VII. GREEK SCIENCE IN THE EARLY ATTIC PERIOD
The monistic conception towards which twentieth- century chemistry seems to be carrying us may perhaps show that all the so-called atoms are compounded of a single element. All the true atoms making up that element may then properly be said to have the same quality, but none the less will it remain true that the combinations of that element that go to make up the different Daltonian atoms differ from one another in quality in precisely the same sense in which such tangible substances as gold, and oxygen, and mercury, and diamonds differ from one another. In the last analysis of the monistic philosophy, there is but one substance and one quality in the universe. In the widest view of that philosophy, gold and oxygen and mercury and diamonds are one substance, and, if you please, one quality. But such refinements of analysis as this are for the transcendental philosopher, and not for the scientist. Whatever the allurement of such reasoning, we must for the purpose of science let words have a specific meaning, nor must we let a mere word-jugglery blind us to the evidence of facts. That was the rock on which Greek science foundered; it is the rock which the modern helmsman sometimes finds it difficult to avoid. And if we mistake not, this case of the atom of Democritus is precisely a case in point. Because Democritus said that his atoms did not differ in quality, the modern philosopher has seen in his theory the essentials of monism; has discovered in it not merely a forecast of the chemistry of the nineteenth century, but a forecast of the hypothetical chemistry of the future. And, on the other hand, because Anaxagoras predicted a different quality for his primordial elements, the philosopher of our day has discredited the primordial element of Anaxagoras.
Yet if our analysis does not lead us astray, the theory of Democritus was not truly monistic; his indestructible atoms, differing from one another in size and shape, utterly incapable of being changed from the form which they had maintained from the beginning, were in reality as truly and primordially different as are the primordial elements of Anaxagoras. In other words, the atom of Democritus is nothing less than the primordial seed of Anaxagoras, a little more tangibly visualized and given a distinctive name. Anaxagoras explicitly conceived his elements as invisibly small, as infinite in number, and as made up of an indefinite number of kinds—one for each distinctive substance in the world. But precisely the same postulates are made of the atom of Democritus. These also are invisibly small; these also are infinite in number; these also are made up of an indefinite number of kinds, corresponding with the observed difference of substances in the world. "Primitive seeds," or "atoms," were alike conceived to be primordial, un- changeable, and indestructible. Wherein then lies the difference? We answer, chiefly in a name; almost solely in the fact that Anaxagoras did not attempt to postulate the physical properties of the elements beyond stating that each has a distinctive personality, while Democritus did attempt to postulate these properties. He, too, admitted that each kind of element has its distinctive personality, and he attempted to visualize and describe the characteristics of the personality.
Thus while Anaxagoras tells us nothing of his elements except that they differ from one another, Democritus postulates a difference in size, imagines some elements as heavier and some as lighter, and conceives even that the elements may be provided with projecting hooks, with the aid of which they link themselves one with another. No one to-day takes these crude visualizings seriously as to their details. The sole element of truth which these dreamings contain, as distinguishing them from the dreamings of Anaxagoras, is in the conception that the various atoms differ in size and weight. Here, indeed, is a vague fore-shadowing of that chemistry of form which began to come into prominence towards the close of the nineteenth century. To have forecast even dimly this newest phase of chemical knowledge, across the abyss of centuries, is indeed a feat to put Democritus in the front rank of thinkers. But this estimate should not blind us to the fact that the pre-vision of Democritus was but a slight elaboration of a theory which had its origin with another thinker. The association between Anaxagoras and Democritus cannot be directly traced, but it is an association which the historian of ideas should never for a moment forget. If we are not to be misled by mere word-jugglery, we shall recognize the founder of the atomic theory of matter in Anaxagoras; its expositors along slightly different lines in Leucippus and Democritus; its re-discoverer of the nineteenth century in Dalton. All in all, then, just as Anaxagoras preceded Democritus in time, so must he take precedence over him also as an inductive thinker, who carried the use of the scientific imagination to its farthest reach.