This Greek Philosopher Died Laughing at His Own Joke

There is a wonderful selection of historical sights to see on a visit to Athens
There is a wonderful selection of historical sights to see on a visit to Athens | © Kieran Everett / Unsplash
Ethel Dilouambaka

Death from laughter? Is that even a thing? Apparently, yes. It is a rare form of death, which causes cardiac arrest, asphyxiation or a loss of consciousness, triggered by a fit of serious giggles. This weird way of dying has actually been reported since ancient times, with one particular case that occurred with Chrysippus, a stoic philosopher who died at the age of 73 during the 143rd Olympiad.

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According to medical sources, benign laughter can cause several pathologies that induce death. Laughter can trigger a necrosis (tissue death) in a region of the brainstem, more precisely the pons and the medulla which can lead to death. Furthermore, atonia (when a muscle loses its strength) and loss of consciousness, also called gelastic syncope, or laughter-induced syncope, which can create trauma in the cerebellum and ultimately cause death.

Though these cases are quite unusual, several have been recorded throughout history, including the death of Chrysippus. This stoic philosopher was born around 279 BC in Soli, near the city known today as Mersin, Turkey. He moved to Athens and became a student of Cleanthes, the head of the Stoic School and quickly became famous for his intellectual audacity and love for learning, particularly in the field of ethics and logic. He even succeeded Cleanthes upon his death as head of the Stoic School around 230 BC. Besides having a knack for stoicism, Chrysippus has left a collection of over 700 written works, though none have survived, except as theories quoted in works of later authors. Thanks to its desire to be thorough, he would often take both sides of an argument. As such, he was considered a strong authority in the school.

And as far as his death is concerned, there are apparently two distinct accounts recorded by Diogenes Laertius. The first one says that Chrysippus felt dizzy after drinking undiluted wine at a feast, which killed him. In the second account, Laertius recalled the 143rd Olympiad, which took place in 208 to 204 BC. At that time, Chrysippus saw a donkey eating his figs and reportedly yelled: “Now give the donkey a pure wine to wash down the figs!”, and then started laughing so hard that he fell on the ground before starting to shake uncontrollably with foam coming out of his mouth. While people tried to help him, he apparently died soon after.

While many actually believed Chrysippus did died from laughing too hard, Diogenes Laërtius actually wrote that he thought he actually died from drinking too much undiluted wine at the feast and that his death was, in fact, due to alcohol poisoning. But since we have no proof and that forensic sciences were fairly limited at the time, we will never really know the real cause of Chrysippus’ death, although he is not the only one to have been reported to die from laughter.

In fact, a Greek painter from the 5th century BC named Zeuxis is also said to have died from laughter after he painted goddess Aphrodite as an old woman. Many considered his death to be a punishment from the gods. More recently, in 1979, a 62-year old Seinfeld fan fainted three times and nearly died from watching a particularly funny episode of the TV show. So maybe laughter is not the best medicine after all…

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