Michael Lahanas

Δημόκριτος ο Αβδηρίτης

Democritus (or Democrit) (Δημόκριτος ο Αβδηρίτης)( 472/457 BC Abdera (some say Miletus) – 370/360 BC) was a son of either Hegesistratos (Ηγίστρατος), Athenokritos (Αθηνόκριτος) or Damasippos (Δαμάσιππος). He had 2 brothers Herodot and Damastes and a sister (her name is not known).
He obtained an amount of 100 Talents (??) after his fathers death, something which is equivalent to a few million dollars today. Now he was able to travel around and learn.

..και αποδημήσαι αυτόν εις Αίγυπτον προς τους ιερέας γεωμετρίαν μαθησόμενον και προς Χαλδαίους και συμμίξαι αυτόν τοις Γυμνοσοφισταίς εν Ινδία και εις Αιθιοπίαν ελθείν

He visited almost all places, Athens (“I went to Athens, and no one knew me”), Egypt, Persia and up to India talking there with the so-called naked sophists or gymnosophistes (Diogenes Laertios, with Suida and Aristotle the main source about the life and work of Democritus)

He had good relations with the Persian King Xerxes who visited his house during the second Greek-Persian war. Democritus considered himself like a Pentathlet who is not a master in any specific game but that what counts is the total number of points. Democritus was also a mathematician. He discovered, as Archimedes has written, that:

  • The volume of a cone is one-third the volume of a cylinder having the same base and equal height.

  • The volume of a pyramid is one-third the volume of a prism having the same base and equal height.

He (Democritus) seems to have thought about everything, and in a clear, methodological manner, Aristotle.

He wrote more than 75 books about almost everything such as agriculture, diets, ethics, fevers, law, magnets, “the sacred writings in Babylon,” “the right use of history,” biology including discussions about the growth of animals, horns, spiders and their webs, the eyes of owls, etc. Only fragments of his work survived. A list of his books (from Laertius which he obtained from Thrasyllus):

Πυθαγόρης (The Pythagoras), Περί της του σοφού διαθέσεως (a treatise on the Disposition of the Wise Man), Περί των εν Άιδου (an essay on those in the Shades Below).

Περί ανδραγαθίας ή περί αρετής (a treatise on Manly Courage or Valour), Αμαλθείης κέρας (the Horn of Amalthea), Περί ευθυμίης (an essay on Cheerfulness), Υπομνημάτων ηθικών (a volume of Ethical Commentaries).

Μέγας διάκοσμος (Great World , which Theophrastus asserts to be the work of Leucippus), Μικρός διάκοσμος (the Little World, “a book which he said was written 730 years after the fall of Troy”), Κοσμογραφίη ( the Cosmography), Περί των πλανητών (a treatise on the Planets).

Περί φύσεως πρώτον (the first book on Nature), Περί ανθρώπου φύσιος δεύτερον (two books on the Nature of Man, or on Flesh), Περί νου (an essay on the Mind), Περί αισθησίων ( on the Senses ,some people join these two together in one volume, which they entitle, on the Soul).

Περί χυμών (a treatise on Juices), Περί χροών ( on Colours), Περί των διαφερόντων ρυσμών ( on the Different Figures), Περί αμειψιρυσμιών ( on the Changes of Figures).

Κρατυντήρια (the Cratynteria ,that is to say, an essay, approving of what has been said in preceding ones ), Περί ειδώλων, ή περί προνοίας (a treatise on Phaenomenon, or on Providence)

Περί Ομήρου ή Ορθοεπείης και γλωσσέων (on Homer, or on Propriety of Diction and Dialects), Περί αοιδής (on Song), Περί ρημάτων (on Words), Ονομαστικών ( the Onomasticon)

Αιτίαι ουράνιαι (Heavenly Causes), Αιτίαι αέριοι (Aërial Causes), Αιτίαι επίπεδοι (Causes affecting Plane Surfaces), Αιτίαι περί πυρός και των εν πυρί (Causes referring to Fire, and to what is in Fire), Αιτίαι περί φωνών (Causes affecting Voices), Αιτίαι περί σπερμάτων και φυτών και καρπών (Causes affecting Seeds, and Plants, and Fruits), Αιτίαι περί ζώιων α β γ (three books of Causes affecting Animals), Αιτίαι σύμμικτοι (Miscellaneous Causes), Περί της λίθου (a treatise on the Magnet).

Περί διάφορης γνώμης ή Περί ψαύσιος κύκλου και σφαίρης ( A treatise on the Difference of Opinion, or on the Contact of the Circle and the Sphere), Περί γεωμετρίης (on Geometry), Γεωμετρικών (Geometry), Αριθμοί ( on Number), Περί λογικών κανών α β γ (3 books on the rules of logic) .

Περί αλόγων γραμμών και ναστών α β (one on Incommensurable Lines, and Solids, two books), Εκπετάσματα, (a volume called Explanations) Μέγας ενιαυτός ή Αστρονομίη (the Great Year, or the Astronomical Calendar), παράπηγμα, άμιλλα κλεψύδραι (a discussion on the Clepsydra).

Ουρανογραφίη (the Map of the Heavens), Γεωργαφίη (Geography), Πολογραφίη (Polography ), Ακτινογραφίη (Artmography, or a discussion on Rays of Light).

Περί ρυθμών και αρμονίης (A treatise on Rhythm and Harmony), Περί ποιήσιος (on Poetry), Περί καλλοσύνης επέων (on the beauty of Epic Poems), Περί ευφώνων και δυσφώνων γραμμάτων (on Euphonious and Discordant Letters).

Πρόγνωσις (Prognostics), Περί διαίτης ή διαιτητικόν, Ιητρική γνώμη (a treatise on the Way of Living, called also Diaetetics, or the Opinions of a Physician), Αιτίαι περί ακαιριών και επικαιριών (Causes relating to Unfavourable and Favourable Opportunities).

Περί γεωργίης ή Γεωμετρικόν (a treatise on Agriculture, called also the Georgic), Περί ζωγραφίης (one on Painting), Τακτικόν, Οπλομαχικόν (Tactics, and Fighting in heavy Armour).

Περί των εν Βαβυλώνι ιερών γραμμάτων (A treatise on the Sacred Letters seen at Babylon), Περί των εν Μερόηι (another on the Sacred Letters seen at Meroe), Ωκεανού περίπλους (the Voyage round the Ocean), Περί ιστορίης (a treatise on History), Χαλδαϊκός λόγος (a Chaldaic Discourse), Φρύγιος λόγος (a Phrygian Discourse), Περί πυρετού (a treatise on Fever), των από νόσου βησσόντων (an essay on those who are attacked with Cough after illness), Νομικά αίτια (the Principles of Laws), Χερνικά ή προβλήματα (Things made by Hand, or Problems).

His travels were expensive such that all his money was spent.

Joannes Moreelse, Democritus (c. 1630)

Now without money he started to read from his book “The great order of the world” in the public and the citizens of Abdera were impressed and they collected according to Laertios 500 Talents for him (a incredible sum if we believe this story, that maybe explains why he was so happy). He was laughing often very loud and was called therefore the happy philosopher. Democritus said that life without festivity is like a long road without an inn, that freedom, happiness and understanding are better then wealth, fame and power. In Athens they said that he is from Abdera “where all idiots are born”.

"It is written in the records of Grecian story that the philosopher Democritus, a man worthy of reverence beyond all others and of the highest authority, of his own accord deprived himself of eye-sight, because he believed that the thoughts and mediations of his mind in examinng nature's laws would be more vivid and exact if he should free them from the allurements of sight and the distractions offered by the eyes" (X.17). Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights Encyclopedia Romana

It was said that Democritus himself looked at the sun and became blind, because seeing with his eyes hinders him to see that what can be seen better with the spirit. Tertulian expresses some doubts and says that Democritus did this because being old he did not want to see more any beautiful women (for obvious reasons). In contrast to this Eratosthenes was said became blind in old age and that he committed suicide by starvation.

A strange story about his death exists: He said that often a long life is nothing than a elongated death and he decided almost 100 years old to die. He refused to eat. His sister also almost 100 years old complained that she could not go to the Thesmophorien festival because she had to be at hist home until his death. Democritus asked her to put a hot bread on his face. So he survived the next three days by just breathing the smell of the bread and his sister could go to the festival. When his sister confirmed that the festival is over he died. This story is described by Hermippus and Hipparchus says that he was 109 years when he died. SUDA

Democritus Quotes:

  • I have wandered over a larger part of the Earth than any other man of my time, inquiring about things most remote; I have observed very many climates and lands and have listened to many learned men; but no one has ever yet surpassed me in the construction of lines with demonstration; no, not even the Egyptian rope-stretchers with whom I lived five years in all, in a foreign land.

  • Many very learned men have no intelligence.

  • It is hard to be governed by one’s inferior.

  • A life without festivity is a long road without an inn.

  • It is better to examine one’s own faults than others.

  • To a wise man the whole earth is his home. (Reminds the words of Thucydides: Of famous men, the whole world is the tomb)

Democritus discovery of atoms, Epicurus and Aristotle's questions if time and space are “continuous”

The Many Worlds and existence of extraterrestrial life theory of Democritus, Epicurus and others

The Death of Democritus , Gödel and of other Great Scientists


Alejandro Rivero, Democritus as Taoist, arXiv:physics/0309104 v1 25 Sep 2003


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