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Find out if your philosophy of life is closer to the laughing philosopher or the crying one.
I believe that in the course of our lives, many of us have cursed existence a bit, which seems so difficult at times but which sometimes surprises and gives precious joys. Living is a rollercoaster, there are up moments and great existential downs, there are economic crises and the stroke of luck of the aunt who leaves you a house as an inheritance; you leave for work and the bus arrives immediately, or you wait 40 minutes and when you decide to go on foot, there it is, whizzing past you; love comes and love goes. In short, the usual half-empty, half-full glass, the usual “Unbearable lightness of being” atmosphere.
That the current social system is not the best possible is a fact; that the sense of precariousness, uncertainty and stress is increasingly pervasive in our lives also. However, between a glass of wine and a puff of smoke, we will always find someone ready to say “c’est la vie”. everything ends, death awaits us, so why not laugh in their face?
Philosophical duality in artistic representation
That’s how I imagine those two chatterboxes of Heraclitus and Democritus if I were to fantasise about a hypothetical meeting between them, I don’t know, in the clouds of the sky, looking down on the global catastrophe of our time. A bit like the little devil and the little angel, each on one shoulder, whispering in our ears “do it” and on the other side “come on, think about it some more”.
This is because, for centuries, the attitude of the two philosophers has been opposed, and this idea has also been reflected in the visual representation: there are many artists who, over the centuries, have painted these two wise men in an antithetical form (yet, in my humble opinion, there is also something that unites them). It must have entered the collective imagination at some point that Democritus was standing there with the globe in his hands, laughing quietly, while Heraclitus, observing life flowing before him, could not help but shed a tear.
Paradoxically, this image seems to be an allegory of their own philosophies: emptiness as opposed to fullness (Democritus), creation as opposed to destruction (Heraclitus). In both philosophical thoughts we find a very strong sense of duality.
Heraclitus and Democritus in art
In 1477 it was Donato Bramante, following a tradition already established in the 4th century, who depicted the two philosophers divided by a globe, an iconic symbol of man’s vicissitudes on earth. Their poses are somewhat plastic, but the opposing expressions of laughter and tears are evident.
In ‘The tranquillity of the soul’, Seneca recommended emulating the Democritean spirit as an example of inner stability and lightness, and Lucian of Samosata, in his dialogue ‘Selling lives to the enchantment’, depicted Heraclitus as the obscure philosopher who mourns the fate of mankind, since it cannot escape the incessant becoming nor listen to the voice of truth: the “Logos”. Heraclitus, by the way, has always been considered an oracular, obscure philosopher, whose sentences always sounded somewhat cryptic and this, perhaps, contributed to the imagery in which he represents something heavy, dense and therefore gloomy.
On another occasion Heraclitus and Democritus are represented in two separate but complementary paintings, and here too the duality of opposites interdependent on each other returns. The two paintings are designed so that the two philosophers cannot look at each other.
In Pieter Paul Rubens’ painting of 1603, Heraclitus is dressed in black, grimacing with his head covered, while Democritus, in coloured robes, smiles and holds the world in his hands, with an ironic and rational detachment from human concerns.
Democritus in fact believed that reality can only be known through an intellectual process, through logic and the “logos”, which helps us to understand the laws that govern the world. In this sense, the globe also represents this knowledge, and emotional detachment from human affairs can occur precisely because we rely on reason. For Heraclitus too, knowledge was fundamental, awakening from sleep to investigate reality, only that this was vast and unlimited, and was composed of opposites in perpetual struggle with each other… so how can we blame his concern?
One point of view, two solutions
Could we say that the ideas of the two philosophers were not so far apart? Perhaps so, since for both there is a duality of which matter is composed, for both man must devote himself to spiritual work and knowledge, for both life is made up of passing events…
What changes is the reaction to all this; it is how we prepare our souls to face life’s events, how we observe existence and how much we allow it to pervade us.
This is the central theme that many artists have staged through the juxtaposition of these two figures, which have become symbols and allegories of two forms of predisposition to life that for centuries, despite the changing eras, societies and problems, man has continued to carry within himself, in a perpetual struggle between opposites, which, however, need each other.
When you don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the umpteenth misfortune, think that it is only your momentary choice, the answer is not unequivocal because the sense of duality that pervades human is profound. We can choose to live intensely or more superficially, and I think both ways are correct, it all depends on the context in which we find ourselves. Sometimes it will be better to let go of the emotional pathos, sometimes it will be right to ask ourselves a few more questions and go deeper… after all, laughing and crying are the right answers to relieve stress and to express our moods, Greek tragedy and comedy, better than being stoic anyway.
Personality test: are you more Democritus or more Heraclitus?
FIND THE TEST AFTER THE IMAGES >>
To find out what kind of spirit you get out of bed in the morning, here’s an unscientific but fun personality test.
Read the questions and then choose the answer that resonates most with you from A or B. At the end, count the majority of answers and find out which philosophy inspires you when life hands you unpleasant events and you have to cancel your New Year’s Eve party because your roommate’s cousin tested positive for Covid.
1. What is the highest aspiration of a human being?
B. Eternal glory
2. What is physical nature made of?
A. Of matter in motion and vacuum
B. Interdependent opposites
3. What is the ultimate principle of which reality is made?
A. Eternal and unchanging atoms
B. The changing but imperishable impulse of alternating phases of destruction-production
4. What must man devote himself to?
A. To seek moderation and live a righteous life in order to achieve tranquillity of the senses
B. Awaken from sleep by investigating the soul and unlimited reality in depth
5. Moral discourse:
A. Depends on the individual’s willingness to seek happiness in his or her privacy
B. Depends on man’s will to awaken and rise above the multitude of sleeping people
6. The divine:
A. Exists but does not interact with man at all
B. It is a God-all that includes everything in itself, that exists from everlasting and forever
7. Choose a planet:
8. Life is:
A. A set of events that belong to the random history of the cosmos
B. A set of events that time sweeps away and whose sense passes into non-sense
9. Which of these ideas best represents your philosophy of life:
A. Renouncing a teleological and anthropocentric conception of the universe and looking at events with detachment
B. Everything flows, you can never bathe twice in the same river
10. What is your approach when you talk about existential issues?
A. Light and detached
B. Cryptic, dark and deep
11. What does the glass of water look like?
A. Half full
B. Half empty
Majority of responses A: DEMOCRITUS personality
Rational and playful, you like to joke around and are the first to get involved when it comes to partying and organising pranks. You experience negative events with detachment, and you make fun of everything… but remember that the atom is not as indivisible as you thought, so it doesn’t hurt to question your certainties every now and then. Always keep that smile on your face that conquers all, but watch out for cynicism, because it’s a short step from detachment to nihilism. Continue to meditate and take care of your spirit, inner peace is the key to your happiness. Do you have to cancel your New Year’s Eve party because your roommate’s cousin tested positive for covid? Patience, it will be an opportunity to detox from vices and dedicate yourself to yourself.
Majority of responses B: ERACLITE personality
Thoughtful and deep, you’ve read a lot of books and conspiracy theories. In life you are guided by a deep sense of unity with the universe, even if sometimes you wonder why bad things have to happen. Concentrate and live in the present, who cares if it all goes on and on, tomorrow is another day and maybe it will be even better than yesterday. Your ambition and your thirst for knowledge can be great allies in achieving whatever you want, the important thing is to keep your pride at bay and be careful about judging too quickly those you think know less than you do… people often reveal great surprises. Do you have to cancel your New Year’s Eve party because your flatmate’s cousin tested positive for covid? Don’t let the pandemic anxiety get to you, you were going to stay home and read anyway.