Classics Democritus
John Palmer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0155


Democritus of Abdera (c. 460–c. 360 BC) developed the atomist physical theory of Leucippus into a comprehensive philosophical system by pursuing its implications into such areas as epistemology and philosophy of mind. He also pursued topics in areas that had little to do with physics, including ethics, political philosophy, language and poetics, and cultural history, making him not only the last great Presocratic natural philosopher but also a thinker with interests paralleling those of 5th-century sophists. Although the catalog of his writings reproduced in Diogenes Laertius shows that he wrote extensively on a broad range of topics, unfortunately, except for a substantial body of ethical sayings, only a meager group of fragments survives from his more than seventy treatises. Reconstruction of his views in areas other than ethics therefore must proceed largely from the indirect reports of Aristotle, the Aristotelian commentators, and the doxographical tradition, including an important strain of skeptical doxography. This evidence makes it difficult, if not perhaps impossible, to distinguish Leucippus’s and Democritus’s individual contributions to the fundamental physics of atomism. What does seem clear is that Democritus explored some of the more problematic implications of this explanatorily powerful theory in ways Leucippus had not, by addressing such questions as the ontological status of sensible qualities in the atomist system, the mind-body relation, the mechanisms of perception, and the nature of human understanding. His ethical views are represented in two collections of sayings, one preserved by the 5th-century AD anthologist John of Stobi, otherwise known as Stobaeus, and the other transmitted as the “Sayings of Demokrates” (sic). Although the authenticity of some of this material seems questionable, while the rest has suffered from excerpting in its transmission, these collections remain the most substantive body of evidence for the ethical reflection of any Presocratic thinker. The short texts transmitted therein strike a balance between strictly pragmatic advice and more reflective concern with the eudaemonistic themes characteristic of ancient ethical thought. Although Democritus’s greatest influence in antiquity was on the atomism of Epicurus, he also had an important impact on the development of ancient skepticism and on the medical and other technical writers of the Hellenistic era.

General Overviews

Those approaching Democritus for the first time will find it especially useful to read the principal fragments and testimonia in conjunction with one or more of the excellent overviews of his thought listed in this section before pursuing specific aspects in greater detail by consulting the more narrowly focused studies listed in the sections that follow. Berryman 2010 is a brief and readily accessible overview and the most reliable web resource currently available. Those seeking more than cursory information regarding Democritus’s life and writings will find a wealth of information in O’Brien 1994. Furley 1987 presents Presocratic atomism as the first great articulation of the theory of the infinite universe, the antithesis in antiquity of the closed world model favored by Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. Although only three of its chapters are specifically devoted to Leucippus and Democritus, the whole work should be read for an understanding of their position in the early development of Greek cosmological theory. Barnes 1982 is even more expansive in its scope, taking as its focus the arguments of Presocratics more generally, and likewise situates early Greek atomism within the tradition from which it developed. This work is also the most acute, sparkling, and vastly enjoyable overview of the field. Monograph surveys include Alfieri 1979, still valuable even though now outmoded in some respects, and the encyclopaedic Salem 1996.

  • Alfieri, Vittorio E. 1979. Atomos idea: L’origine del concetto dell’atomo nel pensiero greco. Rev. ed. Galatina, Italy: Congedo.

    First edition, 1953 (Florence: Felic Le Monnier). Despite the apparently narrow focus prescribed by its subtitle, this companion to Alfieri’s 1936 edition—Gli atomisti (Bari, Italy: Laterza)—surveys all major areas of the early atomists’ philosophy.

  • Barnes, Jonathan. 1982. The Presocratic philosophers. Rev. ed. London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

    A synoptic treatment of the arguments of the Presocratic philosophers. The principal tenets of atomist physics are well surveyed in chapter 17 (pp. 342–377) and portions of chapter 19 (pp. 397–426), while portions of subsequent chapters touch upon other dimensions of Democritus’s thought.

  • Berryman, Sylvia. 2010. Democritus. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta.

    Provides a brief overview of Democritus’s life and works and the various facets of his thought. Part of the most authoritative web resource for philosophy.

  • Furley, David J. 1987. The Greek cosmologists, Vol. 1: The formation of the atomic theory and its earliest critics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Traces the opposition between the cosmological models of the closed world and the infinite universe from its early Ionian origins down to the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus and the criticisms of their theory by Plato and Aristotle.

  • O’Brien, Denis. 1994. Démocrite d’Abdère. In Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques. Vol. 2, Babélyca d’Argos à Dyscolius. Edited by Richard Goulet, 649–715. Paris: Editions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique.

    This entry in the most complete biographical dictionary devoted to ancient philosophy provides a detailed overview of all issues regarding Democritus’s life and chronology, his works, and his style and vocabulary.

  • Salem, Jean. 1996. Démocrite: Grains de poussière dans un rayon de soleil. Paris: J. Vrin.

    An encyclopedic review of the ancient evidence and modern scholarship on virtually all aspects of Democritus’s life and work. Good material on topics not standardly treated in overviews, such as the connection between Democritus’s medical views and the Hippocratic corpus, his anthropology, and his reputation in later antiquity.

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