The laughing philosopher

One of the biggest surprises at the once-in-a-lifetime Velasquez exhibition that closes next week was this painting of Democritus, known as the laughing philosopher and represented as such by the likes of Rembrandt (or maybe not) and Rubens.  I became aware of some of these images — but not the Velasquez — just over a year ago, when I was desperately trying to explain to Princeton University Press how to modify their proposed cover image to make it less grim, and to replace the astrological symbols by mathematical text.   I experimented with a few composites to try to get the right facial expression.  (Laughing out loud like Democritus was not considered a credible option.)

This one combines features of two well-known mathematicians of the past, one of the 17th century laughing philosophers, and an old passport picture of the author of MWA:


Here’s a remix, tinted green:


The contrast was too low for PUP and their artist could not figure out how to reconstruct the face using mathematical symbols.   Finally, with the countdown to production growing ever more insistent, my wife Béatrice (who still doesn’t want to be thanked) and I were put in touch in September with Dimitri Karetnikov.  Within a week he had figured out what the two of us had been struggling for months to put into words, and designed the cover as you now see it.

Meanwhile, why is Velasquez’s Democritus laughing?  Is it because, as a Greek materialist, he would rather laugh than cry at the stubborn insistence of European politicians on following macroeconomic theories that fail the test of empirical validation?  Or is it rather, as I suspect, that his model was a mathematician who had attended one too many champagne receptions?


One thought on “The laughing philosopher

  1. Harold Bursztajn

    Thank you for reminding me of the great 19th &20 th century philosophers who looked at the world that Democritus adumbrated with irony. When all is too grim, to laugh is to be free. Or how Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Frank could share a good laugh, no matter the matter.





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