Democritus: The Laughing Philosopher

As the philosopher Nietzsche famously said: “He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and ran and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying”. This is certainly true when it comes to humanity’s understanding of the universe, something which has evolved over more than 2000 years and is the subject of ongoing discovery.


The Ancient Greeks taught humanity how to think rationally and objectively, and so helped lay the foundations of our modern understanding ofthe world. One such person is Democritus, a classical Greek scientist and philosopher who is now viewed by many as being the true ‘Father of Modern Science’. Among his many achievements, in his theory of the universe and his conviction that all phenomena can be explained rationally by what he called the laws of nature, which can be discovered empirically and expressed mathematically. Democritus lived in around 460 to 370BC. Most sources claim he was born in Abdera, located in the northern Greek province of Thrace. Democritus’ father was wealthy and after he died, Democritus used his inheritance to finance a series of travels to distant countries to feed his thirst for knowledge. He discovered a number of mathematical theorems and wrote extensively on a wide range of subjects. He is especially famous for his atomic theory and believed that the universe is made up of tiny particles he called atoms (Greek άτομα, indivisible) that move randomly in empty space or the void, and that atoms collide with each other and associate by hooking onto each other through the forces between them, and that the atoms make up all the different manifestations of matter. In his words:


“The world is made of two parts: the full (pleres, stereon) and the empty, the vacuum (cenon, manon). The fullness is divided into small parts, particles called atoms (atomon, that cannot be cut, indivisible). The atoms are infinite in number, eternal, absolutely simple; they are all alike in quality but differ in shape, order and position. Every substance, every simple object is made up of those atoms, the possible combination of which are infinite in an infinity of ways. The objects exist as long as the atoms constituting them remain together; they cease to exist when their atoms move away from one another.
The endless changes of reality are due to the continual aggregation and desegregation of atoms”.


Democritus wrote that the universe contained an infinite number of worlds and asserted that ‘nothing’ is actually something and deduced that the light of stars explained the Milky Way’s appearance. Democritus wrote eloquently on subjects as diverse as the origin of human beings, artistic perspective, mathematics, anthropology, poetry, physics and atomic theory. He was called the ‘laughing philosopher’ as he apparently mocked human folly and those who were superstitious or believed in the Gods!



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