, one of the most eminent philosophers of antiquity, and of noble descent, was a native of Abdera, | a town in Thrace, and born, according to Laertius, in the first year of the 80th olympiad, or 460 B. C. He was contemporary with Socrates, Anaxagoras, Archelaus, Parmenides, Zeno, and Protagoras. He is said to have been instructed by some Chaldean magi in astronomy and theology. After the death of his lather, he determined to travel in search of wisdom, and having received his fraternal portion of his father’s estates in money, amounting to one hundred talents, he went first into Egypt, for the sake of learning geometry from the Egyptian priests; and then turned aside into Ethiopia, to converse with the gymnosophists of that country; after which he passed over into Asia, resided some time among the Persian magi, for the purpose of learning magical philosophy, and, as some assert, travelled into India. Whether, in the course of his travels, he visited Athens, or attended upon Anaxagoras, is uncertain. There can be little doubt, however, that, during some part of his life, he was instructed in the Pythagorean school, and particularly that he was a disciple of Leucippus.

After these travels, he returned to Abdera, rich in philosophic treasures, but destitute of the necessary means of subsistence. His brother Damasis, however, received him kindly, and liberally supplied his exigencies. It was a law in Abdera, that whoever should waste all his patrimony should be deprived of the rites of sepulture. Democritus, desirous of avoiding the disgrace to which this law subjected him, gave public instructions to the people, chiefly from his larger “Diacosmus,” the most valuable of his writings; and in return he received from his hearers many valuable presents, and other testimonies of respect, which relieved him from all apprehension of suffering public censure as a spendthrift. Laertius asserts that his countrymen loaded him with riches, to the amount of five hundred talents; but this, raised in such a town, and bestowed on an individual, seems wholly incredible, especially if we consider that few royal treasuries were at that time able to furnish such a sum. There can be no doubt, however, that Democritus, by his learning and wisdom, and especially by his acquaintance with nature, acquired great fame, and excited much admiration among the ignorant Abderites. By giving previous notice of unexpected changes in the weather, and by other artifices, he had the address to make them believe that he possessed a power of predicting | future events and by this means he gained such an ascendancy over tnem, that they not only gave him the appellation of Wisdom, and looked upon nim as something more than mortal, but proposed to entrust him with the direction of their public affairs. From inclination and habit, he, however, preferred a contemplative to an active life, and therefore declined the^e public honours, and passed the remainder of his days in solitude.

It is said, that, from this time, Democritus ppent his days and nights in caverns and sepulchres; and that in one of these gloomy retreats, whilst he sat by his midnight lamp busily engaged in writing, he was on a sudden visited by several young men, who, in order to terrify him, had clothed themselves in black garments, and put on masks, pretending to be ghosts; but that, upon their appearance, he coolly requested them not to play the fool, and went on with the studies in which they found him employed. Others relate, that Democritus, in order to be more perfectly master of his intellectual faculties, by means of a burning glass deprived himself of the organs of sight. But the former of these stories has the air of fable; and the latter is wholly incredible, since the writers who relate it affirm, that Democritus employed his leisure in writing books, and in dissecting the bodies of animals, neither of which could very well have been effected without eyes. Cicero, who was not destitute of credulity, mentions the story, but at the same time intimates his own doubts concerning its truth. Nor is greater credit due to the tale, that Democritus spent his leisure hours in chemical researches after the philosopher’s stone, the dream of a later age; or to the story of his conversation witli Hippocrates, grounded upon letters, which are said to have passed between that father of medicine and the people of Abdera, on the supposed madness of Democritus, but which are so evidently spurious, that it would require the credulity of the Abderites themselves to suppose them genuine. All that is probable concerning this conversation, so circumstantially and eloquently related in the epistles ascribed to Hippocrates, is, that Hippocrates, who was contemporary with Democritus, admired his extensive knowledge of nature, and reprobated the stupidity of the Abderites, who imputed his wonderful operations to a supernatural intercourse with daemons, or to madness. | The only reasonable conclusion which can be drawn from these marvellous tales, is that Democritus was, what he is commonly represented to have been, a man of sublime genius and penetrating judgment, who, by a long course of study and observation, became an eminent master of speculative and physical science; the natural consequence of which was, that, like Roger Bacon in a later period, he astonished and imposed upon his ignorant and credulous countrymen. Petronius relates, that he was perfectly acquainted with the virtues of herbs, plants, and stones, and that he spent his life in making experiments upon natural bodies.

Democritus has been commonly known under the appellation of the Laughing Philosopher; and it is gravely related by Seneca, that he never appeared in public, without expressing his contempt of the follies of mankind by laughter. But this account is wholly inconsistent with what has been related concerning his fondness for a life of gloomy solitude and profound contemplation; and with that strength and elevation of mind, which his philosophical researches must have required, and which are ascribed to him by the general voice of antiquity. Thus much, however, may be easily admitted, on the credit of yElian and Lucian, that a man so superior to the generality of his contemporaries, and whose lot it was to live among a race of men, the Abderites, who were stupid to a proverb, might frequently treat their follies with ridicule and contempt. Accordingly we find that, among his fellow-citizens, he obtained the appellation of yeAflwivof, or the derider.

He appears to have been in his personal character chaste and temperate; and his sobriety was repaid by a healthy old age. He lived, and enjoyed the use of his faculties, to the term of an hundred years (some say several years longer), and at last died through mere decay. The following singular circumstance is said to have happened just before his death. His sister, who had the care of him, observing him to be near his end, expressed great regret that his immediate death would prevent her celebrating the approaching festival of Ceres; upon which Democritus, who was now unable to receive any nourishment, that he might if possible gratify her wish by living a few days longer, desired her often to bring hot bread near his nostrils: the experiment succeeded, and he was preserved alive without food for three days. His death was exceedingly | lamented by his countrymen and the charge of his funeral was defrayed from the public treasury. He wrote much y but none of his works are extant. A catalogue of them may be seen in Diogenes Laertius.

Brucker gives the following analysis of his doctrines: concerning truth Democritus taught, that there are two kinds of knowledge, one obscure, derived from the senses, and another genuine, obtained by the exercise of thought upon the nature of things. This latter mode of acquiring certain knowledge he confessed to be very difficult; and, therefore, he used to say, that truth lay in a deep well, from which it is the office of reason to draw it up. Concerning physics, it was the doctrine of this philosopher, that nothing can ever be produced from that which has no existence, and that any thing which exists can never be annihilated. Whatever exists must consequently owe its being to necessary and self-existent principles, of which he conceived there were two; viz. atoms, and a vacuum, both infinite, the former in number, the latter in magnitude. Atoms are solid, and the only beings; vacuum, or entire space, can neither be said to be existent nor non-existent, being neither corporeal nor incorporeal. Atoms have the property of figure, magnitude, motion, and weight, being heavy in proportion to their bulk. They are various in figure and in magnitude; and are perfectly solid, indivisible, and unalterable. These atoms have been eternally moving in infinite vacuum or space, in a direction perpetually deviating from a right line; and thus collisions are produced, which occasion innumerable combinations of particles, from which arises the various form of things that exist. These primary corpuscles are moved and united by that natural necessity, which is the only fate that creates and governs the world. The system of nature is one, consisting of parts, differing in their figure, order, and situation. The production of an organized body is occasioned by the suitable arrangement of atoms, adapted in their nature to form that body; if it be diversified, alteration takes place; if it be entirely destroyed, dissolution. The qualities of bodies are not essential to their nature, but the casual effect of arrangement; and this occasions the different impressions which they make upon the senses. In infinite space there are innumerable worlds, some similar, others dissimilar; but all subject to growth, decay, and destruction. The world has no animating principle, but all things are moved by the rapid agitation of atoms. The | sun and moon are composed of light particles, revolving about a common centre. The heavenly bodies are arranged in the following order; first, the fixed stars, then, the planets, then the sun, then the moon: all move from east to west, and those which are nearest revolve with the least velocity; so that the sun, the inferior planets, and the moon, move more slowly than the rest.

A comet is a combination of planets, which approaching near each other, appear as one body. The earth at first was so small and light, as to wander about in the regions of space; but at length increasing in density, it became immoveable. The sea is continually decreasing, and will at length be dried up. Man was at first produced from water and earth. Our knowledge of his existence arises from consciousness. The soul, or principle of animal life and motion, is the result of a combination of round or fiery particles, consisting of two parts, one seated in the breast, which is the rational, the other diffused through the whole body, which is the irrational. The soul perishes with the body; but human bodies, though they perish, will revive. Different animal beings possess different senses. Perception is produced by e’tiuba, images, which flow from bodies according to their respective figures, and strike upon the organ of sense.

The fundamental difference between the doctrine of Democritus, and that of former philosophers, concerning atoms, is, that the latter conceived small particles endued with various qualities; whereas this philosopher conceived the qualities of bodies to be, as we have already said, the mere effect of arrangement. Democritus, in his whole system, pays no regard to an external efficient cause, but absurdly supposes, that the intrinsic necessity, which gives motion to atoms, is alone sufficient to account for the phaenomena of nature. Whatever he is said to have taught concerning nature, fate, or providence, he merely asserted, that the fire, which resulted from the combination of certain subtle atoms, and which has been called the soul of the world, is a mechanical agent in nature, causing by its rapid motion the changes which take place in the universe. Plutarch says, that Democritus considered the sun and moon as ignited plates of stone; but this is not consistent with his general system, and with his knowledge of nature. The belief of the materiality of the soul was the natural result of the atomic system; for if the soul be a mere composition | of atoms, when these are dispersed, it must perish; As to the reviviscence of human bodies, he can only be supposed to mean, that the atoms composing any human soul, would, after their dispersion, coalesce again, in some distant period, and recover their former life. The term eiJaXov^ or image, seems to have had, in his use of it, two different significations: it denoted those images which he supposed to flow from external objects, and, striking upon the senses, excite ideas in the mind, and also, those divine beings that existed in the air, and which he called gods. Although Democritus rejected the notion of Deity, and allowed him no share in the creation or government of the world, he endeavoured to conceal his impiety, by admitting the popular belief of divinities inhabiting the aerial regions, and teaching that they make themselves visible to some favoured mortals, and enable them to predict future events.

The moral doctrine of Democritus, like that of Epicurus, makes the enjoyment of a tranquil state of mind, s’uQvfjuei, the great end of life, and consequently teaches moderation as the first law of wisdom. Moreover, he maintained that there is nothing naturally becoming or base in human actions, but that every distinction of this nature arises from custom or civil institutions, and that laws are framed to restrain the natural propensity of mankind to injure one another; in this latter respect his opinion seems to have coincided with the more modern doctrine of Hobbes. 1


Brucker, by Enfield. Diogenes Laertius. Stanley’s Hist, of Philosophy. Gen. Dict. —Vossius de Philosophorum sectis. —Saxii Onomast.