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THE LIVES AND OPINIONS OF EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS

BY DIOGENES LAERTIUS, TRANSLATED BY C.D. YONGE

LIFE OF DEMOCRITUS



I. DEMOCRITUS was the son of Hegesistratus, but as some say, of Athenocrites, and, according to other accounts, of Damasippus. He was a native of Abdera, or, as it is stated by some authors, a citizen of Miletus.

II. He was a pupil of some of the Magi and Chaldaeans, whom Xerxes had left with his father as teachers, when he had been hospitably received by him, as Herodotus informs us;1 and from these men he, while still a boy, learned the principles of astronomy and theology. Afterwards, his father entrusted him to Leucippus, and to Anaxagoras, as some authors assert, who was forty years older than he. And Favorinus, in his Universal History, says that Democritus said of Anaxagoras, that his opinions about the sun and moon were not his own, but were old theories, and that he had stolen them. And that he used also to pull to pieces his assertions about the composition of the world, and about mind, as he was hostile to him, because he had declined to admit him as a pupil. How then can he have been a pupil of his, as some assert? And Demetrius in his treatise on People of the same Name, and Antisthenes in his Successions, both affirm that he travelled to Egypt to see the priests there, and to learn mathematics of them; and that he proceeded further to the Chaldeans, and penetrated into Persia, and went as far as the Persian Gulf. Some also say that he made acquaintance with the Gymnosophists in India, and that he went to Aethiopia.

III. He was one of three brothers who divided their patrimony among them; and the most common story is, that he took the smaller portion, as it was in money, because he required money for the purpose of travelling; though his brothers suspected him of entertaining some treacherous design. And Demetrius says, that his share amounted to more than a hundred talents, and that he spent the whole of it.

IV. He also says, that he was so industrious a man, that he cut off for himself a small portion of the garden which surrounded his house, in which there was a small cottage, and shut himself up in it. And on one occasion, when his father brought him an ox to sacrifice, and fastened it there, he for a long tim did not discover it, until his father having roused him, on the pretext of the sacrifice, told him what he had done with the ox.

V. He further asserts, that it is well known that he went to Athens, and as he despised glory, he did not desire to be known; and that he became acquainted with Socrates, without Socrates knowing who he was. "For I came," says he, "to Athens, and no one knew me." "If," says Thrasylus, "the Rivals is really the work of Plato, then Democritus must be the anonymous interlocutor, who is introduced in that dialogue, besides Aenopides and Anaxagoras, the one I mean who, in the conversation with Socrates, is arguing about philosophy, and whom the philosopher tells, that a philosopher resembles a conqueror in the Pentathlum." And he was veritably a master of five branches of philosophy. For he was thoroughly acquainted with physics, and ethics, and mathematics and the whole encyclic system, and indeed be was thoroughly experienced and skilful in every kind of art. He it was who was the author of the saying, "Speech is the shadow of action." But Demetrius Phalereus, in his Defence of Socrates, affirms that he never came to Athens at all. And that is a still stranger circumstance than any, if he despised so important a city, not wishing to derive glory from the place in which he was, but preferring rather himself to invest the place with glory.

VI. And it is evident from his writings, what sort of man he was. "He seems," says Thrasylus, "to have been also an admirer of the Pythagoreans." And he mentions Pythagoras himself, speaking of him with admiration, in the treatise which is inscribed with his name. And he appears to have derived all his doctrines from him to such a degree, that one would have thought that he had been his pupil, if the difference of time did not prevent it. At all events, Glaucus, of Rhegium, who was a contemporary of his, affirms that he was pupil of some of the Pythagorean school.

And Apollodorus, of Cyzicus, says that he was intimate with Philolaus; "He used to practise himself," says Antisthenes, "in testing perceptions in various manners; sometimes retiring into solitary places, and spending his time even among tombs."

VII. And he further adds, that when he returned from his travels, he lived in a most humble manner; like a man who had spent all his property, and that on account of his poverty, he was supported by his brother Damasus. But when he had foretold some future event, which happened as he had predicted, and had in consequence become famous, he was for all the rest of his life thought worthy of almost divine honours by the generality of people. And as there was a law, that a man who had squandered the whole of his patrimony, should not be allowed funeral rites in his country, Antisthenes says, that he, being aware of this law, and not wishing to be exposed to the calumnies of those who envied him, and would be glad to accuse him, recited to the people his work called the Great World, which is far superior to all his other writings, and that as a reward for it he was presented with five hundred talents; and not only that, but he also had some brazen statues erected in his honour. And when he died, he was buried at the public expense; after having attained the age of more than a hundred years. But Demetrius says, that it was his relations who read the Great World, and that they were presented with a hundred talents only; and Hippobotus coincides in this statement.

VIII. And Aristoxenus, in his Historic Commentaries, says that Plato wished to burn all the writings of Democritus that he was able to collect; but that Amyclas and Cleinias, the Pythagoreans, prevented him, as it would do no good; for that copies of his books were already in many hands. And it is plain that that was the case; for Plato, who mentions nearly all the ancient philosophers, nowhere speaks of Democritus; not even in those passages where he has occasion to contradict his theories, evidently, because he said that if he did, he would be showing his disagreement with the best of all philosophers; a man whom even Timon praises in the following terms:

Like that Democritus, wisest of men,
Sage ruler of his speech; profound converser,
Whose works I love to read among the first.

IX. But he was, according to the statement made by himself in the Little World, a youth when Anaxagoras was an old man, being forty years younger than he was. And he says, that he composed the Little World seven hundred and thirty years after the capture of Troy. And he must have been born, according to the account given by Apollodorus in his Chronicles, in the eightieth Olympiad; but, as Thrasylus says, in his work entitled the Events, which took place before the reading of the books of Democritus, in the third year of the seventy-seventh olympiad, being, as it is there stated, one year older than Socrates. He must therefore have been a contemporary of Archelaus, the pupil of Anaxagoras, and of Aenopides, for he makes mention of this latter. He also speaks of the theories of Parmenides and Zeno, on the subject of the One, as they were the men of the highest reputation in histories, and he also speaks of Protagoras of Abdera, who confessedly lived at the same time as Socrates.

X. Athenodorus tells us, in the eighth book of his Conversations, that once, when Hippocrates came to see him, he ordered some milk to be brought; and that, when he saw the milk, he said that it was the milk of a black goat, with her first kid; on which Hippocrates marvelled at his accurate knowledge. Also, as a young girl came with Hippocrates, on the first day, he saluted her thus, "Good morning, my maid; but on the next day, "Good morning, woman;" for, indeed, she had ceased to be a maid during the night.

XI. And Hermippus relates, that Democritus died in the following manner: he was exceedingly old, and appeared at the point of death; and his sister was lamenting that he would die during the festival of the Thesmophoria,2 and so prevent her from discharging her duties to the Goddess; and so he bade her be of good cheer, and desired her to bring him hot loaves every day. And, by applying these to his nostrils, he kept himself alive even over the festival. But when the days of the festival were passed (and it lasted three days), then he expired, without any pain, as Hipparchus assures us, having lived a hundred and nine years. And we have written an epigram upon him in our collection of poems in every metre, which runs thus:

What man was e'er so wise, who ever did
So great a deed as this Democritus?
Who kept off death, though present for three days,
And entertained him with hot steam of bread.

Such was the life of this man.

XII. Now his principal doctrines were these. That atoms and the vacuum were the beginning of the universe; and that everything else existed only in opinion. That the worlds were infinite, created, and perishable. But that nothing was created out of nothing, and that nothing was destroyed so as to become nothing. That the atoms were infinite both in magnitude and number, and were borne about through the universe in endless revolutions. And that thus they produced all the combinations that exist; fire, water, air, and earth; for that all these things are only combinations of certain atoms; which combinations are incapable of being affected by external circumstances, and are unchangeable by reason of their solidity. Also, that the sun and the moon are formed by such revolutions and round bodies; and in like manner the soul is produced; and that the soul and the mind are identical; that we see by the falling of visions across our sight; and that everything that happens, happens of necessity. Motion, being the cause of the production of everything, which he calls necessity. The chief good he asserts to be cheerfulness; which, however, he does not consider the same as pleasure; as some people, who have misunderstood him, have fancied that he meant; but he understands by cheerfulness, a condition according to which the soul lives calmly and steadily, being disturbed by no fear, or superstition, or other passion. He calls this state euthymia, and euestô, and several other names. Everything which is made he looks upon as depending for its existence on opinion; but atoms and the vacuum he believes exist by nature. These were his principal opinions.

XIII. Of his books, Thrasylus has given a regular catalogue, in the same way that he has arranged the works of Plato, dividing them into four classes.

Now these are his ethical works. The Pythagoras; a treatise on the Disposition of the Wise Man; an essay on those in the Shades Below; the Tritogeneia (this is so called because from Minerva three things are derived which hold together all human affairs); a treatise on Manly Courage or Valour: the Horn of Amalthea; an essay on Cheerfulness; a volume of Ethical Commentaries. A treatise entitled, For Cheerfulness, (euestô) is not found.

These are his writings on natural philosophy. The Great World (which Theophrastus asserts to be the work of Leucippus); the Little World; the Cosmography; a treatise on the Planets; the first book on Nature; two books on the Nature of Man, or on Flesh; an essay on the Mind; one on the Senses (some people join these two together in one volume, which they entitle, on the Soul); a treatise on Juices; one on Colours; one on the Different Figures; one on the Changes of Figures; the Cratynteria (that is to say, an essay, approving of what has been said in preceding ones); a treatise on Phaenomenon, or on Providence; three books on Pestilences, or Pestilential Evils; a book of Difficulties. These are his books on natural philosophy.

His miscellaneous works are these. Heavenly Causes; Aërial Causes; Causes affecting Plane Surfaces; Causes referring to Fire, and to what is in Fire; Causes affecting Voices; Causes affecting Seeds, and Plants, and Fruits; three books of Causes affecting Animals; Miscellaneous Causes; a treatise on the Magnet. These are his miscellaneous works.

His mathematical writings are the following. A treatise on the Difference of Opinion, or on the Contact of the Circle and the Sphere; one on Geometry; one on Numbers; one on Incommensurable Lines, and Solids, in two books; a volume called Explanations; the Great Year, or the Astronomical Calendar; a discussion on the Clepsydra; the Map of the Heavens; Geography; Polography; Artmography, or a discussion on Rays of Light. These are his mathematical works.

His works on music are the following. A treatise on Rhythm and Harmony; one on Poetry; one on the beauty of Epic Poems; one on Euphonious and Discordant Letters; one on Homer, or on Propriety of Diction3 and Dialects; one on Song, one on Words; the Onomasticon. These are his musical works.

The following are his works on art. Prognostics; a treatise on the Way of Living, called also Diaetetics, or the Opinions of a Physician; Causes relating to Unfavourable and Favourable Opportunities; a treatise on Agriculture, called also the Georgic; one on Painting; Tactics, and Fighting in heavy Armour. These are his works on such subjects.

Some authors also give a list of some separate treatises which they collect from his Commentaries. A treatise on the Sacred Letters seen at Babylon; another on the Sacred Letters seen at Meroe; the Voyage round the Ocean; a treatise on History; a Chaldaic Discourse; a Phrygian Discourse; a treatise on Fever; an essay on those who are attacked with Cough after illness; the Principles of Laws; Things made by Hand, or Problems.

As to the other books which some writers ascribed to him, some are merely extracts from his other writings, and some are confessedly the work of others. And this is a sufficient account of his writings.

XIV. There were six people of the name of Democritus. The first was this man of whom we are speaking; the second was a musician of Chios, who lived about the same time; the third was a sculptor who is mentioned by Antigonus; the fourth is a man who wrote a treatise on the Temple at Ephesus, and on the city of Samothrace; the fifth was an epigrammatic poet, of great perspicuity and elegance; the sixth was a citizen of Pergamus, who wrote a treatise on Oratory.





1. As there is no such passage in Herodotus, Valchenaer conjectures that we ought here to read Metrodorus.

2. The Thesmophoria was a festival in honour of Ceres, celebrated in various parts of Greece; and only by married women; though girls might perform some of the ceremonies. Herodotus says, that it was introduced into Greece from Egypt, by the daughters of Danaus. The Attic Thesmophoria lasted probably three days, and began on the eleventh day of the month Pyanession; the first day was called anodos, or kathodos, from the women going in procession to Eleusis; the second nesteia, or fasting; the third was called kalligeneia, as on that day Ceres was invoked under that name, and it was the day of merriment of the festival.

3. Namely, reasoning well, expressing one's self well, and acting well.










Scanned and edited for Peithô's Web from The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius, Literally translated by C.D. Yonge. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853. Footnotes have been converted to endnotes. Some, but not all, of Yonge's spellings of ancient names have been updated.

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