Very little is known about the life of the Greek philosopher Democritus, though he was called the ‘prince of philosophers’. He was a learned man and a great investigator of nature. He put forward the materialist theory that the physical world was made up of atoms – the cat and the dog, the dog and the rose, are different ways of organising the same basic material, atoms, in space. This is remarkably like today’s scientific theories about atoms (which resurfaced in about 1800). Democritus believed that our minds are furnished with ideas based on our experience of things we see, touch, smell, taste and hear – by our sensory experience of the material world. In his writing he gives the senses greater importance than the mind; he has the Senses saying, “Miserable Mind, you get evidence from us, and do you try to overthrow us? The overthrow will be your downfall”. When modern scientific thinking began to develop four hundred years ago, the work of scientists like Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton was inspired by his ideas.
The view of ethics he put forward was a form of enlightened hedonism, based on the natural world and not on a supernatural one. The philosopher Epicurus was influenced by this view, which lies at the heart of modern Humanism.
The humanist philosopher Bertrand Russell was an admirer of Democritus and said of him in Philosophy and Politics (1947):
“[he] is chiefly famous as the founder of atomism…His atomism, however, was only part of his general philosophy. He was a materialist, a determinist, a free thinker, a utilitiarian who disliked all strong passions, a believer in evolution, both astronomical and biological. Like the men of similar opinions in the eighteenth century, Democritus was an ardent democrat…”
Sayings of Democritus
“It is not out of fear but out of a feeling for what is right that we should abstain from doing wrong.”
“Doing right is based most of all on respecting the other person.”
“We ought to do our best to help those who have suffered injustice.”
“The wise man belongs to all countries, for the whole world is a homeland to a great heart.”
“Poverty in a democracy is as much to be preferred to so-called prosperity under despots as freedom is to slavery”
“I would rather discover a single causal law than be king of Persia!”