Democritus (~-460 - ~-370)

Democritus Democritus was a presocratic philosopher. He believed that matter consists of inseparable, invisible elements, called atoms.

He was born around 460 BC, in Avdira, Thrace, to aristocrat parents, who nevertheless had democratic beliefs. Avdira, east of the Nestos River, was a Ionic colony and the third richest city of the Athenian alliance, thanks to the abundance of wheat and its natural port. During his childhood and adolescence, Democritus already showed a talent in the study of nature. He travelled to most places of the then known world; his travels brought him to Egypt, Persia and Babylon, but whether he visited Ethiopia and India as well has not been established. During his travels, it is almost certain that he visited the great cultural centres of Ionia, mainly Ephesus and Miletus, and got acquainted with the philosophy of Thales, Anaximandrus, Anaximenes, and Heraclitus. He probably met Leucippus in Miletus, a man who played a very important role in his life, as it was him who later taught Democritus of the philosophy of Parmenides, Empedocleus, and Pythagoras. He also visited the greatest cultural centre of all, Athens, as his hometown was also a member of the Athenian alliance. However, probably due to the ongoing Peloponnesian War, Democritus preferred to establish his school in Avdira.

When he returned to his hometown, Democritus had spent all of his money (mainly his inheritance from his father), and was taken care of by his brother, Damasus. He was well known and loved by most of his compatriots; some of them, though, were envious of that and demanded that a law be activated, that prohibited the burial of anyone who had spent his inheritance. In Avdira, Democritus devoted himself to teaching and authoring. He was nicknamed Wisdom or Philosophy; he was also given the nickname Laughing Guy, because he was always optimistic and happy. It is also possible that he got this nickname because he believed that merriment and joy is the main target in a man’s life.

According to a fictional story, Democritus blinded himself by burning his eyes with sunrays reflected on a bronze shield; the story justifies his action by claiming that Democritus wanted to fully devote himself to thought, unobstructed by vision. Nevertheless, this comes in complete contrast to the philosopher’s way of thinking, as he considered the senses as a valuable resource towards understanding nature. He probably died very old, when he was between 90 and 109 years old. According to another fictional story, he wanted to commit suicide by abstaining from food; because it was the period of Thesmophoria, a three-day celebration, the women in his family asked him to postpone his death for a few days. So, he asked that he get a jar of honey and lived on its scent for a few days. After the celebration ended, he died.

Democritus left a huge legacy, and he was involved with a vast array of sciences, including mathematics, music, geometry, meteorology, the art of war, astronomy, biology, geology etc. He was the first to realize that the Galaxy is simply the light of distant stars and expressed the opinion that the universe has many worlds, some of which are populated. He also said that the vacuum is not the same as nothingness, meaning it is something that exists.

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