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10. The System of Materialism.

The systematic character of the doctrine of Democritus consists

in the way in which he carried through in all departments of his

work the fundamental thought, that scientific theory must so far


110 The Greeks : Systematic Period. [PART I.


gain knowledge of the true reality, i.e. of the atoms and their

motions in space, as to be able to explain from them the reality

which appears in phenomena, as this presents itself in perception.

There is every indication (even the titles of his books would show

this) that Democritus took up this task by means of investigations

covering the entire compass of the objects of experience, and in this

connection devoted himself with as great an interest to the psy

chological as to the physical problems. So much the more must we

regret that the greater part of his teachings has been lost, and

that what is preserved, in connection with accounts of others,

permits only a hypothetical reconstruction of the main conceptions

of his great work, a reconstruction which must always remain

defective and uncertain.
1. It must be assumed in the first place that Democritus was

fully conscious of this task of science, viz. that of explaining the

world of experience through conceptions of the true reality. That

which the Atomists regard as the Existent, viz. space and the par

ticles whirring in it, has no value except for theoretical purposes.

It is only thought in order to make intelligible what is perceived ;

but for this reason the problem is so to think the truly real that

it may explain the real which appears in phenomena, that at the

same time this latter reality may " remain preserved" 1 as some

thing that " is " in a derived sense, and that the truth which inheres

in it may remain recognised. Hence Democritus knew very well

that thought also must seek the truth in perception, and win it out

of perception. 2 His rationalism is far removed from being in con

tradiction with experience, or even from being strange to experience.

Thought has to infer from perception that by means of which the

latter is explained. The motive which lay at the foundation of

the mediating attempts following the Eleatic paradox of acosmism

became with Democritus the clearly recognised principle of meta

physics and natural science. Yet tmfortunately nothing is now

known as to how he carried out in detail the methodical relation

between the two modes of cognition, and how the process by which

knowledge grows out of perception in the particular instance was

thought by him.
More particularly, the theoretical explanation which Democritus
1 The very happy expression for this is duurdfciv TO. <t>a.Lvt>iteva. Cf. also Arist.

Gen. et Corr. I. 832, 5 a.


2 Hence, the expressions in which he recognised the truth in the phenome

non ; e.g. Arist. De An. I. 2, 404 a 27, and the like. To attempt, however, to

construe out of this a " sensualism" of Democritus, as has been attempted by

E. Johnson (Plauen, 1868), contradicts completely the accounts with regard to

his attitude toward Protagoras.

CHAP. 3, 10.] System of Materialism : Democritus. Ill


gave for the contents of perception consists, as with Leucippus, in

the reduction of all phenomena to the mechanics of atoms. What

appears in perception as qualitatively determined, and also as in

volved in qualitative change (dAAoiou/xe/xov), exists "in truth" only

as a quantitative relation of the atoms, of their order, and their

motion. The task of science is then to reduce all qualitative to

quantitative relations, and to show in detail what quantitative rela

tions of the absolute reality produce the qualitative characteristics

of the reality which appears in phenomena. Thus, the prejudice in

favour of what may be perceived or imaged (anschaulich), as if spatial

form and motion were something simpler, more comprehensible in

themselves, and less of a problem than qualitative character and

alteration, is made the principle for the theoretical explanation of

the world.


Since this principle is applied with complete systematic rigour

to the whole of experience, Atomism regards the psychical life with

all its essential elements and values as also a phenomenon, and the

form and motion of the atoms which constitute the true Being of

this phenomenon must be stated by the explanatory theory. Thus

matter in its form and motion is regarded as that which alone is

truly real, and the entire mental or spiritual life as the derived,

phenomenal reality. With this the system of Democritus first

assumes the character of conscious, outspoken materialism.
2. In the properly physical doctrines, the teaching of Democritus

presents, therefore, no change in principle as compared with that of

Leucippus, though there is a great enrichment by careful detailed

investigation. He emphasised still more sharply than his predeces

sor, where possible, the thought of the mechanical necessity (dvay*^

which he also occasionally called Aoyos), in accordance with which

all occurrence or change whatever takes place, and further defined

this thought as involving that no operation of atoms upon one

another is possible except through impact, through immediate con

tact, and further, that this operation consists only in the change of

the state of motion of the atoms which are also unchangeable as

regards their form.


The atom itself as that which " is," in the proper sense of the

word, has accordingly only the characteristics of abstract corpore

ality, viz. the filling of a limited space, and the quality of being

in motion in the void. Although all are imperceptibly small, they

yet exhibit an endless variety of forms (iSe cu or a-xrj^ra). To form,

which constitutes the proper fundamental difference in the atoms,

belongs in a certain sense also size ; yet it is to be observed that

the same stereometrical form, e.y. the sphere, may appear in different


112 The G-reeks : Systematic Period. [PART I.


sizes. The larger the atom, the greater its mass ; for the essential

quality of what is, is indeed materiality, space-claiming. For this

reason Democritus asserted weight or lightness to be a function of

size, 1 evidently yielding to the mechanical analogies of daily life.

In connection with these terms (fiapv and KOU<OV), however, we are

not to think of the falling motion, but solely of the degree of mechani

cal movability or of inertia. 2 Hence it was also his opinion that as

the atom-complexes whirled about, the lighter parts were forced out

ward, while the more inert with their inferior mobility were gath

ered in the middle.


The same properties communicate themselves as metaphysical

qualities to things which are composed of atoms. The form and

size of things is produced by the simple summation of the form and

size of the component atoms ; though in this case, the inertia is not

dependent solely upon the sum total of the magnitudes of the atoms,

but upon the greater or less amount of empty space that remains

between the individual particles when they are grouped together.

The inertia depends therefore upon the less or greater degree of

density. And since the ease with which particles may be displaced

with reference to one another depends upon this interruption of the

mass by empty space, the properties of hardness and softness belong

also to the true reality that is known by thought.


All other properties, however, belong to things not in them

selves, but only in so far as motions proceeding from things act

upon the organs of perception ; they are " states of perception as it

is in process of qualitative change." But these states are also

conditioned throughout by the things in which the perceived prop

erties appear, and here the arrangement and the situation which the

atoms have taken with reference to each other in the process of

composition are of principal importance. 3


While, then, form, size, inertia, density, and hardness are properties

of things eTefl, i.e. in truth, all that is perceived in them by the indi

vidual senses as colour, sound, smell, taste, exists only vo/x,o>or 0eW,

i.e. in the phenomenon. This doctrine, when taken up anew in the

philosophy of the Kenaissance (cf. Part IV. ch. 2) and later, was
1 As the most extensive exposition for this and for the following topic The-

ophr. De Sens. 61 ff. (Dox. D. 516) is to be compared.


2 It is scarcely to be decided now whether the motion of their own, which

Atomism ascribed to all the atoms as primitive and causeless, was thought of

by Democritus as conditioned already by the size or mass, so that the greater

had, even from the beginning, possessed less velocity. At all events, these

determinations held good for him within the sphere of the mechanical operation

of the atoms on one another. What is larger can be pushed with greater diffi

culty ; what is smaller can be pushed more easily.
Cf. Arist. Gen. et Corr. I. 2, 315 b 6.

CHAP. 3, 10.] System of Materialism : Democritus. 113


designated as distinguishing between the primary and secondary

qualities of things, and it is desirable to introduce this expression

here, since it corresponds throughout to the metaphysical and episte-

mological sense in which Democritus made the Frotagorean doctrine

useful for his own purpose. While the Sophist would make all

properties secondary and relative, Democritus admitted this only for

the qualities perceived by special senses, and set over against these

the quantitative determinations as primary and absolute. He there

fore designated also as " genuine knowledge " the insight into the

primary qualities to be won through thought, while, on the contrary,

perception which is directed toward the secondary qualities he

termed " obscure knowledge " (yvrjo-ir) O-KOTIT; yvw/i??)-


3. The secondary qualities appear accordingly as dependent

upon the primary ; they are not, however, dependent upon these

alone, but rather upon the action of these upon the percipient

agent. But in the atomistic system that which perceives, the mind

or soul, can consist only of atoms. To be more explicit, it consists,

according to Democritus, of the same atoms which constitute also

the essence of fire: namely, the finest, smoothest, and most mobile.

These are indeed scattered also through the whole world, and in so

far animals, plants, and other things may be regarded as animate, as

having souls, but they are united in largest numbers in the human

body, where in life a fire-atom is placed between every two atoms of

other sorts, and where they are held together by breathing.


Upon this presupposition, then, analogous, as we see, to the older

systems, Democritus built up his explanation of phenomena from

the true essence of things. That is, perception, and with it the

secondary qualities, arises from the action of things upon the fire-

atoms of the soul. The reality which appears is a necessary result

of the true reality.


In carrying out this doctrine Democritus took up and refined the

theories of perception advanced by his predecessors. The effluxes

(cf. above, 6, 3) which proceed from things to set in motion the

organs and through them the fire-atoms, he called images (a8o>A.a),

and regarded them as infinitely small copies of the things. Their

impression upon the fire-atoms is perception, and the similarity

between the content of this perception and its object was held to be

secured thereby. Since impact and pressure are the essence of all

the mechanics of the atoms, touch is regarded as the most primitive

sense. The special organs, on the contrary, were regarded as capable

of receiving only such images as corresponded to their own forma

tion and motion, and this theory of the specific energy of the sense

organs was worked out very acutely by Democritus. From this it

114 The G-reekis: Systematic Period. [?ART I.


followed also that in case there were things whose effluxes could

not act upon any one of the organs, these would remain imperceptible

for the ordinary man, and for these perhaps " other senses " might

be accessible.


This theory of images appeared very plausible to ancient thought.

It brought to definite expression, and indeed to a certain extent

explained, the mode of representing things which is still common

for the ordinary consciousness, as if our perceptions were " copies "

of things existing outside of us. If one did not ask further how

things should come to send out such miniature likenesses of them

selves into the world, he might think that he understood, by means

of this theory, how our " impressions " can resemble things with

out. For this reason this theory at once attained the predominance

in physiological psychology, and retained its position until after the

beginnings of modern philosophy, where it was defended by Locke.
Its significance, however, for the conceptions in the system of

Democritus, lies in this, that it was regarded as describing that

motion of the atoms in which perception consists. It remained

hidden from this materialism, which was such from principle, as

well as from all its later transformations, that perception as a

psychical activity is something specifically different from any and

every motion of atoms, however determined. But in seeking out

the individual forms of motion from which the individual percep

tions of the special senses arise, the philosopher of Abdera caused

many a keen observation, many a fine suggestion, to become known.


4. It is interesting now that the same fate befell the materialistic

psychology of Democritus as had befallen the pre-Sophistic meta

physicians (cf. 6) : it, too, was obliged in a certain respect to oblit

erate again the epistemological contrast between perception and

thought. Since, that is, all psychical life is regarded as motion of

the fire-atoms, 1 and since the motion of atoms in the connected sys

tem of the universe is conditioned by contact and impact, it follows

that thought, which knows the truly real, can be explained only from

an impression which this truly real makes upon the fiery atoms,

explained therefore itself only through the efflux of such images.

As a psychological process, therefore, thought is the same as percep

tion, viz. impression of images upon fire-atoms; the only difference

is that in the case of perception the relatively coarse images of the

atom-complexes are active, while thought, which apprehends true

reality, rests upon a contact of the fire-atoms with the finest images,

with those which represent the atomic structure of things.


i Arist. De An. I. 2, 405 a 8.

C HAP. ;5, lo.] System of Materialism : Democrifus. 115


Odd and fantastic as this sounds, the indications are yet all in

favour of the supposition that Democritus drew this conclusion from

the presuppositions of his m ierialistic psychology. This psychol

ogy knew no independent, internal mechanism of ideas or conscious

states, but only an arising of ideas through the motion of atoms.

Hence it regarded ideas that were evidently deceptive as also

" impressions," and sought for these the exciting images. Dreams,

e.g. were traced back to e?Sa>A.a. which had either penetrated into the

body in the waking state and on account of their weak motion had

previously produced no impression, or had first reached the fiery

atoms in sleep, evading the senses. A mysterious ("magnetic," or

" psychic," we should say to-day) action of men upon one another

appeared comprehensible on this hypothesis, and an objective basis

was given to faith in gods and demons by assuming giant forms in

infinite space from which corresponding images proceeded.
In correspondence with this Democritus seems to have thought of

" genuine knowledge " as that motion of the fire-atoms which is pro

duced by the impression of the smallest and finest images, those

which represent the atomic composition of things. This motion is,

however, the most delicate, the finest, the gentlest of all that which

comes nearest to rest. With this definition the contrast between per

ception and thought was expressed in quantitative terms quite in the

spirit of the system. The coarse images of things as wholes set the

fiery atoms into relatively violent motion and produce by this means

the "obscure insight " which presents itself as perception ; the finest

images, on the contrary, impress upon the fiery atoms a gentle, fine

motion which evokes the "genuine insight" into the atomic structure

of things, i.e. thought. In consideration of this, Democritus com

mends the thinker to turn away from the world of the senses, quite

in contrast with the mode of thought which would develop truth out

of perception. Those finest motions assert their influence only where

the coarser are kept back ; and where too violent motions of the

fiery atoms take place, the result is false ideation, the dAAo^poveiv. 1


5. This same quantitative contrast of strong and soft, violent

and gentle motion, was laid by Democritus at the basis of his ethical

theory also. 2 In so doing he stood with his psychology completely

upon the iutellectualistic standpoint of Socrates in so far as he

transposed the epistemological values of ideas immediately into

ethical values of states of will. As from perception only that


1 Theophr. De Sens. 58 (Dox. D. 515).
2 The resemblance with the theory of Aristippus ( 7, 9) is so striking, that

the assumption of a causal connection is scarcely to be avoided. Yet it may be

that we should seek for this rather in a common dependence upon Protagoras,

than in the interaction of Atomism and Hedonism upon each other.


116 The Greeks : Systematic Period. [PART I.


obscure insight follows which has for its object the phenomenon

and not the true essence, so also the pleasure which arises from the

excitation of the senses is only relative (VO/AW), obscure, uncertain

of itself, and deceitful. The true happiness, on the contrary, for

which the wise man lives "according to nature" (^uo-ei), the iv8unfj.o-

via, which is the end (TC XOS) and measure (ovpos) of human life, must

not be sought in external goods, in sensuous satisfaction, but only

in that gentle motion, that tranquil frame (tueo-rw), which attends

upon right insight, upon the gentle movement of the fiery atoms.

This insight alone gives to the soul measure arid harmony (V/A/AC-

rpia), guards it from emotional astonishment (aflau/xacna), lends it

security and imperturbability (drapa^ta, dtfa/x/fta), the ocean-calm

(yaXvyVr/) of the soul that has become master of its passions through

knowledge. True happiness is rest (lyo-uxia), and rest is secured only

by knowledge. Thus Democritus gains as the cap-stone of his

system his personal ideal of life, that of pure knowledge, free

from all wishes ; with this ideal, this systematic materialism cul

minates in a noble and lofty theory of life. And yet there is in it

also a tendency which characterises the morals of the age of the

Enlightenment : this peace of mind resting upon knowledge is the

happiness of an individual life, and where the ethical teachings of

Democritus extend beyond the individual, it is friendship, the rela

tion of individual personalities to one another, that he praises,

while he remains indifferent as regards connection with the state



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