Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Solon on Happiness

Radical Academy blog posted this excerpt from Mortimer J. Adler's discussion of an excerpt from Herodotus about Solon, the founder of Greek democracy, and his visit to Croesus, the richest king in Greece. Keep in mind that discussions about "happiness" in ancient Greece are complicated that the word for it, eudaimonia, was different from our word happiness. It meant well being or flourishing as well as happiness. It wasn't limited to the purely emotional state. The differences in language create differences in thought. But the insights are very powerful. The ancient Greek language was rich and wrenching. The Greeks probably would have found English dull.

> Solon set out upon his travels, in the course of which he came on a visit to Croesus at Sardis. Croesus received him as his guest, and lodged him in the royal palace, and had his servants conduct him over his treasures, and show him all their greatness and magnificence. And when Solon had seen them all. Croesus said, 'Stranger of Athens, I have heard much of your wisdom and of your travels through many lands. I am curious therefore to ask you, whom of all the men that you have seen, you consider the most happy?' This he asked because he thought himself the happiest of mortals: but Solon answered him without flattery: 'Tellus of Athens, sire.' Astonished at what he heard, Croesus demanded sharply, 'And why do you consider Tellus the happiest of men?' To which the other replied, 'First because his country was flourishing in his days, and he himself had sons both beautiful and good, and he lived to see children born to each of them, and these children all grew up; and further because, after a life spent in what our people look upon as comfort his end was glorious. In a battle between tie Athenians and their neighbors near Eleusis, he died gallantly upon the field. And the Athenians gave him a public funeral and paid him the highest honors.'

Thus, Solon admonished Croesus by the example of Tellus. When he had ended, Croesus asked angrily, 'Is my happiness, then, so little to you that you do not even put me on a level with private men?'

'Croesus', replied the other, 'I see that You are wonderfully rich and are the lord of many nations, but as for your question, I have no answer to give until I hear that you have closed your life happily. For assuredly he who possesses great store of riches is no nearer happiness than he who has enough for his daily needs. For many of the wealthiest men have been unfavoured of fortune, and many whose means were moderate have had excellent luck. The wealthy man, it is true, is better able to content his desires, and bear up against sudden calamity. The man of moderate means has less ability to withstand these evils, from which, however, his good luck may keep him clear. If so, he enjoys all these following blessings: he is whole of limb, a stranger to disease, free from misfortune, happy in his children, and comely to look upon. If in addition to all this, he ends his life well, he is truly the man who may rightly be termed happy. Call him, however, until he die, not happy but fortunate.'

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