“Since we are men, it is right not to laugh at the misfortunes of mankind, but to lament them.”
–Democritus of Abdera, 4th century BCE.
I laughed pretty hard when I first read this quote. Isn’t laughter one of the things that makes humans different from all other animals? Isn’t it more true to say that, “Since we are men, we should be laughing at the misfortunes of mankind”?
The meaning of this quote looks entirely different in the more conventional translation: “It is right not to laugh at the misfortunes of others.” This fits better Democritus’ larger belief that enjoying the misfortune of your neighbors helps to undermine the good of all—and ultimately your own good.
He may be right at the more particular level of ‘others’. But this is so much of a platitude—a platitude that we are patently unable to live up to—that I can’t commit myself to the truth of this version either. How many people get pleasure, and perhaps a good laugh, out of the defeat of the opposing electoral candidate while still believing that this defeat works for the good of all? This is the lamentable state of mankind. It is also not very funny.
At the more abstract level of ‘mankind,’ however, it is really funny. Every attempt to make it all better just creates some new lamentable situation with a new twist. The new twists are endless. Nothing ever turns out as we expected. Punch lines for eternity!