Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Herodotus’ “Histories” of the Persian Wars (very liberally ‘translaparaphrased’): Book I sections 32 - 33

Wherein, we get an inkling that Croesus is going to get his comeuppance...


Croesus was irritated with Solon for giving second prize for happiness to these two young men from Argos. He testily barked, ‘that’s all well and good my Athenian friend, but do you really have so little regard for my own happiness? What of it? Is it as insignificant and unworthy as to be beyond any comparison with these common folk you have mentioned?’

Solon replied, ‘Croesus, I know God is envious of human prosperity and likes to trouble us for it. And you question me about our lot? Listen then to my answer: Our life is long, and as the years unfold before us there is much to see, and much to suffer that one would rather avoid. Take seventy years as the typical lifespan; those seventy years contain 25,200 days, not counting the intercalary months. Add a month’s worth of days every other year, to align the seasons with the calendar with regularity and you will add thirty-five months to the sum; that is, 1050 additional days, bringing the total to 26,250, and not a single one of those days is like another in what it brings us.

You can see from all this Croesus, that man is a creature at the mercy of chance. Now, it is true, you seem to be very wealthy, and you do rule over many men, but the question you ask me, I cannot answer until I know that you have died in a happy state. For, great riches can make a man no happier than can moderate prosperity unless he has the great luck to continue in those riches to his dying day. Many very wealthy men have ended life unfortunately, and many of modest means have had continued good luck to the end. The former are better off than the latter only in two respects, where the poor but lucky man has advantage in many additional ways. For, though the wealthy have the means to satisfy their desires, and can bear calamities, where the poor cannot claim this, nevertheless, the poor, if they are lucky, are more likely to avoid troubles, and will also have the blessings of sound body, health, freedom from troubles, fine children and good looks.

If such a man, having been so favored by fortune, dies as he has lived, he is just the person you are asking after. He is the only sort of person deserving of the description ‘happy.’ But, take care to hold this point; until that man is dead, keep that word ‘happy’ in abeyance. Only after he dies is he rightly described as happy. Before that day, he is only lucky.

No one person can have all these things, no more than a single country can provide all its material needs. Whatever it has, there is always something it does not have. The best country is obviously the one that has most of what it needs. It is exactly the same with individuals. No man is self sufficient. There is always something missing. Be that as it may, whoever has most of the good and necessary things I have mentioned, and hangs on to them till the end of his days, and dies a peaceful death, that man, dear Croesus deserves to be called truly happy, in my opinion.

Look to the end no matter what it is you are considering. For we know that it all too often happens that God gives a man a tantalizing taste of the good life, and then sees fit to utterly ruin him.


The opinions of Solon were clearly not of the sort to give Croesus the gratification he sought. He therefore let Solon go on his way with a cold send off, utterly convinced the man was a fool. What could be more asinine than to insist that he always look toward the end of everything with no regard for what was presently and plainly before him?

What happens next to Croesus? You guessed it. Nemesis strikes, just as Solon had warned… Stay tuned.