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By: Cristine Busser


The Cheerful Democritus - Charles-Antoine Coypel




Born sometime around 460 BCE in Abdera, Thrace, Democritus is best known for his extensive work in the school if Atomism[1]. Carrying the work of his mentor Leucippus further, and later influencing the work of Epicurus, Democritus believed everything could be explained through the study of atoms, whether the topic be sense perception, the soul, truth, or science. Aristotle considered him “one of the most important rivals in natural philosophy,” while Plato is suggested to have opposed his theory regarding the soul so much that he called for all of Democritus’ texts to burn.[2]


It is important to note that Democritus is best known for his contributions to science and some argue he is the most influential philosopher of modern science from the Pre-Socratic era.1 Therefore, while his work contributes to conversations central to rhetoric, Democritus was not concerned with devoting his time to civic participation. Rather, he spent the majority of his century-long life traveling in search of wisdom. Most sources claim, however, that he likely never visited Athens, where Plato and Socrates would have been alive at the time.2


Contributions to Science



Democritus, also known as “The Laughing Philosopher,” challenged many philosophers of his time by arguing that change and existence did not come from nothing, but rather “true being has to be ascribed to the atoms.”[3] He argued that atoms were “indivisible” and that all change is the product of atoms moving naturally, composing new objects.2 To support the claim that atoms move, Democritus argues that the world is made up of both atoms and the void, empty space through which atoms travel. This claim challenges the thinking of “metaphyisical monism,” led by Parmenidas, who argues that nothing is able to move, and thus change, because everything exists; if everything exists, there can be no empty space, or void, to allow things in existence to move.[4]


Democritus’ stance on atoms contributed not only to early arguments about inertia, but to the process of perception. According to him, people come to perceive what they see only by “thin layers of atoms” peeling off of their original body and traveling through the air to one’s various “sense organs.” 2 Once the layers come in contact with a sense organ, whether that be one’s eyes, ears, nose, tongue, etc., the person will be able to identify two truths of the atom: its size and shape. Everything else, scent, taste, sound, is determined by perception, culminating in “observation” as a subjective truth.1 Sources identify this kind of truth as “dim knowing”2 or “bastard” knowledge.1 However, one could get closer to an objective truth through inductive reasoning.



It is Democritus’ suggestion that one can work toward “legitimate” 2 or “genuine” 1 truth that his second major contribution to science—methodology—is credited. The story below offers insight into the way Democritus approached research:


Considerable interest had been aroused by the extraordinary death of a prominent man. When he was strolling along a beach, an eagle had dropped a turtle on his head. Why? It was recalled that an oracle had said that he would die of “a bolt from Zeus.” This had been thought to be a prediction of death by a stroke of lightning. However, someone pointed out that the eagle was a bird sacred to Zeus; thus, the oracle was fulfilled. This explanation satisfied most Greeks but not Democritus. He went to the beach and observed the habits of eagles. He found that they were fond of turtle meat. In order to get at it, an eagle would seize a turtle in his talons, fly into the air with it, and drop it on a rock to crack the shell. This observation, together with the fact that the deceased had been bald, provided an explanation that satisfied Democritus.


This story proved that what appeared to be a random occurrence was in fact “one item in a natural regularity or pattern. It was unnecessary to postulate the purposes of unseen beings to account for the fact.” [5] His process of inductive reasoning and appeals to atoms gained particular attention from Aristotle, who criticized Democritus for merely explaining events in nature based on previous patterns. However, at least one source argues that Democritus’ methodology served as inspiration for Aristotle’s “theory of definition.”[6]


Contributions to Rhetoric


Democritus contributions to science offer much to the field of rhetoric. For one, he provides explanation to those who are skeptical of universal truth. More specifically, Francis Bacon recognized Democritus as a “modern skeptic,” one who worked to “[reconcile] between exploratory skepticism and a conclusive dogmatism.”[7] Democritus’ work calls on people to understand that what one perceives should not be relied on as the whole truth; rather, people must support their assumptions with logic.


Therefore, Democritus work provides a more complete, balanced understanding of Pre-Socratic philosophies. For example, his theories on perception align with those of Protagoras, who argues that “Man is the standard of all things.”[8] While Democritus recognizes the role of relativity and also questions the power of the gods, he stops short at suggesting there is no universal truth. His views on relativity also challenge Gorgias, who argues there is no such thing as a “pure mind,” or one separate from only sense-perception.[9] Instead, Democritus negotiates this perspective by claiming one can work to achieve opinions separate from their initial perceptions through inductive reasoning.





[1] "Democritus - Biography." Democritus-Biography. The European Graduate School, 1 Jan. 2010. Web. 2 Nov. 2014. 

[2] Berryman, Sylvia. "Democritus," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

[3] Weiss, Helene. "Democritus' theory of cognition." The Classical Quarterly 32.01 (1938): 47-56. 

[4] Mattey, G.J. "Philosophy 143 Lecture Notes: Epicurean Physics." Philosophy 143 Lecture   Notes: Epicurean Physics. 1 Jan. 1997. Web. 2 Nov. 2014. 

[5] Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes Laertius. R.D. Hicks. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1972 (First published 1925).

[6] Brancacci, Aldo, and Pierre-Marie Morel, eds. Democritus: science, the arts, and the care of the soul: proceedings of the International Colloquium on Democritus, Paris, 18-20 September 2003. Brill, 2007.

[7] Barbour, Reid. "Remarkable Ingratitude: Bacon, Prometheus, Democritus."Studies in English literature, 1500-1900 (1992): 79-90.   

[8] Protagoras’ fragments

[9] Gorgia “On Being.”


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