Solon’s warning to the president’s men

I was introduced to the Athenian statesman and poet Solon by Russell Kirk and Nassim Taleb.

Kirk wrote of Solon and Athens in his grand survey, The Roots of American Order. Taleb recounts the story of Solon and Croesus of Lydia in Fooled by Randomness.

The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of a mythological encounter of King Croesus of Lydia and Solon. The meeting happened after Croesus had achieved the wealth and status of a great conqueror. Croesus asked Solon to name the happiest man. Croesus supposed that his success and wealth would impress Solon. Solon was having none of it.

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 his subsistence from day to day, unless also the fortune go with him of ending his life well in possession of all things fair. For many very wealthy men are not happy, while many who have but a moderate living are fortunate; and in truth the very rich man who is not happy has two advantages only as compared with the poor man who is fortunate, whereas this latter has many as compared with the rich man who is not happy. 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 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. Now to possess all these things together is impossible for one who is mere man, just as no single land suffices to supply all things for itself, but one thing it has and another it lacks, and the land that has the greatest number of things is the best: so also in the case of a man, no single person is complete in himself, for one thing he has and another he lacks; but whosoever of men continues to the end in possession of the greatest number of these things and then has a gracious ending of his life, he is by me accounted worthy, O king, to receive this name. But we must of every thing examine the end and how it will turn out at the last, for to many God shows but a glimpse of happiness and then plucks them up by the roots and overturns them.” [emphasis is mine]

Herodotus, and G. C. Macaulay. The History of Herodotus. London: Macmillan, 1890.

Solon’s warning to Croesus is a timely reminder to enjoy successes, such as an election win that happened three years ago, with modesty and sobriety. Any boasting about a fleeting advantage will look silly in the end.

Currently, all of the president’s men are declaring themselves most secure and most happy in Trump Co. It is one thing to offer tepid support for some policies. It is quite another to hitch one’s livelihood and security to any tempestuous man.

Put not your trust in a prince. Place not your happiness in an election result.

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