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Nothing exists except atoms and empty space, everything else is opinion.
There are many who know many things, yet are lacking in wisdom.

Democritus (c. 460 BC – c. 370 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. He is popularly known as "the laughing philosopher" for advocating a cheerful outlook, and for his rhetorical use of irony and ridicule. A pupil of Leucippus, he was an influential pre-Socratic philosopher who formulated an atomic theory of the universe. Of his voluminous writings, only a few fragments of his ethical theory remain, with descriptions by other writers of his atomic theory.


Medicine heals diseases of the body, wisdom frees the soul from passions.
No power and no treasure can outweigh the extension of our knowledge.
  • δοκεῖ δὲ αὐτῶι τάδε· ἀρχὰς εἶναι τῶν ὅλων ἀτόμους καὶ κενόν, τὰ δ'ἀλλα πάντα νενομίσθαι [δοξάζεσθαι]. (Diogenes Laërtius, Democritus, Vol. IX, 44)
    • 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. (trans. Yonge 1853)
    • The first principles of the universe are atoms and empty space; everything else is merely thought to exist. (trans. by Robert Drew Hicks 1925)
  • νόμωι (γάρ φησι) γλυκὺ καὶ νόμωι πικρόν, νόμωι θερμόν, νόμωι ψυχρόν, νόμωι χροιή, ἐτεῆι δὲ ἄτομα καὶ κενόν (Tetralogies of Thrasyllus, 9. sext. adv. math. VII 135)
    • Sweet exists by convention, bitter by convention, colour by convention; atoms and Void [alone] exist in reality. (trans. Freeman 1948)[1], p. 92
    • By convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void. (trans. Durant 1939)[2], Ch. XVI, §II, p. 353; citing C. Bakewell, Sourcebook in Ancient Philosophy, New York, 1909, "Fragment O" (Diels), p. 60
  • We know nothing accurately in reality, but [only] as it changes according to the bodily condition, and the constitution of those things that flow upon [the body] and impinge upon it.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 142
  • Medicine heals diseases of the body, wisdom frees the soul from passions.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 149
    • Variant: Medicine cures the diseases of the body; wisdom, on the other hand, relieves the soul of its sufferings.[citation needed]
  • Coition is a slight attack of apoplexy. For man gushes forth from man, and is separated by being torn apart with a kind of blow.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 150
  • Man is a universe in little [Microcosm].
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 150
  • Good breeding in cattle depends on physical health, but in men on a well-formed character.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 151
    • Variant: Strength of body is nobility only in beasts of burden, strength of character is nobility in man.
      • Durant (1939)[2], Ch. XVI, §II, p. 354; citing C. Bakewell, Sourcebook in Ancient Philosophy, New York, 1909, "Fragment 57"
    • Variant: In cattle excellence is displayed in strength of body; but in men it lies in strength of character.[citation needed]
  • Πολλοὶ πολυμαθέες νοῦν οὐκ ἔχουσιν.
    • Many much-learned men have no intelligence.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 152 [Democr. "Fragment B 64" ("Demokrates 29" in Stobaeus, Anthologium III, 4, 81)]
    • Variant: There are many who know many things, yet are lacking in wisdom.[citation needed]
  • Immoderate desire is the mark of a child, not a man.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 152
    • Variant: It is childish, not manly, to have immoderate desires.[citation needed]
  • [I would] rather discover one cause than gain the kingdom of Persia.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 155
    • Variant: I would rather discover a single demonstration [in geometry] than become king of the Persians.
      • Durant (1939)[2],Ch. XVI, §II, p. 352, citinas G.Grote, Plato and the Other Companions of Socrates (London, 1875), vol. 1, p. 68; and citing C. Bakewell, Sourcebook in Ancient Philosophy, New York, 1909, p. 62.
  • Men have fashioned an image of Chance as an excuse for their own stupidity. For Chance rarely conflicts with intelligence, and most things in life can be set in order by an intelligent sharpsightedness.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 155
  • In a shared fish, there are no bones.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 157
  • Education is an ornament for the prosperous, a refuge for the unfortunate.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 161
  • Beautiful objects are wrought by study through effort, but ugly things are reaped automatically without toil.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 161
    • Variant: The good things of life are produced by learning with hard work; the bad are reaped of their own accord, without hard work.[citation needed]
  • The animal needing something knows how much it needs, the man does not.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 162
    • Variant: The needy animal knows how much it needs, but the needy man does not.[citation needed]
  • Moderation multiplies pleasures, and increases pleasure.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 163
    • Variant: Moderation increases enjoyment, and makes pleasure even greater.[citation needed]
  • The brave man is not only he who overcomes the enemy, but he who is stronger than pleasures. Some men are masters of cities, but are enslaved to women.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 163
    • Variant: The brave man is he who overcomes not only his enemies but his pleasures. There are some men who are masters of cities but slaves to women.[citation needed]
  • It is hard to fight desire; but to control it is the sign of a reasonable man.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 165
    • Variant: It is hard to fight with desire; but to overcome it is the mark of a rational man.[citation needed]
  • The laws would not prevent each man from living according to his inclination, unless individuals harmed each other; for envy creates the beginning of strife.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 166
    • Variant: Envy is the cause of political division.[citation needed]
  • To a wise man, the whole earth is open; for the native land of a good soul is the whole earth.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 166
    • Variant: To a wise and good man the whole earth is his fatherland.
      • Durant (1939)[2], Ch. XVI, §II, p. 352 (footnote); citing F. Uberweg, History of Philosophy, New York, 1871, vol. 1, p. 71.
  • The man who is fortunate in his choice of son-in-law gains a son; the man unfortunate in his choice loses his daughter also.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 169
  • If your desires are not great, a little will seem much to you; for small appetite makes poverty equivalent to wealth.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 170
    • Variant: By desiring little, a poor man makes himself rich.[citation needed]
  • Disease of the home and of the life comes about in the same way as that of the body.
    • Freeman (1948)[1], p. 170
    • Variant: Disease occurs in a household, or in a life, just as it does in a body.
  • No power and no treasure can outweigh the extension of our knowledge.
    • Durant (1939)[2], Ch. XVI, §II, p. 354; citing J. Owen, Evenings with the Skeptics, London, 1881, vol. 1, p. 149.
  • Strength and beauty are the blessings of youth; temperance, however, is the flower of old age.
    • Fragment quoted in H. Diels and W. Kranz (eds.) Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Vol. II (1952), no. 294; reference taken from Webster's New World Dictionary of Quotations (2005), p. 261

Quotes about Democritus[edit]

  • The Greeks elaborated several theories of vision. According to the Pythagoreans, Democritus, and others vision is caused by the projection of particles from the object seen, into the pupil of the eye. On the other hand Empedocles, the Platonists, and Euclid held the strange doctrine of ocular beams, according to which the eye itself sends out something which causes sight as soon as it meets something else emanated by the object.
  • Eudoxes... not only based the method [of exhaustion] on rigorous demonstration... but he actually applied the method to find the volumes (1) of any pyramid, (2) of the cone, proving (1) that any pyramid is one third part of the prism which has the same base and equal height, and (2) that any cone is one third part of the cylinder which has the same base and equal height. Archimedes, however, tells us the remarkable fact that these two theorems were first discovered by Democritus, though he was not able to prove them (which no doubt means, not that he gave no sort of proof, but that he was not able to establish the propositions by the rigorous methods of Eudoxes. Archimedes adds that we must give no small share of the credit for these theorems to Democritus... another testimony to the marvellous powers, in mathematics as well as in other subjects, of the great man who, in the words of Aristotle, "seems to have thought of everything". ...Democritus wrote on irrationals; he is also said to have discussed the question of two parallel sections of a cone (which were evidently supposed to be indefinitely close together), asking whether we are to regard them as equal or unequal... Democritus was already close on the track of infinitesimals.


  1. a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Tr. Kathleen Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the Fragments in Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Harvard University Press, 1948; republished by Forgotten Books, 2008, ISBN 1606802569 (full text online at Google Books; full text online at
  2. a b c d e Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Part II – The Life of Greece, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939

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