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The Greek Philosopher Who “Died Of Laughter” After Witnessing A Donkey Eat Some Figs

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Can you die of laughter? Apparently Chrysippus did. Image credit: Giuseppe Porta, Public Domain

Ever told a joke so funny you laughed at it yourself? Ever told one so funny that you straight up died? Apparently, Greek Stoic philosopher Chrysippus of Soli did.

The deadly dose of horsing around (try not to choke on that one) is detailed in Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Volume I, originally written by Diogenes Laertius and then later translated by R. D. Hicks, which reads:

“Some people say that he died of a fit of immoderate laughter. For that seeing his ass eating figs, he told his old woman to give the ass some unmixed wine to drink afterwards, and then laughed so violently that he died.”

However, if the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World are to be believed, Chrysippus isn’t the only one to have died of jest on that fateful day.
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“Bakhtin cites Rabelais’s description of the death of Chrysippus and Master Janotus (who both laughed at the drunk donkey),” reads a research article published in the journal Differences, apparently demonstrating that some gags are just so funny they can amount to two charges of first-degree murder.

As humorous as it is to imagine a Greek stoic philosopher and his pal chuckling themselves to death over a figged-up donkey drinking wine, their deaths have been recorded, translated, and interpreted across more than two millennia. As such, it’s difficult to know for certain what the cause of death was, and it’s likely that had the Greeks had access to the kinds of post-mortem investigations we use today they may have come to a different conclusion.

A description of their final moments from Bakhtin certainly doesn’t paint the jolliest of pictures.

“’Their eyes watered at the violent concussion of the cerebral substance which pressed out these lachrymal humidities and brought them flowing out through the optic nerves’.”

Ouch.

Don’t be fooled by the stony express, Chrysippus was a riot. Image credit: By Unknown artist – Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011), Public Domain
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That said, Chrysippus does come across as something of a wind-up merchant in Laertius’s writings, which tell a classic anecdote in which the philosopher, when asked by a man, “To whom shall I entrust my son?” he said, “To me, for if I thought that there was any one better than myself, I would have gone to him to teach me philosophy.”

Classic Chrysippus.

Can you die of laughter?
According to Dr Claire Asher of Science Focus, it’s very much possible to die of laughter – though cases are rare and thought to center around a fit of laughter triggering a heart attack or suffocation.

Bill Oddie’s 70s comedy show The Goodies triggered one such death when UK resident Alex Mitchell experienced a fatal heart attack after a hearty 30 minutes of laughing. Doctors later diagnosed Mitchell’s daughter with Long QT Syndrome, which they believe could have caused his death.

In what’s arguably a less fun way to go, Australian resident Arthur Cobcroft chuckled himself to death while comparing the prices of commodities in 1915 to those in 1920, his year of death. He was considered to have died of heart failure brought on by excessive laughing by doctors, a bleak indictment on inflation.

In the 2019 film Joker, Joaquin Phoenix took inspiration from the pseudobulbar affect for his role of Arthur Fleck who’s prone to bouts of pathological laughter. The pseudobulbar affect is a clinical diagnosis characterized by episodes of extreme and uncontrollable emotion such as laughing or crying.

The condition is associated with brain dysfunction and certain neurodegenerative disorders, and while it can significantly impair a person’s social life or ability to work, it’s not usually considered hazardous to health. However, the associated symptoms of an exaggerated gag reflex, tongue weakness, and swallowing difficulties could increase a person’s chances of suffocating during a fit of laughter.

We’ll probably never know if Chrysippus fell to one of the above pathologies, but best avoid feeding any fig-stuffed donkeys wine just in case.

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