Democritus

AND THE RETHINKING OF HISTORY

Democritus, or fondly called the Laughing Professor, was the first person to theorize the existence of atoms 400 years before Jesus Christ and a millennia before the invention of algebra:

Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.

A thousand years before the invention of telescope and microscope, Democritus vividly imagined that all things are composed of tiny matters that are indivisible and indestructible. These atoms, in Democritus’ mind, are pointy and sharp if it is salty, slippery if it’s liquid, airy and whirling if it’s air atoms, and have hooks and barbs that govern the interaction between each atom.

Democritus’ line of thought was ‘easy’ (too easy, even), clear, reasonable and practical (to the point that, in some sense, humorous), without spiritual fringes akin to Plato’s line of thought who believes that the physical world mirrors the godly world. It’s no wonder that Plato hated Democritus’ ideas so much that he required the burning of all his books. And perhaps hence, the beginning of our dismissal to Democritus’ sensibilities in thinking.

Fast-forward to our time, during Carl Sagan’s chat in the Gifford Lectures in 1985, in the midst of dissecting the distinction between religious-oriented thinking versus that of scientific, he continued:

Democritus was an atomist. You will not exceed me in your admiration for Democritus. And were the vision of Democritus to have been adopted by Western civilization, instead of being cast aside for the pale views of Plato and Aristotle, we would be vastly further ahead today, in my personal view.

His last statement struck me as something unusual since for many years, we’ve been fed to believe that we owe so much of our wisdom and life principles from Plato’s and Aristotle’s revolutionary writings. So it’s funny to hear Carl Sagan essentially telling us to peel off these sticky concepts on this history of thinking.

This led me into thinking that the best ideas don’t always survive. Fifteen thousand years before Copernicus formulated the heliocentric notion, Aristarchus said the same thing. He was persecuted for his belief. This absolute fact of knowledge flourished only 15,000 years too late.

Sometimes these ideas don’t come late, they are forever abolished. The great Library of Alexandria—probably the first center of interdisciplinary studies, where Aristarchus learned that the Earth revolves around the sun and Euclid laid the foundation of geometry—mysteriously ‘disappeared’, eroded by time, which led some historians to believe it was caught in a massive fire, either by accident or intentional.

We’d like to adopt the mindset that our present world is the best possible world; that just like natural selections’ survival of the fittest, the ideas we inherit from our predecessors are the “best” products that have evolved over time and survived through tragedies; that they are fixed, immutable, and no other scenarios will fit perfectly in this world.

Yet the real tragedy is the fire that consumed tens of thousands of scrolls in the Library of Alexandria, permanently set us back years in thinking.

It still rings in my mind what kind of possibly different world had we adopted the lines of thought of Democritus and not Plato. But more importantly, It illuminates the different alternatives and possibilities of thinking that we can now roam into, knowing that the present understanding of our world right now, too, is rooted in very particular choices made by very few influential people, such as Plato and Aristotle and its small followers of academics.

We can’t go back and change history, but it’s nice to ponder on the alternatives. Would our worldview will be different had we build it on different foundations of logic? Will computers be different? Would our understanding of science and our sense of self will be different? Is there only one natural course of life, stretching from the past to the future in a straight line and other alternatives will just get narrower and eventually shrink, disappear? Not sure. But it’s a nice rumination to have to sober up from this seemingly unshakeable historical narrative that shape how we live and behave in our present time. In Maria Popova’s term, “we are the world.” And at this time of immense opportunity, I think we ought to take that chance to revisit and re-understand history to understand ourselves, too.

It’s hard to even begin to understand the different possibilities and the vastness of the outcome. But in Maria Popova’s term we are how the world looks” and at this time wih immense opportunity to revisit and re-understand history, I think it’s only wise to take this chance to swift through what narrative is given and what we can make out of it. But it’s a nice rumination to have to sober up from this seemingly unshakeable historical narrative that shape how we live and behave in our present time.

 —
P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase.

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