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This webpage reproduces one of the
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Diogenes Laërtius

published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1925

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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(Vol. II) Diogenes Laërtius
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Book IX

 p443  Chapter 5
(? 460‑357 B.C.)

[link to original Greek text] 34 Democritus was the son of Hegesistratus, though some say of Athenocritus, and others again of Damasippus. He was a native of Abdera or, according to some, of Miletus. He was a pupil of certain Magians and Chaldaeans. For when King  p445 Xerxes was entertained by the father of Democritus he left men in charge, as, in fact, is stated by Herodotus;1 and from these men, while still a boy, he learned theology and astronomy. Afterwards he met Leucippus and, according to some, Anaxagoras, being forty years younger than the latter. But Favorinus in his Miscellaneous History tells us that Democritus, speaking of Anaxagoras, declared that his views on the sun and the moon were not original but of great antiquity, and that he had simply stolen them. 35 Democritus also pulled to pieces the views of Anaxagoras on cosmogony and on mind, having a spite against him, because Anaxagoras did not take to him. If this be so, how could he have been his pupil, as some suggest?

According to Demetrius in his book on Men of the Same Name and Antisthenes in his Successions of Philosophers, he travelled into Egypt to learn geometry from the priests, and he also went into Persia to visit the Chaldaeans as well as to the Red Sea. Some say that he associated with the Gymnosophists in India and went to Aethiopia. Also that, being the third son, he divided the family property. Most authorities will have it that he chose the smaller portion, which was in money, because he had need of this to pay the cost of travel; besides, his brothers were crafty enough to foresee that this would be his choice. 36 Demetrius estimates his share at over 100 talents, the whole of which he spent. His industry, says the same author, was so great that he cut off a little room in the garden round the house and shut himself up there. One day his father brought an ox to sacrifice and tied it there, and he was not aware of it for a considerable time,  p447 until his father roused him to attend the sacrifice and told him about the ox. Demetrius goes on: "It would seem that he also went to Athens and was not anxious to be recognized, because he despised fame, and that while he knew of Socrates, he was not known to Socrates, his words being, 'I came to Athens and no one knew me.' "

37 "If the Rivals be the work of Plato," says Thrasylus, "Democritus will be the unnamed character, different from Oenopides and Anaxagoras, who makes his appearance when conversation is going on with Socrates about philosophy, and to whom Socrates says that the philosopher is like the all‑round athlete.2 And truly Democritus was versed in every department of philosophy, for he had trained himself both in physics and in ethics, nay more, in mathematics and the routine subjects of education, and he was quite an expert in the arts." From him we have the saying, "Speech is the shadow of action." Demetrius of Phalerum in his Defence of Socrates affirms that he did not even visit Athens. This is to make the larger claim, namely, that he thought that great city beneath his notice, because he did not care to win fame from a place, but preferred himself to make a place famous.

38 His character can also be seen from his writings. "He would seem," says Thrasylus, "to have been an admirer of the Pythagoreans. Moreover, he mentions Pythagoras himself, praising him in a work of his own entitled Pythagoras.3 He seems to have taken all his ideas from him and, if chronology did not stand in the way, he might have been thought his pupil." Glaucus of Rhegium certainly says that  p449 he was taught by one of the Pythagoreans, and Glaucus was his contemporary. Apollodorus of Cyzicus, again, will have it that he lived with Philolaus.

He would train himself, says Antisthenes, by a variety of means to test his sense-impressions by going at times into solitude and frequenting tombs. 39 The same authority states that, when he returned from his travels, he was reduced to a humble mode of life because he had exhausted his means; and, because of his poverty, he was supported by his brother Damasus. But his reputation rose owing to his having foretold certain future events; and after that the public deemed him worthy of the honour paid to a god.4 There was a law, says Antisthenes, that no one who had squandered his patrimony should be buried in his native city. Democritus, understanding this, and fearing lest he should be at the mercy of any envious or unscrupulous prosecutors, read aloud to the people his treatise, the Great Diacosmos, the best of all his works; and then he was rewarded with 500 talents; and, more than that, with bronze statues as well; and when he died, he received a public funeral after a lifetime of more than a century. 40 Demetrius, however, says that it was not Democritus himself but his relatives who read the Great Diacosmos, and that the sum awarded was 100 talents only; with this account Hippobotus agrees.

Aristoxenus in his Historical Notes affirms that Plato wished to burn all the writings of Democritus that he could collect, but that Amyclas and Clinias  p451 the Pythagoreans prevented him, saying that there was no advantage in doing so, for already the books were widely circulated. And there is clear evidence for this in the fact that Plato, who mentions almost all the early philosophers, never once alludes to Democritus, not even where it would be necessary to controvert him, obviously because he knew he would have to match himself against the prince of philosophers, for whom, to be sure, Timon5 has this meed of praise:6

Such is the wise Democritus, the guardian of discourse, keen-witted disputant, among the best I ever read.

41 As regards chronology, he was, as he says himself in the Lesser Diacosmos, a young man when Anaxagoras was old, being forty years his junior. He says that the Lesser Diacosmos was conspired 730 years after the capture of Troy. According to Apollodorus in his Chronology he would thus have been born in the 80th Olympiad,7 but according to Thrasylus in his pamphlet entitled Prolegomena to the Reading of the Works of Democritus, in the third year of the 77th Olympiad,8 which makes him, adds Thrasylus, one year older than Socrates. He would then be a contemporary of Archelaus, the pupil of Anaxagoras, and of the school of Oenopides; indeed he mentions Oenopides. 42 Again, he alludes to the doctrine of the One held by Parmenides and Zeno, they being evidently the persons most talked about in his day; he also mentions Protagoras of Athens, who, it is admitted, was a contemporary of Socrates.

Athenodorus in the eighth book of his Walks relates that, when Hippocrates came to see him, he ordered  p453 milk to be brought, and, having inspected it, pronounced it to be the milk of a black she‑goat which had produced her first kid; which made Hippocrates marvel at the accuracy of his observation. Moreover, Hippocrates being accompanied by a maidservant, on the first day Democritus greeted her with "Good morning, maiden," but the next day with "Good morning, woman." As a matter of fact the girl had been seduced in the night.a

43 Of the death of Democritus the account given by Hermippus is as follows. When he was now very old and near his end, his sister was vexed that he seemed likely to die during the festival of Thesmophoria and she would be prevented from paying the fitting worship to the goddess. He bade her be of good cheer and ordered hot loaves to be brought to him every day. By applying these to his nostrils he contrived to outlive the festival; and as soon as the three festival days were passed he let his life go from him without pain, having then, according to Hipparchus, attained his one hundred and ninth year.

In my Pammetros I have a piece on him as follows:9

Pray who was so wise, who wrought so vast a work as the omniscient Democritus achieved? When Death was near, for three days he kept him in his house and regaled him with the steam of hot loaves.

Such was the life of our philosopher.

44 His opinions are these. The first principles of the universe are atoms and empty space; everything else is merely thought to exist. The worlds are unlimited; they come into being and perish. Nothing can come into being from that which is not  p455 nor pass away into that which is not. Further, the atoms are unlimited in size and number, and they are borne along in the whole universe in a vortex, and thereby generate all composite things — fire, water, air, earth; for even these are conglomerations of given atoms. And it is because of their solidity that these atoms are impassive and unalterable. The sun and the moon have been composed of such smooth and spherical masses [i.e. atoms], and so also the soul, which is identical with reason. We see by virtue of the impact of images upon our eyes.

45 All things happen by virtue of necessity, the vortex being the cause of the creation of all things, and this he calls necessity. The end of action is tranquillity, which is not identical with pleasure, as some by a false interpretation have understood, but a state in which the soul continues calm and strong, undisturbed by any fear or superstition or any other emotion. This he calls well-being and many other names. The qualities of things exist merely by convention; in nature there is nothing but atoms and void space. These, then, are his opinions.

Of his works Thrasylus has made an ordered catalogue, arranging them in fours, as he also arranged Plato's works.

46 The ethical works are the following:


Of the Disposition of the Wise Man.

Of those in Hades.

Tritogeneia (so called because three things, on which all mortal life depends, come from her).


Of Manly Excellence, or of Virtue.

Amalthea's Horn (the Horn of Plenty).

 p457 Of Tranquillity.

Ethical Commentaries: the work on Well-being is not to be found.

So much for the ethical works.

The physical works are these:

The Great Diacosmos (which the school of Theophrastus attribute to Leucippus).

The Lesser Diacosmos.

Description of the World.

On the Planets.


On Nature, one book.

Of the Nature of Man, or Of Flesh, a second book on Nature.

Of Reason.

Of the Senses (some editors combine these two under the title Of the Soul).


Of Flavours.

Of Colours.

47 Of the Different Shapes (of Atoms).

Of Changes of Shape.


Confirmations (summaries of the aforesaid works).

On Images, or On Foreknowledge of the Future.

On Logic, or Criterion of Thought, three books.


So much for the physical works.

The following fall under no head:

Causes of Celestial Phenomena.

Causes of Phenomena in the Air.

Causes on the Earth's Surface.

Causes concerned with Fire and Things in Fire.

 p459  Causes concerned with Sounds.

Causes concerned with Seeds, Plants and Fruits.

Causes concerned with Animals, three books.

Miscellaneous Causes.

Concerning the Magnet.

These works have not been arranged.

The mathematical works are these:

On a Difference in an Angle, or On Contact with the Circle or the Sphere.

On Geometry.




On Irrational Lines and Solids, two books.

Extensions10 (Projections).

48 The Great Year, or Astronomy, Calendar.

Contention of the Water-clock <and the Heaven>.


Description of the Heaven.


Description of the Pole.

Description of Rays of Light.

These are the mathematical works.

The literary and musical works are these:

On Rhythms and Harmony.

On Poetry.

On Beauty of Verses.

On Euphonious and Cacophonous Letters.


 p461 Concerning Homer, or On Correct Epic Diction, and On Glosses.

Of Song.

On Words.

A Vocabulary.

So much for works on literature and music.

The works on the arts are these:


Of Diet, or Diaetetics.

Medical Regimen.

Causes concerned with Things Seasonable and Unseasonable.


Of Agriculture, or Concerning Land Measurements.

Of Painting.

Treatise on Tactics, and

On Fighting in Armour.

So much for these works.

49 Some include as separate items in the list the following works taken from his notes:

Of the Sacred Writings in Babylon.

Of those in Meroë.

A Voyage round the Ocean.

Of <the Right Use of> History.

A Chaldaean Treatise.

A Phrygian Treatise.

Concerning Fever and those whose Malady makes them Cough.

Legal Causes and Effects.

Problems wrought by Hand.11

The other works which some attribute to Democritus  p463 are either compilations from his writings or admittedly not genuine. So much for the books that he wrote and their number.

The name of Democritus has been borne by six persons: (1) our philosopher; (2) a contemporary of his, a musician of Chios; (3) a sculptor, mentioned by Antigonus; (4) an author who wrote on the temple at Ephesus and the state of Samothrace; (5) an epigrammatist whose style is lucid and ornate; (6) a native of Pergamum who made his mark by rhetorical speeches.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Diels remarks that this is a free interpretation of Hdt. VII.109, VIII.120.

2 Rivals, 132A‑C.

3 § 46.

4 ὡς δὲ προειπών . . . ἠξιώθη. This sentence in oratio recta, interrupting the extract from Antisthenes, finds its counterpart in the stories attributing to Democritus the power of forecasting the weather or the seasons, on the strength of his scientific attainments. Cf. Pliny, N. H. XVIII.273, 341, and Clem. Alex. Strom. VI.32.º

5 Fr. 46 D.

6 Cf. Il. I.263, IV.341.

7 460‑457 B.C.

8 470‑469 B.C.

9 Anth. Pal. VII.57.

10 Diels compares Ptolemy, Geogr. VII.7 ὑπογραφὴ τοῦ ἐκπετάσματος. ὑπογραφὴ δ’ ἔσται καὶ τῆς τοιαύτης εκπετάσεως ἁρμόζουσά τε καὶ κεφαλαιώδης. ἡ τοιαύτη τῆς κρικωτῆς σφαίρας ἐπιπέδῳ καταγραφή κτλ. The title 'Εκπετάσματα may therefore mean "Projection of an armillary sphere on a plane."

11 χειρόκμητα is a correction of Salmasius based upon Pliny, N. H. XXIV.160, and Vitruvius, IX.1.14. The MSS. give either χέρνιβα, "finger-bowls," or χερνικά, the sense of which is not clear: they read before προβλήματα.

Thayer's Note:

a The same tale is told of Nostradamus. As recounted by Edgar Leoni, probably the best authority on the 16c seer:

This period [the late 1550s] is also the setting for another Nostradamian anecdote. One evening, as he was sitting in front of his house, the daughter of a neighbor passed him on her way to the woods to gather some firewood. She greeted him politely.

"Bonjour, Monsieur de Nostredame."

"Bonjour, fillette."

An hour later she returned and greeted him again.

"Bonjour, Monsieur de Nostredame."

"Bonjour, jeune femme." True or not, a charming story.

Nostradamus: Life and Literature, Exposition Press, New York, 1961.

[The story exists in many versions, differing slightly as to details and language — French or, more likely, Provençal — but I've been unable so far to find the source of its first application to Nostradamus.]

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