When the mob accused Democritus of being insane

When the mob accused Democritus of being insane

Democritus, known in antiquity as the ‘laughing philosopher’ because of his emphasis on the value of ‘cheerfulness,’ was one of the two founders of ancient atomist theory. He elaborated a system originated by his teacher Leucippus into a materialist account of the natural world. The atomists held that there are smallest indivisible bodies from which everything else is composed, and that these move about in an infinite void. Of the ancient materialist accounts of the natural world which did not rely on some kind of teleology or purpose to account for the apparent order and regularity found in the world, atomism was the most influential. Even its chief critic, Aristotle, praised Democritus for arguing from sound considerations appropriate to natural philosophy.

Democritus was laughing at everything because he believed laughter could lighten the burdens of life and help us find joy even in difficult situations. Humour can provide a fresh perspective and allow us to approach life with a lightheartedness that brings happiness.

He recognised the transformative effects of humour, as it alleviates stress, strengthens social bonds, and deepens our understanding of the world.

In an era of introspection and contemplation, Democritus emerged as a beacon of lightheartedness and joy, offering valuable lessons on navigating the complexities of existence with a smile.

But the people in Avdera misunderstood the behavior of Democritus and accused him of being crazy. 
From Jean de la Fontaine we learn the following story :


(Book VIII—No. 26)

How I have always hated the opinions of the mob! To me, a mob seems profane, unjust, and rash, putting false construction on all things, and judging every matter by a mob-made standard.

Democritus had experience of this. His countrymen thought him mad. Little minds! But then, no one is a prophet in his own country! The people themselves were mad, of course, and Democritus was the wise man. Nevertheless the error went so far that the city of Abdera sent a messenger to the great physician Hippocrates, requesting him both by letter and by spoken word to come and restore the sage’s reason.

“Our citizen,” said the spokesman with tears in his eyes, “has lost his wits, alas! Study has corrupted Democritus. If he were less wise we should esteem him much more. He will have it that there is no limit to the number of worlds like ours and that possibly they are inhabited with numberless Democrituses. Not satisfied with these wild dreams, he talks also of atoms—phantoms born only in his own empty brain. Then, measuring the very heavens, though he remains here below to do it, he claims to know the universe; yet admits that he does not know himself. Time was when he could control debates, now he mutters only to himself. So come, thou divine mortal, for the patient’s case is a bad one.”

Hippocrates, though he had little faith in these people, went nevertheless. Now mark, I beg of you, what strange meetings fate may bring about in this life! Hippocrates arrived just at the time when this man, who was supposed to have neither sense nor reason, happened to be searching into a question as to whether this very reason was seated in the heart or in the head of men and beasts.

Sitting in leafy shade, beside a brook, and with many a volume at his feet, he was occupied wholly with a study of the convolutions of the brain; and thus absorbed, as his manner was, he scarcely noticed the advance of his friend the learned physician. Their greeting was soon over as you may imagine, for the sage is at all times chary of time and speech. So having put aside mere trifles of conversation, they reasoned upon man and his mind, and next fell to talking upon ethics.
Hippocrates after meeting with Democritus he said to the citizens of Avdira, that Democritus was his teacher and he was healthy and sound more than many other people in Avdera.

It is not necessary that I should here enlarge upon what each had to say to the other on these matters.


1. plato.stanford.edu
2. medium.com
3. wikisource.org
4. novoscriptorium.com

IMAGE : Paul Rubens – Democritus, the Laughing Philosopher (1636-1638)



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