Who Is Chrysippus? The ‘Second Founder of Stoicism’ Who Died Laughing

Introduction

Many of us don’t consider philosophy a laughing matter. After all, we turn to philosophers to understand the world around us and determine how to find meaning in it. To many, philosophy is a matter of life and death. However, that doesn’t mean philosophers take their own lives so seriously. The death of Chrysippus of Soli (know as the Second Founder of Stoicism) is a perfect example of this.

According to legend, the life of Chrysippus of Soli ended in a rather peculiar way. Diogenes Laëritius, a biographer of Greek philosophers, claims that Chrysippus died at the age of 73 from a severe laughing fit

During the 143rd Olympiad, Chrysippus caught a donkey eating a basket full of his figs. In response, he yelled that the donkey needed to be given a pure wine to wash the figs down. Finding the image hilarious, he fell to the ground laughing for several minutes and eventually lost consciousness. 

If the legend is true, the laughing fit either cut off the oxygen supply to his body or caused a heart attack. However, a second account from Laëritus suggests that the philosopher may have had too much to drink at a festival, and became ill as a result.

Of course, there’s more to this philosopher than his death. Chrysippus was born to a wealthy family in Soli, Cilicia over 2,000 years ago. He inherited a large amount of property at a very young age, but almost immediately lost it all. The king confiscated it, adding the property to his treasury. With nothing holding him in Soli, Chrysippus decided to move to Athens.

In Athens, he became a disciple of Cleanthes at the Stoic school. During his time there, Chrysippus studied under both Arcesilaus and Lacydes. From the beginning, he displayed interest in both deciphering and constructing philosophical arguments. Before long, he had developed a reputation as both self-reliant and confident. Rather than absorbing information from his teachers, he wanted to be given the information needed to work out a proof on his own. 

Around 230 B.C., Chrysippus succeeded his former teacher, Cleanthes, as head of the Stoic school. During his tenure, the Academy consistently challenged both Chrysippus’ ideas and the broader tenets of Stoicism. In an effort to bolster the school of thought against potential attacks, Chrysippus committed to formalizing stoic doctrines. 

Using the work of Zeno, the founder of the school, and Cleanthes, he compiled what would come to be known as the basis of stoicism. In addition, he established the formal logic system that stoics would rely on for years to come. In doing this, Chrysippus came to be known as the Second Founder of Stoicism.

As both a student and the head of the Stoic school, Chrysippus dedicated the majority of his time to writing. He’s said to have never written less than 500 lines a day, ultimately completing over 700 works of philosophy in his lifetime. His writing was known to be extremely comprehensive, as he preferred to flesh out both sides of an argument before asserting anything himself. 

As a result, many criticized his work, claiming that portions of it were unoriginal and carelessly organized. Despite this, he was generally accepted as a premier philosophical authority and his position at the school was never questioned.

It was long believed that none of his written works survived the passage of time. Most of what we know about the philosophy of Chrysippus comes from notes in the works of Cicero, Seneca, Galen, Plutarch, and other philosophers. In recent years, fragments of his works have been discovered in the Herculaneum papyri, but none in their entirety.

Notable Works & Suggested Readings

As we noted above, you won’t find any books written by Chrysippus. What we do know about his writing is based on the work of the philosophers that followed him. Through these texts, it is clear that Chrysippus was an expert and prolific writer in the fields of logic, theory of knowledge, ethics, and physics. 

Specifically, he created a detailed system of propositional logic that focused on helping us better understand the functioning of the universe. You may have encountered this form of logic, consisting of if-then statements, in a mathematics or computer science class. While seemingly straightforward today, this system revolutionized philosophy at the time.

Chrysippus, like many stoics, believed that the world was deterministic. In other words, all things in our lives are predetermined and are responses to factors out of our control. However, Chrysippus still believed in personal freedom and the importance of developing an individual understanding of the world.

If you’d like to learn more from the Second Founder of Stoicism, we do have a few recommendations. Teun Tieleman has reconstructed On Affections, which outlines the theory of emotion put forth by Chrysippus. He does a great job explaining what we know from the limited evidence we have and explaining exactly how much of the original treatise is available to us. 

3 Exercises & Lessons

[1] Appreciate What You Have

“The anchovy which is found in the sea at Athens, men despise on account of its abundance and say that it is a poor man’s fish; but in other cities, they prize it above everything, even where it is far inferior to the Attic anchovy.”

One thing we hear a lot today is that we should be happy because things have never been better. The world has never been healthier. Never been freer. We’ve never had more material wealth, better technology, or less poverty than the world has right now. 

These are undeniably good things, and the evidence for their existence is pretty indisputable. We should be excited and grateful about how awesome everything is. And yet the happiness that is supposed to follow seems elusive, doesn’t it? 

Well, the problem with this argument is that it presupposes that happiness is all about externals. Of course, it’s easier to feel good when you’re safe and well, but only a fool would think that’s all it took. 

One incredibly interesting pattern in the writings of the Stoics, and what Chrysippus does above, is looking at rich and successful people. They look at people who have had everything—conquerors, heiresses, Senators, emperors, Olympians—and observe how miserable they often were. Conversely, they’d point out the true philosophers who managed to be utterly content and serene despite terrible circumstances like war or poverty or imprisonment. Poverty is relative. It’s the feeling that you lack something. It’s wanting more. You’re not lacking whatever you thinking you’re lacking. It’s your opinion that you’re deficient that is far worse than any potential deprivation. You’ve got plenty. You are plenty. When we understand that, we understand that we’re already wealthy—we all are.

[2] The Race To Run Is Against Yourself

He who is running a race ought to endeavor and strive to the utmost of his ability to come off victor; but it is utterly wrong for him to trip up his competitor, or to push him aside. So in life it is not unfair for one to seek for himself what may accrue to his benefit; but it is not right to take it from another.”

It can be deceiving to hear the Stoics talk about an indifference to external accomplishments or rewards. Marcus Aurelius said that fame is meaningless. Seneca talked about how success or wealth is out of our control and therefore not to be prized. Don’t want what other people want, they say, don’t get sucked into meaningless competition. 

So does this mean that the Stoic doesn’t try? That the Stoic is resigned to whatever happens to them in life, caring about nothing, uninterested in improving or growing? No, of course not. The Stoic is still incredibly ambitious—only they focus on an internal scorecard versus an external one. They detach from results and outcomes, finding validation and pride instead in  their actions, in doing the right thing, in fulfilling their standards, in putting forth their best effort. 

That’s the mindset  Chrysippus is instructing us to cultivate in the above quote. Success is meaningless if it requires a betrayal of one’s principles, if it consumes or corrupts you. “Sure,” Seneca wrote,“terrible and turbulent and lethal things can exist, but they won’t have greatness, the foundation of which is strength and goodness.” Greatness is goodness. 

[3] Go Along…Or Get Dragged Along

“When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow, it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity. But if the dog does not follow, it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they don’t want to, they will be compelled to follow what is destined.”

We are dogs tied to a cart, Chrysippus liked to say. Somebody else is leading. We’re not in control. In the modern world, this is almost an unacceptable thought to most. It feels demeaning to be compared to a dog. It feels weak to admit someone or something else is making the decisions. 

But it’s true. From the moment we wake up and start our day, stuff is happening to us. Nothing in this universe is sitting around waiting for our lead. We simply are not in control. 

The dog in Chrysippus’ metaphor has two options. Trot along. Or lay down and get dragged. Chrusippus’ mentor Cleanthes put it well: “Fate guides the man who’s willing, drags the unwilling.” So we must decide: Will we be dragged or will we skip along? Fight it or flow with it? 

The choice is ours. And in that choice is our freedom. 

Top 5 Chrysippus Quotes

“There could be no justice, unless there were also injustice; no courage, unless there were cowardice; no truth, unless there were falsehood.”

“Wise people are in want of nothing, and yet need many things. On the other hand, nothing is needed by fools, for they do not understand how to use anything, but are in want of everything.”

“I myself think that the wise man meddles little or not at all in affairs and does his own things.”

“The universe itself is God and the universal outpouring of its soul.”

“If I followed the multitude, I should not have studied philosophy.”

Related Articles:

Who Is Marcus Aurelius? Getting To Know The Roman Emperor

Who Is Seneca? Inside The Mind of The World’s Most Interesting Stoic

Who Is Epictetus? From Slave To World’s Most Sought After Philosopher

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