Laughter in Lucretius and Horace

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Title: Laughter in Lucretius and Horace
Author: Freeman, Theodore John
Type: Thesis
Issue Date: 2011
Abstract: In Lucian’s Philosophies for Sale, representatives of various philosophical schools are paraded in front of buyers in the manner of a slave auction. One buyer carefully considers in turn the ‘purchase’ of a Pythagorean, Cynic, Democritean, Heraclitean, Academic, Stoic, and Skeptic. The exchange with the Democritean representative ends quickly: Buyer: What is the matter, man? Why are you laughing? Democritean: Do you need to ask? Because to me it seems that all of your affairs are laughable, and yourselves as well. Buyer: What, are you laughing at us all, and do you think nothing of our affairs? Democritean: So I do! For there is nothing serious in them, but everything is a hollow mockery, drift of atoms, infinitude. Democritus’ apocryphal moniker of the ‘laughing philosopher’ evolved over many centuries. According to Diogenes Laertius, Democritus composed a work entitled Peri Euthumias, “On Cheerfulness.” The attitudes expressed in this work may have given rise to the philosopher’s close association with laughter. In his De Oratore Cicero defers to Democritus as an authority on the nature of laughter (2.58.235), presumably because of his frequent penchant for it. Over time the perception of Democritus’ laughter as rather innocuous and even good-natured evolved and was later perceived as the sardonic or scornful mockery we see evidenced above. In the pseudo-Hippocratic Epistles Democritus’ laughter is characterized as ‘therapy,’ though his fellow citizens think him mad. Seneca offers that Democritus was apt to display his contempt of human absurdity by laughing at his fellow-citizens, who in turn called him ‘the mocker.' But why does he laugh? What is the nature of his laughter, and to whom is it directed? Where is the humor in this situation? Does he laugh at life’s meaninglessness? Is he laughing at the buyer upon whom the reality of his situation has not yet dawned? Perhaps he even laughs at himself and his inability to change his own circumstance. How are we, as the audience, meant to interpret his laughter? Most importantly, is the characterization of the Democritean fair? Of course, Lucian’s character is satiric and grossly exaggerated, but “a bitter jest, when the satire comes too near the truth, leaves a sharp sting behind.” ... How laughter fits ... is the focus of this paper.
Subject: Lucretius Carus, Titus
Subject: Laughter in literature
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Freeman, Theodore John. "Laughter in Lucretius and Horace". 2011. Available electronically from

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