Ancient Philosophers: The Atomists, Leucippus and Democritus

Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of Western Philosophy
Ancient Philosophers: The Philosophy of the Early Greek Naturalists, by Jonathan Dolhenty

V. The Pluralists: The Atomists: Leucippus & Democritus

Leucippus — probably of Miletus — and Democritus of Abdera were physicians. Leucippus was the founder of the Atomist School; but his disciple Democritus, who was born about 460 B.C., and lived about ninety years, was its greater exponent. A naturalist and an avid searcher for knowledge, he journeyed into many regions to increase his notions, and many fragments of his works remain.

In Democritus, as in those who preceded him, we assist at the breaking up of the being of Parmenides into an infinity of particles, each of them indivisible. Democritus called these particles “atoms.” The atoms are material, qualitatively homogeneous, but of different form and gravity and are endowed with motion “ab aeterno,” from higher to lower.

Because atoms are endowed with motion, Democritus admits a second primordial element, the void, that is, infinite space which surrounds the atoms and gives them the possibility of movement. The differences in gravity cause the atoms to whirl into motion, thus giving origin to the formation of things. Every union of atoms indicates a birth, just as every separation of atoms indicates a death. Thus from the primitive void have come the stars and the earth and all beings, including man.

The soul also is formed of light atoms similar to those of fire, and with death it is resolved into atoms.

Democritus does not deny the gods, but even they, he says, are subject to the universal mechanism: they arose from the composition of atoms, and will be reduced to their component parts by decomposition. They live in interastral space, happy and not concerned with the destiny of men. The wise man does not fear them because they are powerless to do either good or evil.

Democritus admits only sensitive cognition, a product of the motion of atoms, which in a light form separate themselves from the body, penetrate the empty spaces of our organism and set in motion the atoms of our sensitive faculties. The movement produces cognition. Indeed, not everything that comes to us through the senses is really outside the sensitive faculty.

To this end, Democritus distinguishes the objective properties which are real in bodies — such as form, size, movement, etc.; and the subjective qualities which are due to the reactions of our faculties — for example, odor, color, taste, etc. These are in the objects only as a point of origin; in the subject they exist as specific qualities.

The system of Democritus, the model upon which all the materialistic systems will more or less be re-formed, presents to us a world regulated by mechanics (motion) and by the natural laws which act in the picture of cosmic necessity. No rationality is possible in this world of mechanical forces and hence no finality or purpose.

Thus are formed and are broken up the heavens and earth; thus human generations succeed one another, without there being a reason for their birth or for their decomposition; they are unconscious effects of unconscious causes. Life and death have no value, and everything is swallowed up in the night of atoms, whence everything took its origin. Such a system does not solve, but aggravates the problem of life, and inclines one to despair without comfort.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work. “Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World” was designed and organized by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D. Copyright ©1992 -2011 The Radical Academy. Copyright renewed in © 2011 -2013 The Radical Academy (a project of The Moral Liberal).

The Moral Liberal recommends: Great Books of the Western World.