Human longing for a happy life is probably as old as the humanity itself. However, happiness is one of those fleeting concepts that receives new meaning with the change of time, shifts in values, developments in culture. In other words, happiness is a moving target. What has been our track record so far in trying to hit this target?
Here is one attempt to pin down happiness – a historical attempt, some 2’450 years old, presented to us by “the father of history”, Herodotus of Halicarnassus. In 420 BCE he wrote his monumental work ‘The Histories’ (his account of the origins of the Greco-Persian wars). Reportedly, this is Europe’s first substantial prose literature. Homer’s great works, the oldest existing works of Western literature, were poems. So, perhaps it is unsurprising that Herodotus earned his nickname “father of history” already in 1st century BCE (given by the Roman orator Cicero).
In his ‘Histories’, Herodotus relates the story of the Athenian wise man and lawgiver Solon’s visit to the ruler of the neighbouring Lydian kingdom, Croesus, in his capital city of Sardis.
“…there came to Sardis, then at the height of its wealth, all the wise men of the Hellas who chanced to be alive at that time, brought thither severally by various occassions; and of them one was Solon the Athenian, who after he had made laws for the Athenians at their bidding, left his native country for ten years and sailed away saying that he desired to visit various lands, in order that he might not be compelled to repeal any of the laws which he had proposed.”herodotus
A noteworthy act on the part of a lawmaker, and an interesting ‘safety mechanism’ to protect both his new laws from his own weaker moments and probably his life from those in power whom these laws disadvanatged. But I digress. Back to the tale of happiness. The king, Croesus, received Solon as an honoured guest and entertained him for several days in his palace until, finally, unable to restrain his pride at his kingdowm’s power and wealth, the king asked Solon:
“Athenian guest, much report of thee has come to us, both in regard to thy wisdom and thy wanderings, how that in search for wisdom thou hast traversed many lands to see them; now therefore a desire has come upon me to ask thee whether thou hast seen any whom thou deemest to be of all men the most happy.”herodotus
Solon gave his reply to the king but, unfortunately, he did not name the ruler as the happiest man he has ever met in his travels. Croesus was, naturally, not impressed, so he kept on pushing Solon to tell who might then be the second hapiest man, assuming of course that it must be him. However, Solon again told of other people whom he considered to be the happiest, and not once did he mention the king. All these people of whom Solon spoke were worthy, no doubt, but they had already died and none of them were kings! This drove Croesus angry and he asked Solon:
“Athenian guest, hast thou then so cast aside our prosperous state as worth nothing, that thou dost prefer to us even men of private station?”herodotus
To which Solon gave the following reply:
“Croesus, thou art inquiring about human fortunes of one who well knows that the Deity is altogether envious and apt to disturb our lot. For in the course of long time a man may see many things which he would not desire to see, and suffer also many things which he would not desire to sufer… Thus then, O Croesus, man is altogether a creature of accident. As for thee, I perceive that thou art both great in wealth and king of many men, but that of which thou didst ask me I cannot call thee yet, until I learn that thou hast brought thy life to a fair ending: for the very rich man is not at all to be accounted more happy than he who has but subsistence from day to day, unless also the fortune go with him of ending his life well in posession of all things fair… The rich man is able better to fulfil his desire, and also to endure a great calamity if it fall upon him; whereas the other [the poor man who is fortunate] has advantage over him in these things which follow: he is not indeed able equally with the rich man to endure a calamity or to fulfil his desire, but these his good fortune keeps away from him, while he is sound of limb, free from disease, untouched by suffering, the father of fair children and himself of comely form; and if in addition to this he shall end his life well, he is worthy to be called that which thou seekest, namely a happy man; but before he comes to his end it is well to hold back and not to call him yet happy but only fortunate… But we must of every thing examine the end and how it will turn out at the last…”herodotus
After hearing this, Herodotus tells us that the king sent Solon away “thinking him utterly senseless in that he passed over present good things and bade men look to the end of every matter.”