Art of Living

The secret of good life by the “Laughing Philosopher”


What is the most important thing in life, the one thing that deserves to be pursued at all costs? Could it be just cheerfulness?

Is it maybe love, success, wealth, family, fame? Everyone might answer this question differently as of course the most important thing can mean something else for all of us individually. But could there be one thing that suits anyone?

That’s what the philosopher and scientist Democritus claimed, who lived c.460-370 BCE. You might have heard of him for his atomic theory which was a very innovative theory for his time. However, Democritus was not solely interested in the particles of matter. Democritus’ reply to our initial question is “cheerfulness” (euthymia); he names cheerfulness to be the highest good of all.

First of all, as we all know, you can’t do work, get entertained, or achieve anything in your life, if you have been overrun by stress. It is also known that stress is the result of worry. If you’re too poor, you worry and get stressed trying to make ends meet. But even if you have all the goods of the world, you might fall into the trap of greediness and again, you’ll be worrying you might lose your possessions. People who are very famous, worry everyday they might lose their status of fame and get stressed whenever someone more talented or capable appears, fearing he might “dethrone” them. In both cases, cheerfulness is nowhere to be found in the human soul. Therefore it is to wonder, how can this peaceful state of inner balance be reached?

Whatever you do, do it in moderation! Enjoy food, love, wealth and anything you can acquire, but never forget that exaggeration in anything will agitate your inner balance. This view was also supported by Plato and Aristotle, in opposite to some other philosophers who proposed the extremes of unrestrained hedonism or the ascetic life without pleasures. Democritus says it’s only the cheerful, and thereby happy, soul which can preserve moderation. But how can you know you’ve gone too far past moderation? ”When someone feels extreme tension or worry, it means he has lost moderation and he has reached exaggeration”, Democritus says. So, if you have so many unfulfilled desires that you lose your sleep over them, or if you find yourself to be in constant frustration and anxiety, try to limit your wishes and start enjoying more the things you already have.

If you manage to reduce unnecessary excitements and if you control yourself in situations of excessive joy or pain, you train yourself to adapt to real circumstances. Pain and sorrow will come for all at some point in our life; instead of wondering “why did this have to happen to me?”, it’s best to use all the help we can get to deal with it. And at times when great joy comes, let’s not exaggerate as if this would last forever. Because when conditions change again, it will be very difficult to cope with this change. It is not possible to adjust reality to our expectations, but we can take chance into our own hands, Democritus says:

Men have made an idol of Chance as an excuse for their own incompetence; for chance disrupts planning a little, but intelligent foresight straightens out most problems in life”.

Certainly, each person will have to deal with different problems and the path to adapt to reality will be much harder for some. The point for each person individually is to achieve the best possible balance given his own circumstances and this way to avoid allowing his happiness to become prey to external factors. Because if one does that, yet another problem will be added on top: he will lose his freedom.

Democritus reasoning is powerful and convincing. Mostly and first of all, one should be after this cheerfulness, this pleasant and stable state of the soul which helps to face circumstances with detailed caution, to control his reactions when situations change, to feel joy and sorrow in moderation, to be the master of himself, and therefore, to be a free man knowing at any given time how to act and why.

Democritus himself seems to have benefited by this method a lot. The “laughing philosopher”, as they called him, surprised the world with his knowledge of mathematics, geometry, astronomy, history and what else not, but still managed to keep his mind free of any religious or political entrapment. He travelled to all the great cities of Asia Minor, he also travelled to Athens of course, he founded a very important academy in his home city Abdera in Thrace, he wrote 70 works (unfortunately, only a few parts of those are extant) and he lived for a hundred years!



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