Herodotus tells the story of Croesus king of Sardis, and of how he hosted Solon and fought Cyrus. Solon the Athenian was touring Asia and since he had so great a reputation for wisdom, King Croesus was eager to have him as his guest and to impress him with his hospitality and munificence. Solon was invited into the king’s palace and ate at the king’s table. Solon had seen the king’s great hall and eaten of his sumptuous food, but not content with this, Croesus ordered that he be taken through his treasure house so that he may see his mountains of gold and his chests of jewels. Confident that the Athenian had been awed by the luxury he’d tasted and the riches he’d seen, he asked him who of all the men he’d met, he considered the happiest. Solon didn’t hesitate and he named an Athenian, not nearly as rich and powerful as Croesus, a man respected but not renowned and unknown outside of Athens. The king asked why, and Solon answered that while he lived his country flourished, that he was the father of healthy and virtuous children, and that he died gallantly on the field of battle. This wasn’t what Croesus had wanted to hear but he tried once more, and he asked who was next happiest after Tellus. Solon named two more Greeks of no great wealth or worldly importance for very similar reasons. Unable to hold back his anger, Croesus reminded him that he was a great king and the ruler of many nations, and asked why he should be set below obscure commoners. Solon answered that the powers above are fond of humbling the high and mighty, and many who had enjoyed wealth, luxury, and fame, are brought down and stripped of all these things to die in poverty and anguish. The men he’d named had died as contentedly as they’d lived and were beyond the buffets of fortune.
Croesus was displeased with this answer and, taking Solon to be an impertinent, envious scoundrel, he was very glad when he departed his kingdom. Not long after, the kingdom of Persia was growing powerful, conquering and absorbing other lands around it. Croesus wondered if he should check and overthrown the Persians before they grew so strong that they became unstoppable. After a gift to the oracle of Delphi of two huge and costly bowls, one of gold and one of silver, Croesus sent messengers asking if he should make war on the Persians. The oracle answered that if he attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire. Croesus was greatly encouraged by this reply, and didn’t consider that there were two sides to this prediction. Certain that if he attacked, he was to prevail, he went to war. The two kingdoms mustered great armies and they clashed at the banks of the Halys River. The armies fought to a bloody draw and withdrew. Croesus sent his forces into winter quarters, as was traditionally done, but Cyrus, king of the Persians, kept the field and coming against the Lydians unprepared, he overcame them.
Croesus had begun the war and he had lost it. Cyrus ordered him, as the aggressor to be burned alive, but on the pyre with the flames crackling at his feet, Croesus called to Apollo and the god sent a rain which put out the fire. Croesus was saved from the flames, but his wife had killed herself and his kingdom was lost. In his distress he groaned aloud, “O Solon! Solon! Solon!” Cyrus heard this and wondered at whom the prisoner was invoking so dolefully. When the interpreters explained to him the whole story of Solon’s warning and the oracle’s prophecy, the Persian was so moved by the fall of a fellow monarch that he ordered him released and made Croesus one of his most trusted counselors.
An improbable tale, but a picturesque and moving one, and one by which the Greeks and Romans set great store. They myths and legends of the Greeks and Romans abound with tales like this, about the mighty and the seemingly blest, who suffer terrible reverses and die in misery. This is only to be expected. The world takes little account of the sufferings and hardships of the struggling farmer, the widow, the orphan, and the beggar, and when they succumb to adversity and perish, little account is taken of their end. In their miserable condition, the poor and the friendless have not far to fall, and their final descent lacks the contrast of those hurled headlong from glory down to perdition and ruin. The fall of kings and archangels is far more compelling than the last flickerings and gutterings of the wretched.
Yet the ancients held that there was great wisdom in Solon’s injunction. Centuries later, Montaigne was inclined to agree with them.
That the very felicity of life itself, which depends upon the tranquility and contentment of a well-descended spirit, and the resolution and assurance of a well-ordered soul, ought never to be attributed to any man till he be seen to play the last, and doubtless, the hardest act of his part. There may be disguise and dissimulation in all the rest: where these fine philosophical discourses are only put on, and where accident, not touching us to the quick, gives us leisure to maintain the same gravity of aspect; but, in this last scene of death, there is no more counterfeiting:
The Neo-Platonic assumption is to be marked, that whether well or ill descended, our soul, imprisoned as it is in the flesh, is nothing more than a sojourner in this unhappy world. Therefore, it is in the release of this soul from its material bondage that the greatest truth is to be found. If we hold that our term on earth is a durance in a gross and alien realm, then it is only upon the freedom found in the destruction of our incarnate prison that our real nature is seen. This fixation with death and the end of life only makes sense if it comes from this disgust with the material world.
A utilitarian along the line of Bentham will confer equal weight upon the beginning, middle, and the end of life. Sliding the beads of his abacus back and forth, he will add up the pains and pleasures of each stage of the journey. However sudden, violent, and appalling, the agonies of the very last hours will be outweighed by the countless felicities that came in the many decades before. The events just before death are no more meaningful than those of the middle, and the bliss of the very first days of life means every bit as much as the anguish of its end.
We may shrink from declaiming all of life nothing more than a sham, while also not wishing to resort to an accountancy that turns life into a ledger of pain and pleasure. There is truth in tragedy. Our lives may not be nothing more than a gross illusion, but a present happiness, while not simply a figment, may be based upon a cracked foundation. In Shakespeare, the tragic hero will prosper in spite of a tragic flaw which will ultimately destroy him. His happiness is real but it is also doomed. Croesus in his pride refused to heed the warning of Solon, and he failed to see that the oracle was referring to him not as a conqueror but as a victim of his own intransigence. In Shakespearian and in Greek tragedy, the hero is doomed but in Aeschylus and Sophocles it is fate which is his undoing. His fall is written in the stars while in Shakespeare the fatal words are written in his heart and mind. Whether within or without, the end is already written: Mene, mene, tekel, parsin.