The tale that I will tell you can be found on just over two pages in the oldest work of historical literature in the world, the Histories written by Herodotus. However, the moral and philosophical tale is one as old as time and whose relevance will never wain or die, what does it mean to be truly happy?
Our narrative will revolve around a conversation between two distinct individuals, King Croesus of Lydia and Solon, an Athenian lawmaker. Croesus’ kingdom Lydia was in what is now known as western Turkey, Croesus had successfully waged war on the Ionian Greeks who had settled on the western shores of the Aegean sea in Turkey. By doing so he had massed a great deal of land and the wealth and was one of the most powerful men in the world. Croesus at that time was said to be the richest king in the world and lent itself to the saying ”rich as Croesus”. Croesus’ palace at the capital of the Lydian empire Sardis was spectacular, the finest of its time with only the most extravagant decoration. All of the best Greek thinkers visited Sardis to see Croesus and pay tribute whereby their reputation would grow and as would Croesus’ prestige as a great king.
Of the men who visited Croesus by far the most reputable was the Athenian lawmaker Solon. Solon’s rise to influence in Athens was due to the persistent breakdown in Greek and Specifically Athenian society as time and time again various Noblemen seized power and ruled as tyrants. The Athenians believed that power should be used to make legislation in the interests of the people, the Greek for people being ‘Demos’ and power being ‘Kratia’ would eventually lead to our word Democracy. In 594/3 BC the people of Athens granted Solon autocratic powers by electing him Archon, leader of Athens as he was seen as the only one who had the ability to correct the constitution of Athens. So Solon’s reformed various areas of Athenian society and were said to be highly moral, covering what a man should do rather than just what he can do. After these reforms were in place Solon left Athens with the agreement that he would stay away from Athens while the Athenians lived by his laws. It is these laws that eventually lead to the Athenian democracy, the worlds first institutionalised democracy, kind of a big deal eh?
It is during this absence from Athens that Solon visited king Croesus at Sardis where he stayed for 4 days. The first three days Croesus instructed Solon to be taken on tours of the city so that he may see it in all its grandeur, next he was taken to the treasury to see the vast amount of wealth that Croesus had and how he wanted for nothing. Once Coresus had shown Solon all the wonders he turned to Solon and said:
”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 one question: Who is the happiest man you have ever seen?”
Solon was wise to see through the king’s line of questioning for Croesus just like many powerful men before and after him had become accustomed to being surrounded by sycophants, people who would only ever tell him what he wanted to hear. Croesus supposed himself to be the happiest man Solon had ever seen due to his outrageous wealth and power. Solon was deeply thoughtful for a few seconds, then staring back at the King he replied ”An Athenian called Tellus”. Taken aback Croesus snapped angrily ”why did you choose this man?” Solon replied:
”First, his city was prosperous, and he had fine sons and lived to see children born to each of them, all these children surviving: secondly, he had wealth enough by our standards; and he had a glorious death and fought for his countrymen and died a brave man. The Athenians paid him the high honour of a public funeral”
Here it becomes apparent that Solon is trying to use the life of Tellus to provide Croesus with moral instruction about the simple life of Tellus and how his relationship and standing with his fellow citizens brings happiness. Croesus then asked who was the second happiest man Solon had ever seen thinking that he must say that it was himself. Solon however replied:
”Two young men from Argos, Cleobis and Biton. The Argives were celebrating a festival of Hera and a woman to be on time needed her Ox to tow her cart. But the Ox was late coming back from the field, her sons therefore as there was no time to loose harnessed themselves to the cart and dragged it along with their mother inside six miles to the temple. With a crowd watching as they arrived the twins were congratulated on their physical prowess and congratulated the mother on having such fine sons. The mother prayed to the goddess Hera that she bless the boys with the greatest blessing a mortal man can have. When all was over the two boys fell asleep in the temple and that was the end for them. They never woke again. The Argives considering them to be the best of men and had statues made of them”
With this response, Croesus became agitated and responded asking Solon:
”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 said as a man travels through life ”there is much both to see and to suffer which one would wish otherwise”. He tells Croesus that man is a creature of chance and chance has the ability to give and take away in equal quantities. A not so subtle warning that the foundation of happiness should not be material objects as they can be taken away in the blink of an eye. He goes on to say ”the poor but lucky man is more likely to be clear of trouble and will have the blessings of a sound body, health, freedom from trouble, fine children and good looks”. However no man or woman can have all of these advantages as no man or woman can be too powerful or beautiful without disaster occurring. Solon then ends his instruction with profound sentences with an emphasis on moral guidance:
”whoever has the greatest number of the good things I have mentioned and keeps them to the end and dies a peacful death, that man, Croesus, deserves in my opinion to be called happy… Often enough God gives a man a glimpse of hapiness, then utterly ruins him”
Croesus mostly ignored Solon as by this time he had realised that he was not going to pleased by Solon saying that he was the happiest man alive. So he dismissed Solon for a fool as how could it be possible that he wasn’t the happiest man alive with all his power and wealth. His own hubris, extreme arrogance has lead him to believe that his wealth and power make made him the happiest man alive and that it will never be taken away from him and has clouded his judgment.
Solon’s messages of what makes someone happy are as relevant today as they were 2,500 years ago. The idea of living in a prosperous place where people work for one another and the common good as can be seen with Tellus the Athenian fighting and dying for his fellow countrymen and is rewarded with a public funeral. Knowing that he will be remembered fondly and through his children and grandchildren. Not living in excess or looking for material things as Solon was trying to teach Croesus. These are still moral and ethical dilemmas today are they not? Charles Dickens a Christmas Carrol being a prime example. For what eventually brings Scrooge happiness isn’t his wealth and possessions but rather personal relationships. The lesson that Solon was trying to provide, is the same one as Charles Dickens. Happiness is not based on tangible objects, rather the intangible bonds you have with the people closest to you in your life and the impact you have on them. There will come a time before you die when you will reflect on your life and judge if you are happy or not and I only hope that you will not be found wanting.
Croesus the great king was at this point in his life, he stood chained to a pyre ready to be executed by being burned alive. His hubris had led him into a war against the Persian King Cyrus the Great, who had defeated him and now was presiding over his execution. And as the fire was lit he Croesus found himself reflecting on his life and found himself wanting. It was at this point he realised the lesson that Solon was trying to teach him all of those years ago, for Croesus had a glimpse of happiness and now he was utterly ruined. As he felt the fire under his feet in anguish he yelled out ”SOLON SOLON SOLON”. The Persian king took an interest and as Creosus started to burn he exclaimed that it had been Solon who had forecast his fate and it had been through his own arrogance that he hadn’t listened.
Hearing this Cyrus, the great king of Persia ordered Croesus be taken down and allowed to live out the rest of his life in humble surroundings. For Cyrus realised that at that current moment in time he was all-powerful like Croesus had been but by learning from Croesus he should demonstrate wisdom and in all things look to the end. We can only wonder if Croesus did eventually find true happiness at the end of his life. And so, Solon, with his teaching on happiness had rescued one great king and educated another.
Oliver J. Hallett
Scott-Kilvert I. and Duff T.E. 2011. Plutarch: The age of Alexander. Penguin Classics. Second edition.
Scott-Kilvert. 2008. Plutarch the rise and fall of Athens: Nine Greek lives. Penguin Classics. Second edition
Selincourt A, B. Marincola, J, M. 1972. Herrodotus: The Histories. Penguin Classics. Second Edition.