From Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights, 10.17
18: Why and How the Philosopher Democritus blinded himself; and the fine and charming verses Laberius wrote on the subject
“It is recorded among the accomplishments of Greek history that the philosopher Democritus, a man worthy of praise beyond the rest and blessed with ancient authority, deprived himself of eyesight willingly because he believed that his mind’s thoughts and reflections in considering the laws of nature would be clearer and more precise if he freed them from the incitements of sight and the eye’s mistakes.
Laberius the poet has described this deed and the method by which he accomplished his own blindness with a clever device in his farce named the Ropemaker, which describes the affair with just enough verses, written clearly. Laberius, however, created a different cause for the blindness and included it in the tale which he was writing, not inaptly. The character who speaks the following lines in Laberius’ poem is a wealthy but stingy wretch who laments the excessive spending and low behavior of his adolescent son. Here are Laberius’ lines:
“Democritus, the natural philosopher of Adbera
Placed a shield to face Hyperion’s arrival,
So that he might destroy his eyes with blazing bronze,
Thus he ruined his eyes with the rays of the sun,
So that he might not witness wicked citizens faring well.
Just so, I wish to blind the final portion of my years
Through the blaze of shining money
Rather than gazing upon my son’s extravagant prosperity.”
XVII. Quam ob causam et quali modo Democritus philosophus luminibus oculorum sese privaverit; et super ea re versus Laberii pure admodum et venuste facti.
I. Democritum philosophum in monumentis historiae Graecae scriptum est, virum praeter alios venerandum auctoritateque antiqua praeditum, luminibus oculorum sua sponte se privasse, quia existimaret cogitationes commentationesque animi sui in contemplandis naturae rationibus vegetiores et exactiores fore, si eas videndi inlecebris et oculorum impedimentis liberasset. II. Id factum eius modumque ipsum, quo caecitatem facile sollertia subtilissima conscivit, Laberius poeta in mimo, quem scripsit Restionem, versibus quidem satis munde atque graphice factis descripsit, sed causam voluntariae caecitatis finxit aliam vertitque in eam rem, quam tum agebat, non inconcinniter. III. Est enim persona, quae hoc aput Laberium dicit, divitis avari et parci sumptum plurimum asotiamque adulescentis viri deplorantis. IV. Versus Laberiani sunt:
Democritus Abderites physicus philosophus
clipeum constituit contra exortum Hyperionis,
oculos effodere ut posset splendore aereo.
Ita radiis solis aciem effodit luminis,
malis bene esse ne videret civibus.
Sic ego fulgentis splendorem pecuniae
volo elucificare exitum aetati meae,
ne in re bona videam esse nequam filium.
Decimus Liberius is a Roman playwright from the 1st century BCE.
The ancient testimonia about Democritus and his fragments make his blinding scene a little hard to believe:
Suda s.v. γλουτῶν
“Democritus of Abdera was called the “Laugher” because he laughed at the useless seriousness of human beings”
ὅτι ὁ Δημόκριτος ὁ ᾿Αβδηρίτης ἐπεκλήθη Γελασῖνος διὰ τὸ γελᾶν πρὸς τὸ κενόσπουδον τῶν ἀνθρώπων.
Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 2.46
“Democritus always had a fond partiality for honey. Indeed, when someone asked him how to live a healthy life, Democritus said, ‘Wet your insides with honey and your skin with oil!’”
ἔχαιρε δὲ ὁ Δημόκριτος ἀεὶ τῷ μέλιτι· καὶ πρὸς τὸν πυθόμενον πῶς ἂν ὑγιῶς τις διάγοι ἔφη, εἰ τὰ μὲν ἐντὸς μέλιτι βρέχοι, τὰ δ’ ἐκτὸς ἐλαίῳ.
Aelian, Varia Historia
4.28: “I am unable to resist laughing at Alexander the son of Philip if, indeed, when he heard what Democritus says in his writings–that there are endless numbers of universes–he was upset that he wasn’t even master of the one we all share. How much would Democritus have laughed at him, do I even need to say, when laughter was his job?”
Οὐ γὰρ δὴ δύναμαι πείθειν ἐμαυτὸν μὴ γελᾶν ἐπ’ ᾿Αλεξάνδρῳ τῷ Φιλίππου, εἴ γε ἀπείρους ἀκούων εἶναί τινας κόσμους λέγοντος Δημοκρίτου ἐν τοῖς συγγράμμασιν ὃ δὲ ἠνιᾶτο μηδὲ τοῦ ἑνὸς καὶ κοινοῦ κρατῶν. πόσον δ’ ἂν ἐπ’ αὐτῷ Δημόκριτος ἐγέλασεν αὐτός, τί δεῖ καὶ λέγειν, ᾧ ἔργον τοῦτο ἦν;
A selection of fragments:
fr. 170 “Happiness and unhappiness come from the soul.”
εὐδαιμονίη ψυχῆς καὶ κακοδαιμονίη.
fr.65: “One must foster thinking-much not learning-much.”
πολυνοΐην, οὐ πολυμαθίην ἀσκέειν χρή.
fr. 280: “The hopes of educated men are stronger than the wealth of the ignorant.”
κρέσσονές εἰσιν αἱ τῶν πεπαιδευμένων ἐλπίδες ἢ ὁ τῶν ἀμαθῶν πλοῦτος.
fr. 103: “Good things rarely happen when you look for them, but bad things happen even when you don’t.”
διζημένοισι τἀγαθὰ μόλις παραγίνεται, τὰ δὲ κακὰ καὶ μὴ διζημένοισιν
fr 114: “It is better to be praised by another than by oneself.”
βέλτερον ὑφ’ ἑτέρου ἢ ὑφ’ ἑαυτοῦ ἐπαινέεσθαι.
fr.105: “A beautiful body is perverse unless it has a mind.”
σώματος κάλλος ζωιῶδες, ἢν μὴ νοῦς ὑπῆι.
fr.198: “An animal that needs knows how much it requires, the man who needs knows not”
τὸ χρῆιζον οἶδεν, ὁκόσον χρήιζει, ὁ δὲ χρήιζων οὐ γινώσκει.
fr. 269: “Boldness begins a deed; but chance governs its completion”
τόλμα πρήξιος ἀρχή, τύχη δὲ τέλεος κυρίη.
fr. 200: ‘Those who live without enjoying life are fools.’
ἀνοήμονες βιοῦσιν οὐ τερπόμενοι βιοτῆι.
fr.b231: “Wise is he who instead of grieving over what he lacks delights in what he has.”
εὐγνώμων ὁ μὴ λυπεόμενος ἐφ᾿ οἷσιν οὖχ ἔχει, ἀλλὰ χαίρων ἐφ᾿ οἷσιν ἔχει
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