Democritus (460 - 370) BC (estimate)

Democritus was the Greek philosopher whose work anticipated modern atomic theory. Democritus believed that the universe was made up of atoms, and nothing else.

The Greek word atomon means "indivisible". Democritus taught that atoms were were absolutely small that they cannot broken down to smaller pieces, or compressed. However, Democritus also believed that different atoms also varied in size and shape. Thus, water was made of smooth, round atoms that did not stick to each other, and thus could flow smoothly. While iron was made of jagged atoms, which allows the atoms to latch on to each other, making iron more solid than water.

Sensation, he believed, were caused by the interaction of atoms. For example, the taste "sweet" was caused by large, smooth atoms, and the color "black" is caused by rough atoms.

Since Democritus believed that everything in the universe was composed of atoms moving through the void (kenon), Democritus' philosophy did not leave room for the supernatural. Belief in gods, Democritus said, was triggered by a natural tendency of people to attribute to supernatural causes things that they could not explain.

However, Democritus believed in a highest good, a state of "cheerfulness" which could be attained by living in moderation, free from fear and superstition. Democritus would later be called the "Laughing Philosopher", in contrast to Heraclitus, the Weeping Philosopher.


He came from Abdera in Thrace. His philosophy was based on that of an earlier philosopher Leucippus, and was itself the precursor of the materialist philosophy of Epicurus.

He said:

According to convention, there is a sweet and a bitter, a hot and a cold; according to convention there is a colour. In truth there are atoms and a void.
The theory is preserved in discussion by later writers, principally Aristotle. None of his own writings survive, but those quotations that have been preserved largely relate to ethics.

Robert Burton (1577-1640) used the by-name Democritus in his The Anatomy of Melancholy.

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