Democritus was a remarkable Greek Philosopher best known for his contributions to modern science that exceed those of any other pre-Socratic philosopher. He is famously known as the “laughing philosopher” due to his habit of mocking people on their mistakes. Democritus’ works has not survived the years unfortunately, however, what is found about his life and teachings is found by the writings done on him Aristotle, Theophrastus and Diogenes among others.
Democritus is said to have born around 460 BCE in Adbera, Thrace. He belonged to a wealthy family, his father possessed such riches that he met Xerxes I of Persia during his march to Adbera. Upon his father’s death, Democritus spent his inheritance on travelling, he journeyed to Babylon, Egypt and even India, in pursuit of knowledge, experience and wisdom. Democritus did not have a care for his wealth, and he did not manage his finances with care, everything he had was put to serve his investigations, explorations and education. During his travels he encountered some of the most eminent personalities of his time, such as Anaxagoras, Hippocrates, Socrates and Plato.
Democritus studied under the guidance of Leucippus, and further evolved his atomist theory by adding his own theories to develop it more extensively. Democritus proposed that everything in the world is made up of a combination of bits of immutable stuff which he termed as atoms. Atoms, he said, are indivisible, and continue to join and produce more atoms, which constitute all materials of life. He believed that atoms not only constituted material objects, but also made an impact on our senses, sights, thoughts and soul. He proposed that atoms, the hard bits of reality, are actually the reasoning power controlling our senses, and we experience vision due to the movement of atoms through the space. Furthermore, he also believed that the psychical sense of touch was also influenced by the movement of atoms, while the sense of taste he explained as the tearing of taste buds by ‘jagged’ atoms.
Democritus believed that truth and falsehood are both subjected to the interpretation of the observer, he proposed that truth resides at the ‘bottom’ and can be explored by logical interpretation of sensory data. He formulated a contrast between two types of understandings, which he termed as ‘gnesie’ or genuine and ‘skotie’ or bastard. The genuine or authentic knowledge can be gained through logical and rationality while the bastard understanding is fallacious and biased, solely based on perceptions. He describes the process of perception as follows: a human being is stimulated by the movement of the atoms, he/she draws conclusions based on observation and understanding and forms a realization of the cause of the stimulation. This process is an evident example of Democritus’ reliance on scientific methods.
Democritus was extremely outspoken, and thus he was named as “the mocker”, for his open contempt of those who engaged in follies. His ethical teachings revolved around social responsibility and personal integrity, he did not believe in the existence of any supernatural being. Democritus gave strong emphasis on virtue and believed that being good eliminated fear. He also believed that the goodness in people is not a biological feature, but a psychological trait that develops with practices, teachings and discipline.