Democritus (Greek Δημόκριτος Democritus Democritus of Abdera; * 460/459 BC in Abdera in Thrace, † probably in the early 4th century BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher who is considered one of the pre-Socratics. Democritus was a student of Leucippus and lived and taught in his home city of Abdera.


Democritus of Abdera was a hometown ionic colony in Thrace. He was the son of wealthy parents, he used his fortune to travel extensively. He boasted to have traveled from all people of his time, most countries and are among the most educated men among the living.

From the writings of Democritus only fragments survive. The resulting list of his very numerous writings, however, shows that his knowledge extended over the entire circumference of contemporary knowledge. Even on the art of war, he knew. It seems to have surpassed him among the later philosophers of antiquity only Aristotle.

Even his contemporaries called Democritus, the "laughing " philosophers, perhaps because his home city of Abdera in Greece had the reputation of a Gotham city. Above all, he aimed his doctrine from the fact that the soul by the theory of the essence of things Get a cheerful, serene mood and will no longer vexed with fear or hope. Called this stoic mood he " Euthymia " (literally: Wohlgemutheit ) and described it as the highest good.

Democritus and Leucippus had great influence on Plato - though that it never mentioned by name - as well as Aristotle, who extensively examined its teachings and partly judged very critically:

" The question of the movement but from where and to where it comes to the things they have, quite similar to the other without having to break over her head, leave it aside. "

Democritus probably died in the early 4th century BC

Atomistic materialism

Like his teacher Leucippus - and in derogation of his teacher Parmenides - he postulated that the entire nature of the smallest, indivisible units called atoms, is composed. Democritus central message of this is ( according to a document by Galen in the 2nd century ):

" It only seems a thing has a color, only apparently it is sweet or bitter; in reality there are only atoms in empty space. "

Each of these atoms should not be firm and solid same. There would be an infinite number of atoms: round, smooth, irregular and crooked. If this were approaching each other, coincide or intertwined, then appeared the one. Than water, other than fire, as a plant or as a human

In his opinion, also sensory perception and soul existence on atomistic principles can be traced by the soul consists of soul atoms. The death of a man, scatter from this soul atoms and may be followed by a new soul that forms straight. Everything is moving in space reasons, either to chance or necessity. This doctrine is a logical and atomistic materialism. The essential features are found in the materialistic minded naturalists later periods almost unchanged again.

Democritus rejects the adoption of various substances from physical spiritual principle, as it was the nous of his predecessor Anaxagoras. This principle should make his ultimate purpose in accordance with the things. Accordingly counter led Democritus becoming one of the things on the indivisible elements of the matter, the physical atoms back. These have from the very beginning an inherent motion in the void. That is, it makes a change back to their causes mechanically acting.

The atoms are not of the nature (such as Anaxagoras ) to distinguish between one another, but only by the shape. Democritus assumed that each atom has the shape of a regular geometric solid, such as sphere, cylinder, pyramid, cube. Consequently, the composite body made ​​of atoms can not be qualitatively but only quantitatively distinguished, ie the shape, order and position of their elements after. The size of the body corresponds in amount and severity of the multiples of the amount and severity of the atoms. From the differences of all the diversity of the world of phenomena can be explained.

Neither the atoms still in their properties, just as in their movement, you may ask for a cause. They are all eternal. But it is in the nature of gravity, that the larger (and therefore heavier ) atoms have a more rapid motion - down - assumptions. Thus, the smaller (and therefore lighter ) are displaced and driven upward. By colliding atoms are produced lateral movements and in turn a gradually more and more spreading vortex, which has brought about the World Education.

How to chaff and grain is the grain in the winnowing of the grain by itself chaff, so had to go through the swirling motion by natural necessity, the lighter the Light, get the more difficult to difficult and lasting integration of the atoms of the reason for the formation of large nuclear aggregates (body) and whole body worlds are laid. One of which has become in this way the body is the original as everything else in motion located has been, gradually came to rest earth from their moist state, the organic beings have emerged.

The soul is an atomic unit, a body, but one whose components are the most perfect, that is the finest, smoothest and kugelförmigsten atoms, which correspond to the appearance of the Fiery. Parts are the same, as long as life endures, made by exhaling into the air and absorbed by inhaling the same as a replacement again. Similarly, solve incessantly fine from the things around us effluents which pass through the openings of our body ( the sensory organs ) to the same located inside the soul and there produce them by impression similar images, which are the sensory perceptions. The latter are the only one, but since those effluents on the way to the soul can experience disturbing transformations, more or less, not absolutely reliable and objective source of our knowledge and is therefore not rise above the level of probability.

To the soul that makes possible the realization of nature, the rest of the person behaves ( his body ) just like a "tent"; who loves the gifts of the former, loves the Divine, who loves the body, the Human. Knowledge but to gain insight into the in-itself of things, that is, the atoms and the void, and in the legal necessity of the course of things, which is accessible neither a line by outside powers still in need of interference by such. While all the differences for us are only insight into the sensory phenomena, free the realization of how foolish fear of vain hope, and causes those serenity ( ataraxia ), which is the highest good and at the same time the true bliss.

Democritus is said to have reached the age of 100 in this view of the world; to what extent the same is solely his own work or his, was usually taken with him at the same time mentioned, but lesser-known compatriot Leucippus can no longer decide for lack accurate messages.


Christoph Martin Wieland Democritus made ​​the hero of his novel ironic "History of Abderites " in which he ridicules the follies of his contemporaries.

Moreover, according to him, the moon crater Democritus and founded in 1973, Democritus University in Western Thrace (Greece ) are named.

Text editions and translations

  • Laura Gemelli Marciano (eds. ): The pre-Socratic philosophers. Volume 3, Artemis & Winkler, Mannheim 2010, ISBN 978-3-538-03502-7, pp. 300-583. ( Greek source texts with German translation, notes and introduction to the life and work )
  • Fritz Jürß, Reimar Müller, Ernst Günther Schmidt ( ed.): Greek atomists. Texts and commentaries on the materialistic thinking of the ancient world. Reclam, Leipzig 1973.
  • Geoffrey S. Kirk, John E. Raven, Malcolm Schofield ( ed. ): The pre-Socratic philosophers. Introduction, texts and comments. Metzler, Stuttgart 2001, ISBN 3-476-01834-2, pp. 439-472. ( selected fragments and testimonia with German translation and commentary )
  • Rudolf Loebl (Ed.): Democritus. Texts to his philosophy. Rodopi, Amsterdam, 1989, ISBN 90-6203-919-7. (Source texts with translation and commentary )