12. Hellenistic Philosopher Laughed Himself to Death
Chrysippus (circa 279 – circa 206 BC), one of the most influential intellectuals of the Hellenistic era, might disagree with the adage “Laughter is the best medicine“, seeing as how laughter killed him. Chrysippus greatly influenced Stoicism, and later Stoic philosophers credited him with laying much of the groundwork upon which they built. He also did much to shape his era’s intellectual landscape by offering alternatives to the theories of Plato and Aristotle. Despite all that, he is probably best known as the philosopher who laughed himself to death.
Chrysippus was born in Soli, near today’s Mersin, Turkey, and was an athlete in his youth, dedicated to long distance running before he turned to philosophy. He moved to Athens, where he studied Stoicism under Cleanthes, head of the Stoic School, and became the school’s most gifted student. When Cleanthes died, Chrysippus succeeded him as head of the establishment.
He was a prolific writer who wrote over 700 books, and although no full treatise remains, fragments of about 475 of his works have survived. They include summaries and critical evaluations of the Hellenistic schools, and it is mostly from those sources that scholars have assembled the materials for a coherent picture of Stoic philosophy and philosophers.
However, Chrysippus was not just about egghead pursuits: he liked to party, and partied hard, well into old age. When he was around 73 years old, he got drunk at a party on undiluted wine (Greeks of the era mixed wine with water), then saw a donkey eating a fig. In his inebriated state, the sight struck him as hilarious, and he went into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter, crying out “now give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs“, until he fell over dead.