Salon and Croesus. Gerrit Von Honthorst. Hamburger Kunsthalle

Salon and Croesus. Gerrit Von Honthorst. Hamburger Kunsthalle

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed what the ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle and Epicurus had to say about happiness.  An even earlier Greek who had a definite opinion on the matter was Solon.  According to Herodotus (Book I, 30), Solon, a wise and eminent Athenian, traveled to Lydia, to the court of the wealthy king Croesus.  After Solon was shown all the king’s treasures, Croesus asked him if he had ever seen anyone happier than Croesus himself.  Solon answered that the happiest man was one Tellus, who not only was himself wealthy but had noble sons, each of whom provided him with grandsons, and who died heroically in battle.  After his death, the Athenians paid him great honor.  Croesus, hoping to receive at least the consolation prize, asked Solon who placed next after Tellus.  That would be Cleobis and Biton, Solon answered.  These were two brothers whose mother wanted to go to a local religious festival.  When the yoke of oxen didn’t come to pull her cart, Cleobis and Biton pulled her to the festival themselves.  They were given acclaim by the villagers, and their mother prayed at the temple that they be given “the best boon that man may receive.”  Following their mother’s prayer, Cleobis and Biton ate the feast, lay down to sleep, and died before waking.  

Upset, Croesus asked why Solon ranked his happiness below that of “common men.”  Salon answered:

Now if I am to speak of you, I say that I see you very rich and the king of many men.  But I cannot yet answer your question, before I hear that you have ended your life well.  For he who is very rich is not more blest than he who has but enough for the day, unless fortune so attend him that he ends his life well, having all good things about him.  (Book I, 32)

Croesus decided that Solon was foolish.  “ But after Solon’s departure,” reports Herodotus, “the divine anger fell heavily on Croesus: as I guess, because he supposed himself to be blest beyond all other men.”  Croesus’s son and heir died in an accident, and, misinterpreting a prophecy from the oracle at Delphi, Croesus invaded Persia and was defeated, losing his kingdom and all his wealth. 

Herodotus seems to see Croesus’ downfall as a result of hubris.  To conclude that one is blessed above everyone else is prideful, a lifting of oneself above the common run of humanity.  Once he has exalted himself in this manner, his fall is inevitable. 

The viewpoint that is the most interesting here, though, is not that of Herodotus but that of Solon.  He doesn’t see wealth or power, even in extraordinary portions, as any  guarantee of happiness.  Fortunes can always change, and in fact might be expected to do so.  In the words of the 20th century American philosopher Frank Sinatra, “That’s life, that’s what all the people say./ You’re riding high in April, shot down in May.”  And if fortune is unstable, so, too, is happiness. 

For Solon, it is impossible to even speak of happiness (the Greek uses more than one term, but for him the central feature of happiness seems to be that one is blessed by the gods) until a person’s life is over.  “[W]hoever continues in the possession of most things, and at last makes a gracious end of his life, such a man, O king, I deem worthy of this title.”  Aristotle rejects Solon’s view (Nichomachean Ethics, Book I, 10); given his greater emphasis on the role of virtue in happiness, he thinks it is possible to speak at least of eudiamonic happiness during the course of a person’s life.  Solon’s view represents the opposite extreme from modern psychological concept of happiness that operationalizes it as a response to a happiness questionnaire taken at one point during a person’s life. 

There’s another interesting element in Solon’s account of who is happy.  When asked to grant Cleobis and Biton “the best boon that man may receive,” the gods took their lives.  At first this sounds as if Solon thinks that death is better than life, but I’m not so sure that’s what we should conclude.  Maybe he just favors good endings.  To please their mother, be acclaimed in their community, win the god’s favor, have a great meal, then take a well-deserved rest after hard exertion—it doesn’t get any better than that.  We admire athletes who retire when they’re on top; Solon admires people who expire on top.