parmenidis’ being, but now it is not one but many. In order to go through the difficulties of the ontology of Parmenidis, Democritus thought that being and not being exists along with the concept of empty space, a fact that gives him the ease to support the divisibility of being and the possibility of movement and change. Parmenidis’ being is shattered in innumerable pieces that are special in the empty space and nothing can penetrate them and shatter them further. The extreme domical elements of beings, meaning the infinitesimal particles of material are named atoms and are eternal, fixed, unborn, indestructible, homogenous and indivisible, characteristics that contribute to the world’s unity.

The contradiction of the world’s unity and the multiplicity of the phenomena was the primal problem of the pre Socratic philosophy and gets resolved through a synthesis of monistic and pluralistic elements. While Ionian and Eleatic philosophy are presented in Democritus’ theory, a pluralistic perception of the world is now built. The atoms of Democritus do not allow qualitative definitions. Their only differences are quantitative, meaning they are differences in shape, size and position. Various qualities, like color, temperature, taste etc. are not characteristics of the atoms but come up by the stimulants that come from atoms or the conjunction of atoms during the perceptive procedure. The atoms themselves do not fulfill space and are not made from a specific material. Change, multiplicity and everything that is perceivable as reality exists only as a quantitative relation between the atoms, meaning as an arrangement, a composition and movement in space. Decline and decay of things is caused by the alternation of the way in which the atoms were primarily connected in order to construct a specific object. Atoms, which create the quantitative multiplicity of the phenomenal world through their kinesis, are not perceived through the sense. The world of our experience which remains unapproachable during observation, is just a phenomenon.

Accepting all the changes in the world of experience derive from the moves of exclusively fixed atoms lead Democritus to reject all quantities as subjective. He believes that there is no phenomenon that can be presented as it really is, but only as it seems to any of as. All the attributes connected to the senses are subjective and the only real knowledge is the one that derives from objects when they are constituted of atoms and space. Sweet, bitter, warm, cold and color are subjective attributes. Kinesis of atoms causes collisions and fusions creating composite bodies. Atoms stay inalterable while their joins create the qualities we observe in nature, meaning colors, tastes, temperatures. Kinesis is the supreme concept that causes the creation of the world and the multiform of the visible reality.

In the end, Democritus concludes his theory in accepting a third concept, the concept of reasoning that is the foundation of the physical necessity. According to this concept, Democritus believes that nothing is accidental but everything is ruled by necessity, a specific cause. Every fact allows an accusative explanation in the language of atoms’ collision. At this point, Democritus explains that he is not interested in the question of the principle of the atoms’ kinesis and there is no reason for being interested in this question.

Democritus believes that nothing is done randomly but everything is based on need and has a particular cause. Every fact has an explanation in the language of percussion of atoms. At this point, Democritus explains that he is not referring to the question of the principle of moving and this question is not important for his theory. Regarding this issue, Aristotle criticizes the atomists, because they ignored the problem of the first moving cause. He also refers to Democritus, since he denied placing the question of the concept and cause of an eternal being, like kinesis. Moreover, since the characteristics of the atom are exclusively geometric, the concept of power does not play a part in Democritus’ theory. As a result, it the perception of material is static. Kinesis is taken for granted, as well as the existence of material.
Even if the atomic theory had defects and defaults and even if it was criticized, Democritus’ ontology through the reduction of the qualitative designations to the quantitative ones, prepared a newer kind of science that is characterized by the quantitative perception of the world and consists of the basic condition for the creation of exact sciences, where the basic domical element of the atomic model allows the mathematical description of the natural reality.
Democritus, besides his formulating of atomic theory, he also formulated particularly developed Ethics. He pointed out that the most important commodity in a man’s life is ethos as an expression of social attitude and he thought that enjoyments should be moderate.