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Democritus, of Ancient Greece

spacer Democritus was a pre-Socratic Greek materialist philosopher (born at Abdera in Thrace ca. 460 BC - died ca. 370 BC). Democritus was a student of Leucippus and co-originator of the belief that all matter is made up of various imperishable, indivisible elements. It is virtually impossible to tell which of these ideas were unique to Democritus and which are attributable to Leucippus.

It was said that Democritus' father was so wealthy that he received Xerxes on his march through Abdera. Democritus spent the inheritance which his father left him on travels into distant countries, to satisfy his thirst for knowledge. He travelled to Asia, and was even said to have reached India and Ethiopia. We know that he wrote on Babylon and Meroe; he must also have visited Egypt, and Diodorus Siculus states that he lived there for five years. He himself declared, that among his contemporaries, none had made greater journeys, seen more countries, and met more scholars than himself. He particularly mentions the Egyptian mathematicians, whose knowledge he praises. Theophrastus, too, spoke of him as a man who had seen many countries. During his travels, according to Diogenes Laėrtius, he became acquainted with the Chaldean magi.
In Greece, Democritus occupied himself with natural philosophy. He travelled throughout Greece to acquire a knowledge of its culture. He mentions many Greek philosophers in his writings, and his wealth enabled him to purchase their writings. Leucippus, the founder of the atomism concept, was the greatest influence upon him. He also praises Anaxagoras. The tradition that he was friends with Hippocrates seems to have been based on spurious letters.He may have been acquainted with Socrates, but Plato does not mention him and Democritus himself is quoted as saying, "I came to Athens and no one knew me." Though Aristotle viewed him as a pre-Socratic, it should be noticed that since Socrates was born in ca. 469 BC (about 9 years before Democritus), it is very possible that Aristotle's remark was not meant to be a chronological one, but directed towards his philosophical similarity with other pre-Socratic thinkers.

The many anecdotes about Democritus, especially in Diogenes Laėrtius, attest to his disinterestedness, modesty, and simplicity, and show that he lived exclusively for his studies. One story has him deliberately blinding himself in order to be less disturbed in his pursuits; it may well be true that he lost his sight in old age. He was cheerful, and was always ready to see the comical side of life, which later writers took to mean that he always laughed at the foolishness of people.

He was highly esteemed by his fellow-citizens, "because," as Diogenes Laėrtius says, "he had foretold them some things which events proved to be true," which may refer to his knowledge of natural phenomena.

Democritus agreed that everything which is must be eternal, but denied that "the void" can be equated with nothing. This makes him the first thinker on record to argue the acceptability of an entirely empty "void". In order to explain the change around us from basic, unchangeable substance, he created a theory that argued that there are various basic elements which always existed but can be rearranged into many different forms.

Democritus' theory argued that atoms were limited to few properties, particularly size, shape, and (perhaps) weight; all other properties that "we attribute to matter, such as color and taste, are but the result of complex interactions between the atoms in our bodies and the atoms of the matter that we are examining." Furthermore, he believed that the real properties of atoms determine the perceived properties of matter--for example, something that is solid is made of small, pointy atoms, while something that has water like properties is made of large, round atoms. Some types of matter are particularly solid because their atoms have hooks to attach to each other; some are oily because they are made of very fine, small atoms which can easily slip past each other. In Democritus' own words, "By convention sweet, by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention colour: but in reality atoms and void."

Aristotle tells us that this theory of matter, commonly called atomism, was a reaction to Parmenides, who denied the existence of motion, change, or the void. Parmenides argued that the existence of a thing implied that it could not have "come into being", because "nothing comes from nothing". Moreover, he argued, movement was impossible, because one must move into "the void" and (as he identified "the void" with "nothing") the void does not exist and cannot be "moved into". His main contribution to chemistry was the suggestion of the atom which he called "atomos".

Democritus, of Ancient Greece

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Democritus,  Periodic Table Basis,  Patenting,   Element Groups,  Mendeleev,  Element Symbols,  Spiral Models, de Chancourtois,  hydrogen,  Noble Gases,  neon,  Niels Bohr,  Theodore Gray,  Rare Earths, krypton,  Glenn Seaborg,  xenon,  Alexander Arrangement of Elements,  Eric Scerri,  Fernando Dufour,  Other Inventors

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