A defense of the inquiry into nature in the 5th century Atomists

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, 5th century BCE.

Clazomenae is a city in Ionia.

"Do you think you are accusing Anaxagoras, my dear Meletus, and do you so despise these gentlemen [in the jury] and think they are so unversed in letters as not to know, that the books of Anaxagoras the Clazomenian are full of such utterances? And forsooth the youth learn these doctrines from me, which they can buy sometimes (if the price is high) for a drachma in the orchestra [a place in Athens for dramatic and musical contests] and laugh at Socrates, if he pretends they are his own" (Apology 26d).

'forsooth' derisively expresses disbelief. The Loeb translator uses it to translate δὴ καὶ in "καὶ δὴ καὶ the youth...." These words are difficult to translate because they do not have much lexical meaning. In spoken English, the point would be expressed by stress and change in pitch.

A "drachma" (δραχμή) was the daily wage of a hoplite (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War VII.27).

A "hoplite" (ὁπλίτης) is a foot soldier who carries a pike and a shield. The name comes from the "shield" (ὅπλον).

The Chigi vase The Chigi vase (650 BCE), found in an Etruscan tomb at Monte Aguzzo. National Etruscan Museum, Villa Giulia.

Empedocles, 5th century BCE.
He writes in verse, as did Xenophanes and Parmenides.

Empedocles came from Acragas in Sicily.

Leucippus, 5th century BCE.
He is an obscure figure whose life is unknown.

Democritus, 5th to 4th century BCE.
He seems to have outlived Socrates.

Democritus came from Abdera on the coast of Thrace. The Greeks of Teos (a city in Ionia) settled there to escape Persian rule (Histories 1.168).
Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Leucippus, and Democritus take the nature of reality to consist in a plurality of objects, not one object, as the Milesian inquirers thought. This new ontology provides a means to defend the inquiry into nature against the threat Parmenides posed.

This development in the philosophical tradition shows that it was maturing.

The philosophical tradition arose out of the external demand for a new kind of explanation, one that did not depend on the myths about the gods. Now it has become established enough that new positions developed in response to challenges from within the tradition.

Leucippus and Democritus

According to Leucippus and Democritus, atoms and void are the nature of things.

About drops of rain and the objects we take ourselves to know from our experience, Leucippus and Democritus may had have different views. The evidence for what Leucippus thought is more uncertain, but Democritus seems to have thought that these objects are not real.

Democritus seems to have thought that arrangements of atoms in the void appear to us as objects, that this appearance is a product of sense-experience, that sense-experience is a "bastard" judgment, that this judgment does not provide us with knowledge, and that only the "legitimate" judgment of reason provides human beings with knowledge.

The Atoms Move in the Void

Democritus's ontology is not consistent with everything Parmenides says. Parmenides argued that reality is changeless, but the atoms can change their locations in the void.

What the atoms cannot do, though, is come into or goes out of existence.

They do become closer or further apart as they move aimlessly through the void, but these transient arrangements are not themselves objects. So when the atoms are changing their locations in this way, nothing is coming into or going out of existence.

An example helps make this a little easier to understand.

An ice cube is frozen water in the shape of a cube. When an ice cube melts, does something go out of existence? We might think the answer is no and that all that really happens is the water takes on a new shape and temperature. Further, from the Democritean point of view, the water too is how a certain arrangement of atoms appears to us. So when the ice cube melts, all that really happens is that the atoms move to different locations in the void.

In thinking about this example, we need to keep in mind that Democritus does not think the atoms are governed by the laws of physics as we might now. His goal is to resist the traditional thought that the large-scale regular occurrences we see in nature (the coming and going of the rains with the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun and the moon) are the work of the gods. Against this picture in Hesdiod and the Theologists, Democritus is thinking that these regular patterns are how the aimless movements of the atoms in the void appear to us.

Bastard and Legitimate Thinking

"Democritus sometimes does away with what appears to the senses, and says that none of these appears according to the truth but only according to opinion. The truth in real things is that there are atoms and void. By custom, he says, sweet, bitter, hot, cold, color; but in reality, atoms and void" (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians I.135).

"He says that there are two kinds of knowing, one through the senses and one through the intellect. Of these he calls the one through the intellect 'legitimate,' attesting its trustworthiness for the judgment of truth, and that through the senses he names 'bastard,' denying it inerrancy in the discrimination of what is true. To quote his words: 'Of knowing there are two forms, one legitimate, one bastard. To the bastard belong sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. The other is legitimate and separate from that'" (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians I.138; DK 68 B 11; D 20).

Sextus Empiricus lived in the 2nd or 3rd century CE. He is the primary source for Democritus's epistemology.

"The starting-points of the whole are atoms and the void, everything else is the object of convention. ... Nothing comes into being from what does not exist nor is it destroyed into what does not exist. And the atoms are unlimited in magnitude and number and they move in the whole, whirling around" (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers IX.44).

Diogenes Laertius (3rd century CE).

His Lives of the Philosophers (in ten books arranged in lines of succession) is a handbook in the doxographical tradition.

Information about the Ancient philosophers was transmitted in antiquity through handbooks. Later authors relied on them, and these handbooks themselves were compiled drawing on earlier handbooks of their kind.

"The Greeks do not conceive correctly of coming to be or being destroyed. No thing comes to be or is destroyed; but rather, out of things, there is mixing and separation. And so, to speak correctly, they would have to call coming to be mixing and being destroyed separating" (Anaxagoras DK 59 B 17; D 15. Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics).

"Of nothing is there birth, among all mortal things, nor is there an ending coming from baleful death, But only mixture and exchange of things mixed exist, and ‘birth’ is a name given by mortals" (Empedocles, DK 31 B 8; D 53. Pseudo-Plutarch, De Placita Philosophorum 1.30.1).

Pseudo-Plutarch is the conventional name of the unknown author of works that were falsely attributed to Plutarch.

De Placita Philosophorum is a handbook.
Parmenides urges his readers to "judge by reason" and "not let [the] habit born from much experience compel" belief in terms of a "sightless eye and sounding ear and tongue."

Democritus stands squarely within this tradition.

He identifies "experience" with the beliefs we form with our senses, and he identifies "reason" with thinking separate from the senses and that can correct the thinking the senses produce.

When we get beliefs by looking, we believe that what we see is something that came into and will eventually go out of existence. Because we find this "bastard" way of thinking is perfectly adequate for doing the things we ordinarily do in living our lives, we get in the habit of placing great confidence in thinking that we know how reality is. Reason, however, if we would only listen to it, shows that the beliefs about reality we form this way are merely appearances.

A Defense of the Inquiry into Nature

Democritus's ontology and epistemology provides a means to defend the inquiry into nature.

Thales and the Milesian inquirers may follow a "backward-turning" method, just as Parmenides suggests. They may think drops of water exist in terms of changes in the nature of reality, but Democritus shows that this ontology is not essential to the inquiry into nature. The inquiry into nature is consistent with thinking that the drops of water and other objects experience suggests exist are nothing more than how reality appears to those who rely for the truth on experience rather than what he calls the "legitimate" judgment of reason.

The inquiry into nature, on this interpretation, does not work the way the Milesian inquirers seem to have thought. This inquiry does not show how drops of water and other objects of experience come into and go out of existence in terms air or some other underlying nature. Instead, it relies on "reason" to show how the appearance of objects coming into and going out of existence are really only changes in the locations of the atoms in the void.

"By custom, sweet, bitter, hot, cold, color, but in reality, atoms and void" (DK 68 B 9; D 14).

The Inquiry into Nature goes to Athens

In certain intellectual circles in Athens, the inquiry into nature became an object of fascination.

Aristophanes (5th century BCE comic playwright), in his comedy the Clouds, represents this new way of thinking as a subversive challenge to traditional beliefs about the gods. This play was performed in 423 BCE as part of an annual festival in Athens to honor the god Dionysus, so the ideas must have been known in Athens well before the play was performed.

Diogenes Laertius reports that Anaxagoras brought these ideas to Athens.

He also reports that Socrates studied with Anaxagoras's student, Archelaus.

"Archelaus, the son of Apollodorus, or as some say of Midon, was a citizen of Athens or of Miletus, and a pupil of Anaxagoras, who first brought the interest in wisdom about nature from Ionia to Athens. Archelaus was the teacher of Socrates. He was called a physicist because with him natural philosophy came to an end, as soon as Socrates had introduced ethics. It would seem, though, that Archelaus himself also treated of ethics, for he has discussed laws and the fine and justice; Socrates took the subject from him and developed it to such an extant that he was regarded as its inventor" (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers II.16 = DK A 1).

It is unclear that Archelaus was ever Socrates' teacher. We have no other such reports.

We see, though, in this report, that the philosophical tradition was changing. The focus was turning to to ethical matters, and Socrates discussed these matters in a way that captured the attention of both his contemporaries and the subsequent philosophical tradition.

What Socrates did is something we will try to understand in the next several lectures.

Perseus Digital Library

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon

ἄτομος, (ἀ + τέμνω), atomos, adjective, "uncut"
ἠθικός, ēthikos, adjective, "ethics"
νόος, noos, noun, "intellect"
νομίζω, nomizō, verb, "to hold as a custom, use customarily"
νόμος, nomos, noun, "that which is in habitual practice, custom"

Arizona State University Library. Loeb Classical Library:
Early Greek Philosophy, Volume V: Western Greek Thinkers, Part 2
Early Greek Philosophy, Volume VI: Later Ionian and Athenian Thinkers, Part 1
Early Greek Philosophy, Volume VII: Later Ionian and Athenian Thinkers, Part 2
Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians

"[O]nce a discipline of philosophy was established, it naturally came to respond to two different sets of needs or demands: the external ones, [like the desire for a new kind of explanation,] which originally gave rise to the practice of philosophy, and also internal demands as to what counted as acceptable or good practice in terms of the discipline. Both demands or needs wold ensure that the discipline would change over time. As the culture evolved, the external needs would change, and with it the discipline, to the extent that it continued to be responsive to them. And the internal demands would also force change. New answers would raise new questions, and the answers to these questions could force a revision of the answer to the original ones" (Michael Frede, "The Philosopher," 3. Greek thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge, 3-16. Harvard University Press, 2000).

"Democritus' thought is preserved highly selectively, and there is not "Democritus says what whereas medicine cures the illnesses of the body, wisdom frees the soul from sufferings" (Clement of Alexandria, Pedagogue 1.2).

Clement of Alexandria (first to second century CE) was a Greek Christian theologian and head of the catechetical school of Alexandria (the city on the Nile river in Egypt Alexander the Great founded in 331 BCE).
much evidence concerning his views on the soul. But given that he thought of philosophy as providing therapy for the afflictions of the soul, it would seem that he ... had a substantive notion of the soul integrating perception, though, belief, and desire in some systematic way. And so we, finally, come at least fairly close to a notion of reason, as we find from Socrates onwards" (Michael Frede, "Introduction," 21-22. Rationality in Greek Thought, 1-28. Oxford University Press, 1996).

Michael Frede's A Free Will is a posthumously published version of lectures he delivered Berkeley in 1997/98. In 2007, before he released these lectures for publication, Frede was attending a triennial colloquium on Hellenistic philosophy in Delphi and died while swimming in a cove east of Itea on the Gulf of Corinth in Greece.
"[I]t is perfectly clear that Democritus has no idea of [universal laws of nature]. He is concerned, rather, to resist the idea that the apparent regularity in the behavior of objects be understood as the result of their being designed to behave in this fashion; for in Greek thought regularity of behavior as a rule is associated with design by an intellect. The planets are taken to be supremely intelligent, if not wise, because they move with an extreme degree of regularity. If an object is not intelligent but displays regularity in behavior, it is readily thought to do so by design of an intelligent agent. Democritus's point is that the apparent regularity of the world is not a work of design, say, by an Anaxagorean cosmic intellect but a surface phenomenon produced by the aimless, random motion of the atoms" (Michael Frede, A Free Will. Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought, 13. University of California Press, 2011).

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