Democritus & the Atomists, by Anthony Kenny, Illustrated Brief History of Western Philosophy
Democritus was the first significant philosopher to be born in mainland Greece: he came from Abdera, in the north-eastern corner of the country. He was a pupil of one Leucippus, about whom little is known. The two philosophers are commonly mentioned together in antiquity, and the atomism which made both of them famous was probably Leucippus’ invention. Aristotle tells us that Leucippus was trying to reconcile the data of the senses with Eleatic monism, that is, the theory that there was only one everlasting, unchanging Being.
Leucippus thought he had a theory which was consistent with sense-perception and would not do away with coming to be and passing away or with motion and the multiplicity of things. He conceded thus much to appearances, but he agreed with the Monists that there could be no motion without void, and that the void was Unbeing and no part of Being, since Being was an absolute plenum. But there was not just one Being, but many, infinite in number and invisible because of the minuteness of their mass.
However, no more than one line of Leucippus survives verbatim, and for the detailed content of the atomic theory we have to rely on what we can learn from his pupil. Democritus was a polymath and a prolific writer, author of nearly eighty treatises on topics ranging from poetry and harmony to military tactics and Babylonian theology. But it is for his natural philosophy that he is most remembered. He is reported to have said that he would rather discover a single scientific explanation than become king of the Persians. But he was also modest in his scientific aspirations: ‘Do not try to know everything,’ he warned, ‘or you may end up knowing nothing.’
The fundamental tenet of Democritus’ atomism is that matter is not infinitely divisible. According to atomism, if we take any chunk of any kind of stuff and divide it up as far as we can, we will have to come to a halt at some point at which we will reach tiny bodies which are indivisible. The argument for this conclusion seems to have been philosophical rather than experimental. If matter is divisible to infinity, then let us suppose that this division has been carried out – for if matter is genuinely so divisible, there will be nothing incoherent in this supposition. How large are the fragments resulting from this division? If they have any magnitude at all, then, on the hypothesis of infinite divisibility, it would be possible to divide them further; so they must be fragments with no extension, like a geometrical point. But whatever can be divided can be put together again: if we saw a log into many pieces, we can put the pieces together into a log of the same size. But if our fragments have no magnitude then how can they ever have added up to make the extended chunk of matter with which we began? Matter cannot consist of mere geometrical points, not even of an infinite number of them; so we have to conclude that divisibility comes to an end, and the smallest possible fragments must be bodies with sizes and shapes.
It is these bodies which Democritus called ‘atoms’ (‘atom’ is just the Greek word for ‘indivisible’). He believed that they are too small to be detected by the senses, and that they are infinite in number and come in infinitely many different kinds. They are scattered, like motes in a sunbeam, in infinite empty space, which he called ‘the void’. They have existed for ever, and they are always in motion. They collide with each other and link up with each other; some of them are concave and some convex; some are like hooks and some are like eyes. The middle-sized objects with which we are familiar are complexes of atoms thus randomly united; and the differences between different kinds of substances are due to the differences in their atoms.
Atoms, he said, differed in shape (as the letter A differs from the letter N), in order (as AN differs from NA), and in posture (as N differs from Z).
Critics of Democritus in antiquity complained that while he explained everything else in terms of the motion of atoms, he had no explanation of this motion itself. Others, in his defence, claimed that the motion was caused by a force of attraction whereby each atom sought out similar atoms. But an unexplained attraction is perhaps no better than an unexplained motion. Moreover, if an attractive force had been operative for an infinite time without any counteracting force (such as Empedocles’ Strife), the world would now consist of congregations of uniform atoms; which is very different from the random aggregates with which Democritus identified the animate and inanimate beings with which we are familiar.
For Democritus, atoms and void are the only two realities: all else is appearance. When atoms approach or collide or entangle with each other, the aggregates appear as water or fire or plants or humans, but all that really exists are the underlying atoms in the void. In particular, the qualities perceived by the senses are mere appearances. Democritus’ most often quoted dictum was:
By convention sweet and by convention bitter; by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention colour: in reality atoms and void.
When he said that sensory qualities were ‘by convention’, ancient commentators tell us, he meant that the qualities were relative to us and did not belong to the natures of the things themselves. By nature nothing is white or black or yellow or red or bitter or sweet.
Democritus explained in detail how different flavours result from different kinds of atom. Sharp flavours arise from atoms which are small, fine, angular, and jagged. Sweet tastes, on the other hand, originate from larger, rounder atoms. If something tastes salty, that is because its atoms are large, rough, jagged, and angular.
Not only tastes and smells, but colours, sounds, and felt qualities are similarly to be explained by the properties and relationships of the underlying atoms. The knowledge which is given us by all these senses – taste, smell, sight, hearing, and touch – is a knowledge which is darkness. Genuine knowledge is altogether different, the prerogative of those who have mastered the theory of atoms and void.
Democritus wrote on ethics as well as physics: the sayings which have been handed down to us suggest that as a moralist he was edifying rather than inspiring. The following remark, sensible but unexciting, is typical of many:
Be satisfied with what you have, and do not spend your time dreaming of acquisitions which excite envy and admiration; look at the lives of those who are poor and in distress, so that what you have and own may appear great and enviable.
A man who is lucky in his son-in-law, he said, gains a son, while one who is unlucky loses a daughter – a remark that has been quoted unwittingly, and often in garbled form, by many a speaker at a wedding breakfast. Many a political reformer, too, has echoed his sentiment that it is better to be poor in a democracy than prosperous in a dictatorship.
The sayings which have been preserved do not add up to a systematic morality, and they do not seem to have any connection with the atomic theory which underlies his philosophy. However, some of his dicta, brief and banal as they may appear, are sufficient, if true, to overturn whole systems of moral philosophy. For instance,
The good person not only refrains from wrongdoing but does not even desire it.
conflicts with the often held view that virtue is at its highest when it triumphs over conflicting passion. Again,
It is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it.
cannot be reconciled with the utilitarian view, widespread in the modern world, that morality should take account only of the consequences of an action, not the identity of the agent.
In late antiquity, and in the Renaissance, Democritus was known as the laughing philosopher, while Heraclitus was known as the weeping philosopher. Neither description seems very solidly based. However, there are remarks attributed to Democritus which support his claim to cheerfulness, notably
A life without feasting is like a highway without inns.
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Anthony Kenny, An Illustrated Brief History of Western Philosophy, 20th anniversary edition, Wiley, John Wiley & Sons 2019
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