Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Democritus 460 BCE - 370 BCE

Legend has it that Democritus was supposed to be mad, because he laughed at everything, and was sent to Hippocrates to be cured. The physician pointed out that he wasn't mad, just the possessor of a happy disposition. He is referred to as the 'laughing philosopher'.

Already, I like this guy.

Life and times:
"The original sources for Democritus' life are regarded as untrustworthy, so the following account may contain fictional elements. It is fairly certain that Democritus was born in Abdera, about 460 BCE. His father was from a rich noble family and gave large contributions towards funding the entertainment of the army of Xerxes. Democritus was instructed by Magi in astronomy and theology. After the death of his father, he traveled in search of wisdom. He devoted his inheritance, one hundred talents, to this search. He supposedly visited Egypt, Ethiopia, Persia, and India. During part of his life, he was instructed in Pythagoreanism and was a disciple of Leucippus. After several years of traveling, Democritus returned penniless to Abdera. His brother Damosis took him in. According to the law of Abdera, whoever wasted his riches would be deprived of the rites of burial. Democritus, hoping to avoid this disgrace, gave public lectures. He acquired fame with his knowledge of natural phenomena and his ability to predict changes in the weather. He used this ability to make people believe that he could predict the future. They not only viewed him as something more than mortal but even proposed to put him in control of their public affairs. He declined the offer because he preferred a quiet life and so passed the remainder of his days in solitude. He was said to have lived to a great age and to have produced seventy-three major works. (Unfortunately, all that remains is about a hundred fragments.)"

And, oh wow, did he ever make an impact.

"The world

"What was real to Democritus consists of the atoms and the "nothing," that is, the void. According to Democritus's beliefs, atoms are indestructible, eternal, and in constant motion. They are not all the same, as they differ in shape and position. When the atoms move they come into contact with other atoms and form bodies. A thing comes into being when the atoms that make it up are appropriately associated, and it passes away when these parts disperse. The idea of atoms was controversial to others at the time, but became more amenable with the studies of Aristotle."

"The soul

"Although intelligence is not allowed to explain the organization of the world, according to Democritus, he does give place for the existence of a soul, which he contends is composed of exceedingly fine and spherical atoms. He holds that, "spherical atoms move because it is their nature never to be still, and that as they move they draw the whole body along with them, and set it in motion." In this way, he viewed soul-atoms as being similar to fire-atoms: small, spherical, capable of penetrating solid bodies and good examples of spontaneous motion.

"Democritus explained senses along these lines, as well. He hypothesized that different tastes were a result of differently shaped atoms in contact with the tongue. Smells and sounds could be explained similarly. Vision works by the eye receiving "images" or "effluences" of bodies that are emanated. He stated that, "Sweet exists by convention, bitter by convention, color by convention; but in reality atoms and the void alone exist." This means that senses could not provide a direct or certain knowledge of the world. In his words, "It is necessary to realize that by this principle man is cut off from the real." Later philosophers use this to assert that any reliable knowledge can be obtained, but Democritus felt differently:

There are two forms of knowledge: one legitimate, one bastard. To the bastard sort belong all the following: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. The legitimate is quite distinct from this. When the bastard form cannot see more minutely, nor hear nor smell nor taste nor perceive through the touch, then another finer form must be employed. - Democritus, Fragment 11, The Symmetry of Life

This finer form is reasoning, although Democritus does not explain reason's place in the atomistic view."

More interesting still, is his view on atoms and the void:

"Atoms and the void

Democritus agreed that everything which is must be eternal, but denied that "the void" can be equated with nothing. This makes him the first thinker on record to argue for the existence of an entirely empty "void". In order to explain the change around us from basic, unchangeable substance he argued that there are various basic elements which always existed but can be rearranged into many different forms. He argued that atoms only had several properties, particularly size, shape, and (perhaps) weight; all other properties that we attribute to matter, such as color and taste, are but the result of complex interactions between the atoms in our bodies and the atoms of the matter that we are examining. Furthermore, he believed that the real properties of atoms determine the perceived properties of matter--for example, something that tastes sharp is made of small, pointy atoms, while something sweet is made of large, round atoms; the interactions of those atoms with the atoms of the tongue give the impression of taste. Some types of matter are particularly solid because their atoms have hooks to attach to each other; some are oily because they are made of very fine, small atoms which can easily slip past each other. In Democritus' own words, "By convention sweet, by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention colour: but in reality atoms and void."

Most of the surviving fragments of his work involve Ethics (just a taste, to whet the palate):

  • "Disease occurs in a household, or in a life, just as it does in a body."
  • "Medicine cures the diseases of the body; wisdom, on the other hand, relieves the soul of its sufferings."
  • "The needy animal knows how much it needs, but the needy man does not."
  • "It is hard to fight with desire; but to overcome it is the mark of a rational man."
  • "Moderation increases enjoyment, and makes pleasure even greater."
  • "It is childish, not manly, to have immoderate desires."
  • "The good things of life are produced by learning with hard work; the bad are reaped of their own accord, without hard work."
  • "The brave man is he who overcomes not only his enemies but his pleasures. There are some men who are masters of cities but slaves to women."
  • "In cattle excellence is displayed in strength of body; but in men it lies in strength of character."
  • "I would rather discover a single cause than become king of the Persians."
  • "There is no poetry without madness.

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    Aaron Kinney said...

    The Laughing Philosopher... that reminds me! Wasnt there some philosopher or some important guy back in the ancient times you actually LAUGHED himself to death?

    beepbeepitsme said...

    Now laughing oneself to death doesn't seem so bad. ;)

    Krystalline Apostate said...

    Aaron - here I thought you were just flashing on a Monty P skit - there's actually stories about this!
    "It is believed that the mythological Greek prophet Calchas died of laughter when the day that was to be his death day arrived and the prediction didn't seem to materialize. [citation needed]

    In the third century B.C. the Greek philosopher Chrysippus died of laughter after giving his donkey wine, then seeing it attempt to feed on figs.[2]

    It is cited that the Burmese king Nandabayin, in 1599 "laughed to death when informed, by a visiting Italian merchant, that Venice was a free state without a king." [3]

    In 1660, the Scottish aristocrat, polymath and first translator of Rabelais into English, Thomas Urquhart, is said to have died laughing upon hearing that Charles II had taken the throne.

    In 1782, a certain Mrs Fitzherbert is reported to have suffered from an attack of hilarity while she attended a performance of The Beggar's Opera. When Charles Bannister appeared on scene as Peachum, she burst into an uncontrollable laugh so loud that she had to be expelled from the theatre. She laughed continuously all night long and the day after and died early in the morning, the following day.

    The phenomenon is also recorded in the book Crazy History where a Celtic soothsayer was able to predict the hour of his demise. As with the death of Calchas, when the time arrived and the soothsayer found himself still alive, he purportedly laughed hysterically, eventually killing himself through either heart attack or asphyxiation."
    That, my friends, is simply wild.