The Ethics of Democritus

Russian Studies in Philosophy 26 (1):53-65 (1987)
The interpretation of the theoretical content of the ethics of Democritus, as well as of its place in the history of ethical thought, encounters a special difficulty. Democritus' ethics, which has come down to us in fragments, the authenticity of which is still a matter of debate, is full of evident contradictions. It contains mutually exclusive judgments on questions which were the principal subject matter of the intellectual polemics in ethics in the fifth century B.C. On the one hand, Democritus put forth a rather definite naturalistic-individualistic thesis: "Pleasure and displeasure form the boundary between what is useful and what is harmful." On the other hand, he intellectualizes moral motives and states his belief in the existence of general ethical determinations: "There is one and the same good and one and the same truth for all people, whereas one thing is agreeable to one person, another thing to another." Democritus is just as contradictory on the question of the moral value of the state. We find in him an unambiguous affirmation equating a moral individual with the citizen of a city state: "The interests of the state should be above everything else, and we must see to it that it is well governed. To assist in this, we must not struggle against justice and use force for our own benefit against the general good. For a well-governed state is a mighty bastion: it encompasses all, and as long as it persists, everything is as one, but if it should perish, all perishes with it." Yet at the same time a moral model of actions for him involves emancipation from laws: "He called laws a bad invention and said: "The wise man should not obey the laws, he live freely."
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DOI 10.2753/RSP1061-1967260153
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