Democritus

Democritus

Crane up with open eyes to peer at grey, greyer, greyest skies. But the most I see on a bright day is just how dark everything else appears.

Certain times I want to shout out with Charlie Baudelaire, ‘it’s time to get drunk. With wine, with poetry, with virtue, as you please … but get drunk.’ But then I have had my fill of people who tirelessly pursued this goal, anywhere out of this world (using one of these, anyway). Certain times I want to change them, like wanting to change everything else. I think of endless large halls of people toiling away at the reformation of others, satisfying at least the need for toil. Each one boring the man or woman next to them with statements of self-love, row after row of the same, decade after decade in succession. Why was the first…? Certain days you’ve got to travel miles for some fresh air. The countryside’s good for that – there’s no rebranding what they lay thick on the fields. In times like these you may as well learn to laugh, so then no matter how hard the rain’s falling at least you’re the only one looking like they’re having a good time.

There’s no better person to learn from in this respect than Democritus, that ancient atomist and scientist unkindly forgotten, and one particular episode in his life retold by Democritus Junior, aka Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621-51. The original tale comes from an apocryphal letter sent from Hippocrates to Damagetus. I reproduce a long excerpt below, for other daydreamers to take counsel from. I think Democritus is a little harsh on Hippocrates here, but then again, most days I find myself offering up the same platitudes…

‘Heraclitus the philosopher, out of a serious meditation of men’s lives, fell a-weeping, and with continual tears bewailed their misery, madness, and folly. Democritus, on the other side, burst out a-laughing, their whole life seemed to him so ridiculous, and he was so far carried with this ironical passion, that the citizens of Abdera took him to be mad, and sent therefore ambassadors to Hippocrates the physician, that he would exercise his skill upon him.

‘[…] When Hippocrates was now come to Abdera, the people of the city came flocking about him, some entreating of him that he would do his best. After some little repast, he went to see Democritus, the people following him, whom he found (as before) in his garden in the suburbs all alone, “sitting upon a stone under a plane tree, without hose or shoes, with a book on his knees, cutting up several beasts, and busy at his study.” The multitude stood gazing round about to see the congress. Hippocrates, after a little pause, saluted him by his name, whom he resaluted, ashamed almost that he could not call him likewise by his, or that he had forgot it. Hippocrates demanded of him what he was doing: he told him that he was “busy in cutting up several beasts, to find out the cause of madness and melancholy.” Hippocrates commended his work, admiring his happiness and leisure. “And why,” quoth Democritus, “have not you that leisure?” “Because,” replied Hippocrates, “domestical affairs hinder, necessary to be done for ourselves, neighbours, friends; expenses, diseases, frailties and mortalities which happen; wife, children, servants and such businesses which deprive us of our time.” At this speech Democritus profusely laughed (his friends and the people standing by, weeping in the meantime, and lamenting his madness).

Hippocrates asked the reason why he laughed. He told him, “At the vanities and fopperies of the time, to see men so empty of all virtuous actions, to hunt so far after gold, having no end of ambition; to take such infinite pains for a little glory, and to be favoured of men; to make such deep mines into the earth for gold, and many times to find nothing, with loss of their lives and fortunes. Some to love dogs, others horses, some to desire to be obeyed in many provinces, and yet themselves will know no obedience. Some to love their wives dearly at first, and after a while to forsake and to hate them; begetting children, with much care and cost for their education, yet when they grow to man’s estate, to despise, neglect, and leave them naked to the world’s mercy. Do these behaviours express their intolerable folly? When men live in peace, they covet war, detesting quietness, deposing kinds, and advancing others in their stead, murdering some men to beget children of their wives. How many strange humours are in men! When they are poor and needy, they seek riches, and when they have them, they do not enjoy them, but hide them underground, or else wastefully spend them.

‘O wise Hippocrates, I laugh at such things being done, but much more when no good comes of them, and when they are done to so ill purpose. There is no truth or justice found amongst them, for they daily plead one against another, the son against the father and the mother, brother against brother, kindred and friends of the same quality; and all this for riches, whereof after death they cannot be possessors. And yet, notwithstanding, they will defame and kill one another, commit all unlawful actions, contemning God and men, friends and country. They make great account of many senseless things, esteeming them as a great part of their treasure, statues, pictures, and such-like movables, dear-bought and so cunningly wrought, as nothing but speech wanteth in them, and yet they hate living persons speaking to them. Others affect difficult things; if they dwell on firm land they will remove to an island, and thence to land again, being no way constant to their desires. They commend courage and strength in wars, and let themselves be conquered by lust and avarice; they are, in brief, as disordered in their minds as Thersites was in his body.

And now, methinks, O most worthy Hippocrates, you should not reprehend my laughing, perceiving so many fooleries in men; for no man will mock his own folly, but that which he seeth in a second, and so they justly mock one another. The drunkard calls him a glutton whom he knows to be sober. Many men love the sea, others husbandry; briefly, they cannot agree in their own trades and professions, much less in their lives and actions.”

When Hippocrates heard these words so readily uttered, without premeditation, to declare the world’s vanity, full of ridiculous contrariety, he made answer, “That necessity compelled men to many such actions, and divers wills ensuing from divine permission, that we might not be idle, being nothing is so odious to them as sloth and negligence. Besides, men cannot foresee future events, in this uncertainty of human affairs; they would not so marry, if they could foretell the causes of their dislike and separation; or parents, if they knew the hour of their children’s death, so tenderly provide for them; or an husbandman sow, if he thought there would be no increase; or a merchant adventure to sea, if he foresaw shipwreck; or be a magistrate, if presently to be deposed. Alas, worthy Democritus, every man hopes the best, and to that end he doth it, and therefore no such cause, or ridiculous occasion, of laughter.”

Democritus, hearing this poor excuse, laughed again aloud’…

[Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson (New York: New York Review of Books), pp. 47-49]

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