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Democritus, copper engraving after an antique bust, 18th century
Democritus, painting by Antoine Coypel (1692), Louvre

Democritus ( Greek Δημόκριτος Dēmókritos , also called Democritus of Abdera ; * 460 or 459 BC in Abdera in Thrace ; † around 370 BC ) was a Greek philosopher who is attributed to the pre-Socratics . As a student of Leukippus, he worked and taught in his home town of Abdera; he himself influenced Epicurus .

Democritus was decisively shaped in his philosophical and scientific work by his stay in Babylonia , a cradle of science in his time. Democritus was an atomist and wrote writings on mathematics, astronomy, physics, medicine, logic, ethics and the theory of the soul .


Democritus hometown Abdera was an Ionian colony in Thrace. He was the son of wealthy parents; he used his fortune for extensive trips. He boasted that of all the people of his time he had toured most of the countries and that he was one of the most educated men among the living.

Only fragments of the writings of Democritus have survived. The surviving list of his extremely numerous writings shows, however, that his knowledge extended over the entire scope of knowledge at that time. He also knew about the art of war. In this regard, among the later philosophers of antiquity, only Aristotle seems to have surpassed him.

Even his contemporaries called Democritus the “laughing” philosopher, perhaps because his hometown Abdera in Greece had the reputation of a bourgeois town . Above all, however, his teaching aimed at the soul attaining a serene , serene mood by contemplating the nature of things and no longer being driven by fear or hope. He called this calm mood Euthymia (literally: good- naturedness ) and called it the highest good.

Democritus and Leucippus had a great influence on Plato - although he never mentioned him by name - as well as on Aristotle, who examined their teachings in detail and sometimes judged them very critically: “The question of the movement, however, from where and where it comes from, also have Like the others, leave them to one side without worrying about them. "

Democritus probably died around 370 BC. Chr.

Atomistic materialism

Like his teacher Leukippus - and in deviation from his teacher Parmenides - he postulated in his atomic theory that all of nature is composed of the smallest, invisible, indivisible units (elementary particles), the atoms . Democritus central statement on this reads (according to a document by Galenos from the 2nd century):

"A thing only appears to have a color, it only appears to be sweet or bitter, in reality there are only atoms in empty space."

Each of these atoms should be solid and massive, but not the same. There are infinitely many atoms: round, smooth, irregular and crooked. When these approached, collapsed or intertwined, some appeared as water, others as fire, as plants or as humans.

In his opinion, sensory perception and soul existence can also be traced back to atomistic principles , in that the soul consists of soul atoms. If a person dies, these soul atoms scatter and can join a new soul that is just forming. Everything that moves in space is based either on chance or on necessity. This teaching is a consistent and atomistic materialism . The essential basic features can be found almost unchanged in the materialistically minded naturalists of later periods.

Democritus rejects the assumption of a spiritual principle different from physical matter , as was the nous of his predecessor Anaxagoras . This principle should shape things according to their end uses. On the other hand, Democritus traced the development of things back to the indivisible elements of matter , the corporeal atoms. From the beginning these have an inherent movement in the void. That is, he attributes a change to its mechanically acting causes.

The atoms cannot be distinguished from one another according to their nature (as in Anaxagoras), but only according to their shape. Democritus assumed that every atom has the shape of a regular geometric body, like a sphere, cylinder , pyramid , cube . Consequently, bodies composed of atoms cannot be differentiated qualitatively, but only quantitatively, i.e. according to the shape, order and position of their elements. The size of the body corresponds in amount and weight to the multiple of the amount and weight of the atoms. All the diversity of the phenomenal world can be explained from the differences.

Neither with atoms nor with their properties, just as little as with their movement, one should ask about a cause. They are all eternal. But it is in the nature of gravity that the larger (also heavier) atoms assumed a faster movement - downwards. This displaces the smaller (and consequently lighter ones) and pushes them upwards. The colliding atoms create lateral movements and thereby a vortex that gradually spreads out and brought about the formation of the world.

Just as when the grain is winnowed the chaff to the chaff and the grain to the grain can be found, so the swirling movement had to make the lighter weight, the heavier the heavyweight, through the swirling movement, and through the permanent interweaving of the atoms the reason for the formation of larger atomic aggregates ( bodies ) and whole body worlds are laid. One of the bodies that came to be in this way is the earth, which was originally, like everything else, in motion, gradually came to rest, from whose moist state the organic beings emerged.

The soul , too, is an aggregate of atoms, a body, but one whose components are the most perfect, that is, the finest, smoothest and most spherical atoms, which correspond to the appearance of the fiery. As long as life lasts, parts of it are released into the air through exhalation and taken up again as a replacement through inhalation. In the same way, fine outflows are incessantly detached from the things around us, which reach the inner soul through the openings of our body (the sense organs) and there, through impression, produce images similar to them , which are the sensory perceptions. The latter form the only, but, since those outflows on the way to the soul can experience more or less disturbing transformations, not an absolutely reliable and objective source of our knowledge, which therefore does not rise above the level of probability.

To the soul, which by nature makes knowledge possible, the rest of the human being (his body) is only like a "tent"; whoever loves the gifts of the former loves the divine; whoever loves those of the body loves the human. Knowledge, however, grants insight into the in-itself of things, i.e. H. the atoms and the void, and into the legal necessity of the course of things, which neither needs guidance from outside powers nor is amenable to interference by such. While for us all differences are only insight into the sensual phenomena, knowledge frees us from foolish fear and from vain hope and brings about that serenity ( ataraxia ) which is the highest good and at the same time true bliss.

With this world view, Democritus is said to have reached the age of 100; To what extent it is exclusively his own work or was taken from his compatriot Leukippus, who is usually mentioned at the same time but is still less known, can no longer be determined for lack of precise information.

Biology and medicine

As recent research shows, Democritus, a contemporary of the natural philosopher Anaxagoras and the doctor Hippocrates , also dealt extensively with medical and biological questions. Aristotle recognized Democritus as a pioneer in biological research. Democritus wrote a number of biological writings, none of which have been fully preserved. On the basis of his atomic theory, in which the atoms in the variable systems of the micro- and macrocosm are subject to the principles of eukrasia (balanced mixture) and dyscrasia (unbalanced mixture), for the doctor, a disrupted order of the patient's atoms in the case of illness applies , to restore medication or psychotherapy. Diogenes Laertius 9.46-49 handed down a total of 70 titles by Democritus. Among them are five medical writings:

Five medical titles are listed (under the heading "technical publications"):

  • About the forecast,
  • From the way of life or the diet,
  • Medical prescriptions,
  • Causes with regard to the [temporally] relevant and untimely.
  • About fever and coughing diseases (Diogenes said this was the subject of other authors' talk).

Diogenes Laertius also passed on the titles of Democrit's biological works:

  • About the juices,
  • About the senses (Diogenes notes on this that some (together with a book About Reason) refer to this work as Peri Psyches (About the Soul)),
  • Causes of seeds, plants and fruits,
  • Causes of Animals [three books].

As far as the surviving fragments (mainly handed down from Aristotle) ​​indicate this, Democritus has given explanations on both botanical and zoological issues. In the field of botany, Democritus attributed the different growth rates of trees to the difference in the density of the tissue. The question of why the trees live so long was also discussed by Democritus. In the field of zoology, for example, he has spoken about embryonic genesis, animal breathing, tooth growth, the construction of spider webs, the fertility of dogs, pigs and the sterility of mules and half-donkeys and tries to explain the growth of the horns of consecrated animals. He always emphasized the principle of species constancy ("like to like"). As in zoology, Democritus attributed life processes in botany exclusively to a purely material activity: Democritus understands life itself as a collection of special soul atoms and explains this “atomic complex” using the general principle of an atomic “vortex”.

How Alcmaeon , Parmenides , Empedocles and Hippocratic doctors , he took part in contrast to Aristotle, that in the procreation both sexual partners "seed" shares contribute.


Together with Anaxagoras, Democritus is said to have held the view that the Milky Way is a cluster of stars. This was only confirmed by Galileo Galilei after the invention of the telescope .

Democritus assumed that the earth had an oval shape (half as wide as it was long) and was not a disk, as Leukipp said. He also recognized that the moon has mountains and valleys and that it receives its light from the sun. He thought the universe was infinite.


Depiction of Democritus in Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493, fol. 70v

There is an alchemical literature wrongly attributed to Democritus (pseudo-Democritus). As the real writer, Bolos is considered by Mendes . The most important pseudo-democratic script is Physika kai mystika .

Christoph Martin Wieland made Democritus the hero of his ironic novel History of the Abderites , in which he mocked the folly of his contemporaries. Likewise operated Karl Julius Weber his role model as a pseudonym in a laughing philosopher Democritos or left behind papers one from 1832 appearing Encyclopedia of ridicule -.

The moon crater Democritus , the asteroid (6129) Demokritos and the Democritus University founded in 1973 in western Thrace ( Greece ) are named after Democritus .

Text editions and translations


Overview and overall representations

Investigations on individual topics

  • Rudolf Löbl: Democrit's atomic physics. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1987, ISBN 3-534-03132-6 .
  • Martin F. Meyer: Democritus as a biologist. In: Jochen Althoff et al. (Hrsg.): Ancient natural science and its reception. Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, Trier 2009, pp. 31–46 ( online )
  • Sousanna-Maria Nikolaou: The atomic theory of Democritus and Plato's Timaeus. A comparative study (= contributions to antiquity. Vol. 112). Stuttgart 1998, ISBN 3-519-07661-6 .
  • Cynthia Munro Pyle: Democritus and Heracleitus. An Excursus on the Cover of this Book. In: Cynthia Munro Pyle: Milan and Lombardy in the Renaissance. Essays in Cultural History. La Fenice, Rome 1997, pp. 203-222.
  • Georg Rechenauer: Democrit's soul model and the principles of atomistic physics. In: Dorothea Frede , Burkhard Reis (Ed.): Body and Soul in Ancient Philosophy. De Gruyter, Berlin 2009, ISBN 978-3-11020236-6 , pp. 111-142.


  • Carmela Baffioni : Démocrite en Islam. In: Richard Goulet (ed.): Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques. Volume supplément. CNRS Editions, Paris 2003, ISBN 2-271-06175-X , pp. 761-773
  • Jens Gerlach: Gnomica Democritea. Studies on the gnomological transmission of the ethics of Democritus and the Corpus Parisinum with an edition of the Democritea des Corpus Parisinum. Reichert, Wiesbaden 2008, ISBN 978-3-89500-494-0 .
  • Peter von Möllendorff: Democritus. In: Peter von Möllendorff , Annette Simonis, Linda Simonis (ed.): Historical figures of antiquity. Reception in literature, art and music (= Der Neue Pauly . Supplements. Volume 8). Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2013, ISBN 978-3-476-02468-8 , Sp. 337-350.

Web links

Commons : Demokrit  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files


  1. Sous Anna-Maria Nikolaou: The atomic theory of Democritus and Plato's Timaeus. A comparative study ( contributions to antiquity , volume 112), Stuttgart 1998, p. 201.
  2. Aristotle: Metaphysics, First Division, Introduction, II. The Doctrine of the Principles in the Earlier, A: The Older Philosophers, last paragraph .
  3. Sous Anna-Maria Nikolaou: The atomic theory of Democritus and Plato's Timaeus. A comparative study ( Contributions to Antiquity , Volume 112). Stuttgart 1998, p. 42.
  4. ^ Wilhelm Capelle : Die Vorsokratiker , Leipzig 1935, p. 399.
  5. ^ Martin F. Meyer, Demokrit als Biologe, in: J. Althoff et al. (Ed.): Ancient natural science and its reception , Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, Trier 2009, 31-46; Martin F. Meyer, Aristotle and the Birth of Biological Science, Springer Spectrum, Wiesbaden 2015, 184-193.
  6. ^ Andreas Kramer: Democritus von Abdera. In: Werner E. Gerabek , Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil , Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , p. 292.
  7. ^ Aristotle, De partibus animalium I 1 642b1-2
  8. ^ Andreas Kramer: Democritus von Abdera. 2005, p. 292.
  9. ^ Theophrast, De causis plantarum 1,8,3.
  10. Jutta Kollesch , Diethard Nickel : Ancient healing art. Selected texts from the medical writings of the Greeks and Romans. Philipp Reclam jun., Leipzig 1979 (= Reclams Universal Library. Volume 771); 6th edition ibid 1989, ISBN 3-379-00411-1 , p. 24 f.
  11. Bailey, The Greek atomists and Epicurus, New York 1926, page 151, for a place in Aetios .
  12. Heike Hild: Democritus, Pseudo-Demokrit. In: Claus Priesner , Karin Figala : Alchemie. Lexicon of a Hermetic Science, Beck 1998, p. 108ff