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Topic #A10

Leucippus and Democritus: atomist philosophers


1 October 2001

Scribes: Lukas Tagalakis and Jamieson Hunter


These minutes were spoken on 3 October; for another version,

go to the unspoken minutes




Monday's lecture concentrated on the teachings of the early atomist philosophers Leucippus and Democritus.  These philosophers, both from Abdera, are often mentioned together.  Leucippus is believed to be the originator of Atomist thought, which Democritus, with much ambition, expanded and carried through in detail.  Epicurus, a contemporary of Democritus, further expanded the atomic theory into a complex system.  There exists one or two pieces of evidence that Epicuras denied that Leucippus even existed.  However scholars, including professor Hutchinson, have enough evidence to suggest that he did exist and that he was crucial in the development of the atomic theory.  Professor Hutchinson described these attacks by Epicurus as polemical in nature.  A student asked what the word polemical meant and professor Hutchinson said that it is derived from the Greek word polemos, meaning warlike, especially in dispute of argument or opinion.


            Leucippus was familiar with the works of Zeno.  It was this knowledge of Zeno that prompted Leucippus' natural philosophical theory - a theory that would survive Zeno's system because it solved Zeno's problem of infinite divisibility.  Zeno assumed that physical matter could be divided infinitely, but this led to absurdities and paradox.  In response to this, Leucippus postulated a world that cannot be split - ie., that there is a minute scale of matter beyond which further division or cutting is impossible.  The word 'atom' comes from the Greek word atomos, which means 'uncuttable', and the atoms of Leucippus were held to be indivisible, indestructable and solid.  Atoms are bits of being, plenum, where each single atom is like a Parmenidean universe - completely full of being and indestructible.  For the atomists, the complex world that we see in reality is compounded from atoms.  Now we had a theory of reality that changed but still satisfied the texts of Zeno and Parmenides.


            In the original atomist theory, there were innumerable atoms in various shapes and sizes - this described their only properties.  It was from these properties, along with void, that the world was created.  Colour and smell were not original properties, these were characteristics that were observed as a property of the complexities of the atoms, and not of the atoms themselves.  Also, the original atomic theory did not have weight as an original property.  It was not until later that Epicurus said that atoms can also have weight, and he went on to describe the weight of atoms and attacked the early atomists for not having done the same. 


            Moving on from Parmenides alleged impossibility of empty space and movement - the unmoving One of the world, the atomists allowed for the plurality of the sensual world and the recognition of the underlying plurality in it, but they insisted that there is no plurality in the atom itself.  But why are these atoms unsplittable?  Professor Hutchinson asked us to think of something with a very solid composition, something like a ball-bearing made of hard and dense steal.  Imagine trying to cut it with a knife.  This was the same image the early atomists had of the atom:  a solid mass with no joining points, attachments, cutting lines et cetera - simply a complexity, full of being that cannot be cut.  This basic theory was carried on from Leucippus by Democritus, then by Epicurus, and from his time atomist theory was generally unaccepted and disappeared from the world of science until the seventeenth century.  In the seventeenth century, scientist Robert Boyle was able to enforce the theory with the help of evidence from experimentation.  The well accepted theory of the four elements in the seventeenth century began to recede thanks to the improved atomic theory.  Until Boyle, the scientific community did not accept the Epicurean theory.  It was a theory that was ridiculed, except by the faithful few in hippie communes.  However, the theory turned out to more true.  This is not the first time that a less popular theory has turned out to be true.  We can see this disappearing and rediscovery of ancient science also with Anaxagoras and Empedocles with their primitive theories of evolution (not because of random mutation however) which have features of the Darwinian theory.  However, Aristotle's theory of fixed species was the accepted theory.  Aristotle 'pinned his colors' to fixity of the species and this theory was not abandoned until the nineteenth century, when Darwinian theory of natural selection became the accepted school.


            Professor Hutchinson then commented on how strange it is for us to read these early theories having the high school science knowledge of atoms and of evolution.  Most of the evidence we have about the atomists comes from Democritus, and most of the fragments we have are on his ethical vies.  Democritus, unlike Emedocles who wrote one book, wrote literally dozens.  He wrote in ordinary prose, a series of 'treatises', unlike the poetic style of Empedocles.  Non-fictional treatises became increasingly important as the vehicle for the written work of philosophy, except Plato, who wrote in dialogues.  Democritus was extremely ambitious and he sought to know everything that we can know.  He did work in embryology, mathematics, and geometry, geography, medicine, astronomy and the calendar, Pythagoreanism, acoustics and other scientific topics, the origins of humans and animals, literature and prosody and politics and ethics (Waterfield, pg 164).  Professor Hutchinson said that  "if there is one person that by pushing a magic button we'd possess all their works", he would choose Democritus - a very accomplished and wide-reaching scholar.


A student then asked the question:  How does the atomist theory apply to the rest of Democritus' theory;  does it extend to other domains?       


            Professor Hutchinson then referred to T19 (Waterfield, pg 183) (DK 67A1; KRS 563; T 77a), to give an account of how atoms make up the original constitution of the universe, and drew attention to the optimistic first sentence "Worlds are created as follows.  A number of atoms with all kinds of shapes move 'by being cut off from the infinite'  into a large void area, where they gather together and produce a single whirl.  In this whirl they collide with one another and, as they move around in all kinds of ways, they begin to separate from one another, with atoms moving towards those to which they are similar.  When there are too many of them for them any longer to rotate in equilibrium, the light atoms move out into the void, as if from a seive, while the rest of them stay together and, as they become entangled, race along together, with one another, and so create a first spherical body.  The spherical body billows out like a membrane and encloses within itself all kinds of atoms.  As these varied atoms whirl around with pressure provided by the centre of the system, the surrounding membrane becomes thinner, because atoms, connected by contact with the whirl, are constantly streaming together.  So the earth was created, once those atoms moved down to the centre stayed together..."  The complex world is created by a whirling motion of atoms separated from the void.  This motion is like an Anaxagorean or Empedoclean vortex - spinning in a centripetal and centrifugal process.  Democritus took this accepted theory of the vortex and superimposed his atomic theory onto it so that the vortex would work in terms of atoms. The atomist theory creates a new mechanistic method at ground level.  However, these theories of scientific processes (so close to modern atomic theory) were, for these philosophers, pure speculation without experiment.  Amazingly, they were searching and postulating in the darkness of speculation.  Professor Hutchinson then made the analogy of a person in a nuclear plant that has a hand in those thick gloves and is feeling around in a box with eyes closed.  Professor Hutchinson then returned to the student's question and said that atoms do not appear on every level of Democritus' theories, but rather only on the most fundamental.  It would wrong to focus solely on atoms to describe hearing for example.  We believe that our bodies are made up of cells, and from a strictly biological sense we can describe the function of the human body from the cellular perspective.  However, humans are a complex systems and when inquiring about humans, we cannot give explanations based on one set of principles.  We would take a mechanistic approach.  Thus Democritus too did not explain every aspect of life from the view of atoms;  he too a structural, mechanistic approach.


A student then asked the question:  How does Democritus explain the weight of things if atoms themselves have no weight?             


Professor Hutchinson then said that Democritus answered that question in terms of centripetal and centrifugal forces.  The concept of mass and weight do to gravity is after all a Newtonian doctrine.  A student then referred us to T15 (Waterfield, pg182) (DK 68A60; 573; T 48A) which states  "Democritus does say that each of the indivisibles is heavier the larger it is..." This seems to suggest that Democritus did believe that the atoms had weight, however, as professor Hutchinson pointed out, T16 states that Epicurus added weight to the concept of atoms.


            Any student that is interested in learning more about the ancient theory of atoms is advised to attend a lecture at the University of Toronto by professor Sedly of Cambridge.  The pertinent lecture is called "Democritus and the origins of Greek Atomism".  Professor Hutchinson says that Sedly is an excellent lecturer and it is not to be missed - it will be insightful and thorough.


            Democritus created a great number of writings concerning ethics.  With the slight exception of the Pythagoreans, with their akousmata, we have not seen many writings of this nature so far in our course.  These writings are "pretty sensible for the most part".  Professor Hutchinson then referred us to F18 (Waterfield, pg192) (DK 68B159; T D34) which says "All those who drive their pleasures from their guts, by eating or drinking or having sex to an excessive and inordinate degree, find that their pleasures are brief and short-lived, in that they last only as long as they are actually eating or drinking, while their pains are many".  Democritus also taught a kind of psychotherapy in which the soul needs moderation and control, the result being good mental and physical health and a life of contentment.  In F10 there are thoughts on how people pray to the gods when it is in our control.  Also, in F9 (Waterfield, pg 191) (DK 68B174; T D39) Democritus says that we must act in accordance to justice "for a man who ignores justice and fails to act as he ought is distressed by the memory of his actions..."


            Professor Hutchinson then referred to F7 and F8 calling them "very important".  It is in these passages that Democritus stresses that contentment should be the goal in life, and that moderation is the vehicle for a good life.  He is stressing balance and caution.  Democritus is not referring to pleasure, joy or happiness as in eudaimonia, but rather a careful kind of contentment as a state that we should attempt to enter - for it is within our capabilities.  Professor Hutchinson also referred us to T26-29 (Water field, pgs186,187).  Here Democritus says that the gods are really reactions of sensible natural phenomenon that people cannot explain and yet claim to have seen the work of the gods.  This is a product of human imagination.  Images or impressions that the ancients saw as gods, Democrats felt were simple intakes of images by our sense channels from the exterior world as well as our internal world of experience. 


            Professor Hutchinson then said that Democritus (approx. 460-370 BCE) was not a pre-Socratic because he was born around the same time as Socrates, being only a little younger and was in fact older than Plato and Protagoras.


A student then asked the question:  Did Democritus live in Athens?      


Professor Hutchinson presented a quote where Democritus says "I came to Athens but nobody knew me".  Also, Plato in BK. 10 of his Laws discusses Democritus but never mentioning his name .  Plato clearly knew Democritus but he was the "great absence" in Plato's works.  Plato was fundamentally against the work of Democritus.


            In T22 (Waterfield, pg185) (DK 68A40; KRS 565; T 78) it says that Democritus used to laugh at everything, since he regarded all human affairs as ridiculous".  If, like Democritus, you believed that everything was a chaotic whirling of atoms, then the nature of reality falls into question.  You might be a bit weird.  Not experiencing reality as is commonly observed through the senses, may have the effect of distancing a person from the world.  It was either the triviality of human affairs that made Democritus laugh, or it was a sign of contempt.


            Then professor Hutchinson read a peice from Juvenal of the second century CE.  In satire ten he writes:


"They had a point - don't you agree?- those two philosophers:  One of them helpless with laughter whenever he sets foot outside his house, the other a weeping fountain.  The cutting, dismissive sneer comes easily to us all- But whenever did Heraclitus tap such an eye-brimming Resavoir of tears?  Democritus' sides shook non-stop, though the cities he knew had none of our modern trappings- Togas bordered or striped with purple, sedans, the tribunal, the rods and axes.  Suppose he had seen the praetor born his lofty carriage through the midst of the dusty circus, and wearing full ceremonial dress - The tunic with palm leaves, the heavy Tyrian toga draped in great folds round his shoulders;  a crown so enormous that no neck can bear its weight, and instead its carried by a sweating public slave, who, to stop the Consul getting above himself, rides in the carriage beside him.  Then theres the ivory staff crowned with an eagle, a posse of trumpeters, the imposing procession of white robed citizens marching - so dutifully beside his bride-rein, retainers whose friendship was bought with the meal ticket stashed in their wallets.  Democritus long ago found occasion for laughter in all human intercourse, and his wisdom reveals that the greatest men, those destined to set the highest examples, may still be born in a land with sluggish climate, a country of muttonheads.  The cares of the crowd he derided no less than their pleasures, their greifs, too, on occasion: if Fortune was threatening, 'Up you", he'd say, and give her the vulgar finger" (Juvenal, The Sixteen Satires, Penguin Books Inc., 1974, pg206). 


From Spain to India (in ancient times) few men, Juvenal felt, could slash through the fog.  There was Heraclitus the weeping fountain and Democritus who laughed at everything.


            The second reading was from an essay by Michel de Montaigne, in BK 1 of chapter 50.  He says:


"Democritus and Heraclitus were two philosophers, of whom the first, finding the human state vain and ridiculous, never appeared in public except with a mocking and ribald expression.  Heraclitus, on the other hand, felt pity and compassion for this state of ours, so his expression was always melancholy and his eyes full of tears . I prefer the first humour, not because it is pleasanter to laugh than to weep, but because it expresses more contempt and is more condemnatory of us than the other.  I do not think we can never be despised as much as we deserve.  Wailing and commiseration imply some valuation of the object bewailed;  what we mock at we consider worthless.  There is, in my opinion, not so much a misery in us as emptiness, not so much malice as folly".(Michel de Montaigne:  Essays Penguin BooksLtd., 1958, p.132-133). 


The laughing philosopher knew that what we took to be real was far from it.