One of the fables of La Fontaine, illustrated on the tiles of the Royal School of the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, recounts the story of the philosopher Democritus, who, when contemplating the daily life of his fellow citizens, laughed without ceasing. All things, grave or slight, made the philosopher burst out laughing.
This hilarity disturbed the citizens of Abdera, who thought he was sick and mad. The public unrest was so great that the Senate eventually sent a letter to Hippocrates, asking him to come to the city to examine the illustrious Greek sage.
Arriving at Abdera, the doctor found Democritus in the shade of a tree, just writing a treatise on madness. Asked about the reasons for his laughter, he explained that he laughed at man’s foolishness, childish projects, empty works, who is persistently guided by immoderate desires.
The most famous doctor concluded that the wise smile was perfectly healthy, and the moral of the fable is a fierce criticism of the prejudices derived from people’s ignorance, often called the voice of God. The choice of the Democritus tale for the referred tiles matches perfectly well with the objectives of an educational institution. But, by including the founder of the theory of atomism, it also demonstrates an openness to philosophical eclecticism. As is well known, Aristotelian Physics denied that the universe was composed of very small, indivisible and indestructible particles, and the idea was considered contrary to biblical teachings.
In Portuguese colleges, this slow opening to philosophical eclecticism had begun in the first decades of the 18th-century, and the bust of the laughing philosopher was represented on the tiles of the classes at the Convento das Necessidades. As indicated by the priests of Saint Philip Neri, the painter followed the engraving that accompanied the work of Diogenes Laertius, the principal source for the history of ancient philosophy.
MARTINS, António Coimbra. As fábulas de La Fontaine de São Vicente de Fora – Les fables de La Fontaine du monastére de Saint-Vincent à Lisbonne. Lisbon: Editions Chandeigne / Gótica, 2001. ISBN 972-792-038-1.