How Democritus and Heraclites Might Have Reacted to the Trump Election



This evening after a series of minor vexations – son sick, Gamecocks clobbered, eye invaded by wayward particle – I got to thinking about Horace Walpole’s observation that “[l]ife is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think.” I quote Walpole when I’m teaching tragedy and ask students to offer an interpretation.

It’s a hard question, hard to put the answer into words.

Of course, to address the question, you need context.   For example, let’s examine the thinking/ feeling/comedy/tragedy conundrum from the perspective of Trump’s election.

(I know some of you may have supported Trump, perhaps because you feel immigrants are overrunning the country or that massive tax cuts will defy history and fuel an economic boom or that you consider Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama Satanic spawn or some/all of the above).

However, the [tautology alert] a priori premise in this thought experiment is that Trump is a vulgarian with authoritarian tendencies whose boorish pronouncements during the campaign have eroded codes of civility and whose total lack of a sense-of-history and intellectual curiosity make his election as leader of the free world very, very unfortunate.

Not to mention his pathological avariciousness.



Okay, let’s bring in the cynical pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus, aka “the laughing philosopher.”

Seneca claimed that Democritus, whom he called “the Mocker,” laughingly held human beings in disdain, modeling a detached amusement at the foibles of the masses. In temperament think Bill Maier as opposed to Louis Black.

If human folly is laughable, this election might very well provoke Democritus to guffawing at this turn of events:

A swindler and pathological liar who pleads guilty to fraud a week after the election and who referred to his opponent as “Crooked Hillary” with the help of Fox News and Russian hackers (not to mention the New York Times) convinces a majority populace that he’s “more trustworthy” than she.

[cue laugh track]

Coal miners in Kentucky counties who have decreased their uninsured rate by almost twenty percent vote 93% to 6% for a man who wants to abolish the estate tax.

[cue laugh track]

Thinkers like Democritus take the long view.   Human folly is essentially history’s major motif. Thinkers are familiar with not only Huck Finn’s the “Duke and the Dolphin” but have read Swift and Shakespeare and perhaps Horace and Juvenal.

In their view, only incredibly naïve pollyannas would expect their generation to be less prone to foolishness than their forebears. Most of humankind is purblind, always have been, always will be.

After all, anyone reading this will be literally dead in 80 years. So what if the American Experiment fails? So what if Arizona once again boasts a view of the Pacific? Letting the little people decide was a very, very bad idea.

Just desserts.

By the way, should I add that this view might be considered elitist?



Heraclitus, on the other hand, aka the “weeping philosopher,” was a feeler, invested in the here and now. So what if Swift’s view of Yahoos was essentially correct? Those yahoos who voted for Trump in Kentucky lives will not get any better but actually worse: they will lose that recently acquired insurance, babies will die, and those promised coal mining jobs ain’t coming back ever.  Once again, they’ve been lied to.

How horrible, Heraclitus laments, that such chicanery is so rewarded. A spoiled, 70-year-old adolescent tweets preposterous lies and pays no apparent price for his dishonesty and in the mean time transforms the Founding Fathers’ republican democracy into an authoritarian kleptocracy!

People are real, not abstractions to be mocked. Pain is real.

In fact, sorry. My eye is killing me. I got to sign off.





The Trump Campaign: A Tragical Farce or Farcical Tragedy?

Mr Trump

“Life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.” – Horace Walpole

When taken to extremes, melodramas and farces turn topsy-turvy and elicit the opposite effect of their original intent – overdone melodramas provoke laughter instead of tears; overdone farces can provoke palatable discomfort and sometimes fear.

For example, check out the trailer for the overly melodramatic movie Reefer Madness. Although it conforms to Laurence Perrine’s description of melodrama as attempting “to arouse feelings of fear and pity,” it does so through “cruder means” by employing “oversimplified plots” and “flat characterization.” In other words, everything is overdone, suspension of disbelief shattered, so the audience ends up laughing instead of trembling.

Farces are by definition exaggerated comedy, and given the inherent cruelty in comedy, it’s not surprising that when taken to the extreme, farces can create discomfort.   Take, David Lynch’s 1977 movie Eraserhead, for example. Here’s an excerpt from Dennis Lim’s David Lynch: A Man from Another Place in which he describes a few scenes from the movie:

The first section of the movie with extended dialogue is also when most audiences realize they are watching a comedy of sorts. Lynch turns a staple of sitcom humor — the meet-the-parents dinner – into an ominous minefield of absurdist non sequiters, a deadpan farce [my emphasis] of misbehaving bodies. On the couch next to Henry [the protagonist], Mary [Henry’s consort] suffers an epileptic fit, which Mrs. X assuages by grabbing her daughter’s jaw and brushing her hair. Meanwhile, a litter of puppies nurse hungrily on their mother. Mr. X rants about the woes of being a plumber (“People think pipes grow in their homes!”), standing before an enormous duct that could have sprung from the ground. In the kitchen, Mrs. X tosses the salad with the help of catatonic Grandma X’s lifeless limbs. When Henry cuts into the squab-like creature that Mr. X has roasted for dinner, viscous blood spills from its cavity and its thighs wag up and down, sending Mrs. X into a drooling erotic trance. Then comes the bombshell, “there’s a baby,” at which point Henry gets a nosebleed.

Here’s a clip from the dinner in which someone has spliced in brief scenes of Robert De Niro, which, obviously, weren’t in the original. I don’t think they’re too distracting, though.

Compare the tone of that scene to this description of the English granddaddy of all farces, the puppet show Punch and Judy, The quote comes from a paper written by Ian Horswill of Northwestern University entitled “Punch and Judy AI Playset: A Generative Farce Manifesto Or: The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Predicate Calculus.”

In Collier’s historical script (Collier and Cruikshank 2006), Mr. Punch successively beats to death his friend’s dog, his own baby, his own wife, his horse, the doctor who tries to treat him after he’s injured by the horse, a policeman (beaten but not killed), and the Devil himself. When his wife confronts him over the murder of his own child, Mr. Punch, who wants to have sex with her, replies that she’ll soon have another one.

Thus, extreme farce shares with tragedy irrationality and darkness but lacks any positive cathartic effects.

I think most would agree that Donald Trump’s campaign has denigrated into a farce.   I’ll spare you an encyclopedic rehash of voluminous blunders that have characterized the campaign and merely offer that yesterday morning Emily Nussbaum wondered on Twitter what outrage Trump might come up during the day.  She posited his assaulting a baby or biting a bat’s head off.  After the incident in Virginia when Trump had a baby removed from his rally, Nussbaum tweeted this:

Perhaps I’m getting soft in my old age, but I’m starting to feel pity for Trump – pathos in the old Greek sense of the term.  Sure, he’s a terrible human being with skin as thin as Zig Zag Ultra Thin Cigarette Rolling Papers, but imagine the insecurities he must harbor. Imagine being such a hemophiliac of rage, every little nick resulting in arterial spurting; imagine being your own worst enemy. Imagine how unhappy he must be. Think Michael Henchard of The Mayor of Casterbridge or Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man – but without the self-awareness.

Let’s hope for his own sake – and for our own — that he loses the election.