The Ethical Maxims of Democritus of Abdera

In David Wolfsdorf (ed.), Early Greek Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 211-242 (2020)
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Democritus of Abdera, best known as a cosmologist and the founder of atomism, wrote more on ethics than anyone before Plato. His work Peri euthumiês (On Contentment) was extremely influential on the later development of teleological and intellectualist ethics, eudaimonism, hedonism, therapeutic ethics, and positive psychology. The loss of his works, however, and the transmission of his fragments in collections of maxims (gnomai), has obscured the extent his contribution to the history of systematic ethics and influence on later philosophy, especially in the Hellenistic age. In this essay I review the evidence basis for Democritus’ ethics, discuss the rhetorical and logical aspects of his maxims, attempt to synthesize the fragments into an overall interpretation, and offer a summary some of the more influential aspects of his ethics.

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Monte Johnson
University of California, San Diego


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