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35 Practical Philosophical Lessons Democritus Has Taught Me

Democritus– one of the best (OG — ‘original gangster’) pre-socratic philosophers:

Why Democritus?

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I like Democritus because he was known as the ‘laughing philosopher’ — he didn’t take himself too seriously, and enjoyed life! He philosophized well, knew much about geometry, ethics, and traveled all around the globe.

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His philosophy is pure, without any spite, envy (unlike Plato, who obviously had a massive ego). It was reported by Diogenes Laertius (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book 9), that Plato (out of envy/jealousy) tried to burn the works of Democritus.

Anyways, Democritus also was one of the first innovators in atomic theory — he essentially understood the concept of atoms before it was proven by modern science (thousands of years laters).

In short, Democritus was a smart mofo.

Anyways, here are some personal lessons that he has taught me — sayings and ideas which have resonated with me:

1. Make a place famous!

Demetrius of Phalerum in his Defence of Socrates affirms that he did not even visit Athens. This is to make the larger claim, namely, that he thought that great city beneath his notice, because he did not care to win fame from a place, but preferred himself to make a place famous

We often desire to live in an interesting city — hoping that an interesting city will make ourselves more interesting.

Better idea:

Go to a boring place, and make it interesting, rather than going to an interesting place, and hoping it will make you interesting!

The benefit is that we can live in a cheaper city or place; and reap the benefits of simple living!

2. Think of new and beautiful thoughts

‘It is godlike ever to think on something beautiful and on something new.’

3. Think and challenge pre-accepted concepts of knowledge

Men should strive to think much and know little.

Spend a lot of your time thinking. For myself, I can think more when I walk more, when I read more philosophy, and when I am less bombarded by outside stimuli. For example, I don’t use/read email, I spend a lot of time walking without headphones or listening to music, and letting myself get bored– to let my mind wander– which allows me to think!

As with knowledge, we should seek to ‘know little’ — because most of the knowledge we know can true to be false (Karl Popper philosophy on discomfirmation in knowledge).

4. We don’t know how to prevent excess

The animal needing something knows how much it needs, the man does not.

An animal has basic needs– some warmth, food, water, and shelter. We silly humans don’t know when we have ‘enough’.

Not knowing when we have “enough” is bad (for our basic needs) — because excess can lead to pain, suffering, and strife.

5. Simple desires

If your desires are not great, a little will seem much to you; for small appetite makes poverty equivalent to wealth.

Small appetites are better (for the basics)– to achieve the feeling of wealth!

6. Excess is bad

The sweetest things become the most bitter by excess.

If you’ve ever had a really bad hangover, eaten wayyy too much at the all-you-can eat buffet, you know how painful excess is.

7. Does education really help us?

Education is an ornament for the prosperous, a refuge for the unfortunate.

Similar to Nassim Taleb’s idea in Antifragile of the following:

We make the sucker mistake of thinking that investing in education makes a country more prosperous; whereas in reality, it is generally the prosperous that invest in education. In other words, prosperity usually comes from outside of academia.

In today’s world, kids who go to expensive Ivy League and private schools is like the equivalent of having a Rolex Watch. And for the unfortunate (like myself when I was a child), education and the public university system was a savior — going to college (UCLA) lifted me out of poverty, and helped me get a job, and helped elevate my social class.

8. Laugh with life!

The person who can laugh with life has developed deep roots with confidence and faith in oneself, in people and in the world, as contrasted to negative ideas with distrust and discouragement.

If you can laugh in life, that means you have confidence and faith in yourself, and with others and the world!

So when in doubt, laugh more!

9. Much learning aint intelligence:

Many much-learned men have no intelligence.

Don’t always trust the ‘experts’ even though they have fancy titles and awards, badges, and diplomas. There are many IYI’s in the world (intellectuals, yet idiots, in the words of Nassim Taleb).

In other words:

Always be skeptical of the ideas, thoughts, and knowledge of others– especially from the experts.

10. Deeds are more important than words

‘The word is the shadow of the deed.’

First act, then talk.

Your actions will have more weight and importance than just talking!

11. Moderation can actually increase pleasure!

Moderation multiplies pleasures, and increases pleasure.

I can attest to this; when I fast from eating breakfast and lunch, and wait until dinner– dinner tastes at least 20x better!

12. Be magnanimous.

Magnanimity consists in enduring tactlessness with mildness.

Magnanimity is a virtue we should all desire– which means ‘greatness of soul’.

To be magnanimous means to NOT be petty. To let small bullshit slide.

This means when others are tactless against us, we should react mildly.

Another thought by Democritus on anger:

It is hard to fight against anger: to master it is the mark of a rational man.

Recognize it is hard for everyone to fight anger. Seek everyday to be less angry and petty; and you will become a truly rational person!

13. Dig deep

Nature has buried truth deep in the bottom of the sea.

This is what makes life and philosophy fun; we must seek to discover truth — which is hidden and buried from us!

So don’t stop digging for truth, by living your life, experimenting, and studying philosophy– and actually applying what you learn through ACTION!

14. All is convention/opinion:

By convention sweet is sweet, by convention bitter is bitter, by convention hot is hot, by convention color is color. But in reality there are atoms and the void. That is, the objects of sense are supposed to be real and it is customary to regard them as such, but in truth they are not. Only the atoms and the void are real.

Only atoms and the void are real. All the sensory perception we have is by comparison.

If you’re eating an ice cream cone in Siberia in the winter, going into a pool of water that is “cold” is going to feel warm by comparison.

If you’ve lived in Vietnam your entire life, you’re not going to think most places are “hot”. But if you’ve lived in an air conditioned office your entire life, everything will feel “hot” by comparison.

The practical takeaway is this:

Let us judge things for what they are; and not compare, and let us not complain!

After a bitter winter in Berlin and NYC, I never complain about warm weather. Even when I am in the sweltering heat– I tell myself:

Thank god for the warmth — this is still 100x better than freezing to death on the East coast!

15. Create your own universe into yourself:

‘Man is a universe in little [Microcosm]’

To a wise man, the whole earth is open; for the native land of a good soul is the whole earth.

16. Extending your knowledge is the greatest treasure!

No power and no treasure can outweigh the extension of our knowledge.

Extending your knowledge, wisdom, and mind is the greatest joy in life– far more than having power and material treasures!

17. Shape, arrangement, and position

These differences, they say, are three: shape, arrangement, and position; because they hold that what is differs only in contour, inter-contact, inclination.

Interesting concept that can be applied to photography: All photos can be determined by their shape, arrangement, and position. I might write more about this in composition.

Even further– how do shapes and objects differ in their contour, inter-contact and degree-inclination?

18. On communalism

‘In a shared fish, there are no bones.’

Super poetic.

My understanding:

A shared fish (a shared meal) there are no bones– because we will all work together to best consume the first.

So for me, I think the moral is that we should all cooperate together as a society! Of course this saying is open to your interpretation.

19. Don’t desire to wrong others

Virtue isn’t not wronging others, but not wishing to wrong others.

It isn’t enough to refrain from hurting others. The truly wise will seek to NOT EVEN DESIRE to harm others (even if they have wronged you in the past!) #magnanimity

20. Do less

If you would know contentment, let your deeds be few.

Only focus doing on what is meaningful to you! Don’t become a busy-body.

We often fall victim to the ‘planning fallacy’ — thinking we can do more than we actually can!

‘He who intends to enjoy life should not be busy about many things, and in what he does should not undertake what exceeds his natural capacity. On the contrary, he should have himself so in hand that even when fortune comes his way, and is apparently ready to lead him on to higher things, he should put her aside and not overreach his powers. For a being of moderate size is safer than one that bulks too big.

Also another lesson: a moderate/small size is superior to a bulky/too big size! This can apply to the size of businesses, our homes, our stuff, and personal affairs.

21. Practical wisdom

Of practical wisdom these are the three fruits: to deliberate well, to speak to the point, and to do what is right.

Practical wisdom is where it is at. These are good ideas:

  • Deliberate well: To make wise decisions
  • Speak to the point: Get to the point
  • Do what is right: Follow virtue; only do virtuous actions//refrain from petty and un-virtuous actions.

22. Better to suffer a wrong than do a wrong

He who does wrong is more unhappy than he who suffers wrong.

23. Act virtuous; don’t just talk about it!

One should emulate works and deeds of virtue, not arguments about it.

24. Never stop learning:

Neither art nor wisdom may be attained without learning.

We must improve our artwork and wisdom by constantly learning and unlearning the superfluous!

25. Let us fix ourselves before trying to fix others

It is better to correct your own faults than those of another.

Or in other words:

When someone angers you, ask yourself: “Am I also guilty of this wrongful action?” If so, no complaining.

26. Fame and wealth (with wisdom) is good

Fame and wealth without wisdom are unsafe possessions.

Fame and wealth in themselves aren’t bad. With wisdom, fame and wealth can be a huge benefit! We can leverage our fame and wealth to help more people!

27. All you need is one really good friend

The friendship of one wise man is better than the friendship of a host of fools.

Or also,

Better to have one really influential person follow you, than have millions of “un-important” people to follow you.

28. Bad lives don’t exist; only “dying long drawn out”:

An evil and foolish and intemperate and irreligious life should not be called a bad life, but rather, dying long drawn out.

Assuming we will die at around 90-100 years old, to live a “vice-ridden” life isn’t “bad” per-se. Instead, we are just slowly killing ourselves, and only harming ourselves.

29. Please yourself with what you already have!

A sensible man takes pleasure in what he has instead of pining for what he has not.

Seek to maximize the pleasure of the things and the life you already have!

30. How does pleasure work?

The pleasures that give the most joy are the ones that most rarely come.

This is true– relates to ‘hedonic adaptation’. No matter how good something is; we will sooner or later adapt to it, if the pleasure is always constant! For example, let’s say everyday someone bought you a different Lamborghini — you will soon tire of it. Yet, if you were only allowed to eat an In and Out Burger once a year, you would savor that burger so much more than the exotic cars!

31. We have it in our power to control our own health!

Men in their prayers beg the gods for health, not knowing that this is a thing they have in their own power, through their incontinence undermining it, they themselves become, because of their passions, the betrayers of their own health.

We ruin our own health via our lifestyle. All of us can improve our health by the following ‘via negativa’ (subtractive) things:

  • Eliminate sugar/high-fructose corn syrup from your diet
  • Eliminate smoking
  • Eliminate drugs
  • Eliminate simple and starchy foods, simple carbohydrates, etc.

Also by adding the following:

  • Walk more (for fun, not ‘exercise’)
  • Lift more heavy stuff (for fun– deadlifts and chin-ups are my personal favorites)

32. Tranquility

A great piece by Democritus on tranquility and happiness in life:

First, we should be content with the opportunities we already have– and not to envy other men:

One should set his mind upon the things that are within his power, and be content with his opportunities, nor let his memory dwell very long on the envied and admired of men, nor idly sit and dream of them.

Second, to be ‘happier’ in life, let us consider how many more people suffer than us. Comparing ourselves to the less fortunate is more effective than comparing ourselves to the more fortunate (if our goal is to feel more gratitude in life):

Rather, he should contemplate the lives of those who suffer hardship, and vividly bring to mind their sufferings, so that your own present situation may appear to you important and to be envied, and so that it may no longer be your port to suffer torture in your soul by your longing for more.

Third, don’t envy any other man:

For her who admires those who have, and whom other men deem blest of fortune, and who spends all his time idly dreaming of them, will be forced to be always contriving some new device because of his [insatiable] desire, until he ends by doing some desperate deed forbidden by the laws.

Fourth, let us remind ourselves of how blessed we are– every day!

Therefore one ought not to desire other men’s blessings, and one ought not to envy those who have more, but rather, comparing his life with that of those who fare worse, and laying to heart their sufferings, deem himself blest of fortune in that he lives and fares so much better than they. Holding fast to this saying, you will pass your life in greater tranquility and will avert a few of the plagues of life — envy and jealousy and bitterness of the mind.

33. Anti-buffets

All who delight in the pleasures of the belly, exceeding all measure in eating and drinking and love, find that the pleasures are brief and last but a short while — only so long as they are eating and drinking– but the pains that come after are many and endure. The longing for the same things keeps ever returning, and whenever the objects of one’s desire are realized forthwith the pleasure vanishes, and one has no further use for them. The pleasure is brief, and once more the need for the same thing returns.

I love all you can eat Korean BBQ, but I always regret it afterwards.

My saying is the following:

Nothing good is unlimited, and nothing unlimited is good.

34. On the state

We ought to regard the interests of the state as of far greater moment than all else, in order that they may be administered well; and we ought not to engage in eager rivalry in despite of equity, nor arrogate to ourselves any power contrary to the common welfare. For a state well administered is our greatest safeguard. In this all is summed up: When the state is in a healthy condition all things prosper; when it is corrupt, all things go to ruin.

Yes, it is important to have a good state for the citizens to prosper!

35. Soul and reason

[Democritus held] that the soul and reason were the same thing, and that this belonged to the class of primary and indivisible bodies.

Interesting idea– that our ‘soul’ is the same as our rationality.

Thus, to have a better soul; let us seek to be more rational, virtuous, and magnanimous!