Laughing at the Sea


Epicurus said: « We must laugh and philosophize at the same time »i.

In ancient Greek, the words « laugh » and « laughter » are rendered by γέλᾶν, from which derives the noun γαλήνη, which metaphorically denotes « the calm of the sunny sea », and more generally an aura of quiet brilliance.

It also denotes, by metonymic shift, the « silvery galena » (lead sulphide), but also the « serenity of the soul ».

It seems significant that the Greek language has a precise word, to remind the men that the sea laughs in the sun, calmly, and that the serene soul then resembles it.

By consulting Chantraine’s Greek Dictionary of Etymology, we also learn that γέλᾶν, « laugh », has its origin in the notion of brightness.

In ancient Greek when the earth « shakes », one also says that it « laughs », that it « bursts » (out of laughing ).

The word γέλᾶν, therefore, is ambivalent. It can evoke the calm of the sea, or the fury of the earth, the peaceful smile of the waves, and the chthonian forces that are unleashed.

The ancient Greek name of the earth, chtonos, had no relation to the nourishing land, a cultivable expanse. It was used in a religious sense, to refer to what was felt to be the outer shell of the world of the dead and the underground powers. When the earth trembles, the underworld, the world of the dead “laughs”.

These forgotten words depict a vision of the world. They remind us that when they were spoken, they also were summoning the trace and the deeds of the gods, and they were making them glimmer.

« The gods exist, the knowledge we have of them is clear evidence.”ii

The Epicureans really believed in the gods, and banished all fear of Hadesiii. So did the Stoics, who lived in accordance with the cosmic God.

As for the Skeptics, such as Pyrrho of Elis, Timo of Phlius or Aenesidemus, they believed in nothing. They doubted everything. Indifference, apathy, ataraxy. Detachment. That were their words.

Pyrrho said: « The generations of men are like the ephemeral leaves of the woods.”

Menander said: « Do you want to know who you are? Cast your eyes on the tombs that line the path. There are the bones and light ashes of kings, tyrants, wise men and all those men, who were swollen with the pride of their nobility, their fortune, their reputation or their beauty. This is the last term to which all mortals end. When you see this, you will know what you are. »

Timo of Phlius used the epicurean metaphor of the « smiling calm of the sea » (γαλήνη) to depict the peace of the wise Skeptic.

But Timo’s « smiling » or « sunny calm » was not really similar to Epicurus’ laughing wisdom…

For Epicurus believed in the gods. Timo believed in nothing.

« The end, according to the Skeptics, is the suspension of judgment, which is followed like a shadow by ataraxy, according to Timo and Aenesidemus.”iv

Diogenes Laërtius explained that Pyrrho had gone to India, and that, influenced by Indian gymnophists and Persian magi, he had brought back to Greece this philosophy of ataraxy, acatalepsy and « suspension of judgement ».

He also relates this anecdote:

One day a dog attacked Pyrrho.

He could not help but move backward to protect himself. He was reproached for this inconsistency, – in relation to his stated philosophy of ataraxy. He replied that it was difficult to completely strip oneself of one’s humanity, but that every effort should be made to bring one’s behavior into harmony with the world.

It is better to laugh about that rather tepid answer.

And just contemplate the sea.

Rire de mer

iEpicurus, Vatican Sentence 41 (Gn.V., 41 f.394)

iiEpicurus, Ep III, 123

iiiCf. A.J. Festugière. Épicure et ses dieux.

ivDiogenes Laërtius, Les vies des plus illustres philosophes de l’antiquité, 9,107