This painting, by the Italian artist Salvator Rosa (c. 1615-1673), depicts a scene of the usually cheerful philosopher, Democritus (c. 460-370 BCE), departing from his usual giddiness to meditate in solemn gloom. Democritus, who hailed from the region of Abdera, was an ancient Greek philosopher who pioneered an early vision of atomic theory and had a personality and set of beliefs that garnered him the nickname, “Laughing Philosopher.” Nevertheless, as the painting shows, Democritus did not maintain his lighthearted persona at all times. He was said to have been periodically drawn to solitude, especially when he wanted to study and think through his theories. The scholar, Diogenes Laertius (3rd century), produced a brief biography about Democritus after studying many ancient accounts and stories describing the enigmatic man. Diogenes cited one of his sources, Demetrius, as saying, “‘It would seem that he also went to Athens and was not anxious to be recognized, because he despised fame, and that while he knew of Socrates, he was not known to Socrates, his words being, `I came to Athens and no one knew me’” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 9.7.35). More important to this particular painting, Diogenes also wrote, “He would train himself, says Antisthenes, by a variety of means to test his sense-impressions by going at times into solitude and frequenting tombs. The same authority states that, when he returned from his travels, he was reduced to a humble mode of life because he had exhausted his means” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 9.7.38-39). Therefore, in keeping with these ancient descriptions, Salvator Rosa’s artwork seems to depict Democritus meditating over his philosophical theories in the midst of a morbid environment, perhaps near a tomb.
Written by C. Keith Hansley