An Overview of Democritus PhilosophyJune 26, 2021
The birthplace of Democritus must have been Teos (south of Urla) in Ionia. Although he is called “the philosopher from Abdera”, perhaps he came and settled here later. He went on long journeys, traveled around Egypt, Anatolia, Iran, as well as all of Greece. He lived the life of a scholar who had never interfered in politics in his homeland and retired to his corner. He said, “I would value finding a proof above being the king of Persia”.
He is considered the greatest naturalist of the First Age. According to him, the “existing” did not come into existence, it will not disappear, it is unchangeable, it always remains the same with itself. But apart from “existing”, there is also “non-existent”, that is, “void”, and space. Because of space, “existing” is divided into disguises (ideai) that are no longer divisible and invisible. These are what Democritus calls atoms (indivisible). The only change that can happen in atoms is motion, that is, displacement. The separation of atoms from each other is only in terms of quality, only in size, smallness, location, order, etc. are their differences. That’s why Democritus does not have color, sound, warmth, coldness, etc. in atoms (in these real beings). It says there are no attributes. The fact that we see colors, hear sounds, sense heat, taste sweet and bitter, however, is an illusion of emotion, a “dark” knowledge. The senses are not so keen as to know the real truth, that is, the last parts (atoms) of objects that can no longer be divided. Sense knowledge cannot see the inner texture and true structure of objects, only the thinking mind can grasp this.
But in saying this, Democritus does not yet make a distinction in principle between thinking and perception, the thought world and the perceived world; It is only the degrees of sharpness and precision that distinguish the two. Fighting Anaxagoras’ understanding, Democritus opposes his attempt at teleological explanation with a very precise mechanistic view: the universe was formed only by the collisions of atoms and their pressure on each other; an absolute necessity dominates the becoming in the universe; All that has happened has come about necessarily from causes. Thus, Democritus not only does not accept the concept of purpose (telos), which appears in the teaching of Anaxagoras, but he also explicitly rejects the concept of chance: Our mention of chance arises only from our ignorance; When we do not know the cause of an event, we try to explain it by chance. With this view, Democritus laid the foundations of a mechanistic natural science. Democritus also uses the doctrine that “the truth is atoms and their movements” to explain the soul. For example, perception and thinking, these two spiritual events are the movements of fire atoms, which are the thinnest, lightest and flattest of the atoms in our body (they keep the body warm, mobile and therefore alive). This is clearly a materialistic understanding. Although the philosophers before Democritus were also materialists, considering “existing”, including the soul, to be corporeal, Democritus’s is a very conscious materialism. Democritus’ moral teaching is also based on natural philosophy. Of the many remaining fragments, his “what are the foundations of a right life?” We see that he explores the question to a degree that we could not find in previous philosophy.
In this respect, Democritus is the thinker of a transitional period. Prior to that, the main focus was on the problem of the cosmos (nature): In Democritus, the problems related to human life took place as much as the problem of the cosmos. As a matter of fact, the next period of Greek philosophy will deal with the main human problems. According to Democritus, emotions and desires are also movements of fire atoms. If these movements are stagnant and measured, they make a person happy; if they are too intense, they create unhappiness. For him, happiness is the serenity of the soul. Democritus calls this state of the soul euthymia (well-being of the soul). Because he made euthymia the end of human actions, Democritus can be considered the founder of eudaiminism (mutism), which would later become a major understanding in Greek ethics. Democritus’ eudaimonism is very pure and noble. Those who want to achieve happiness must know how to distinguish between what is beneficial and what is not. The measure of this can be found in the feelings of pleasure and pain, but he should also know how to distinguish what is relatively good from what is absolutely good. He must also be able to distinguish between what is relatively good and what is absolutely good. The relatively good ones are things like material-sensory joys, beauty, honor, and wealth. If the absolute is good, it means that the soul is in a good state (euthymia). When the soul is in such a state, man only rejoices in the good, let alone doing the bad, he does not even want to. The measure of man’s moral worth is his thinking. A person should be able to gather his joys from himself, independently of the outside. The thing to do to be happy is to reach peace of mind and to avoid all kinds of shocking passions and emotions. Democritus is of the opinion that this situation is best reached with wisdom. Democritus is the highest point of development in astronomy, leaving the Pythagoreans aside. But Democritus, on the other hand, was more concerned with man than with nature.