On Diogenes Laertius’s Biography of Democritus

Democritus “the Atomist” was either a native of Abdera or Miletus (Abdera was on the coast of Thrace while Miletus was on the coast of Asia Minor). He studied under the Magi (Persian priests) and the Chaldeans (Mesopotamian mystics). Diogenes claims that Herodotus recounts a story of Democritus’s father entertaining Xerxes in Histories and that he left Persian sages there, though the text merely acknowledges a nondescript visit in Abdera.

Democritus became the intellectual adversary of Anaxagoras. He traveled widely from Egypt to Persia to India and Ethiopia. He was rumored to have visited Athens in disguise (Diogenes echoes Thrasyllus when claiming Democritus is the unnamed participant in the possibly spurious Platonic dialogue Lovers). Thrasyllus suspected Democritus was about a year older than Socrates.

When he grew elderly his sister noticed he was soon to die. They were attending the festival of Thesmophoria, an annual panhellenic festival exclusive to women to celebrate Demeter. She realized she would not be able to attend the festival with her brother in such an ill state so he had warm bread loaves brought to his nostrils and on these fumes alone he was able to outlast the festival. He then died without pain at the age of 109. Diogenes places his personal verses about Democritus in the biography (some of these verses were found in his now lost work entitled Pammetros.

Democritus’s first principles included atoms and void, all other things are merely thought to exist. Things are born, rise, and die from these material substances which have being (though he allows room for non-being). The goal is to strive toward tranquility (which is not akin to mere pleasure). The soul strives toward a steady and calm state untroubled by fear or superstition or emotion.

Diogenes lists many books attributed to Democritus on topics ranging from nature, the arts, to science, and mathematics.

For this reading I used the ‘Compact Edition’ of the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertes translated by Pamela Mensch and edited by James Miller.

In the preface to the Compact Edition the editors note: “Our common goal has been to make Lives as accessible as possible to English-speaking readers -and at the same time to convey some of the essential strangeness of what philosophy once was, in hopes that readers may wonder anew at what philosophy might yet become” (xiii).

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