What’s so funny, Democritus?
Democritus is primarily remembered for theorizing that all matter consists of particles called atoms, and this stunning quote: “Nothing exists except atoms and space, everything else is opinion.”
The Short History of the Atom wiki summarizes Democritus’ theory nicely:
- All matter consists of invisible particles called atoms.
- Atoms are indestructible.
- Atoms are solid but invisible.
- Atoms are homogenous.
- Atoms differ in size, shape, mass, position, and arrangement.
Prescient, yes, but it didn’t give much material for artists to work with. Luckily, Democritus was also known as “the laughing philosopher.” As classicist Mary Beard explains in Confronting the Classics,
The most revealing ancient discussion of Democritus’ laughing habit is found in an epistolary novel of Roman date, included among the so-called Letters of Hippocrates – a collection ascribed to the legendary founding father of Greek medicine, but in fact written centuries after his death. The fictional exchanges in this novel tell the story of Hippocrates’ encounter with Democritus. In the philosopher’s home city, his compatriots had become concerned at the way he laughed at everything he came across (from funerals to political success) and concluded that he must be mad. So they summoned the most famous doctor in the world to cure him. When Hippocrates arrived, however, he soon discovered that Democritus was saner than his fellow citizens. For he alone had recognised the absurdity of human existence, and was therefore entirely justified in laughing at it.
If this gallery of portraits of Democritus doesn’t bring a smile to your face, try doing a search in the Artstor Digital Library for Heraclitus.