Democritus (460-370 BC) (SIMON CRITCHLEY)

Democritus (460-370 BC) (SIMON CRITCHLEY)

For some, “the prince of philosophers.” Yet, Plato never mentions him and there is a rumour that has circulated down the ages that he wanted to burn Democritus’ books. Very sadly, Plato’s wish was unwittingly fulfilled by the disasters of history and very little of Democritus’ work survives.

From Cicero and Horace onwards, Democritus was known by the sobriquet of the “laughing philosopher” (as opposed to “weeping” Heracleitus), and they are often depicted in this way in medieval iconography. Robert Burton, in his mountainous book The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), playfully signs himself “Democritus Junior.” Democritus was the pupil of the shadowy Leucippus, none of whose works survive, and co-originator of Greek atomism. The latter is an entirely materialist explanation of the physical world in terms of the organization of atoms in space. Dogs, cats, rats and ziggurats are simply different arrangements of atoms, a theory that powerfully prefigures the modern scientific worldview.

Democritus writes, “Fools want to live to be old because they fear death.” Though he was no fool, Democritus lived to be very old, dying in his 109th year, and the manner of his death shows no fear. When it was clear that he was approaching his end, his sister grew vexed because she feared that her brother would die during the festival of Thesmophora and she would be prevented from paying due respect to the goddess. In a seemingly odd gesture, Democritus ordered many hot loaves of bread to be brought to his house. By applying these to his nostrils he somehow managed to postpone his death.

Lucretius tells a different story, namely that when Democritus reached a ripe old age and was aware that “the mindful motions of his intellect were running down,” he cheerfully committed suicide.

 

 

 

 

The Book of Dead Philosophers

Simon Critchley



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