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Michel de Montaigne on Democritus and Heraclitus

“Democritus and Heraclitus were two philosophers, of whom the first, finding the condition of man vain and ridiculous, never went out in public but with a mocking and laughing face; whereas Heraclitus, having pity and compassion on this same condition of ours, wore a face perpetually sad, and eyes filled with tears. I prefer the first humor; not because it is pleasanter to laugh than to weep, but because it is more disdainful, and condemns us more than the other; and it seems to me that we can never be despised as much as we deserve. Pity and commiseration are mingled with some esteem for the thing we pity; the things we laugh at we consider worthless. I do not think there is as much unhappiness in us as vanity, nor as much malice as stupidity. We are not so full of evil as of inanity; we are not as wretched as we are worthless.” ― Michel de Montaigne


The engraving above (1557) is by Dirck Volkertsz, from Haarlem, NL. It is modeled on Maerten van Heemskerck and hangs in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. “In the print, the two philosophers stand in a ‘world landscape’ with, between them, a translucent orb draped with a foolscap. At top centre, flanked by putti holding hourglasses and resting on skulls, a plaque bears the legend REMPUS RIDENDI TEMPUS FLENDI (A time to laugh and a time to weep). Democritus (c. 460 – c. 370 B.C.) and Heraclitus (c. 540 – c. 475 B.C.) are known as the ‘laughing and crying philosophers.'”

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