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Democritus (c. 460— 370 B.C.E.)

Often described as “the so-called laughing philosopher,” Democritus was the father of the atomic theory and a materialist. A wealthy atheistic philosopher, Democritus traveled to Egypt and over a great part of Asia. He may have been acquainted with Leucippus.

The philosophy in the sixty works were ascribed to him emphasized consistent mechanistic postulates which required no supernatural intervention, differing from the abstractions of his predecessors, Anaxagoras (who emphasized mind) and Empedocles (who emphasized harmony and discord). He thought everything was composed of atoms, tiny particles which cannot be seen but which have the same matter in different size, shape, and weight, matter that is underived, indivisible, indestructible.

Dante called him a materialist and placed him in Hell (Canto 4).

A hedonist, Democritus taught that the true end of life is happiness achieved in inner tranquillity. A skeptic, he observed that “truth is sunk in an abyss.” He is said to have laughed at life in general, which Montaigne says is better than to imitate Heraclitus and weep, because mankind is not so unhappy as it is vain.

A. T. Cole, in Democritus and the Sources of Greek Anthropology (1967), wrote about the forerunner of current secular thinking. Santayana’s Reason in Science states, “A thorough materialist, one born to the faith and not plunged into it by an unexpected christening in cold water, will be, like the superb Democritus, a laughing philosopher.”

{CE; CL}