Greek-American Stories: Infinity

January 2, 2019
Phyllis “Kiki” Sembos

Did you ever look up at the sky and wonder where space ends? Well, if you did you’re not alone. A fellow Greek named Democritus (494-404 BC) often did. He was born in a place called Abdera, a Greek city in the northern coast of the Aegean Sea. He lived to a very ripe old age, past 90. He believed all matter was composed of tiny atoms that are infinite in number, that the universe is composed of two elements: the atoms and the void in which they exist and move. He learned that theory from Leucippus, who wrote a book called, ‘Big Cosmology’, whose works have vanished. But, Democritus’ theory remains the foundation of modern science. His view on his theories was, “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space, everything else is opinion.”

Only Archimedes, a most brilliant mathematician, gave Democritus credit for the theory that space is infinite. In opposition to Socrates’ belief that we have a soul that survives death, Democritus believed there is no creator God, that there is no soul, and that those religious beliefs were developed from superstition and fear of the unknown by primitive man. He believed that we should live without excessive indulgences and should be engaged in beneficial activities like volunteering and caring for one another. He sought to lessen pain by being cheerful, having a calm and steady mind. Yet, he didn’t believe that one should repose comfortably in a chair and watch the world go by. One should, he said, be attentive to the art of politics as of upmost importance so that government is, rightfully, of the people, by the people and for the people, just as the first founding fathers of the U.S. Constitution had written.

He said, ‘He who is restrained by strict law from wrongdoing is more likely to commit a crime. But he who is attracted to uprightness by persuasion and self pride is less likely to transgress either secretly or openly.” In other words, one should learn to govern themselves and have the ability to make sensible decisions that are fair to themselves and others.

During his lifetime, he wrote many books, among them, ‘Little Cosmology’. But, they’ve vanished, mainly due to the objections of philosopher, Plato, whose decisions influenced what works should be preserved. Plato was so dedicated to Socrates’ beliefs that it is no wonder he opposed Democritus’ conceptions that there is no soul or an afterlife. Yet, some conceptions of his writings may be obtained from Aristotle who summarized and gave some credit to the authors of principal doctrines. But, he conceded, ‘unfortunately, there is no concrete proof’.

For Democritus, space was infinite in extent, the atoms were infinite in number, and that the total quantity of matter in the universe remained constant.

Democritus said, “Time was uncreated.”  He also, said, “Nothing occurs at random but everything happens for a reason and by necessity.” All his beliefs were so controversial that it is no wonder credit to him has disappeared. He stated that everything else is just opinion, so too, his own concepts are deemed just opinion by many. But, freedom of thought, respect for individual beliefs, provided they do no harm, should be allowed without the fear of reverberation.

It overwhelms the mind when we think about the vast truths and thoughts the ancient Greeks contributed to the world – a world when northern Europeans believed the earth was flat, that demons lurked under the seas, that cleanliness was excessive, that a king and God had inarguable rights toward declarations of war and power over human life.

We can only wonder how the world would have been had peace been prevalent and rulers been more reasonable with less conceit and greed.  Unfortunately, we cower when power is given to people who cannot be trusted to protect us, in whatever position he controls.  I, truly, believe that there are Greek minds that can still contribute, can solve complex problems, that can change the direction of the earth, as Archimedes once said, ‘Give me a stanchion and I could tilt the earth’, if given the freedom and space – the space that Democritus believed to be infinite.



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