At What Point Can A Man Be Called Happy?

The historian Herodotus (I.30) relates an anecdote involving a conversation between the Lydian king Croesus and the Athenian statesman Solon.  Solon once found himself as a guest at Croesus’s court.  The king knew that Solon was renowned for his wise judgment and careful consideration of life’s important questions.  So he could not resist asking the Athenian a question that was troubling him.  The question he asked him was this:  “Who, Solon, was the happiest man you have ever seen?”  It was expected for royal visitors to tell the king what he wanted to hear, of course.  Croesus was expecting some words of flattery from Solon to reassure himself that he was living a meaningful life.

But Solon was not the type of man to act like a lackey before powerful men.  He said a man named Tellus was the happiest man he knew; and as second-happiest, Solon named two men from Argos called Cleobis and Biton.  All three of these men Solon considered “happy” due to the fact that they had all displayed virtue, courage, and character in the face of hardship.  This to Solon was more important than frolicking around amid voluptuary pleasures which, he knew, were nothing but deceptive illusions.  Yet Croesus was still chagrined to discover that Solon did not really place much value or importance in the sumptuous life of royals; his vanity was wounded, and he felt snubbed.  Lashing out at his guest, Croesus demanded to know why he did not at least rate a place in the top three “most happy” rankings.  Solon responded in this way:

My lord, I know God is envious of human prosperity and likes to trouble us; and you question me about the lot of man.  Listen, then:  as the years lengthen out, there is much both to see and to suffer which one would wish otherwise.  Take seventy years as the span of a man’s life:  those seventy years contain 25,200 days, without counting intercalary months.  Add a  month every other year, to make the seasons come round with proper regularity, and you will have thirty-five additional months, which will make 1,050 additional days.  Thus the total of days for your seventy years is 26,250, and not a single one of them is like the next in what it brings.

You can see from that, Croesus, what a chancy thing life is.  You are very rich, and you rule a numerous people; but the question you asked me I will not answer, until I know that you have died happily.  Great wealth can make a man no happier than moderate means, unless he has the luck to continue in prosperity to the end.  Many very rich men have been unfortunate, and many with a modest competence have had good luck.  The former are better off than the latter in two respects only, whereas the poor but lucky man has the advantage in many ways; for though the rich have the mans to satisfy their appetites and to bear calamities, and the poor have not, the poor, if they are lucky, are more likely to keep clear of trouble, and will have besides the blessings of a sound body, health, freedom from trouble, fine children, and good looks.

Now if a man thus favored dies as he has lived, he will be just the one you are looking for:  the only sort of person who deserves to be called happy.  But mark this:  until he is dead, keep the word “happy” in reserve.  Till then, he is not happy, but only lucky. 

Nobody of course can have all these advantages, any more than a county can produce everything it needs:  whatever it has, it is bound to lack something.  The best country is the one which has most.  It is the same with people:  no man is ever self-sufficient.  There is sure be something missing.  But whoever has the greatest number of the good things I have mentioned, and keep them to the end, and dies a peaceful death, that man, my lord Croesus, deserves in my opinion to be called happy.

Look to the end, no matter what it is you are considering.  Often enough God gives a man a glimpse of happiness, and then utterly ruins him.  [Trans. by A. de Selincourt]

These were Solon’s words to Croesus.  They were not the words he wanted to hear, but they were the words he needed to hear.  His point, of course, was this:  it is not possible to evaluate a man’s life until it has ended.  No one can say whether a man is happy or miserable until he has sighed his last breath.  Because fortune is ever-changing, and constantly setting up obstacles and challenges in our path, we cannot predict what impediments we will encounter.  Or so it seemed to Solon.

But is this really true?  Do we need to wait until the end of a man’s life in order to judge whether he is happy?  Maybe we should see happiness as a mental state, a condition of the mind, that once attained, cannot be lost.  The philosopher Epicurus believed that happiness, once attained, could not be lost merely because of physical pain or discomfort.  In this view, we can say that happiness has nothing at all to do with externalities like health, wealth, family, and things like this.

Some of the noblest words on this subject have been written by that great essayist, Michel de Montaigne.  He treated this very question–that no man can be called happy until after his death–in book I, chapter 19 of his Essais.  Probably speaking of his close friend Étienne de La Boétie, he says:

Some deaths are brave and fortunate.  I have seen death cut the thread of a man’s days when he was on the point of magnificent achievement.  In the flower of his age, he made so fine an end that I do not believe even his most ambitious and courageous designs attained a splendor equal to that of the moment that cut them short.  Without moving towards it, he obtained his goal more grandly and more gloriously than he can have hoped or desired.  And he gained by his fall a more ample power and fame than he had aspired to in his whole career.  In judging another man’s life, I always inquire how he behaved at the last; and one of the principal aims of my life is to conduct myself well when it ends–peacefully, I mean, and with a calm mind.  [Trans. by J.M. Cohen]

I agree with Montaigne.  As I see it, happiness is an internal change we make in our own minds, a change that cannot be ruined or degraded by the cruelties of fortune.  We can say that happiness is a form of willpower, a form of mental resolution, in which we force ourselves to keep fighting the game of life until we draw our last breath.  This is what I say:  happiness is the will to live; it is the will to stay in the arena until the curtain comes down on the last act of the drama.


Explore more about this question and others related to it in my On Duties.