Democritus is Born

Democritus, known in antiquity as the ‘laughing philosopher’ because of his emphasis on the value of ‘cheerfulness,’ was one of the two founders of ancient atomist theory.

He elaborated a system originated by his teacher Leucippus into a materialist account of the natural world. The atomists held that there are smallest indivisible bodies from which everything else is composed, and that these move about in an infinite void space. Of the ancient materialist accounts of the natural world which did not rely on some kind of teleology or purpose to account for the apparent order and regularity found in the world, atomism was the most influential. Even its chief critic, Aristotle, praised Democritus for arguing from sound considerations appropriate to natural philosophy.

According to ancient reports, Democritus was born about 460 BCE (thus, he was a younger contemporary of Socrates) and was a citizen of Abdera, although some reports mention Miletus. As well as his associate or teacher Leucippus, Democritus is said to have known Anaxagoras, and to have been forty years younger than the latter (DK 68A1). A number of anecdotes concern his life, but their authenticity is uncertain.

The work of Democritus has survived only in secondhand reports, sometimes unreliable or conflicting. Much of the best evidence is that reported by Aristotle, who regarded him as an important rival in natural philosophy. Aristotle wrote a monograph on Democritus, of which only a few passages quoted in other sources have survived. Democritus seems to have taken over and systematized the views of Leucippus, of whom little is known. Although it is possible to distinguish some contributions as those of Leucippus, the overwhelming majority of reports refer either to both figures, or to Democritus alone; the developed atomist system is often regarded as essentially Democritus'.