Given how things are with ourselves and the world, one of the great questions we face is should we laugh or should we cry? The history of philosophy has an interesting take on the choice. Two of the greatest thinkers of ancient Greece were Democritus and Heraclitus. Both men, who lived to a very old age, had a deep knowledge of people and the world but responded to what they knew in strikingly different ways. Heraclitus couldn’t stop weeping. Democritus couldn’t stop laughing. It’s obvious why Heraclitus cried. Once we open our eyes fully to the reality of existence it’s astonishing we can ever carry on. There is simply so much to be sad about. The human animal is a benighted, deluded, uncontrolled monster, perfectly suited to the error of meanness and suffering. The greater question is how and why one would ever laugh. There is of course always the option of idiotic laugh, the plastic laugh the sentimental callous foul. But this wasn’t the philosopher Democritus’ way, he laughed richly and generously not because some privileged position led him to naively misunderstand how bad things could be. His good humor wasn’t delusional nor was it simply a random quark of temperament. Democritus, laughed in a very particular and highly admirable style because of the way he thought about the world. He was a profound realist. He knew everything there is to know, about the human tendency to greed, murder and lust and of our constant exposure to random accident and misfortune. And ultimately Democritus was so convinced of the darkness, he knew so much about suffering and risk, he no longer felt he had to register this constantly at the front of his mind in order to do them justice. They seem to him an entirely obvious baseline fact about existence. He could be cheerful, because anything nice, sweet or charming that came his way, was immediately experienced as a bonus, a gratifying addition to an originally bleak starting point. By keeping the dark backdrop of life always in mind, Democritus sharpened his appreciation of whatever stood out against it. A pleasant thing that happened to him wasn’t taken to be a feeble compensation for his larger dashed hopes. It was a delightful, slightly improbable, but very noteworthy backing of an always expected tragic trend. Democritus who’s learned to enjoying parties wine and drinking. “A life without festivity is a long road without an inn” he wrote. He didn’t believe that he had to feel constantly sad to prove that he recognized life to be sad. He danced and drunk because of a rightful confidence that he had already done justice and would in the future again have to fully do justice to the sadness of things. Democritus was aiming at an intelligent kind of cheerfulness one that admits from the outset that life is fundamentally grim but that uses this despair as a catalyst for a more vivid engagement with the beautiful or kind moments that do come ones way. Like an English person who is especially adept to drawing value from the last day of summer or a condemned man who perfectly savors the last meal before being let to the firing squad. Democritus was a master practitioner of that highly admirable state of mind: Cheerful despair. Once we’ve acquired the skill of cheerful despair life acquires a distinctive new kind of sweetness in all its pleasant structures. Every pain free day is a blessing. We’re amazed and touched when once in a while someone seems to understand a few things we say or does something unexpectedly kind. We enjoy the distinctive cheerfulness of those who’ve done all the crying they can and are determined, for a while at least, to hold on to the light.