The Words of Solon
In the ancient world, stories were told as parables and aphorisms. Whether or not the subject matter was literally true, it was true in the eyes of wisdom, and so was true nonetheless. In some ways, one could argue that these stories were “truer than truth”. One such story concerns a King and a person who was usually accorded the quality of wisdom–Solon. I will quote the story below:
“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!”
There are many ways to interpret this parable, but one thing that comes to attention here for me is the accounting of time. 26,250/70 = 375. Hence, on average, we know that a solar year by the ancient calendar was equaling somewhere near 375 days per year. That means there are 10 extra days, on average during the life of Croesus. 10 X 70 is then 700 days, which is nearly two years more than we would regard someone who was 70 by our accounting of time. So, we would conclude that Solon might be telling us that Croesus, richest man in Lydia, was actually 72. This number comes up frequently, as there are 72 years per one degree of precession on the Earth. This means that the Earth wobbles about and the background stars appear to change such that the pole star itself eventually changes by one degree every 72 years. Approximately every 26,000 years, the pole star shifts into some other star at this rate of precession.
Do you think it is a coincidence, then, that in English there are 26 letters? There are also systems of thought that appertain to letters mapping to numbers, such as in Hebrew Gematria, where 26 = to the sum of the letters of YHVH.
So, what does all this have to do with Croesus? Well, there are many people happy on the Earth with riches who may well die in a fire. If that is so, then though they were very happy for a long time, dying in a fire is gonna leave an unpleasant mark on the experience. One simply cannot say that a life was either good or bad until the end is known–and with our above understanding of time the end may be SOONER than we anticipated since the accounting of time from an ancient perspective may be different. We are assuming many constants that may well change. A different take on accounting for time according to Solon may be found here: Quantum Leap