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The Bizarre Case of the Ancient Greek Philosopher who Died of Laughter

Ancient Greek philosopher laughter
Chrysippos of Soli, the second founder of Stoicism. Marble, Roman copy after a lost Hellenistic original of the late 3rd century BC. Public Domain

Ancient Greek philosopher Chrysippus (279–206 BC) is believed to have died of laughter in a bizarre incident recorded by his contemporary historian Diogenes Laertius.

Chrysippus was a native of Soli, Cilicia, but moved to Athens as a young man, where he became a pupil of the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes.

When Cleanthes died, around 230 BC, Chrysippus became the third head of the Stoic school.

A prolific writer, Chrysippus expanded the fundamental doctrines of Cleanthes’ mentor Zeno of Citium, the founder and first head of the school, which earned him the title of the Second Founder of Stoicism.

How the ancient Greek philosopher died from laughter

He died during the 143rd Olympiad (208–204 BC) at the age of 73. Diogenes Laertius gives two different accounts of his death.

In the first account, Chrysippus was seized with dizziness having drunk undiluted wine at a feast, and died soon after.

In the second account, he was watching a donkey eat some figs and cried out: “Now give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs”.

The sight of a drunk donkey triggered a fit of laughter from Chrysippus, after which he died in a fit of laughter. In his note, Diogenes Laertius documented the account that Chrysippus died “after laughing too much,” whereupon he died.

His nephew Aristocreon erected a statue in his honor in the Kerameikos, an ancient Athenian area formerly known as the Potters’ quarter, which is the largest necropolis in Greece.

Chrysippus was succeeded as head of the Stoic school by his pupil Zeno of Tarsus.

Death from laughter is an extremely rare form of death, usually resulting from either cardiac arrest or asphyxiation.

Intense laughter can put strain on your heart, especially for those with underlying heart conditions. This strain can lead to a heart attack. Laughing too hard can make it difficult to breathe, potentially leading to suffocation.

Laughter can also worsen existing health problems like asthma or cause complications with weakened blood vessels in the brain (aneurysm).

Dying from laughter

Though uncommon, death by laughter has been recorded from the times of ancient Greece to modern times.

For example, Zeuxis, a 5th-century BC Greek painter, is said to have died laughing at the humorous way in which he painted an old woman. He was famed for his ability to create images that appeared highly realistic.

None of his works survive, but anecdotes about Zeuxis’ art and life have been referenced often in the history and literature of art and in art theory.

There are modern cases of people dying from a fit of laughter. A Thai ice cream vendor in 2003 died in his sleep after two minutes of nonstop laughter. His wife witnessed it, but the cause of death (asphyxiation or heart failure) is unclear.

A Danish man called Ole Bentzen reportedly died in 1989 of a heart attack while laughing hysterically at a scene in the movie “A Fish Called Wanda.”

In most cases, it’s likely pre-existing health conditions played a role. While laughter itself might not be the sole culprit, it can be a trigger in vulnerable individuals.

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