(Paris 1/Panthéon–Sorbonne University)
DEMOCRITUS : MOTES IN A SUNBEAM
...I present here an explanatory synopsis of my book Démocrite. Grains de poussière dans un rayon de soleil, which was published in Paris by Vrin in 1996 (416 pp. - 2nd enlarged edition, 2002, 432 pp.)
I. INTRODUCTORY POINTS
General plan of the book
...I have tried my best to analyse the general principles of Democritean atomism (Ch. I), the cosmogony meriting a chapter to itself (II). The treatment of the theory of knowledge (III), followed by that of the theory of the soul, or psychology (IV), brings my reader to reflect on these very special constructions, which have something of the nature of living beings. After that I attempt to show how Democritean medicine and embryology inspired Hippocratism and elicited Aristole’s marked reaction (V). The numerous textual fragments collected by Diels and Luria deal very widely with the specifically human domain, sometimes with markedly modern perspectives, and anthropology (VI) and ethics (VII) are treated in two separate chapters. Finally, by way of an appendix, I have taken seriously the legendary Democritan hilarity, the attitude supposedly taken by the sage towards the spectacle of the universal folly of mortals (VIII).
...I at the outset thought myself able to define the four "pillars" of Democritean wisdom, or at least erudition, and made this the basis of the readings I should undertake in order to make a success of my book. This made it necessary to look closely at :
...1. the entire corpus of presocratic fragments (not only those concerning Democritus) which are to be found in sections 67 and 68 of Vorsokratiker by H. Diels and W. Kranz as well as the collection of 950 texts gathered by S. Luria (Democritea, Léningrad, Nauka, 1970) ;
...2. the entire Aristotelian corpus ;
...3. the entire Hippocratic corpus ;
...4. finally, the most important academic literature on Democritus of the last century or so.
II. DETAILED PLAN OF THE BOOK
...Right from the beginning I have attempted to transmit the immense stature of Democritus and the prestige accorded to his works by the Ancients : Cicero, Seneca, Diogenes Laertius and many others talk of a colossus whose profound and encyclopaedic works seemed to them as admirable as those of Aristotle and Plato.“There’s nothing with which he doesn’t deal”, writes Cicero. Seneca adds, “He is the most subtle of all the Ancients”.
...By way of a statistical analysis I aimed to show how much the impression that Democritus’ works have been strangely neglected by critics is amply confirmed by the figures. Close to 20% of the corpus brought together by Diels-Kranz derive from Democritus or speak of him. By comparison, the figure is hardly 6% for Heraclitus, whose work has elicited much contemporary criticism, and 3% for Parmenides. Heraclitus and Parmenides alone provided the raw material for almost 40% of the research done on the Presocratics between 1940 and 1980.
...Then I look into the question of the dates of this so-called presocratic who probably died thirty or forty years after Socrates was sentenced to death (in other words in 366 or even 356 B.C.). I argue that Leucippus of Abdera, the supposed teacher of Democritus, certainly existed. Though I do not pretend to know much about him, I believe that the little which is attributed to him can serve very well in informing or complementing the study of Democritean philosophy.
Chapter I : Physics
...[§ 1] At the very beginning of my first chapter I recall and reflect on that passage of Aristotle (Metaphysics, I, 4, 985 b 4) in which it is reported that the atomists of Abdera considered that the “differences” between composite bodies depend on the form (skhèma), the order (taxis) and the position (thesis) of atoms which constitute them. “It is thus”, continues Aristotle, “that A is distinguished from N by form, AN from NA by order and ± (H on its side) from H by position”.
...[§ 2] This attempt at a reduction of empirical reality to what one critic has called “small writing” is not unrelated to the efforts made by the first Ionian physiologists to discover which of the four elements brings about worldly diversity. The approach was equally demonstrated some time before Democritus in the system of Anaxagoras, for whom the Totality is composed of homogenous corpuscles “just as gold is formed by what we call nuggets” pressed together. However, the atomists of Abdera represented the totality of what exists “in the manner of a pile of separate pieces of gold” because they believed it impossible to give an account of empirical appearances, and especially movement, other than by asserting the essential discontinuity of what exists. This dispersed nature bodies has the necessary correlate of the paradoxical existence of nothingness, that is to say, of the immense void.
...[§ 3] Of the void, I point out precisely that it is not the cause but the condition sine qua non of movement, and that for all practical purposes the thesis of the real existence of the void is above all based on empirical arguments.
...[§ 4] Next, I try to show that “chance” in the Democritean system can never be anything other than a name, a shorthand, for universal necessity. Effectively, Aristotle and his followers exploited the veil of language in having us believe that Democritus spoke of stochastic phenomena when they tell us that he equivocated on what occurs automatôs, that’s to say spontaneously and in conformity with natural necessity.
...[§ 5] Finally, I pose the question of whether weight is or is not inherent to atoms and I incline towards a negative answer. Here I concur with D. O’Brien according to whom the Aristotelians linked this question too strongly with some issues to do with the tendency of heavy bodies to fall.
Chapter II : Cosmogony and meteorology
...[§ 1] The infinitude of the universe, the infinite number of worlds and the mortality of ours in particular, these are the three theses I thought it necessary to recall before launching into the detailed analysis of the testimony of Diogenes Laertius (2nd century A.D.) concerning the cosmogony of Leucippus of Abdera. “According to Leucippus”, writes Diogenes, “the genesis of worlds occurs thus : in a given region, many bodies of different types find themselves transported from the unlimited depths of a large void”. The coming together of these bodies produces “a single vortex in virtue of which, colliding and whirling in every direction, they separate into distinct formations, the similar bodies gathering together”. The light bodies come to flit about in an independent system of motion around the central mass whilst the most voluminous remain at the heart of the same vortex and there combine into a more compact matrix. A vortex is thus quite early on separated from the rest of the universe by a sort of network of atoms, and so forms a “world” apart. Diogenes Laertius speaks here of a “first spherical system” ; a little further on the text alludes to “that which, in the manner of a membrane, assumes the role of an envelope” around the whole vortex. Then the world begins to form, “by the gathering together of the bodies carried to the centre”. Just as the nucleus grows at the expense of the envelope, the envelope in its turn enlarges, but “as a function of the supplementary arrival of external bodies”, that is, of small bodies which approach it and get caught up in the force of the vortex. Some of the bodies captured at the periphery in this way “produce, in coming together, a system which is primarily damp and muddy” ; “then they dry out, are carried around the general vortex, and end up by clinging together and forming the substance of the heavenly bodies”. All the heavenly bodies “cling together as a result of the speed of their movement” in the vortex.
...[§ 2] I then review the explanations which Democritus proposed on the subject of the principal meteorological phenomena : the nature of the celestial bodies ; the apparent light of the moon (which has “no light of its own but receives it from the sun”) ; comets and the Milky Way (a comet would be the occurence of a “single image” as a result of a "conjunction of the planets", the Milky Way would be “the light of particular stars”) ; the form (cylindrical), immobility and inclination of the Earth ; explanation of earthquakes (supposedly caused by cavities or "caverns" scattered under the Earth and coming into communication with each other) ; the origin of the salinity of seawater ; the seasonal floods of the Nile ; winds (the originally confused motion of numerous atoms which collide and bounce off one another at the core of a very confined space has the overall effect of a wind blowing in a determinate direction) ; thunder and lightening. For each of these phenomena I undertook to compare the theses advanced by the Abderian with those which other “presocratic” thinkers had developed. I believe that I have pointed out here very many convergences with Anaxagoras, a thinker of the 5th century B.C., who was not, in relation to Democritus, an antique Milesian thinker but simply an older one. And I believe that I have thus refuted the assertion, as frequent as it is erroneous, which would have it that in the matter of cosmology and meteorology Democritus was nothing more than a conservative, subserviently attached to long outdated dogmas which had been, a good century and a half before him, those of a Thales or an Anaximander.
Chapter III : Theory of knowledge
...[§ 1] I went on to study the Democritean theory of perception and the different questions it poses. Had there been two versions of the theory of simulacra ? Did Democritus consider, like Epicurius after him, that certain simulacra, continually detaching from visible objects and having the same form as them, penetrate our eyes thus giving rise to vision ? Or did Democritus rather believe that it is the eye itself which projects rays towards objects, objects for which the image would form at the point of contact between the simulacrum and the visual flux ? My response is that nothing forces us to think that Democritus would have been the first to reject the theory of double emission, which was done before him in the theories of Alcmaeon of Croton and Empedocles. I also ask how, according to this same theory, the distance and the size of objects can be perceived. I believe that we can reasonably attribute to the Abderian the thesis according to which images suffer a reduction in their dimensions during their passage through the air, a reduction proportional to the length of the path taken by an image before penetrating our eyes.
...[§ 2 and 3] Going on to the theory of knowledge, I have noted the vigour with which some commentators, overruling the strongly explicit declarations of the medic Sextus Empiricus, have wanted to present Democritus as an ancestor of Pyrrho, i.e. as a precursor of the Sceptics.
...[§ 4] For my part, I prefer to strongly insist on the essential role which Democritus attributed to empirical experience in his epistemology of a “double approach of the real” : legitimate knowledge coming to rectify or even, if the occasion presents itself, overturn the first indications of the senses.
...[§ 5] And I finally remark that Democritean mathematics seems to have erroniously put excessive stress on empiricism, because the apparent evenness of the sides of a cone reduces, according to Democritus, to a sort of “stepped” pyramid having an invisible series of microscopic increments with necessarily at least the thickness of an atom. In the same way, the sphere can be described according to him as “a sort of angle”, i.e. a polyhedron ; and a line which appears curved to the naked eye is identifiable by reason as a broken line of which each point is connected with its neighbour by a miniscule rectilinear segment. Also, far from considering, like the Pythagoreans, that geometry is the foundation and origin of all the sciences, Democritean atomism reduced it to the level of a sub-section of physics, and reduced in the same way pure mathematics to mere arithmetic.
Chapter IV : Psychology
...[§ 1] Following the enlightened advice of Gilbert Romeyer Dherbey, I tried to study quite closely Aristotle’s De anima and, even more so, his Parva naturalia in order to find information enabling the reconstruction of the main themes of Democritean psychology. “Amongst the atoms, those of a spherical form constitute the soul”, we read in the De anima, “because shapes of this type are the best fitted to penetrate all things and to drive everything else, given that they themselves are in motion”. Aristotle’s text, remarks Lambros Couloubaritsis, gives us to understand that “spheroids are capable of slipping through, of working their way in, of penetrating everywhere”. In the same way, for Maupassant, a man of standing slips through the crowd “by strenuously rolling his little round belly between the bellies of fellows flocking together”, thus proving, in his way, “the superiority of rounded forms over spikes”. Finally, let’s note that “if the soul is made of fire” that does not mean that the atoms of the soul, taken one by one, should be fiery : it is the meeting and mutual heating of these little smooth, round atoms which brings it about that the soul is, according to Democritus, a fiery compound. I believe that I have exposed the essential role of these spheroids in the mechanism of life and shown, dare I say with Aristotle’s help, that life is here conceived as an ensemble of functions which resist death. I observe in particular that respiration, being the first source of the spheroids indispensible to life, was considered by Democritus as the most necessary vital function.
...[§ 2] I move on to what Democritus has to tell us about death, which is, on his view, a diminishing process ; what he teaches on the subject of sleep and of dreams, which, as we might guess, are attributed to the impact of certain images on the mind of the sleeper ; and in what way he “saves” some popular superstitions by subtly integrating them into his general theory of images. It is very probable that Democritus elaborated an atomic theory of telepathy and of what we would nowadays call “parapsychic” phenomena (premonitionary dreams, such doubtful divinatory practices as hepatoscopy or the inspection of animals’ entrails, etc.). All these phenomena could be explained in terms of atomic flux, the transit of images taking place more easily by night than by day. This because during the day the air is full of light and rays which are material bodies, hence the simulacra emanating from objects very far away, as well as the shadow of events preparing to come about, are much more perceptible at night. — The point is that rationalism does not necessarily reduce to the uncomfortable denial which some systematically apply to these strange purported phenomena. It consists rather, in my view, in the absolute certainty that such bizarre phenomena would, if they were real, be susceptible to rational explanation. ...[§ 3] Finally, from the fascinating comparison of coition with epileptic fits I have tried to draw a new confirmation of the role which Democritus attributed to the air in almost all vital processes which he described. The semenal fluid would be a type of lather which is agitated and then propelled by a blast of air ; and ejaculation, just like an epileptic fit, would be provoked, according to him, “by the impulse of air”.
...So I have undertaken to show three times over how great the role of air was (or breath, which is just particularly agitated air) in the Democritean theory of the fiery soul : regular breathing and the simple sustenance of life ; the states, such as sleep, which are intermediate between life and death, combined with the various phenomena which we call “paranormal”, and finally the emission of semen, which mediates the transmission of life – all of which has partly to do with air, or rather with movements of air.
Chapter V : Medicine
...[§ 1] In this new chapter I first of all recall that it is said that Democritus had “preoccupations” of a medical nature and produced medical literature : philosophy, he said, is the sister of medicine. The Hippocratic treatises On Airs, waters and places and On the Sacred Disease (as well as, according to some studies which are only partially convincing, certain passages of On Fractures or others to be found in the treatise On the Articulations), appear to deal with themes or ways of speaking which could have found inspiration in Democritus. These are not just occasional allusions, but a shared rationalism and a shared refusal of all principles transcending natural causality which lead us to think that Democritus created, as Wilhelm Nestle wrote, the “spiritual bridge” (die geistige Brücke) unifying Ionian philosophy with Hippocratic medicine. The latter without doubt owing a great deal to the former for the guiding lines of its etiological method.
...[§ 2] I then took up again the detailed study of the undoubtedly common theses of a group of three well-known embryological treatises On Generation, On the Nature of the Child, Diseases IV and of certain testimonies concerning Democritus.
...Effectively, we find the five following theses, both in the three treatises which I have just cited and in the ancient testimonies to do with Democritean medicine :
...1) women have a semenal fluid ;
...2) sperm derives from the body as a whole (pangenesis) ;
...3) the sexual differentiation of the foetus, as well as the determination of other characteristics which it comes to have at the end of gestation, result from a sort of contest between the replicas of characteristics coming from the father with those coming from the mother ;
...4) the birth of twins, and multiple births in animals, are explained by the presence of multiple pockets in the females’ uteri ;
...5) during embryogenesis it is the external parts which are formed first. I have furthermore pointed out that what the Abderian stated on the subject of the mode of nutrition of the embryo in the uterus (6), as well as the link he established between the humidity of winds from the south and the relative frequency of abortions in southerly regions (7) found, it seems, echos in the hippocratic treatise On Flesh and in the fourth book of On the Epidemics : further proof of the impact which Democritus had on many of those who produced the great Hippocratic treatises.
...After that, I emphasised that these theses are original and that they are rarely compounded with the dogmas which other “presocratic” philosophers professed on the same subjects : in my opinion, this is further evidence authorising us to conclude that the editor of the three Hippocratic treatises in question was greatly indebted to Democritus.
...[§ 3] In showing that Aristotle’s History of Animals (the last of his great treatises) replies to these theses point for point, and in analysing this treatise as a systematic confrontation between Aristotle’s biology and that of Democritus, I believe that I have provided the counter-evidence which permits assent to the hypothesis according to which the Hippocratic author of On Generation, On the Nature of the Child, Diseases IV essentially drew on Democritean teaching for his inspiration.
Chapter VI : Anthropology
...[§ 1] Democritean anthropology excludes the myth of the golden age and rejects every form of teleology ; it denies that man is in any way subject to an instinct which would lead him, more than other natural beings, to sociability or urban organisation. The life of primitive peoples began as “disordered and wild” ; men lived dispersed. Animals having early on shown themselves to be savage and dangerous, these men of the earliest times (who did not have clothing, shelter, fire or appropriate food) “came to each others’ aid and, schooled by necessity as a result of the fear which united them, they little by little came to recognise their mutual form”. Joined just mechanically, in the same way that the regular motion of waves has the effect of sorting “elongated pebbles to the same location as elongated pebbles, and round pebbles to the same location as round pebbles, all happening as if the resemblance between things constituted a principle of their assembly”, just as animals gather together with those of the same species, “doves with doves, cranes with cranes”, humans with humans. Then, progressively learning to foresee, our ancestors “collected the fruits which could be conserved”. Cities, language, technical know-how, all came about in this way, by degrees. Thus there was no intervention by gods. All comes from need and necessity ; khreia, need (which, like “chance”, is another name for necessity) is the only agent of progress.
...[§ 2] Arts and techniques would be born of observation, and then the imitation of nature ; and the instinctive behaviours of certain animals (the spider, the swallow, etc.) were in this respect particularly instructive for the first men.
...[§ 3] Language was born “by chance”, i.e. by convention. As for the language of poets, it has to do with exceptional people for whom the mind is more easily invaded than for others by the penetration of divine images, the divine simulacra which fill the surrounding air ; inspiration thus needs to be understood here in the literal sense.
...[§ 4] Finally, it definitely seems that according to Democritus divine entities are nothing more than divine images. Democritus was perhaps not an atheist, but his gods lost most of the attributes and functions which religion and myth traditionally attribute to them.
Chapter VII : Ethics
...[§ 1] I first of all recall at some length that the authenticity of numerous ethical fragments attibuted to Democritus (there are more than 200) is subject to some legitimate doubts. Aristotle nowhere mentions ethical writings by Democritus. A few maxims remaining to us can seem fairly trivial ; otherwise, some fragments deal with effort and liberty, about which we can at least ask how they could have been reconciled with the pan-determinist theses of Democritean physics.
...[§ 2] Euthymy or well-being would seem to constitute the central Democritean ethical concept. This term, coming from the adverb eu (“well”, “happily”) and the noun thymos ("soul", "heart") designates the “tranquility” of the soul. Euthymy is “the durable serenity and equilibrium known to the soul which is troubled by no fear, no superstition and no other passion”.
...[§ 3] Happiness presupposes freedom from fear ; “duty” and rectitude of will are grounded in the respect (aidôs) which the sage has for his own self. “It is towards oneself”, Democritus would have asserted, “that one must show the most respect, and the imperative of the soul is to do nothing dishonest”.
...[§ 4] Even though I have believed myself able to establish very many points of contact between Hippocratic medicine and Democritism, I have not followed the conclusions of G. Vlastos. According to this very learned commentator, the authenticity of the ethical fragments would be demonstrated simply by the fact thay they implement the terms which are to be found in the lexicon of the medics. In spite of all the talent and erudition deployed by Vlastos, this does not seem convincing.
...[§ 5] I then especially lingered on the problem posed by the undeniably frequent mention in the ethical fragments of fortune and the presupposition of liberty. In giving a large part to liberty and human responsibility without which “all admonition and all blame disappear”, and in probably endowing atoms themselves with a capacity for spontaneous and entirely unforseeable deviation, Epicurus undoubtedly better preserved his ethics from the reproach of incompleteness which has sometimes been levelled at his predecessor.
...[§ 6] Then I touched on some words which Democritus ( ?) said on the adoption and education of children. “Whoever would have a child”, he may have proclaimed, “would do better, in my opinion, to adopt the son of one of his friends. In that way he would have a child conforming to his wishes, because he would choose according to his desires”.
...[§ 7] Finally, I have underlined the heterogenous character, as I see it, of the fragments which particularly deal with law, political life and the citizen.
Chapter VIII : The legend of Democritus
...[§ 1] It was appropriate to mention what has been said of Democritus, even in error. I have also studied the misanthropic and melancholic Democritus who put together the Pseudo-Hippocratic Letters. These texts, which must date from the 1st century A.D., present a curious character. Democritus here effectively laughs at death, sickness, delirium, madness and murder as well as at marriage, panegyrics, the birth of children, mysteries, commandments, honours. He thus seems to confound the good and bad, and his fellow citizens of Abdera summon the great doctor Hippocrates to come quickly to cure this sage who appears to rave dangerously.
...At the same time, Democritus makes himself his doctor’s doctor. He denies that there are grounds to distinguish “two causes” of his laughter. “In truth”, he declares, “I laugh at just one thing, the man full of unreason, lacking honest achievements, puerile in all his intentions and uselessly suffering immense labours ; going with the flow of insatiable desires to the ends of the earth and its infinite abysses, melting down silver and gold, never ceasing to aquire it and always concerned to have more of it” ; he laughs about just one thing, man, because he “is from birth nothing but sickness”. I argue that this fictional character, though born, very probably, in the imagination of followers of the Cynics, is not without significance for the study of the historical Democritus.
...[§ 2] Then I deal with the incarnations of the topos according to which the comedy and tragedy of life can be represented by the suitable opposition of the tears of Heraclitus and the great Democritean laugh.
...[§ 3] Finally, I have briefly mentioned the works on alchemy attributed to Democritus, or rather a pseudo-Democritus ; I acknowledge that the forger was without any doubt Bolos the Egyptian, who lived between 250 and 115 B.C. and have objected to the idea (particularly put forward by Hershbell) that the historical Democritus could have in any way been the inspiration of literature of this type.
Conclusion : The rich legacy of Democritus
...By way of conclusion I have tried to briefly sketch the contours of what could be a new history of atomism : a project of this sort, which would renew the good work done by Mabilleau at the end of the 19th century, would indeed be useful. ...Hippocratic medicine, Sophism, Epicurianism, but also Stoicism, Pyrronism and Cynicism : none of these strongly diverse schools of thinking has escaped the influence of Democritean philosophy. During the Middle Ages, it is above all in Arabo-Islamic thought, and especially that of certain Asharite theologians (known as the Mutakallimun) where we can note the persistence of a lively tradition associating Democritus, the Hippocratic heritage and Aristotelian philosophy, playing out the strains of rationalism and enlightened empiricism much more than in Christendom. With the Renaissance and the beginnings of the modern era, Giordano Bruno, Bacon, Gassendi and Robert Boyle proposed doctrines largely deriving from Democritean atomism. Newton, Boscovich and Cauchy, as well as Kant himself in his A General Natural History of the Heavens, also subscribed, as is well known, to a discontinuous concept of existence. In the 19th century, the young Nietzsche, as Marx had done a couple of decades before him, contributed to the project of studying this ancient philosopher. As for modern scientific atomism, the fact that I could only mention in passing ( !) the names of Dalton, Avogadro and Maxwell, as well as those of Einstein and Planck, would perhaps suffice to give some idea of the exraordinary heuristic faecundity that the atomic hypothesis has retained right up to the present day.
Jean Salem University of Paris I – Sorbonne