Moral Understanding of DemocritusJune 26, 2021
Democritus put forward an idealistic understanding of morality. He believed that wisdom would make people happy. The Greeks do not understand knowledge the way we do. Knowledge is a power for us, a benefit. There are two basic aspects of knowledge in Greek: The first is the side of enjoyment. To know to know. This is an important thing. This is the basic understanding of knowledge in the beginning.
Secondly, knowledge should make practical life happy in Greece. In other words, it should make you happy in an individual sense. In this sense, we call it the wisdom of living. This is the most important aspect of the Greek Sophia. The importance of life is mastery. The importance here is that we live life happily, harmoniously and peacefully. For this reason, the wisdom of living lies on the basis of Greek wisdom. This is to carry life on your shoulders despite all its negativities. Democritus also says to be wise, measured and balanced. This is to be content with little, not to be afraid of death. You’ll get used to all kinds of challenges, he says. That’s why you need to make sense of your life.
We can think that Democritus touched upon many subjects and attempted to explain various events. However, our information on this subject is incomplete, as there are not enough documents left from him. Some of his writings that have reached us are about morality. Philosophers before him also dealt with morality. However, moral problems were processed within religion in this period. It was also common to formulate moral views in the form of maxims. Democritus also wrote a large part of his moral understanding in the form of aphorisms. However, among these, there are views that enable the moral problems of the next period. In Greek philosophy after Democritus, one issue was particularly influential in moral considerations: the concept of true happiness. “How to earn a truly happy life? Where can such a life be found?” The fundamental question of morality in later Greek philosophy, its fundamental doubt, was tied to this question. All other moral issues have always been turned into this one. In this period, morality was perceived as a tool and a guide to reach a happy life.
We can see this understanding in the writings of Democritus as well. The second feature is the acceptance that the path to happiness can only be reached by mastering the passions. It was thought that a person who is captive to his passions and puts his passions above himself will sooner or later become unhappy. Moreover, such a person cannot be considered wise, for reason and passions are faculties that are in opposition to one another. Only one who can restrain his passions with his mind and live in moderation can be happy. Greek philosophy has always considered moderation and calmness to be the highest virtue, and therefore all requests; self-control has turned into the need to lead a measured life. Democritus’ understanding of morality should also be examined within these lines.
Democritus compares two types of people. On the one hand, the person dragged behind his passions, on the other hand, the person who lives moderately and calmly. This calm life, that is, the measured life, becomes identical with the physical and physiological states of the atoms that make up life and spirit. Two concepts form the basis of morality in Democritus: One of them is interests, the other is wealth, that is, the passion for money.
Democritus, “What is wealth and poverty?” he asks, Wealth is an excess, poverty is a lack. Wealth means an excess of things to be had, which is not worth the effort. By being deprived one becomes poor, but to be deprived of something is not only dependent on external objects, but also on me. I either deprive myself of something or I don’t. If I know how to endure deprivation, I will never consider myself poor because certain external objects are missing. The second concept that forms the basis of morality emphasized by Democritus is that general interests come before private interests. He explains it this way: If a person is in bad condition, it is always possible for others to help him. But if everyone’s situation is bad, no one can help anyone. It is worse, then, that the disaster is general. If the disaster is private, there are always possibilities to find a solution. As a result, Democritus’ thoughts on morality were not collected in a system. Rather, it is in the form of some virtuous, concise words and guiding explanations showing how to achieve happiness.
Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook