A Drunk Greek Philosopher Died From Laughing at a Donkey
Chrysippus (circa 279 – circa 206 BC), one of the most influential intellectuals and men of letters of the Hellenistic era, would probably disagree with the adage that “Laughter is the best medicine“, seeing as how laughter killed him. He greatly influenced and shaped Stoicism, and later Stoic philosophers credited him with laying much of the groundwork upon which they built. He also offered alternatives to the theories of Plato and Aristotle that did much to shape the intellectual landscape of his era. Today, however, Chrysippus is probably best known as the philosopher who laughed himself to death.
He was born in Soli, near Mersin in today’s Turkey, and was an athlete dedicated to long distance running in his youth. Then he was bit by the philosophy bug, so he packed up and moved to Athens, where he studied Stoicism under Cleanthes, head of the Stoic School. He became the school’s most gifted student, and when Cleanthes died in 230 BC, Chrysippus succeeded him as the establishment’s head.
He was a prolific writer who reportedly penned over 700 books. No full treatise remains, but fragments of about 475 of his works have survived, including summaries and critical evaluations of the Hellenistic schools. It is mostly from those sources that scholars have cobbled together the materials for a coherent picture of Stoic philosophy and philosophers.
However, Chrysippus was not just an egghead dedicated solely to intellectual pursuits: he liked partying, and partied hard, well into old age. At one party, when he was around 73 years old, he got drunk on undiluted wine (Greeks usually mixed wine with water in those days), then saw a donkey eating a fig. That struck him as hilarious, and he went into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter, while crying out “now give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs“, en route to laughing himself to death.