Count No Man Happy Until the End Is Known

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 14, 2012 · 39 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood, On Virtue

As Herodotus tells it, Croesus, the ancient king of Lydia, was once visited at his palace by Solon, a wise sage and Athenian lawgiver. The king was delighted to have the itinerant philosopher in residence, and welcomed him with warm hospitality. For several days, Croesus instructed his servants to show off the full measure of the king’s enormous power and wealth.

Once he felt Solon had been sufficiently awed by his riches, Croesus said to him:

“Well, my Athenian friend, I have heard a great deal about your wisdom, and how widely you have travelled in the pursuit of knowledge. I cannot resist my desire to ask you a question: who is the happiest man you have ever seen?”

King Croesus was already certain that he was in fact the happiest man in the world, but wanted to enjoy the satisfaction of hearing his name parroted back to him from such a venerated sage.

But Solon, who was not one for flattery, answered: “Tellus the Athenian.”

The king was quite taken aback and demanded to know how such a common man might be considered the happiest of all.

Tellus, Solon replied, had lived in a city with a government that allowed him to prosper and born fine sons, who had in turn given him many grandchildren who all survived into youth. After enjoying a contented life, he fought with his countrymen, bravely died on the battlefield while routing the enemy, and was given the honor of a public funeral by his fellow Athenians.

Croesus was perplexed by this explanation but pushed on to inquire as to who the next happiest man was, sure that if he wasn’t first, he had to be second.

But again Solon answered not with the king’s name, but with a pair of strapping young Argives: Cleobis and Biton.

Known for their devotion to family and athletic prowess, when their mother needed to be conveyed to the temple of Hera to celebrate the goddess’ festival, but did not have any oxen to pull her there, these brothers harnessed themselves to the incredibly heavy ox cart and dragged it over six miles with their mother aboard. When they arrived at the temple, an assembled crowd congratulated the young men on their astounding feat of strength, and complimented their mother on raising such fine sons. In gratitude for bestowing such honor upon her, the mother of these dutiful lads prayed to Hera to bestow upon them “the greatest blessing that can befall mortal men.” After the sacrifices and feasting, the young brothers laid down in the temple for a nap, and Hera granted their mother’s prayer by allowing them to die in their sleep. “The Argives,” Solon finished the tale, “considering them to be the best of men, had statues made of them, which they sent to Delphi.”

Now King Croesus was livid. Three relative nobodies, three dead men were happier than he was with his magnificent palace and an entire kingdom of his own to rule over? Surely the old sage had lost his marbles. Croesus snapped at Solon:

“That’s all very well, my Athenian friend; but what of my own happiness? Is it so utterly contemptible that you won’t even compare me with mere common folk like those you have mentioned?”

Solon explained that while the rich did have two advantages over the poor – “the means to bear calamity and satisfy their appetites” – they had no monopoly on the things that were truly valuable in life: civic service, raising healthy children, being self-sufficient, having a sound body, and honoring the gods and one’s family. Plus, riches tend to create more issues for their bearers – more money, more problems.

More importantly, Solon continued, if you live to be 70 years old, by the ancient calendar you will experience 26,250 days of mortal life, “and not a single one of them is like the next in what it brings.” In other words, just because things are going swimmingly today, doesn’t mean you won’t be hit with a calamity tomorrow.  Thus a man who experiences good fortune can be called lucky, Solon explained, but the label of happy must be held in reserve until it is seen whether or not his good fortune lasts until his death.

“This is why,” Solon finally concludes to Croesus, “I cannot answer the question you asked me until I know the manner of your death. Count no man happy until the end is known.

Croesus was now sure Solon was a fool, “for what could be more stupid” he thought, than being told he must “look to the ‘end’ of everything, without regard for present prosperity?” And so he dismissed the philosopher from his court.

While the king quickly put Solon’s admonitions out of his mind, the truth of it would soon be revealed to him in the most personal and painful way.

First, Croesus’ beloved son died in a hunting accident. Then, blinded by hubris (excessive pride), he misinterpreted the counsel of the oracles at Delphi and began an ill-advised attempt to conquer King Cyrus’ Persian Empire. As a result, the Persians laid siege to his home city of Sardis, captured the humbled ruler, and placed him in chains on top of a giant funeral pyre. As the flames began to lick at his feet, Croesus cried out, “Oh Solon! Oh Solon! Oh Solon! Count no man happy until the end is known!”

Count No Man Happy Until the End Is Known

What did Solon mean by his seemingly cryptic statement?

Can a fulfilled life truly only be measured after all is said and done? This seems to fly in the face of modern Western thought. We see happiness as a subjective mood, a feeling that can fluctuate from day to day and be boosted by a pill or a bottle or a romp in the hay. For the ancient Greeks, however, happiness was encapsulated by the concept of eudaimonia, a word we do not have a modern equivalent for, but best translates as human flourishing. Happiness was not seen as an emotional state, but rather an assessment as to whether a man had attained virtue and excellence, achieved his aims, and truly made the most of his life. A man’s life might start well, and continue in prosperity through middle age, but if it ended poorly? His eudaimonia was not complete.

Thus, Solon was not arguing that men like Tellus and Biton were happier in death than in life; he was not referring to the afterlife. Rather, he argues that a man’s happiness can only be measured by a full accounting of it from start to finish, a measurement that cannot be taken until after he draws his last breath.

“Whoever has the greatest number of the good things I have mentioned [family, health, sufficiency, honor], and keeps them to the end, and dies a peaceful death,” that man, Solon argues, “deserves to be called happy.” Simply living a long life or attaining fine things does not make one happy; happiness is a label solely reserved for he who “dies as he has lived.”

The truth of this observation was not only lived out by Croesus (although his “end” upon the pyre was ultimately postponed by the mercy of Cyrus who decided to spare his life, and by the god Apollo who put out the flames), but in the lives of more modern men as well.

Ulysses S. Grant achieved one of the greatest degrees of success a man can possibly hope for: winning a war and then the White House. But after the presidency, he invested almost all of his assets in a banking firm his son had founded with a partner. The partner turned out to be a swindler, the firm went belly up, and Grant was left destitute, forcing him to sell his Civil War mementos to repay his loans. That same year, Grant, who had long had a habit of chain-smoking cigars, was diagnosed with throat cancer. In an attempt to pay off his debts, he worked on writing his memoirs until his death at age 63, only one year later.

William C. Durant became incredibly wealthy as he moved from lumberyard worker, to door-to-door cigar salesman, to founder of both General Motors and Chevrolet. Durant became a mover and shaker on Wall Street during the 1920s, and in the aftermath of the crash of ’29, though his friends advised against it, he joined with Rockefeller and others in buying large quantities of stock to shore up public confidence in the market. Durant subsequently lost his shirt and became bankrupt at age 75. A stroke in 1942 weakened his physical and cognitive abilities, and he lived out his days managing a bowling alley in Flint, Michigan until his death five years later.

Most recently, Joe Paterno could not more clearly embody Solon’s admonition to count no man happy until the end is known. For decades Paterno was revered as not just a football coach, but as an upstanding mentor who emphasized the importance of character to his players. Students bought shirts with his name emblazoned upon them and a statue of his energetic likeness was erected on the Penn State campus. But a luminous half-century long career ended not with adulation and fanfare, but a dismissal for his role in the Sandusky sex abuse scandal. He died two months later of cancer. A posthumous investigation heightened the blame for his role in the scandal, erased his record of achievements, crippled his beloved football program, and resulted in the removal of his statue. Truly, a tragedy of Greek proportions.

Four Lessons from the Tale of Solon & Croesus

Solon’s counsel may sound rather bleak – no one wants to think about the fact that each day could bring disaster and ruin our happiness – but Croesus’ cry of “Oh Solon! Oh Solon! Oh Solon!” has come to me quite often since hearing Herodotus’ tale, and has served to remind me of several important truths:

Don’t take things for granted. Solon’s forecast for life may be gloomy, but it’s realistic. Nobody knows if the things they enjoy today might be taken from them tomorrow. It’s important to be grateful for what you have each day – soak it in, make the most of it, don’t leave things unsaid and undone.

Focus on what matters most. Unfortunately, some of the wealthy concentrate on their riches to the exclusion of everything else. And yet, money can be so fleeting and contributes so little to “the good life”; if it disappears, they are left with nothing else from which to draw satisfaction. Solon argues that the man who dies with the most “things” that truly matter — self-sufficiency, health, virtue, family, piety, honor — is happiest. Concentrate on the things which last – that which remains after all else passes way.

Stay vigilant and beware of pride. Some calamities come to us by chance – disease and accidents can cause unforeseen reversals in our fortunes. We can only prepare for them by living providentially in our finances and cultivating the virtues of resiliency and calmness. But oftentimes, a man’s downfall could have been prevented through vigilance and humility. When men like Tiger Woods and John Edwards reflected on their downfall post-scandal, both said they had gotten to the point where they no longer believed the ordinary rules applied to them. When men become successful, they often get sloppy in their decision-making, less circumspect about with whom they associate, and indulge in vices that lead to ruin. A man who seeks eudaimonia can never afford to let down his guard.

Endure to the end.  As soon as you think you’ve “made it,” you’ve already begun to decline. It’s easier, and a great deal more fun, to find success…much harder to maintain it over the long haul. But there’s no coasting in life – you’re either moving forward or backward. To attain happiness, a man must follow Solon’s counsel to look to the end, while also having the discipline to do the dull, unglamorous day-to-day tasks required to reach that end.

 

 

 

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jared August 14, 2012 at 9:58 pm

Great post. Interesting to consider happiness not as an emotional state subject to daily fluctuation but as a deeper assessment of self efficacy.

2 Nate August 14, 2012 at 10:09 pm

While I see where the story is going I ultimately feel its hogwash. Solon says rich men are merely lucky for the time being – but that their luck can change. Croesus life ends in misery after his son is struck down and he burns after a failed invasion. Yet what if a similar fate had befallen Cleobis and Biton? What if Cleobis had been struck by a falling rock while hauling his mom and died slowly and painfully? And thus failed halfway? Would he be unhappy? To me it seems this idea of “happy” is completely luck based. As if any bad luck or poor decisions completely botches a persons life and makes it “unhappy.” I also don’t think this term eudaimonia sounds like what we interpret as happiness. It sounds like a foreign emotional concept from a different culture (such as Virtus.) This also seems like a story you spread to your people to keep them in line and out of your pockets. Some points of the story were good but I disagree with it on the whole.

3 Steve August 14, 2012 at 11:40 pm

Excellent post. I remember reading this story as part of studying Herodutus’ Histories in college and the story stayed with me, just as it did you. I think, yes, Solon would say that much of happiness comes down to chance, but that sometimes we bring it onto ourselves through pride. Too much pride was a central theme for so many Greek writers.

I remember the way Croesus mistook the oracles was very interesting. The oracle said if he battled the Persians, a mighty empire would fall. He thought that meant he would win, but it was his empire that got crushed! Beware of pride!

4 Garrett August 15, 2012 at 12:01 am

Great post, but kinda confused how dying in your sleep at a young, ripe age is the greatest blessing mortal men can recieve

5 Titus Techera August 15, 2012 at 12:50 am

Solon gives two very different examples.
The first is emphatically political: Living for the sake of the city: Earning the praise of the city, doing the good of the city.
The second is comparatively apolitical: Two athletes (naturally excellent) doing the bidding of their priestess mother (which brings up the problem of piety). The goddess that bestows on the boys the rare opportunity to sleep in the temple also bestows on them a peaceful death. Their mother had prayed that her boys get what is best. Apparently, what is best is never to have been born at all. Life is not worth living.
After the Greek story, there are two further stories in Herodotus’ book, one Egyptian, the other Persian, that also suggest that it is better never to have been born at all.
The first story makes no mention of gods, but the second one is very involved with the problem of gods, fate, & happiness. It points to human limits, or fate.

6 Tyler G. Serio August 15, 2012 at 1:14 am

@Nate I think that the Greeks believed that happiness is based on luck. I heard that a common belief among them was that some men were born to be happy while others were destined to be miserable. It was the “will of the gods” or something along those lines, so maybe that’s why Solon makes such a point about it. I agree with you though, even unlucky people can say they are “happy.”

7 Josiah August 15, 2012 at 5:28 am

Behold, we count them happy(μακαρίζω) which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy. James 5:11

But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. Matthew 24:13

8 Henry Lee August 15, 2012 at 5:31 am

I believe that if a man truly believes he is happy, nothing can take that away from him. Not even sickness or felling of health. The mind is a controlling thing, if it believe it is content, then it is content even if that person lives in a shack.

Happiness isn’t external, it’s internal. Solon take on happiness is that everything looks well on the outside – honor, integrity, family, health. But what goes on inside is true happiness. A man may have none of the qualities above, a begger, could somehow be completely happy.

9 Ara Bedrossian August 15, 2012 at 6:56 am

Your advice to have gratitude I think is the foundation of building a life of happiness. Gratitude comes from the realization of death, and after that, an acceptance that you cannot control the big things and you cannot control others, but you can control yourself, and your happiness.

10 Adam Sell August 15, 2012 at 6:57 am

@Nate

I think what we need to do is take what we can learn from the older Greeks. They valued virtue, piety and the increase of family more than we did, and maybe even to a fault. However, each culture when looked at with hindsight bias can be seen warts and all. I think Brett did a good job summing up your complaints in the last paragraph. As men, we cannot control what life circumstances come our way. All we can control is how we respond to them and how we have been preparing for the unknown. I’ve made poor decisions that have set me back. However, it isn’t the end of my life yet. I also cannot fully agree with the concept of eudaimonia, because what I consider “success” at the end of life might differ from another.
From the list of virtues and things that “remain after all things pass,” are there any that are cultural or era-sensitive? Are there any that are universal? I would say yes to both.

11 Noel Coleman August 15, 2012 at 8:33 am

While it may be a bit of semantics, I’d say what humans seek is joy, not happiness. Happiness can be taken away with circumstance. Joy is like my will. It cannot be taken, only given.

I would also argue that it isn’t about the achievements of this life or the status of your finances that creates a significant life. It is the legacy you’ve left that will remain and continue making an impact after your name and your life are long forgotten. So the things that are valuable in life according to Solon (civic service, raising healthy children, being self-sufficient, having a sound body, and honoring the gods and one’s family) while I think are not completely accurate do point in this direction.

12 Noel Coleman August 15, 2012 at 8:35 am

Actually one other thought as well: Joy comes from the deep acknowledgement that you are living out your specific role in a story bigger than yourself. The most important story of all.

13 Nabil Hanif August 15, 2012 at 8:52 am

What I take from the tale is that happiness is attained through virtues and that in death, the individual will have lived a life they know was fulfilling.

It isn’t something perused, it is a state of mind.

14 FreedomJackson August 15, 2012 at 9:40 am

This is because men want to finish strong. Knowing how it will end is an awesome way to get ready for the grand finale if you will.

If the end is where he projected it from the beginning like “NO SURRENDER” then this is true victory.

15 James Schipper August 15, 2012 at 9:49 am

This is a great article, except for the part where you imply that Notorious B.I.G. sampled a line from an ancient Greek.

16 Carmelo August 15, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Do we really need happiness?

It’s always incredibly brave to take a stance on what happiness is or isn’t. I appreciated the article very much!

I think that one’s definition is very personal and unique to himself. When you can look around you and say things like:

* I don’t need to achieve this goal!
* I don’t have to be perfect
* There’s nothing else I need to have, to be, to do, to feel,
* What is, is.

When you can say these things and many such things that bring a smile to your face, you’ve defined your happiness.

However, in my opinion, it’s not really happiness we’re after since happiness has its opposite in sadness. Happiness is an emotion that bounces along with the ups and downs, with luck and misfortune, with wins and losses.

Happiness is fun, to be sure, but …

It’s peace and joy we truly want. These are the things that reside deep within us and what we really seek to let out. And these come from awareness and the understanding that nothing physical, not even happiness is necessary.

Carmelo

17 Claude August 15, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Happiness is a choice.

18 Sam Haskel August 15, 2012 at 10:03 pm

I really like the lessons taught by this article. It’s also very well written

19 Nate August 16, 2012 at 12:00 am

@Nate. While the parable only describes a few stories of the deeds of mortal men they were relevant to the philosophy. Had these stories happened to richer men Solon would have included them. The underling message to the a story is obviously aimed at how a person lives their life rather than what wealthiest accrued there in.

20 NotoriousRoscoe August 16, 2012 at 8:15 am

Recent case in point: Joe Paterno

21 GTW August 17, 2012 at 3:54 am

Different conceptions of happiness from different men at different times.

When I first learned about Eudaimonia from studying Aristotle, it was very persuasive to me because I liked the idea of happiness as an objective state. Theoretically under this definition you could develop a science of happiness that could, with ample measurements, tell you whether or not your happy.

But then try to actually live life as though your happiness was external and not internal, and you will just add to the chaos of life by denying yourself that stability that comes from relying on your self instead of the external world. Plus its just plain hard (for me at least) to imagine non-subjective happiness.

22 Sam August 17, 2012 at 11:50 am

When I read the story of Cleobis and Biton, it made me think of the poem “To an athlete dying young” by A.E. Houseman. The idea that one of the best things for an athlete is to die young while still in their prime rather than to live, wither and be forgotten before they even die. One important thing to remember about the Greeks was that to be remembered for great feats of strength or acts of glory was the highest goal of life. The examples given of the happiest men were both men who received glory in death and so were remembered. If you received great glory, then that carried over into the afterlife, making your last resting place better than if you simply lived a mediocre life or a life that brought disgrace. The mind set was very different from that of the modern western idea of living in the moment being the best for they lived for eternity. This would probably be a good thing to reincorporate back into our modern lives. Just my two cents ;)

23 kingcrowofoctober August 17, 2012 at 6:48 pm

Awesome article as far as I am concerned. Many things to think on.

24 Bill August 18, 2012 at 6:27 am

Before we all decide we “know” about Joe Paterno’s “guilt” in the Sandusky scandal, we should realize that there are serious problems with the Freeh Report. Many feel that Freeh’s findings do not meet evidentiary standards. For another perspective on the Freeh Report, please see:

http://www.framingpaterno.com/

All I ask is that people keep in mind that the “end” may not yet be “known”.

25 Jeremy Delancy August 18, 2012 at 3:44 pm

From the comments, I see that there are different interpretations of this tale.
My feeling is that the ancients understood what science now proves. The Hedonistic Treadmill, the constant acquiring of pomp, money and pageantry leads away from long-term happiness. Studies on happiness have long shown that Europeans, South Americans, etc who have so much less than U.S citizens are on the whole, happier.
While I do not agree entirely with Solon on not knowing until the end, it does highlight that Croesus was overly taken with himself and all that he had. A warning to all men, throughout the ages.

26 Dick August 19, 2012 at 7:45 am

Excellent food for thought. I think the essay by Montaigne on the same subject, “That We Should Not Be Deemed Happy Till After Our Death,” is a great extension of the same idea, and well worth reading and thinking about. But the idea as given in this tale is equally given light and briefer. Very deep wisdom, sadly wasted on the callow and the shallow.

27 Max August 19, 2012 at 8:52 am

There are a few points that stand out, one being, live life with intention and accordance; of course Herodotus was reflecting the social conventions of the time.

28 Steven August 19, 2012 at 11:42 am

Excellent post. Shakespeare’s King Lear is another classic example of a character with a similar arc to Croesus’.

29 bArt August 20, 2012 at 5:57 am

Max #26
Are you saying a life lived without intention and accordance is not relevant to social conventions of today, or something else?

30 George August 20, 2012 at 3:03 pm

I love your mother. Yes, YOURS.

31 Vladimir Petru Filip August 25, 2012 at 9:45 am

great explanation of this philosphy . i reccomend you to watch the movie : “any question for ben “. The main ideea is about the title of this article . You’ll enjoy it .

32 ronnyfm August 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm

This happiness discussion reminds me of one of the first quotes that introduce me to theologian Jonathan Edwards, “All men seek happiness without exception. They all aim at this goal however different the means they use to attain it. . . .They will never make the smallest move but with this as its goal. This is the motive of all the actions of all men, even those who contemplate suicide.” –Pascal

33 Lmil September 3, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Two kids desire to make football their passion. The first kid overcomes hell to survive the cuts, gets picked by the Bears, plays 20 yrs, raises 4 lovely kids in a fine home..not much fanfair. The 2nd kid makes all the highlights on espn, plays for powerhouse teams, gets endorsements, big money, you name it. He retires a drug junkie, baby daddied, gambling, divorced, bankrupt swindler banned from the game..okay, whom do you call the HAPPY one?

34 Lmil September 3, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Oh, may I add..1st diagnosed with some life defining illness post retirement ..would not his fulfillment of career and accomplishment ease the final sufferings? One hopes. As for no.2..having fallen from grace..itz never too late to rise from the pits and embark on a mission to help self and others overcome dereliction. The time to do either is while youre alive. Happiness stems from choices that have value

35 Lmil September 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm

So it appears the king had in mind that surely with all he had, then certainly He was the happiest. Not so! Happiness will always be bigger than SELF. or your posessions. More as in the giving of self..selflessness..more happiness in giving than receiving. Thatz a value!

36 I'm Red Beard wise October 16, 2012 at 7:41 pm

This parable follows a very similar one that I discovered off a fairly recently made movie, Charlie Wilson’s War. It has defined much of my views from that moment on. Again I did not write it, it is from a movie.
There was a zen master who lived in a village. In this village a boy was given a horse for his birthday and everyone said, “oh how wonderful”. The zen master said “we’ll see”. Then a short time later the boy was bucked off the horse and broke his leg. Then everyone said, “oh how horrible”. The zen master said “we’ll see”. Then shortly after war was declared and all the young men were called off to the army except the boy because of his broken leg and everyone said “oh how wonderful”. The zen master said “we’ll see”.
While happiness if fleeting and joy is short lived, in that moment it can either be heaven or hell. Will it last? “We’ll see”.

37 Vicster October 20, 2012 at 12:29 pm

I read the article and also various comments that were written. I was not too impressed by the comments and it only reflected the level of intelligence and an inept ability to reflect a very profound and insightful article.

I would like to share with the readers and with the writer, how as a single 30 something year old guy, have considered what thoughts would pass as I eventually take my final breath.

To me what matters is what change and what impact I as an individual had in the world I lived in.

I thought the best way would be to sponsor a child for Save the Children. I currently sponsor two children and will be sponsoring another soon. It is my way of making the world a better place knowing that I as an individual was able to improve the life of another person. Yes I admit I was inspired by the ending of About Schmidt, great movie.

38 Jake December 1, 2013 at 9:55 am

Eu – Good (as in euphonic for “good sounding”) + Daimon – Spirit (cf. demon)
The word may be translated as “having a good spirit”, but that would lead to the question of why “good spirit” instead of “good soul” (“eupsyche” perhaps?) Apparently, modern psychology (“soul study”) attaches eudaimonia to self-control.

http://beerandtrembling.wordpress.com/?s=solon

39 Marcia Castle December 9, 2013 at 7:18 am

Thank you for this article. This story always fascinated me too. Solon was renowned throughout the ancient world for his wisdom and this story is very enlightening. In it Solon clearly shows that eudaimonia or a full human floursihing requires:

1. that one live in a country that has good government which allows one to prosper. So many countries today are riddled with corruption that this requirement must be as difficult to fulfil today as it was in ancient times.

2.one has a good family with many healthy children and grandchildren

3. Has sufficient means (nota bene not a great deal of wealth)

4. Good health, virtue and humility

5. Is honoured by one’s community

6. Has the greatest blessing that God can bestow which is to die peacefully in one’s sleep.

There is a further moral to this story that one should beware what one wishes for. The mother who asked for the greatest blessing for her sons did not reckon that they would be taken from her by dying peacefully in their sleep!

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