back to PHL200Y home page

back to course outline


Topic #A10

Leucippus and Democritus: atomist philosophers


1 October 2001

Scribes: Ruth Lancashire and Mark Brown


These minutes were not spoken; for another version,

go to the spoken minutes



Monday’s lecture focussed on the Atomist philosophers Leucippus and Democritus. Professor Hutchinson began by telling the class that little is known as to how unproductive Democritus was. Leucippus and Democritus were often mentioned together, and it is likely the former was the originator of many of their ideas, and that Democritus carried on his tradition. Epicurus, who later took on their teachings, claimed that in fact there was no such scholar as Leucippus, but other philosophers claim that he was the inventor of the Atomist theory and extremely important to ancient philosophy.


A student then asked Professor Hutchinson what exactly the term ‘polemical’ meant. Hutchinson responded by saying that its origins came from the Greek word polemes meaning war or battle. Leucippus was familiar with the work of Zeno, who had championed Parmendian principles, and based his system on natural philosophy so that his work would survive attacks from his counterpart.


Professor Hutchinson then told the class that Leucippus had taken a "weird direction" by postulating an unsubdividable element which he called atoma. His hypothesis was that these little bits of being, or atoma, made up a Parmendian universe. This universe was permanent, uncreated, undestroyed and indestructible. All of reality is made up of these atomos. Atomic Theory satisfies Parmendian theory. The Atomists theory suggests that atoms come in varies shapes and sizes, which both philosophers stated were the only properties. These atoms did not posses secondary properties such as colour, smell, weight, or mass, and these properties arose from the complex formed by the atoms. Epicures, on the other hand, disagreed with the two original philosophers and said that the atoms also had weight. Leucippus and Democritus accepted plurality in the world but believed that things such as human beings were not plural.


A student asked Hutchinson why these atoma were unsplitable. Hutchinson replied that there were no ‘dotted lines’ or weak points in the structure of an atoma, and compared it to that of a ball bearing. Since the material is so dense and full of being it can not be cut. The Atomic theory was never fully accepted by Greek society but was recycled and built on by later philosophers all the way up until the 17th century when the theory was finally incorporated into Western tradition. Prior to the 17th century the prominent scientific theory had been that of the four elements: fire, earth, air, and water. The Atomist theory was accepted in the 17th century by some major scholars like Boil, but was still unaccepted and ridiculed by most, even though it would prove to be truer than the four elements theory. Much of this was true for other Greek theories, such as natural selection. Anixamander and Anaximenes both supported the theory of natural selection, but lacked the theory of random mutation, whereas Aristotle, who had more evidence at his disposal, was opposed to natural selection and believed in a fixated species. Natural selection was, however, not embraced until the publishing of Darwin’s Origins of Species. There have been many points throughout human civilization where a theory which was once ridiculed proved to be the truth later on.


Hutchinson commented on how bizarre it must be for us to see the early beginnings of what would later become the atomic theory, which we have only experienced in our high-school physics textbooks. Democritus left us with dozens and dozens of books written mainly in prose form. He also developed a new philosophical style of writing known as ‘treatise’ which would become the main vehicle for later philosophy. These ‘treatise’ were directed towards the general public and not just scholars. The reason we are left with so much of Democritus’ work is because of his ambition to know everything that there was to be known. He wrote whole books on a wide variety of topics such as: embryology, selection of the sexes, ethics, morality, and political ideas, just to name a few. Hutchinson went on to tell the class that if there were one philosophers work to restore fully it should be Democritus’ because of his spectacular ideas, knowledge, and the vast variety of subjects he wrote on.


A student posed the question does the Atomists theory apply to all of Democritus’ selections? Hutchinson answered by referring to T13 in The First Philosophers which dealt with sense perception, where there was no direct reference to atoma or their structure. Intermediate phenomena was used to explain vision, taste, smell, sound and touch. These explanations were all mechanical and physical. All of Democritus’ theories consisted of mechanical or structural explanations. Atoma form structures by repelling some atoma while attracting others. The most visible and obvious case of the use of the Atomist theory is in the case of the original constitution of the cosmos. Another student intervened to ask how the world came to be. Hutchinson referred again to the text, but this time to T19 which began quite nicely with "Worlds are created as follows...." and then continued with, "....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...". Democritus believed that the cosmos was created by this whirling motion, which is considered to be ‘normal science’. At this point it is incredible to see a philosopher who is able to accept that the world comes from a whirling motion, and not some god of sorts, considering Democritus had no evidence; it was all speculation. Democritus was merely guessing, and was in the dark.


Atoms do not appear at every level of explanation; there is no way to explain the function of the eye using Atomic theory. In the human body at a certain level Atomic theory would work, but it can not be applied to the body as a whole. A student posed yet another question asking that if atoms have no mass or weight, how do one million atoms have weight? How do you explain the weight of a person when zero plus zero equals zero. Professor Hutchinson claimed that Democritus explained this by using centripetal force. Another student informed the class that in T15 of the text Democritus claimed that atoms do have mass, yet another student pointed out that in T16 mass was not a property Democritus included and that this property was added by Epicures later on.


For all those interested a professor from Cambridge University will be honouring us with his presence Thursday, October 11 at 4pm in room 179 at University College. This professor will give a more thorough description of Democritus and the origins of Greek Atomism.


Hutchinson then spoke on Democritus’ philosophy of the self. Democritus wrote several books on how a person should conduct themselves. Epicurus also wrote on this subject later, borrowing from Democritus. Hutchinson turned to F7, F8, and F18 to show the philosophy of self. Democritus believed in the importance of contentment. This contentment being a state of satisfaction that is neither pleasurable or exciting, but is something that we should strive for. Democritus combined natural philosophy with human philosophy in his work.


From T26 to T29 Democritus discusses what is real. He states that some things that may seem real, like gods, are not and can in fact be explained in other ways. An example being a dream which seems real at first but is not and can be explained by people’s imagination. Democritus often laughed regarding all human affairs because they were of no real importance. He distanced himself from humanity because the rest of humanity didn’t know what was real. If we accept that the mind and body are in flux, like Democritus did, then our view of reality will change.