, The Young Rembrandt as Democritus the Laughing Philosopher (1628–29)
Democritus was said to be born in the city of Abdera in Thrace, an Ionian colony of Teos, although some called him a Milesian.
He was born in the 80th Olympiad (460–457 BC) according to Apollodorus of Athens, and although Thrasyllus placed his birth in 470 BC, the later date is probably more likely.
John Burnet has argued that the date of 460 is "too early" since, according to Diogenes Laërtius ix.41, Democritus said that he was a "young man (neos)" during Anaxagoras's old age (c.440–428).
It was said that Democritus's father was from a noble family and so wealthy that he received Xerxes on his march through Abdera. Democritus spent the inheritance which his father left him on travels into distant countries, to satisfy his thirst for knowledge. He traveled to Asia, and was even said to have reached India and Ethiopia.
It is known that he wrote on Babylon and Meroe; he visited Egypt, and Diodorus Siculus states that he lived there for five years. He himself declared that among his contemporaries none had made greater journeys, seen more countries, and met more scholars than himself. He particularly mentions the Egyptian mathematicians, whose knowledge he praises. Theophrastus, too, spoke of him as a man who had seen many countries.
During his travels, according to Diogenes Laërtius, he became acquainted with the Chaldean magi. "Ostanes", one of the magi accompanying Xerxes, was also said to have taught him.
After returning to his native land he occupied himself with natural philosophy. He traveled throughout Greece to acquire a better knowledge of its cultures. He mentions many Greek philosophers in his writings, and his wealth enabled him to purchase their writings. Leucippus, the founder of atomism, was the greatest influence upon him. He also praises Anaxagoras. Diogenes Laertius says that he was friends with Hippocrates.
He may have been acquainted with Socrates, but Plato does not mention him and Democritus himself is quoted as saying, "I came to Athens and no one knew me." Aristotle placed him among the pre-Socratic natural philosophers.
The many anecdotes about Democritus, especially in Diogenes Laërtius, attest to his disinterest, modesty, and simplicity, and show that he lived exclusively for his studies. One story has him deliberately blinding himself in order to be less disturbed in his pursuits; it may well be true that he 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.
He was highly esteemed by his fellow citizens, because as Diogenes Laërtius says, "he had foretold them some things which events proved to be true," which may refer to his knowledge of natural phenomena. According to Diodorus Siculus,
Democritus died at the age of 90, which would put his death around 370 BC, but other writers have him living to 104, or even 109.
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".