January 10, 2011
Ed. Note – I read a wikipedia article about the first person on record who ever died laughing, Chrysippus. This is his story.
The feast had entered into its 5th hour. The outdoor portico of the Platonic Academy in Athens was awash in revelers. Scholars, students, and scoundrels alike gathered in closely for the 100th anniversary of the school’s existence. Laughter and light-hearted conversation echoed off the stone columns. Tunisian slaves tended to the higher ranking politicians and a handful of retired generals. The amount of wine that filled their cups could have flooded the Coliseum. An old man held court in the corner.
“The unity of the world consists in the chain-like dependence of cause upon cause,” Chrysippus lectured to a small group. People were always drawn to him. At 73 years old, he was considered ancient. However he spoke with such reckless conviction that the young students found a vibrant life in his words. Over time he had become one of the most prominent thinkers in all of Greece and was regarded as one of the founders of the Stoic School of thought. “Nothing can take place without a sufficient cause,” he concluded, scratching his thin white beard and taking another swig of wine.
“According to Chrysippus, every proposition is either true or false!” cried Diogenes, a young teacher. “There can be no room for wonder or ambiguity with him.”
Although many of his contemporaries believed Chrysippus to be unfocused and haphazard in his philosophical thought, they all knew that his wit was as sharp as a barbarian’s axe. Clumsy at times, but still capable of inflicting severe damage on an opposing argument.
“That is not true my dear Diogenes,” the old man replied. “Wonder can come but only from the Gods.”
“The Gods?” Diogenes laughed and looked for approval from the gathering crowd. “The Gods are an antiquated notion that too many old men rely on to explain the gaps in their reasoning.”
Chrysippus excelled in logic, the theory of knowledge, ethics and physics. As a Stoic thinker, he tried to rid himself of all wild emotions. They led men down misguided paths. So when he felt a sharp twist of anger towards the indignant youth, he reminded himself that anger clouds the mind and wields over ignorant men. He suppressed the feeling and proceeded.
“Ah, the wild Atheist shows his face,” he smiled. The wrinkles in his forehead grew deeper. They had been plowed by years of relentless thinking. He looked around and saw the eager eyes of his colleagues, waiting for him to retort Diogenes’ argument. So many of them had seen younger brash students attempt to find a chink in Chyrsippus’ arguments only to have the full weight of his intellect crash down upon them.
He continued. “Would you not agree that if there is anything that humanity cannot produce, the being who produces it is better than humanity?”
“I suppose I would.”
“But humanity cannot produce the things that are in the universe – the heavenly bodies, stars, planets, the sky and so on. The being, therefore, which produces them, is superior to humanity. But what is there that is superior to humanity, except God? Therefore, God exists.”
Sounds of delight radiated from the crowd. Some of the older people found validation in the dressing down of an impetuous youth and clapped as though they had just won a battle. Disheartened, Diogenes sulked away and Chrysippus downed the last of his wine. He was surprised he had kept his rhetoric together so well, for he had had more than his fill of the juice of Bacchus. His head was dizzy and he felt light. He attempted to suppress these feelings as well. Happiness, especially drunken happiness, could be just as dangerous as anger. He wanted to laugh triumphantly at his deposed opponent, but he quieted the urge and remained tacit.
The crowd had dissipated and Chrysippus re-filled his cup once more. He stood alone with his thoughts and no one approached him. They knew he preferred to hear the voice in his head speak more than them. The din of the party seemed to deflect around him and silence eased into the old man’s head.
He had only a moment to enjoy this peaceful feeling. His tranquility was abruptly shattered by the piercing brays of a donkey in the distance. Chrysippus turned his head and beheld a jackass staggering through a fig orchard nearby. It tripped over an exposed root and almost fell to the ground. Two young boys were laughing and clapping each other on the back as they watched the donkey.
“You there, young boys,” the old man called out. “What is wrong with that donkey?”
The boys snapped to attention. They were of the lower class and knew that a distinguished man was speaking to them. “We didn’t mean any harm, sir.”
“Harm? What harm have you done?”
“Well sir, we stole some wine from the party,” one admitted. He knew the old man was too far away to punish them physically so he told the truth. “But we didn’t find the taste very appealing. So we let this donkey drink some.”
“All of it actually,” the second boy called out. “This donkey is drunk.”
The authoritarian in Chrysippus wanted to lash these children, but the feeling was overshadowed with humor as his eyes took in the sight of the inebriated beast of burden. The donkey raised its lips to a fig but did not posses the dexterity to pluck the fruit from the limb. It missed repeatedly until it finally toppled into the side of the trunk and slowly slid down to the ground. All four of its hooves protruded into the air like fence posts.
Chrysippus felt a rising laugh in his stomach. He knew he should restrain this humor. For laughter was just the manifestation of a chaotic emotion. He fought to contain himself. But a giggle escaped. The donkey righted itself and looked up at Chrysippus, as if it were confused by all the attention it was receiving.
The old scholar’s giggle exploded into a full laugh. The harder he tried to suppress it, the more powerful it became. He laughed. He laughed deeply and violently. He had held back his emotions for most of his life, tamping down any experience that caused either joy or pain. Perhaps this donkey had finally found the weakness in his logic. For there was no explaining this. His abdomen wrenched the air out of him.
The donkey had finally got a hold of a fig with its round teeth and was chewing the fruit. Juices and seeds spilled out of his mouth and the donkey, who most likely thought the world was spinning off of its axis, gradually lost its balance again and began to sway with the wind.
“Now give the donkey another drink of pure wine to wash down the figs,” Chrysippus cried out in between breaths, which were shorter now. He slapped his knee as the tears of laughter flooded his eyes. Several of the revelers at the party had gathered around to see what the commotion was all about. They saw the Stoic philosopher doubled over with laughter, a sight never beheld before. He could hardly breathe. His ancient body shook with each tremor of humor, as if it were a ship being buffeted by the crashing waves of Poseidon.
The boys in the field obliged Chrysippus’ demand and fed the donkey more wine. It took three greedy gulps from the boy’s cup and stopped suddenly. Its face scrunched and its lip curled. Perhaps the figs did not agree with the animal’s stomach, or more likely it had drunk too much. The donkey vomited onto the one young boy with such force that it knocked him to the ground. The slosh of partially digested figs and good wine hit the dusty earth. The donkey finished his expulsion and brayed gently as if to say, “Well, there you have it.”
Chrysippus barely saw this happen through the edges of his blurred vision. His body was being ravaged by the laughter. His mid-section felt as though it would split open revealing all the anatomical trappings of his humanly form. He tried to stop the laughter as he had so many times before in his life, stamp out the raging fire of happiness. But now it was not a question of logic or ethics. It was for his own survival. The rhythm of his beating heart began to sound like a faint drum in the distance, becoming softer and softer.
He clutched his chest and saw the wheat of Elysium spring up right before his eyes. As all the theories he had created flashed through his head, books he had written and books he had read, Chrysippus came to one final conclusion: laughter is an unstoppable force.