Democritus, Jr.

In an earlier post I mentioned the motif of Democritus as the laughing philosopher and Heraclitus as the weeping philosopher. Reading about the melancholy English poetry of the 18th century I was reminded of Robert Burton’s use of Democritus in Anatomy of Melancholy (published in 1621). Burton, a Democritus fan, wrote his work under the pseudonym Democritus, Jr. However, he sees Democritus as melancholic rather than mirthful (though he does note that Democritus “laugh[s] heartily at such variety of ridiculous objects” he sees in town). So, perhaps, melancholy AND mirthful.

Here’s Burton’s description of Democritus, lightly edited for readability.

“Democritus, as he is described by Hippocrates and Laertius, was a little wearish old man, very melancholy by nature, averse from company in his latter days, and much given to solitariness, a famous philosopher in his age, coaevus [contemporary] with Socrates, wholly addicted to his studies at the last, and to a private life: wrote many excellent works, a great divine, according to the divinity of those times, an expert physician, a politician, an excellent mathematician, as Diacosmus and the rest of his works do witness.

“He was much delighted with the studies of husbandry, saith Columella, and often I find him cited by Constantinus and others treating of that subject. He knew the natures, differences of all beasts, plants, fishes, birds; and, as some say, could understand the tunes and voices of them. In a word, he was omnifariam doctus, a general scholar, a great student; and to the intent he might better contemplate, I find it related by some, that he put out his eyes, and was in his old age voluntarily blind, yet saw more than all Greece besides, and writ of every subject, Nihil in toto opificio naturae, de quo non scripsit [Google translate: There is nothing in the whole work of nature of which he has not written].

“A man of an excellent wit, profound conceit; and to attain knowledge the better in his younger years, he travelled to Egypt and Athens, to confer with learned men, “admired of some, despised of others.” After a wandering life, he settled at Abdera, a town in Thrace, and was sent for thither to be their lawmaker, recorder, or town-clerk, as some will; or as others, he was there bred and born. Howsoever it was, there he lived at last in a garden in the suburbs, wholly betaking himself to his studies and a private life, “saving that sometimes he would walk down to the haven,” “and laugh heartily at such variety of ridiculous objects, which there he saw.”

“Such a one was Democritus.”

Reading this reminds me of a genre of poetry I learned about in my recent reading. The “retirement” poem. These are works yearning for a quiet semi-rural life spent contemplating nature, pursuing scholarly interests, mostly in solitude but with a few good friends nearby. There are many variations of this trope, mostly restating something Martial wrote sometime in the first century CE.

The things that make a life of happiness,
most delightful Martial, are these:
property not produced by labour, but bequeathed;
a field that is not unyielding, a perennial fire;
never a lawsuit, a toga rarely worn, a mind at peace;
the strength of a gentleman, a healthy body;
sensible candour, well-matched friends;
easy company, a table without ornament;
a night not drunken, but free from cares;
a bed not sorrowful, but nevertheless chaste;
sleep, so as to make the night short:
wish to be what you are, and prefer nothing;
do not fear the final day, and do not long for it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.