Democritus and the Origin of Science and Humanism

Democritus, born around 460 BCE, was a younger contemporary of Socrates. Known as “the laughing philosopher” and “the mocker,” he was predisposed to finding amusement in human foolishness. 

This cheerful contempt for human folly probably drove him to find the life of the mind and philosophy far more rewarding than fame and recognition; as Diogenes Laertius said, “It would seem that he also went to Athens and was not anxious to be recognized, because he despised fame, and that while he knew of Socrates, he was not known to Socrates, his words being, ‘I came to Athens and no one knew me.'”

Apparently, Democritus lived exclusively for his philosophical studies, with no concern for lasting fame, and was so devoted to his education that he claimed to have seen more countries and met more scholars than any of his contemporaries.

According to Diogenes Laertius, Democritus produced 73 works across the topics of natural science, mathematics, literature, aesthetics, ethics, and more (versus 30 or so Platonic dialogues). Of these works, none survive, except in fragments and in commentary by other authors. 

Plato reputedly despised Democritus, calling for all his books to be burned. Whether or not this is true, it is the case that all of Plato’s works have survived while all of the works of Democritus are lost. If the reverse were true, the history of western philosophy would look very different indeed, perhaps fairly described as “a series of footnotes to Democritus.” 

It is undeniable that Democritus would have taken philosophy in a radically different direction—a direction more consistent with modern science and humanism, as explained below. To see how, we’ll start by comparing Democritean atomism with the metaphysical views of Plato’s star pupil, Aristotle.

Aristotle’s four causes

According to Aristotle, “we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause.” Aristotle identified four types of causes:

  1. The material cause of an object is the material in which it is composed. For a table, this could be the type of wood with which it is made.
  2. The formal cause is the design or shape of the object. For a table, this might be the architectural plans for its design. 
  3. The efficient cause is the agent or things apart from the object that implements the design of the object. For a table, this would be a carpenter.
  4. The final cause is the ultimate reason for the object’s existence. For a table, this could be for the purpose of dining. 

Aristotle insisted that knowledge of every object and phenomenon in nature (including life itself) required an understanding of its four causes, including its final cause. Life did not simply come about—it requires an ultimate purpose that is intertwined with its design. In this way, Aristotle would shackle the world—for more than a thousand years—with a teleological approach to knowledge that demanded that phenomena be explained in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise.

This orientation would dominate philosophy over the next thousand-plus years. But what if the atomism of Democritus had been adopted instead?

The beginnings of science: Democritus anticipates Galileo

Relative to Aristotle—and especially to Plato—Democritus adopted a radically different metaphysical approach. Democritus was a thoroughgoing materialist, believing everything to be the result of natural causes. Democritus and the atomists attempted to explain the world without regard to final causes or purpose; they thought that each event had a preceding event and that understanding the relevant chain of cause and effect was sufficient for understanding any phenomenon. As to ultimate purpose, it is either 1) nonexistent or 2) beyond the capacity of human understanding. In other words, we can create our own meaning, but it is not to be found in the workings of the universe 

We may naturally think in terms of ultimate purpose, but it does not necessarily follow that this psychological tendency is in any way a part of the fabric of the universe itself. Democritus, consistent with the critical rationalism of the Presocratics, refused to engage in this type of anthropomorphism. 

Plato and Aristotle would have none of this, because they did search for final causes and purpose in the universe. Plato wrote about a creator god and Aristotle posited a “prime mover.” To the atomists, though, talk of prime movers is one hypothesis too many, or at least is beyond the reach of human comprehension. All that exists—or can be known to exist—are indivisible atoms (we might today say particles) that reconfigure themselves into different arrangements based on natural laws, producing the appearances we discover through our senses. 

The Democritean conception of the atom is, of course, different from our modern conception. But the idea is simply that there must be an indivisible component to reality, otherwise there is nothing preventing infinite division from occurring and the world of extended objects would not exist. Since the world does exist—but that everyday objects are impermanent and do in fact degrade over time—the fundamental nature of reality must consist of microscopic indivisible components that connect and disconnect from each other to produce the familiar world of appearances. This is the ultimate nature of reality and can be described only in quantitative terms referencing the size, shape, and arrangements of the atoms.

Compare this Democritean view with what Galileo had written in 1623:

“Philosophy [natural philosophy or science] is written in this grand book — I mean the universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth.”

Galileo, the father of modern science, effectively removed subjective experience and sensory qualities (appearances discovered through our senses) from the study of science. The universe was to be understood quantitatively, with qualitative aspects like senses and emotions relegated to human curiosities that do not impact our true understanding of the cosmos. This is the direction physical science would take up to the present day. 

But this idea did not start with Galileo; it began with Democritus (or Leucippus, of which we know little except that he was Democritus’ mentor). The atomism of Democritus posited the existence of indivisible atoms and the void, and denied that perceptible qualities other than shape and size existed in the atoms themselves. As Democritus said:

“By convention sweet and by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention color; but in reality atoms and void”

There is a general skepticism in the philosophy of Democritus that is also present in Galileo and modern science. It results from the fact that we can not directly perceive the atoms or constituent parts of reality; we can only use our senses as an intermediary or screen between the mind and the underlying components of reality. 

The implication is that we will always have to use macroscopic analogies to picture microscopic realities that can’t be directly perceived. Since it is only through our senses that we can experience anything at all, our knowledge is unreliable at the most fundamental level, but, alas, it is the best we can do. That’s why it is better to not add any unnecessary complexity on top of an already unreliable human mind. 

As to ultimate cause or purpose, or to the existence or nonexistence of supernatural entities, we have no method of verifying or falsifying any such claim. We can, as modern science does exceptionally well, understand the material world as it is presented to our minds. But as to what, if anything, lies beyond the material world, we are blind. 

Indeed, history is replete with the horrors and folly of those who think they have special access to the supernatural or divine realm. 

The beginnings of humanism

Humanism is a term with varied definitions, but it essentially signifies an attitude of general skepticism and intellectual humility, a rejection of superstition and dogma in favor of some form of naturalism, and the prioritization of human well-being. According to the Oxford dictionary, humanism is:

“An outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.”

The first question to ask is whether or not Democritus was an atheist or agnostic. Although there is no academic consensus due to limited information, the atomic hypothesis and materialist position do seem to suggest a lack of belief in god or the afterlife. If all that exists are atoms and the void, it is hard to make room for much else. 

Moreover, if we were to gauge his views based on those of his pupil Protagoras, to which he taught philosophy, we might conclude that he was an agnostic. As Protagoras said:

“Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what sort they may be, because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life.”

This is wholly consistent with what we’ve been discussing above, and it is reasonable to suppose that Democritus’ own views did not differ substantially from his pupil’s. But regardless of Democritus’ actual views on god or gods, they did not seem to influence his ethical views that revolved around the idea of a common humanity of equals. 

While we only have fragmentary evidence, Democritus was quoted as saying “equality is everywhere noble” and that “the wise man belongs to all countries, for the home of a great soul is the whole world,” as quoted by Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies

Democritus was against unnecessary violence, valued education as the noblest pursuit over the pursuit of wealth and fame, and thought that goodness came from everyday practice and discipline and living a life of moderation.

Further, he recognized that individual fortune was tied to the society in which one lived, and that care and concern for others led to a better society and in turn to better personal fortune. He wrote that those in power should “take it upon themselves to lend to the poor and to aid them and to favor them, then is there pity and no isolation but companionship and mutual defense and concord among the citizens and other good things too many to catalogue,” as quoted by Jonathan Barnes.

While the evidence is sparse, we get a clear sense of an orientation to seeing humanity as a collective group of equals regardless of nationality. If, as Democritus believed, all that exists are atoms and the void, no individual or group has a legitimate right to claim superiority over any others. The well-being of society is tied to the well-being of its members, and the act of building a better society is through the cultivation of individual moral habits. When we stop looking up to the needs of the gods, we can begin looking squarely at the needs of each other. 

As Karl Popper would later write, Democritus “formulated the doctrine that human institutions of language, custom, and law are not taboos but man-made, not natural but conventional, insisting, at the same time, that we are responsible for them.”

References and further reading

The Presocratic Philosophers by Jonathan Barnes

The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts by G. S. Kirk

The Metaphysics by Aristotle

Democritus: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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