Democritus and Atomistic Philosophy

Philosopher of Pre-Socratic Thinkers, Famous for Atomic Theory

In Athens, philosopher Democritus was hardly recognized by the intellectual elite, however, he represented pre-Socratic ideas. His atomic theory was even recognized by Aristotle, despite disagreements.

The first philosophers were obsessed trying to find explanations for their existence. Many found folklore and mythology unsatisfactory. Bucking the trends of the time, Democritus developed a materialistic view of life and the universe.

Life of Democritus in a Nutshell

Democritus (c.460-c.370 BC) left very little evidence of his life, yet he left a huge imprint in history. Born around 460 BC in Abdra, Thrace, in northern Greece, he appeared to have traveled widely, spending time in India, Egypt, and Persia, all great centers of academic thought. Stories suggest the he financed the trip with money left to him by his late father.

So why is Democritus, practically unknown in his day, associated with a philosophical milestone? The simple answer is that Aristotle disagreed with his theories, and therefore wrote about them. Conversely. the Greek philosopher Epicurus liked the ideas presented by Democritus and so adopted them within his work.

Democritus and His Atomist Ideas

Along with few other philosophers including Leucippus, Democritus claimed that everything is a product of packing together a myriad of atoms – that there is only one type of atom. Any variation was due to how these atoms are grouped.

Since everything is made of atoms, the world runs purely on mechanical properties, that is, everything and all that there is, from water to minerals, only vary from the way they are grouped or stacked together. Furthermore, the atom is an indivisible and solid object. It is absolutely small and cannot be compressed.

The Issues with the Atomic Theory

The problem with Democritus atomic concept was one relating space, that if atoms were the only thing, how come there are spaces between objects?

Without spaces, the entire universe would be one massive solid lump. To solve this, he developed the second component of the atomic concept, which is the void. He balanced the idea that the atom is the only unit of being, while the void is an empty extension that reaches out, and still dependent from atoms.

This problem of relationship between matter and the void reappeared in later years between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz, in which Newton upheld the idea of Democritus, while Leibnitz conceived of space as a relation between physical objects.

The debate took more historical years until the arrival of Albert Einstein and his relativistic theory. The general opinion among philosophers and scientists was that Leibnitz and Einstein have the better of the argument, although Democritus and Newton were correct.

The Atomic Soul and Democritus

Following his atom theory, life is but a collection of atoms operating together into a body moving very fast and operating within living beings. Scatter the atoms and there is no life. The soul is therefore destroyed by death. In Democritus’ atomic view of life, there is no such thing as immortality.

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