A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 1, chapter VII
Greek science in the early attic period
Leucippus and Democritus
But we must not leave this alluring field of speculation as to the nature of matter without referring to another scientific guess, which soon followed that of Anaxagoras and was destined to gain even wider fame, and which in modern times has been somewhat unjustly held to eclipse the glory of the other achievement. We mean, of course, the atomic theory of Leucippus and Democritus. This theory reduced all matter to primordial elements, called atoms because they are by hypothesis incapable of further division. These atoms, making up the entire material universe, are in this theory conceived as qualitatively identical, differing from one another only in size and perhaps in shape. The union of different-sized atoms in endless combinations produces the diverse substances with which our senses make us familiar.

Before we pass to a consideration of this alluring theory, and particularly to a comparison of it with the theory of Anaxagoras, we must catch a glimpse of the personality of the men to whom the theory owes its origin. One of these, Leucippus, presents so uncertain a figure as to be almost mythical. Indeed, it was long questioned whether such a man had actually lived, or whether be were not really an invention of his alleged disciple, Democritus. Latterday scholarship, however, accepts him as a real personage, though knowing scarcely more of him than that he was the author of the famous theory with which his name was associated. It is suggested that he was a wanderer, like most philosophers of his time, and that later in life he came to Abdera, in Thrace, and through this circumstance became the teacher of Democritus. This fable answers as well as another. What we really know is that Democritus himself, through whose writings and teachings the atomic theory gained vogue, was born in Abdera, about the year 460 B.C. - that is to say, just about the time when his great precursor, Anaxagoras, was migrating to Athens. Democritus, like most others of the early Greek thinkers, lives in tradition as a picturesque figure. It is vaguely reported that he travelled for a time, perhaps in the East and in Egypt, and that then he settled down to spend the remainder of his life in Abdera. Whether or not he visited Athens in the course of his wanderings we do not know. At Abdera he was revered as a sage, but his influence upon the practical civilization of the time was not marked. He was pre-eminently a dreamer and a writer. Like his confreres of the epoch, he entered all fields of thought. He wrote voluminously, but, unfortunately, his writings have, for the most part, perished. The fables and traditions of a later day asserted that Democritus had voluntarily put out his own eyes that he might turn his thoughts inward with more concentration. Doubtless this is fiction, yet, as usual with such fictions, it contains a germ of truth; for we may well suppose that the promulgator of the atomic theory was a man whose mind was attracted by the subtleties of thought rather than by the tangibilities of observation. Yet the term "laughing philosopher," which seems to have been universally applied to Democritus, suggests a mind not altogether withdrawn from the world of practicalities.

So much for Democritus the man. Let us return now to his theory of atoms. This theory, it must be confessed, made no very great impression upon his contemporaries. It found an expositor, a little later, in the philosopher Epicurus, and later still the poet Lucretius gave it popular expression. But it seemed scarcely more than the dream of a philosopher or the vagary of a poet until the day when modern science began to penetrate the mysteries of matter. When, finally, the researches of Dalton and his followers had placed the atomic theory on a surer footing as the foundation of modern chemistry, the ideas of the old laughing philosopher of Abdera, which all along had been half derisively remembered, were recalled with a new interest. Now it appeared that these ideas had curiously foreshadowed nineteenth-century knowledge. It appeared that away back in the fifth century B.C. a man had dreamed out a conception of the ultimate nature of matter which had waited all these centuries for corroboration. And now the historians of philosophy became more than anxious to do justice to the memory of Democritus.

It is possible that this effort at poetical restitution has carried the enthusiast too far. There is, indeed, a curious suggestiveness in the theory of Democritus; there is philosophical allurement in his reduction of all matter to a single element; it contains, it may be, not merely a germ of the science of the nineteenth-century chemistry, but perhaps the germs also of the yet undeveloped chemistry of the twentieth century. Yet we dare suggest that in their enthusiasm for the atomic theory of Democritus the historians of our generation have done something less than justice to that philosopher's precursor, Anaxagoras. And one suspects that the mere accident of a name has been instrumental in producing this result. Democritus called his primordial element an atom; Anaxagoras, too, conceived a primordial element, but he called it merely a seed or thing; he failed to christen it distinctively. Modern science adopted the word atom and gave it universal vogue. It owed a debt of gratitude to Democritus for supplying it the word, but it somewhat overpaid the debt in too closely linking the new meaning of the word with its old original one. For, let it be clearly understood, the Daltonian atom is not precisely comparable with the atom of Democritus. The atom, as Democritus conceived it, was monistic; all atoms, according to this hypothesis, are of the same substance; one atom differs from another merely in size and shape, but not at all in quality. But the Daltonian hypothesis conceived, and nearly all the experimental efforts of the nineteenth century seemed to prove, that there are numerous classes of atoms, each differing in its very essence from the others.

As the case stands to-day the chemist deals with seventy-odd substances, which he calls elements. Each one of these substances is, as he conceives it, made up of elementary atoms having a unique personality, each differing in quality from all the others. As far as experiment has thus far safely carried us, the atom of gold is a primordial element which remains an atom of gold and nothing else, no matter with what other atoms it is associated. So, too, of the atom of silver, or zinc, or sodium - in short, of each and every one of the seventy-odd elements. There are, indeed, as we shall see, experiments that suggest the dissolution of the atom - that suggest, in short, that the Daltonian atom is misnamed, being a structure that may, under certain conditions, be broken asunder. But these experiments have, as yet, the warrant rather of philosophy than of pure science, and to-day we demand that the philosophy of science shall be the handmaid of experiment.

When experiment shall have demonstrated that the Daltonian atom is a compound, and that in truth there is but a single true atom, which, combining with its fellows perhaps in varying numbers and in different special relations, produces the Daltonian atoms, then the philosophical theory of monism will have the experimental warrant which to-day it lacks; then we shall be a step nearer to the atom of Democritus in one direction, a step farther away in the other. We shall be nearer, in that the conception of Democritus was, in a sense, monistic; farther away, in that all the atoms of Democritus, large and small alike, were considered as permanently fixed in size. Democritus postulated all his atoms as of the same substance, differing not at all in quality; yet he was obliged to conceive that the varying size of the atoms gave to them varying functions which amounted to qualitative differences. He might claim for his largest atom the same quality of substance as for his smallest, but so long as he conceived that the large atoms, when adjusted together to form a tangible substance, formed a substance different in quality from the substance which the small atoms would make up when similarly grouped, this concession amounts to the predication of difference of quality between the atoms themselves. The entire question reduces itself virtually to a quibble over the word quality, So long as one atom conceived to be primordial and indivisible is conceded to be of such a nature as necessarily to produce a different impression on our senses, when grouped with its fellows, from the impression produced by other atoms when similarly grouped, such primordial atoms do differ among themselves in precisely the same way for all practical purposes as do the primordial elements of Anaxagoras.

The monistic conception towards which twentieth- century chemistry seems to be carrying us may perhaps show that all the so-called atoms are compounded of a single element. All the true atoms making up that element may then properly be said to have the same quality, but none the less will it remain true that the combinations of that element that go to make up the different Daltonian atoms differ from one another in quality in precisely the same sense in which such tangible substances as gold, and oxygen, and mercury, and diamonds differ from one another. In the last analysis of the monistic philosophy, there is but one substance and one quality in the universe. In the widest view of that philosophy, gold and oxygen and mercury and diamonds are one substance, and, if you please, one quality. But such refinements of analysis as this are for the transcendental philosopher, and not for the scientist. Whatever the allurement of such reasoning, we must for the purpose of science let words have a specific meaning, nor must we let a mere word-jugglery blind us to the evidence of facts. That was the rock on which Greek science foundered; it is the rock which the modern helmsman sometimes finds it difficult to avoid. And if we mistake not, this case of the atom of Democritus is precisely a case in point. Because Democritus said that his atoms did not differ in quality, the modern philosopher has seen in his theory the essentials of monism; has discovered in it not merely a forecast of the chemistry of the nineteenth century, but a forecast of the hypothetical chemistry of the future. And, on the other hand, because Anaxagoras predicted a different quality for his primordial elements, the philosopher of our day has discredited the primordial element of Anaxagoras.

Yet if our analysis does not lead us astray, the theory of Democritus was not truly monistic; his indestructible atoms, differing from one another in size and shape, utterly incapable of being changed from the form which they had maintained from the beginning, were in reality as truly and primordially different as are the primordial elements of Anaxagoras. In other words, the atom of Democritus is nothing less than the primordial seed of Anaxagoras, a little more tangibly visualized and given a distinctive name. Anaxagoras explicitly conceived his elements as invisibly small, as infinite in number, and as made up of an indefinite number of kinds - one for each distinctive substance in the world. But precisely the same postulates are made of the atom of Democritus. These also are invisibly small; these also are infinite in number; these also are made up of an indefinite number of kinds, corresponding with the observed difference of substances in the world. "Primitive seeds," or "atoms," were alike conceived to be primordial, un- changeable, and indestructible. Wherein then lies the difference? We answer, chiefly in a name; almost solely in the fact that Anaxagoras did not attempt to postulate the physical properties of the elements beyond stating that each has a distinctive personality, while Democritus did attempt to postulate these properties. He, too, admitted that each kind of element has its distinctive personality, and he attempted to visualize and describe the characteristics of the personality.

Thus while Anaxagoras tells us nothing of his elements except that they differ from one another, Democritus postulates a difference in size, imagines some elements as heavier and some as lighter, and conceives even that the elements may be provided with projecting hooks, with the aid of which they link themselves one with another. No one to-day takes these crude visualizings seriously as to their details. The sole element of truth which these dreamings contain, as distinguishing them from the dreamings of Anaxagoras, is in the conception that the various atoms differ in size and weight. Here, indeed, is a vague fore-shadowing of that chemistry of form which began to come into prominence towards the close of the nineteenth century. To have forecast even dimly this newest phase of chemical knowledge, across the abyss of centuries, is indeed a feat to put Democritus in the front rank of thinkers. But this estimate should not blind us to the fact that the pre-vision of Democritus was but a slight elaboration of a theory which had its origin with another thinker. The association between Anaxagoras and Democritus cannot be directly traced, but it is an association which the historian of ideas should never for a moment forget. If we are not to be misled by mere word-jugglery, we shall recognize the founder of the atomic theory of matter in Anaxagoras; its expositors along slightly different lines in Leucippus and Democritus; its re-discoverer of the nineteenth century in Dalton. All in all, then, just as Anaxagoras preceded Democritus in time, so must he take precedence over him also as an inductive thinker, who carried the use of the scientific imagination to its farthest reach.

An analysis of the theories of the two men leads to somewhat the same conclusion that might be reached from a comparison of their lives. Anaxagoras was a sceptical, experimental scientist, gifted also with the prophetic imagination. He reasoned always from the particular to the general, after the manner of true induction, and he scarcely took a step beyond the confines of secure induction. True scientist that he was, he could content himself with postulating different qualities for his elements, without pretending to know how these qualities could be defined. His elements were by hypothesis invisible, hence he would not attempt to visualize them. Democritus, on the other hand, refused to recognize this barrier. Where he could not know, he still did not hesitate to guess. Just as he conceived his atom of a definite form with a definite structure, even so he conceived that the atmosphere about him was full of invisible spirits; he accepted the current superstitions of his time. Like the average Greeks of his day, he even believed in such omens as those furnished by inspecting the entrails of a fowl. These chance bits of biography are weather- vanes of the mind of Democritus. They tend to substantiate our conviction that Democritus must rank below Anaxagoras as a devotee of pure science. But, after all, such comparisons and estimates as this are utterly futile. The essential fact for us is that here, in the fifth century before our era, we find put forward the most penetrating guess as to the constitution of matter that the history of ancient thought has to present to us. In one direction, the avenue of progress is barred; there will be no farther step that way till we come down the centuries to the time of Dalton.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.