To not confuse Democritus and Pseudo-Democritus (who lived some 600 years apart) we break down the difference between the two and go into the works of Pseudo-Democritus, a 2nd century Alchemist.
Here’s our podcast on him:
To talk about Pseudo-Democritus, let’s first discuss Democritus, so that you can easily tell the difference when you hear the name in the future.
Democritus (not Pseudo-Democritus) was from Abdera in Thrace, an Ionian colony of Teos (modern day Turkey) although some called him a Milesian (like many Philsophers) He was born in the 80th Olympiad (460–457 BC) according to Apollodorus of Athens.
So a pre-Socratic philosopher, if you’re keeping track.
Democritus was a philosoper and a student of Leucippus who came up with the idea of atoms… that everything is made up of tiny indestructible, uhm, things. I want to say “elements” because that’s what we would call them, but “atoms” and “elements” were very different to ancient greeks.
One might think that discussing the guy who came up with the concept of atoms might be significant to the history of chemistry, and therefore alchemy; but their concept of “Atomic Theory” and the modern atomic theory is very different, and only superficially uses some of the same terminology.
As mentioned he didn’t come up with atoms as a part of molecules and chemical reactions. It was more of a thought experiment to refute previous philosophers saying that motion was impossible. This is a side bar and not really pertinent, so I don’t want to get into it too much, but for the curious:
Before Democrus philosophers argued you could cut something in infinite parts, as in, you can cut the object in half infinity times. Likewise, to cross a room you first need to cross half the room, and to do that you first need to cross half of the half, but before that you need to cross an eighth of the room, ad infinitum.
But eventually one would argue that because of that, movement was actually impossible, you can’t cross an infinite points. Democritus said cutting the object would eventually get you to the atomic level.. at which point you can no longer cut. This avoids the idea that something has infinite slices, which must not be true.
I’m not going to talk about Democritus much, and this is just so you get a handle on who Pseudo Democritus was not. For now I just want to point out a few things:
It was said that Democritus’ father was so wealthy that he received Xerxes on his march through Abdera.
He traveled to Asia, and was even said to have reached India and Ethiopia.
His philosophy was based on materialism and mechanistic.
We know that he wrote on Babylon and Meroe; he visited Egypt, maybe even living there for 5 years.
During his travels, according to Diogenes Laërtius, he became acquainted with the Chaldean magi. “Ostanes” (who we’ve also done a show on)
Diogenes Laertius says that he was friends with Hippocrates
Plato hated him so much he wanted his books burned.
Pliny the elder deplored him as a student of Ostanes and magic.
Other legends and anecdotes about him:
- attest to his disinterest, modesty, and simplicity, and show that he lived exclusively for his studies.
- Domacritus deliberately blinded himself in order to be less disturbed in his pursuits – in fact he may have just lost his sight in old age.
- He was cheerful, and was always ready to see the comical side of life, which later writers took to mean that he always laughed at the foolishness of people. Popularly known as the Laughing Philosopher (for laughing at human follies), the terms Abderitan laughter, which means scoffing, incessant laughter, and Abderite, which means a scoffer, are derived from Democritus. To his fellow citizens he was also known as “The Mocker”.
Some people liked him because of his seeming prophetic abilities; which may refer to his knowledge of natural phenomena.
Some sources have his him living to 90, which would put his death around 370 BC, but other writers have him living to 104, or even 109.
In contrast Pseudo-Democritus was an alchemist mentioned by Zosimos of Panopolis.. I just wanted to avoid confusion.
Pseudo-Democritus was a 2nd-century AD Greek philosopher, and the second most respected writer on alchemy (after Hermes Trismegistus). Two of his works survive, Physical and Mystical Matters, and Book addressed to Leukippos. He wrote many other books that are quoted extensively by Zosimos of Panopolis. He is mentioned in the Stockholm papyrus.
Physical and Mystical Matters describes “An art, purporting to relate to the transmutation of metals, and described in a terminology at once Physical and Mystical”, branding him as an alchemist for all time and provides straightforward recipes for making imitation gold and silver (alloys).
He describes how to make metals appear gold:
whiten copper by using arsenic and then gold powder
silver sulphide with lead sulphide turns gold
copper pyrite with salt and silver or gold
alloy of tin & lead etc with sulphur or arsenic on gold
silver or bronze with an amalgum of iron
whiten copper, then yellow it with the bile of a calf
silver with sulfur
copper and lead
copper & silver with sulphate of iron
using wine and rhubarb to varnish silver to look like gold
or crocus flower
or varnish lead from dirt from chios (aegean island)
how to “make” silver
same sort of thing as above
So Democritus was a pre-socratic philosopher, Pseudo-Democritus was an alchemist some 700 years later that wrote using the same name. The reason we know less about him is because all we have are quotes by Zosimos, who lived some 100 years later.