What is the most important thing in life, the one thing that deserves to be
pursued at all costs? Could it be just cheerfulness?
Is it maybe love, success, wealth, family, fame? Everyone might answer this question differently as of course the most important thing can mean something else for all of us individually. But could there be one thing that suits anyone?
That’s what the philosopher and scientist Democritus claimed, who lived c.460-370 BCE. You might have heard of him for his atomic theory which was a very innovative theory for his time. However, Democritus was not solely interested in the particles of matter. Democritus’ reply to our initial question is “cheerfulness” (euthymia) he names cheerfulness to be the highest good of all.
And how can this peaceful state of inner balance be reached?
Whatever you do, do it in moderation! Enjoy food, love, wealth and anything you can acquire, but never forget that exaggeration in anything will agitate your inner balance. This view was also supported by Plato and Aristotle, in opposite to some other philosophers who proposed the extremes of unrestrained hedonism or the ascetic life without pleasures. Democritus says it’s only the cheerful, and thereby happy, soul which can preserve moderation. But how can you know you’ve gone too far past moderation? ”When someone feels extreme tension or worry, it means he has lost moderation and he has reached exaggeration”, Democritus says. So, if you have so many unfulfilled desires that you lose your sleep over them, or if you find yourself to be in constant frustration and anxiety, try to limit your wishes and start enjoying more the things you already have.
If you manage to reduce unnecessary excitements and if you control yourself in situations of excessive joy or pain, you train yourself to adapt to real circumstances. Pain and sorrow will come for all at some point in our life; instead of wondering “why did this have to happen to me?”, it’s best to use all the help we can get to deal with it. And at times when great joy comes, let’s not exaggerate as if this would last forever. Because when conditions change again, it will be very difficult to cope with this change. It is not possible to adjust reality to our expectations, but we can take chance into our own hands, Democritus says: “Men have made an idol of Chance as an excuse for their own incompetence; for chance disrupts planning a little, but intelligent foresight straightens out most problems in life”.
Democritus himself seems to have benefited by this method a lot. The “laughing philosopher”, as they called him, surprised the world with his knowledge of mathematics, geometry, astronomy, history and what else not, but still managed to keep his mind free of any religious or political entrapment. He travelled to all the great cities of Asia Minor, he founded a very important academy in his home city Abdera in Thrace, he wrote 70 works and he lived for a hundred years!