The Laughing Philosophers

Essays > Personalities

Marc states that although they never met, Heraclitus and Democritus are often linked together as the weeping and the laughing philosophers.

Heraclitus (ca.535-475 BCE) was born to a distinguished aristocratic family in Ephesus, Anatolia, in what is now called present-day Efes, near modern-day Selçuk, Turkey. Little is known about his early life and education, but he regarded himself as self-taught and a pioneer of wisdom. From the lonely life he led, and still more from the paradoxical nature of his philosophy and his stress upon the needless unconsciousness of humankind, he was called ‘The Obscure’ and the ‘Weeping Philosopher’. Heraclitus is famous for his insistence on ever-present change in the universe, as stated in the famous saying, “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”  He believed in the unity of opposites, stating that “The path up and down are one and the same,” all existing entities being characterized by pairs of contrary properties.

Diogenes says that Heraclitus used to play knucklebones with the youths in the temple of Artemis and when asked to start making laws for the game he refused, saying that the constitution was fundamentally wrong.

With regard to education, Diogenes says that Heraclitus was “wondrous” from childhood. Diogenes relates that as a boy Heraclitus had said he “knew nothing” but later claimed to “know everything.” His statement that he “heard no one” but “questioned himself,” can be placed alongside his assertion that “The things that can be seen, heard and learned are what I prize the most.”

Heraclitus and Democritus

Democritus (ca.460-370 BCE) was born in the city of Abdera in Thrace. He spent the inheritance which his father left him on travels into distant countries to satisfy his thirst for knowledge. He travelled to Asia, and was even said to have reached India and Ethiopia.

He declared that among his contemporaries none had made greater journeys, seen more countries, and had met more scholars than himself. After returning to his native land he occupied himself with natural philosophy and travelled 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, had the greatest influence upon him. He may have been acquainted with Socrates, but Plato does not mention him and Democritus is quoted as saying, “I came to Athens and no one knew me.”

The many anecdotes about Democritus 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. 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.

The theory of Democritus (and Leucippus) holds that everything is composed of ‘atoms’, which are physically, but not geometrically, indivisible; that between atoms, there lies empty space; that atoms are indestructible; have always been, and always will be, in motion; that there are an infinite number of atoms, and kinds of atoms which differ in shape, and size.

He spent much of his life experimenting with and examining plants and minerals, and wrote at length on many scientific topics. Democritus thought that the first humans lived an anarchic and animal sort of life, going out to forage individually and living off the most palatable herbs and fruit which grew wild on the trees. They were driven together into societies for fear of wild animals, he said. He believed that these early people had no language, but that they gradually began to articulate their expressions, establishing symbols for every sort of object, and in this manner came to understand each other. He says that the earliest men lived laboriously, having none of the utilities of life; clothing, houses, fire, domestication, and farming were unknown to them. Democritus presents the early period of mankind as one of learning by trial and error, and says that each step slowly led to more discoveries; they took refuge in the caves in winter, stored fruits that could be preserved, and through reason and keenness of mind came to build upon each new idea.

Democritus held that the Earth was round, and stated that originally the universe was composed of nothing but tiny atoms churning in chaos, until they collided together to form larger units – including the earth and everything on it. He surmised that there are many worlds, some growing, some decaying; some with no sun or moon, some with several. He held that every world has a beginning and an end, and that a world could be destroyed by collision with another world.

Essay by Marc

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