Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy
Part One: Greek Philosophy

E. Empedoelus, Leucippus and Democritus.

We shall take Leucippus and Democritus with Empedoeles; in them there is manifested the ideality of the sensuous and also universal determinateness or a transition to the universal. Empedoeles Was a Pythagorean Italian, whose tendencies were Ionic; Leucippus and Democritus, who incline to the Italians, in that they carried on the Eleatic school, are more interesting. Both these philosophers belong to the same philosophic system; they must be taken together as regards their philosophic thought and considered thus. Leucippus is the older, and Democritus perfected what the former began, but it is difficult to say what properly speaking belongs to him historically. It is certainly recorded that he developed Leucippus' thought, and there is, too, some of his work preserved, but it is not worthy of quotation. In Empedoeles we see the commencement of the determination and separation of principles. The becoming conscious of difference is an essential moment, but the principles here have in part the character of physical Being, and though partaking also of ideal Being, this form is not yet thought-form. On the other hand we find in Leucippus and Democritus the more ideal principles, the atom and the Nothing, and we also find thought-determination more immersed in the objective — that is, the beginning of a metaphysics of body ; or pure Notions possess the significance of the material, and thus pass over thought into objective form. But the teaching is, on the whole, immature, and is incapable of giving satisfaction.

1. Leucippus and Democritus.

Nothing is accurately known of the circumstances of Leucippus' life, not even where he was born.. Some, like Diogenes Laertius (IX. 30), make him out to be an Eleatic ; others to have belonged to Abdera (because he was with Democritus), or to Melos — Melos is an island not far from the Peloponnesian coast — or else, as is asserted by Simplicius in writing on Aristotle's Physics (p. 7), to Miletus. It is definitely stated that he was a disciple and a friend of Zeno; yet he seems to have been almost contemporaneous with him as well as with Heraclitus.

It is less doubtful that Democritus belonged to Abdera in Thrace, on the Aegean Sea, a town that in later times became so notorious on account of foolish actions. He was born,. it would, appear, about the 80th Olympiad (460 B.C.), or Olympiad 77, 3 (470 B.C.) ; the first date is given by Apollodorus (Diog. Laert. IX. 41), the other by Thrasylius; Tennemann (Vol. I. p. 415) makes his birth to fall about the 71st Olympiad (494 B.C.). According to Diogenes Laertius (IX. 34), he was forty years younger than Anaxagoras, lived to the time of Socrates, and was even younger than he — that is supposing him to have been born, not in Olympiad 71, but in Olympiad 80. His connection with the Abderites has been much discussed, and many bad anecdotes are told regarding it by Diogenes Laertius. That he was very rich, Valerius Maximus (VIII. 7, ext. 4) judges from the fact that his father entertained the whole of Xerxes' army on its passage to Greece. Diogenes tells (IX. 35,36) that he expended his means, which were considerable, on journeys to Egypt and in penetrating into the East, but this last is not authentic. His possessions are stated to have amounted to a hundred talents, and if an Attic talent was worth about from 1000 to 1200 thalers, he must undoubtedly have been able to get far enough with that. It is always said that he was a friend and disciple of Leucippus, as Aristotle relates (Met. 1. 4), but where they met is not told. Diogenes(IX.39) goes on: “After he returned from his journeys into his own country, he lived very quietly, for he had consumed all his substance, but he was supported by his brother and attained to high honour amongst his countrymen”. — not through his philosophy, but — “by some prophetic utterances. According to the law, however, he who ran through his father's means could not have a place in the paternal burial-place. To give no place to the calumniator or evil speaker” — as though he had spent his means through extravagance — “he read his work Diakosmos to the Abderites, and the latter gave him a present of 500 talents, had his statue publicly erected, and buried him with great pomp when, at 100 years old, he died.” That this was also an Abderite jest, those who left us this narrative, at least, did not see.

Leucippus is the originator of the famous atomic system which, as recently revived, is held to be the principle of rational science. If we take this system on its own account, it is certainly very barren, and there is not much to be looked for in it; but it must be allowed that we are greatly indebted to Leucippus, because, as it is expressed in our ordinary physics, he separated the universal and the sensuous, or the primary and the secondary, or the essential and the non-essential qualities of body. The universal quality means, in speculative language, the fact that the corporeal is really universally determined through the Notion or the principle of body: Leucippus understood the determinate nature of Being, not in a superficial manner, but in a speculative. When it is said that body has those universal qualities, such as form, impenetrability and weight, we think that the indeterminate conception of body is the essence, and that its essence is something other than these qualities. But speculatively, essential existence is just universal determinations ; they are existent in themselves, or the abstract content and the reality of existence. To body as such, there is nothing left for the determination of reality but pure singularity; but it is the unity of opposites, and the unity of these predicates constitutes its reality.

Let us recollect that in the Eleatic philosophy Being and non-being were looked at as in opposition; that only Being is, and non-being, in which category we find motion, change, &c., is not. Being is not as yet the unity turning back, and turned back into itself, like Heraclitus' motion and the universal. It may be said of the point of view that difference, change, motion, &c., fall within sensuous, immediate perception, that the assertion that only Being is, is as contradictory to appearances as to thought; for the nothing, that which the Eleatics abolished, is. Or within the Heraclitean Idea, Being and non-being are the same; Being is, but non-being, since it is one with Being, is as well, or Being is both the predicate of Being and of non-being. But Being and non-being are both expressed as having the qualities of objectivity, or as they are for sensuous perception, and hence they are the opposition of full and empty. Leucippus says this; he expresses as existent what was really present to the Eleatics. Aristotle says (Met. I. 4) : “Leucippus and his friend Democritus maintain that the full and the empty are the elements, and they call the one the existent, and the other the non-existent ; that is, the full and solid are the existent, the empty and rare, the non-existent. Hence they also say that Being is no more than non-being because the empty is as well as the bodily; and these form the material sources of everything.” The full has the atom as its principle. The Absolute, what exists in and for itself, is thus the atom and the empty (ta atoma kai kenon): this is an important, if at the same time, an insufficient explanation. It is not atoms as we should speak of them, such, for example, as we represent to ourselves as floating in the air, that are alone the principle, for the intervening nothing is just as essential. Thus here we have the first appearance of the atomic system. We must now give the farther signification and determination of this principle.

a. The principal point of consideration is the One, existent for itself: this determination is a great principle and one which we have not hitherto had. Parmenides establishes Being or the abstract universal; Heraclitus, process ; the determination of being-for-self belongs to Leucippus. Parmenides says that the nothing does not exist at all; with Heraclitus Becoming existed only as the transition of Being into nothing where each is negated; but the view that each is simply at home with itself, the positive as the self-existent one and the negative as empty, is what came to consciousness in Leucippus, and became the absolute determination. The atomic principle in this manner has not passed away, for it must from this point of view always exist ; the being-for-self must in every logical philosophy be an essential moment and yet it must not be put forward as ultimate. In the logical progression from Being and Becoming to this thought-determination, Being as existent here and now certainly first appears, but this last belongs to the sphere of finality and hence cannot be the principle of Philosophy. Thus, though the development of Philosophy in history must correspond to the development of logical philosophy, there will still be passages in it which are absent in historical development. For instance, if we wished to make Being as existent here the principle, it would be what we have in consciousness — there are things, these things are finite and bear a relation to one another — but this is the category of our unthinking knowledge, of appearance. Being-for-self, on the other hand, is, as Being simple relation to itself, but through negation of the other-Being. If I say I am for myself, I not only am, but I negate in me all else, exclude it from me, in so far as it seems to me to be external. As negation of other being, which is just negation in relation to me, being-for-self is the negation of negation and thus affirmation; and this is, as I call it, absolute negativity in which mediation indeed is present, but a mediation which is just as really taken away.

The principle of the One is altogether ideal and belongs entirely to thought, even though we wish to say that atoms exist. The atom may be taken materially, but it is supersensuous, purely intellectual. In our times, too, more especially through the instrumentality of Gassendi, this conception of atoms has been renewed. The atoms of Leucippus are, however, not molecules, the small particles of Physics. In Leucippus, according to Aristotle, (De gen. et corr. I. 8) there is to be found the idea that “atoms are invisible because of the smallness of their body,” which is much like the way in which molecules are nowadays spoken of: but this is merely a way of speaking of them. The One can neither be seen nor shown with magnifying glasses or measures, because it is an abstraction of thought; what is shown is always matter that is put together. It is just as futile when, as in modern times, men try by the microscope to investigate the inmost part of the organism, the soul, and think they can discover it by means of sight and feeling. Thus the principle of the One is altogether ideal, but not in the sense of being in thought or in the head alone, but in such a way that thought is made the true essence of things. Leucippus understood it so, and his philosophy is consequently not at all empirical. Tennemann (Vol. I. p. 26 1), on the other hand, says, quite wrongly, “The system of Leucippus is opposed to that of the Eleatics he recognises the empirical world as the only objective reality, and body as the only kind of existence.” But the atom and the vacuum are not things of experience; Leucippus says that It is not the senses through which we become conscious of the truth, and thereby he has established an idealism in the higher sense and not one which is merely subjective.

b. However abstract this principle might be to Leucippus, he was anxious to make it concrete. The meaning of atom is the individual, the indivisible; in another form the One is thus individuality, the determination of subjectivity. The universal and, on the other side, the individual, are great determinations which are involved in everything, and men first know what they have in these abstract determinations, when they recognise in the concrete that even there they are predominant. To Leucippus and Democritus this principle, which afterwards came to light with Epicurus, remained physical; but it also appears in what is intellectual. Mind indeed, is also an atom and one; but as one within itself, it is at the same time infinitely full. In freedom, right and law, in exercising will, our only concern is with this opposition of universality and individuality. In the sphere of the state the point of view that the single will is, as an atom, the absolute, may be maintained; the more modern theories of the state which also made themselves of practical effect, are of this kind. The state must rest on the universal, that is, on the will that exists in and for itself ; if it rests on that of the individual, it becomes atomic and is comprehended in accordance with the thought-determination of the one, as is the case in Rousseau's Contrat Social. From what Aristotle tells us in the passage last quoted, Leucippus' idea of all that is concrete and actual is further this: “The full is nothing simple, for it is an infinitely manifold. These infinitely many, move in the vacuum, for the vacuum exists; their conglomeration brings about origination” (that is, of an existing thing, or what is for the senses), “disintegration and separation result in passing away.” .All other categories are included here. “Activity and passivity subsist in the fact, that they are contiguous; but their contiguous not their becoming one, for from that which is truly” (abstractly) “one there does not come a number, nor from that which is truly many, one.” Or, it may be said, they are in fact neither passive nor active, “for they merely abide through the vacuum” without having as their principle, process. Atoms thus are, even in their apparent union in that which we call things, separated from one another through the vacuum which is purely negative and foreign to them, i.e. their relation is not inherent in themselves, but is with something other than them, in. which they remain what they are. This vacuum, the negative in relation to the affirmative, is also the principle of the movement of atoms; they are so to speak solicited by the vacuum to fill up and to negate it.

These are the doctrines of the atomists. We see that we have reached the extreme limits of these thoughts, for when relation comes into question, we step beyond them. Being and non-being, as something thought, which, when represented for consciousness as differing in regard to one another, are the plenum and the vacuum, have no diversity in themselves; for the plenum has likewise negativity in itself; as independent, it excludes what is different; it is one and infinitely many ones, while the vacuum is not exclusive, but pure continuity. Both these opposites, the one and continuity, being now settled, nothing is easier to imagine than that atoms should float in. existent continuity, now being separated and now united; and thus that their union should be only a superficial relation, or a synthesis that is not determined through the inherent nature of what is united, but in which these self-existent beings really remain separated still. But this is an altogether external relationship; the, purely independent is united to the independent, and thus a mechanical combination alone results. All that is living, spiritual, &c., is then merely thrown together; and change, origination, creation, are simple union.

However highly these principles are to be, esteemed as a forward step, they at once reveal to us their total inadequacy, as is also the case when we enter with them on further concrete determinations. Nevertheless, we need not add what is in great measure added by the conception of a later date, that once upon a time, there was a chaos, a void filled with atoms, which afterwards became united and orderly, and that the world thereby arose; it is now and ever that what implicitly exists is the plenum and the vacuum. The satisfying point of view which natural science found in such thoughts, is just the simple fact that in these the existent is in its antithesis as what is thought and what is opposed to thought, and is hereby what exists in and for itself. The Atomists are therefore, generally speaking, opposed to the idea of the creation and maintenance of this world by means of a foreign principle. It is in the theory of atoms that science first feels released from the sense of having no foundation for the world. For if nature is represented as created and held together by another, it is conceived of as not existent in itself, and thus as having its Notion outside itself, i.e. its principle or origin is foreign to it and it has no principle as such, only being conceivable from the will of another; as it is, it is contingent, devoid of necessity and Notion in itself. In the conception of the atomist, however, we have the conception of the inherency of nature, that is to say, thought finds itself in it, or its principle is in itself something thought, and the Notion finds its satisfaction in conceiving and establishing it as Notion. In abstract existence, nature has its ground in itself and is simply for itself ; the atom and the vacuum are just such simple Notions. But we cannot here see or find more than the formal fact that quite general and simple principles, the antithesis between the one and continuity, are represented.

If we proceed from a wider, richer point of view in nature, and demand that from the atomic theory, it, too, must be made comprehensible, the satisfaction at once disappears and we see the impossibility of getting any further. Hence we must get beyond these pure thoughts of continuity and discontinuity. For these negations, the units, are not in and for themselves; the atoms are indivisible and like themselves, or their principle is made pure continuity, so that they may be said to come directly into one clump. The conception certainly keeps them separate and gives them a sensuously represented Being ; but if they are alike, they are, as pure continuity, the same as what is empty. But that which is, is concrete and determined. How then can diversity be conceived of from these principles? Whence comes the determinate character of plants, colour, form? The point is, that though these atoms as small particles may be allowed to subsist as independent, their union becomes merely a combination which is altogether external and accidental. The determinate difference is missed; the one, as that which is for itself, loses all its determinateness. If various matters, electrical, magnetic and luminous, are assumed, and, at the same time, a mechanical shifting about of molecules, on the one hand unity is quite disregarded, and, on the other, no rational word is uttered in regard to the transition of phenomena, but only what is tautological.

Since Leucippus and Democritus wished to go further, the necessity of a more definite distinction than this superficial one of union and separation was introduced, and they sought to bring this about by ascribing diversity to atoms, and, indeed, by making their diversity infinite. Aristotle (Met. 1. 4) says: “This diversity they sought to determine in three ways. They say that atoms differ in figure, as A does from N ; in order” (place) “as AN from NA; in position” — as to whether they stand upright or lie — “as Z from N. From these all other differences must come.” We see that figure, order and posture are again external relationships, indifferent determinations, i.e. unessential relations which do not affect the nature of the thing in itself nor its immanent determinateness, for their unity is only in another. Taken on its own account, this difference is indeed inconsistent, for as the entirely simple one, the atoms are perfectly alike, and thus any such diversity cannot come into question.

We here have an endeavour to lead the sensuous back into few determinations. Aristotle (De gen. et corr. I. 8) says in this connection of Leucippus: “He wished to bring the conception of the phenomenal and sensuous perception nearer, and thereby represented movement, origination and decease, as existent in themselves.” In this we see no more than that actuality from him receives its rights, while others speak only of deception. But when Leucippus in the end represents the atom as also fashioned in itself, he brings existence certainly so much nearer to sensuous perception, but not to the Notion ; we must, indeed, go on to fashioning, but so far we are still a long way off from the determination of continuity and discretion. Aristotle (De sensu, 4) therefore says: “Democritus, and most of the other ancient philosophers are, when they speak of what is sensuous, very awkward, because they wish to make all that is felt into something tangible ; they reduce everything to what is evident to the sense of touch, black being rough, and white smooth.” All sensuous qualities are thus only led back to form, to the various ways of uniting molecules which make any particular thing capable of being tasted or smelt; and this endeavour is one which is also made by the atomists of modern times. The French particularly, from Descartes onward, stand in this category. It is the instinct of reason to understand the phenomenal and the perceptible, only the way is false; it is a quite unmeaning, undetermined universality. Since figure, order, posture and form, constitute the only determination of what is in itself, nothing is said as to how these moments are experienced as colour, and indeed variety of colour, &c. ; the transition to other than mechanical determinations is not made, or it shows itself to be shallow and barren.

How it was that Leucippus, from these poor principles of atoms and of the vacuum, which he never got beyond, because he took them to be the absolute, hazarded a construction of the whole world (which may appear to us as strange as it is empty), Diogenes Laertius tells us (IX. 31-33) in an account which seems meaningless enough. But the nature of the subject allows of little better, and we can do no more than observe from it the barrenness of this conception. It runs thus: “Atoms, divergent in form, propel themselves through their separation from the infinite, into the great vacuum.” (Democritus adds to this, “by means of their mutual resistance (antitupia) and a tremulous, swinging motion (palmoς) “Here gathered, they form one vortex (dinhn) where, by dashing together and revolving round in all sorts of ways, the like are separated off with the like. But since they are of equal weight, when they cannot, on account of their number, move in any way, the finer go into outer vacuum, being so to speak forced out; and the others remain together and, being entangled, run one against another, and form the first round system. But this stands apart like a husk that holds within it all sorts of bodies; since these, in pressing towards the middle, make a vortex movement, this encircling skin becomes thin, because from the action of the vortex, they are continually running together. The earth arises in this way, because these bodies, collected in the middle, remain together. That which encircles and which is like a husk, again becomes increased by means of the adherence of external bodies, and since it also moves within the vortex, it draws everything with which it comes in contact to itself. The union of some of these bodies again forms a system, first the moist and slimy, and then the dry, and that which circles in the vortex of the whole ; after that, being ignited, they constitute the substance of the stars. The outer circle is the sun, the inner the moon,” &c. This is an empty representation.. there is no interest in these dry, confused ideas of circle-motion, and of what is later on called attraction and repulsion, beyond the fact that the different kinds of motion are looked at as the principle of matter.

c. Finally Aristotle relates (Do anim. I. 2) that in regard to the soul, Leucippus and Democritus said that “it is spherical atoms.” We find further from Plutarch (Do plac. phil. IV. 8) that Democritus applied himself to the relation borne by consciousness to the explanation, amongst other things, of the origin of feelings, because with him, the conceptions that from things the surfaces, so to speak, free themselves, and fly into the eyes, ears, &c., first began. We see that, thus far, Democritus expressed the difference between the moments of implicit Being and Being-for-another more distinctly. For he said, as Sextus tells us (adv. Math. VII. 135): “Warmth exists according to opinion (nomw), and so do cold and colour, sweet and bitter: only the indivisible and void are truthful.” That is to say, only the void and indivisible and their determinations are implicit; unessential, different Being, such as warmth, &c., is for another. But by this the way is at once opened up to the false idealism that means to be done with what is objective by bringing it into relation with consciousness, merely saying of it that it is my feeling. Thereby sensuous individuality is, indeed, annulled in the form of Being, but it still remains the same sensuous manifold; a sensuously notionless manifold of feeling is established, in which there is no reason, and with which this idealism has no further concern.

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