Democritus: Life, Contributions and Quotes from Greece's Laughing Philosopher

Democritus of Abdera was a philosopher and polymath of ancient Greece who made important contributions to modern science. Here are his most valuable reflections.
Democritus: Life, Contributions and Quotes from Greece's Laughing Philosopher

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Last update: 02 March, 2023

Democritus of Abdera (460 BC – 370 BC) was also known as “the laughing philosopher” for his tendency to laugh at the ignorance of the world and consider joy as the goal of life.

Among his most important contributions is his atomistic conception of the universe, which argues that everything that exists is composed of atoms and emptiness. For this reason, he has been considered the “father of physics” or “father of modern science”.

Despite being a contemporary of Socrates, his line of thought is ascribed to pre-Socratic natural philosophy. His philosophical reflections are more similar to those of these thinkers.

Below we delve into the contributions and line of thought of this great philosopher. Don’t miss the details.

A brief biography of Democritus

The exact date of Democritus’ birth is not known. However, many authors agree that the philosopher lived between 460 B.C. and 370 B.C. He was originally from the city of Abdera, capital of a Greek polis located on the current northern coast of Greece.

He belonged to a noble family, so when his father died he inherited a considerable amount of money, which he spent on numerous trips to distant countries to satisfy his thirst for knowledge. It is said that he traveled through Egypt, Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Babylon, Chaldea, Persia, and India.

During his travels, he had the opportunity to study with Persian magicians, Egyptian priests, and Chaldean scholars. He also traveled throughout Greece to acquire a greater knowledge of their cultures. In fact, in many of his writings, he mentions several Greek philosophers, such as Leucippus (who was his teacher), Anaxagoras, and Hippocrates.

When he returned from his travels all his inheritance had been used up, so he was supported by his brother Damascus. Among his disciples were Protagoras and Neusiphanes, who in turn was the teacher of Epicurus.

The exact date of Democritus’ death is also unknown. However, many ancient authors agree that he lived about 100 years. According to Hipparchus of Nicaea, the laughing philosopher died in Greece, painlessly, at the age of 109.

Democritus travelling.
Democritus’ travels brought him into contact with other cultures and other ways of understanding the world, even in his own native Greece.

Democritus and his contributions to philosophy and science

Democritus is known to have been a thinker with broad interests, as he made important reflections on ethics, physics, mathematics, epistemology, geometry, and music. According to Diogenes Laertius, Democritus’ writings exceed 70 works, so he is considered an encyclopedic author.

However, only some minor fragments are preserved. Especially because they are referenced in the texts of Aristotle and Theophrastus.

That said, we will now show what were his most significant contributions to philosophy and science.


One of the most relevant contributions of Democritus was his atomistic vision of the universe. According to the laughing philosopher, material bodies are composed of atoms, which are infinitely small entities, indivisible and imperceptible to the senses, which move in the vacuum repelling each other.

Thus, when they collide with each other, they form conglomerates that give rise to other more complex materials. Therefore, all the matter that surrounds us and which we are composed of are, in reality, clusters of small atoms.

This conception of the universe was rejected by many philosophers of his time. However, it influenced the development of modern atomic theories, such as Dalton’s.

The conception of the vacuum

For Democritus, the vacuum was associated with non-being, while atoms referred to that which exists. Thus, the vacuum is the stage where free particles move.

With this conception of the vacuum, he reaffirms that the union of atoms when forming a body is rather a combination of them, instead of a fusion between them. For these particles are always different from each other.

In this sense, Democritus also established that the vacuum was present in matter, since it would be what would contribute to the differentiation of each atom and what would allow them to be in constant motion.

The notion of motion

Until his time, motion was considered as a phenomenon that was generated in a punctual way, as a consequence of a certain action. In contrast, Democritus and his teacher Leucippus established for the first time that motion is an entity that exists in itself. Thus, he was one of the first to define what we know today as the force of inertia.

Democritus’ ethics

For this thinker, the greatest good that man can achieve is internal equilibrium, which refers to the tranquility of the soul (ataraxia). This balance is found by controlling the passions rationally and being prudent.

He also distinguished between two types of pleasures: useful and harmful. The correct discrimination of these and the avoidance of the latter are the way to achieve happiness.

The first atheistic philosopher

His atomistic conception of the universe led him to deny the existence of a God who is creator of everything that exists. For this reason, he is considered the first atheist in history and the first materialist thinker.

According to Democritus, matter is created by itself and the changes that bodies undergo are not due to supernatural causes, but to physical matters. In other words, all phenomena are generated by atoms; even human beings and their actions.

Theory of knowledge

Democritus differentiated two types of knowledge:

  • Illegitimate: This is insufficient and is obtained through the senses. According to the philosopher, there are different perceptions of reality, so the truth may depend on what the individual perceives.
  • Legitimate: This is what is obtained through the intellect, when the data obtained through the senses are analyzed and reasoned.

Studies in geometry

Although his atomistic theory had the greatest impact on science, we shouldn’t leave aside his reflections in geometry, which was one of the disciplines he taught most to his disciples.

During that time, geometry and arithmetics were used to explain many facts or situations of reality. In this case, Democritus came to give characteristics of geometric figures to abstract elements, such as smell or taste.

For example, round and smooth elements were characterized by having a bitter taste, circular substances by having a sweet taste, while pointed structures were associated with acid and sour tastes.

The volume of shapes

His studies in geometry and arithmetic allowed him to find a formula to express the volume of a pyramid. In addition, he discovered that this formula could also be applied when wanting to know the volume of a cone.

In this sense, Democritus is credited with the creation of the following theorems:

  • The volume of a cone is equal to one-third of the volume of a cylinder of equal base and height.
  • The volume of a pyramid is one-third of the volume of a prism of equal base and height.
A prism.
His analysis in geometry allowed him to elaborate theorems to calculate pyramidal measures.

Famous quotes from Democritus

To conclude, here are some of the famous quotes that Democritus left us, which reflect his philosophical thought:

  • “All is lost when bad people serve as an example and the good as a mockery.”
  • “He who proceeds unjustly is more wretched than the victim of his injustice.”
  • “The brave man is he who defeats not only his enemies, but his pleasures.”
  • “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; all the rest are opinions.”
  • “Nature is sufficient unto itself; therefore it overcomes, with the least and with the surest, the excesses of hope.”
  • “Even if you are alone, you must not say or do anything wrong. Learn to be ashamed before yourself more than before others.”

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