Croesus; or that Men are not to Judge of our Happiness until Death

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.

Jorah Mormont, John Brown, and the Bay of Pigs

Advising Daenerys Targaryen on the feasibility of a Targaryen restoration, Jorah Mormont observed:

“The smallfolk pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the great lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.”

A cynical assessment, and like most cynical statements, largely because of its mordant bite, it’s far too readily credited than it should be. Are the poor, the small, the uneducated, the toilers on farms, and in factories and workshops so apathetic about the fate of their own nation? There are many episodes that support Ser Jorah in his contention.

James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth was a natural (illegitimate) son of Charles II, but on the death of his father, the crown had passed to his uncle James II. Monmouth was a more appealing and certainly a more dashing figure than his uncle. What is more, James’ religion was highly suspect and many feared that in his heart he was a Catholic. An invasion was planned and launched from Holland, and Monmouth landed in South West England where he was extremely popular. A proclamation against James was read, the pretender’s banners were unfurled, and men did flock to these banners. However, in numbers, in armaments, and in training, these men were far inferior to the professional royal armies that came against them. The rebels marched and countermarched; the royal armies pursued and harried them. The rebels were trapped and brought to battle, and at Sedgemoor they were defeated. Monmouth deserted his supporters and fled the field to be himself captured soon after. In spite of his royal blood and his pleas for mercy, he was executed and many of his hapless supporters went to the gallows.

Fidel Castro had overthrown Fulgencio Batista and established his own government on the island of Cuba, but the American government had become convinced that his regime was likely communist in its tendencies and sympathies and decidedly unfriendly to the United States. The CIA planned an operation to topple the regime using Cuban anti-communist exiles to land on the island and lead a revolt against the government. This invasion force was supported by the US Air Force and Navy but their direct involvement was to be limited, and it was hoped that American role in the operation might go unnoticed. The Cuban rebels were landed at the Bay of Pigs, but their forces were so tiny that they were quickly overwhelmed. Kennedy didn’t dare commit the full might of the American military, and the operation could succeed only with a general uprising of the Cuban people. The Cubans didn’t rise against Castro and the invasion turned into a dismal, embarrassing, and damaging failure.

An abolitionist named John Brown and a small group attacked and captured the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. So far successful, Brown and his men had a large store of rifles and pikes at their disposal. They’d planned to use these weapons to arm slaves from the surrounding plantations and ignite a slave revolt throughout the entire South. He expected a host of slaves to come streaming down from the hills, fugitives needing only the arms he could provide to be made into an army of liberation. They never came. The call went unanswered because it went unheard. Isolated in their cabins on plantations that covered wide areas, almost all the slaves around Harper’s Ferry never learned that the day of Jubilee may be on hand. Had they heard that they had a chance to rise and fight for their freedom, would they have been bold enough to take that chance, no matter how dreadful the penalties for defeat and how daunting the odds against them? There is no way to know but the outcome was much the same as that of Monmouth’s Rebellion. Brown’s raid attracted no support and he and his men were surrounded, and those not killed in the fighting were captured and hung.

There are many examples of landings and invasions meant to fire revolts and topple thrones that failed in a similar manner and these three have been selected as representative because they are so widely separated in time, place and circumstance. These all point to one undeniable truth, if you want to be sure of an invasion, you must bring forces sufficient to overcome any opposition. If the smallfolk, hating the present regime or loyal to the cause of the invaders, choose to join the rebellion, all the better. Their aid will make the invasion easier and less costly, but they are to be merely an ancillary force and their involvement may be helpful but it must not be needed. Any undertaking that can succeed only with their support is almost surely doomed.

From this it seems evident that the smallfolk are as heedless, apathetic, and lethargic as Jorah Mormont supposed. They are not. Invasions that count upon their support fail, but those that count on their acquiescence also fail. During the Napoleonic Wars, Spain was torn between the king, the crown prince, and a scheming prime minister. Frustrated that Spain wasn’t upholding his Continental System and needing a better ruler for what had become an ineffectual and undependable ally, Napoleon summoned father and son to Bayonne for a conference. Before long disgusted by both, and convinced they were too stupid and vicious to be of any use, he replaced them. Napoleon had acquired a habit of making kings of his brothers and he appointed one them, Joseph, to reign in their stead. Charles IV had been a bad king and Napoleon was sure that the indifferent and illiterate Spanish peasantry would tamely submit to the replacement. While Charles had been a bad king, he’d been their bad king and Napoleon’s interference and the insult to their national sovereignty touched off a revolt in Madrid. The uprising was suppressed and the French exacted reprisals brutal enough to prevent any further resistance.

The executions, however, didn’t have the intended effect, and the Grand Armee was pulled into a ghastly guerilla that dragged on and on, slowly sapping its strength. This irregular warfare set the pattern for the guerillas that came after. Frenchmen who fell out of the column of march, who strayed from their comrades, who went off in foraging parties too small to defend themselves, were taken, tortured, and killed in the most gruesome and painful manner human ingenuity can devise. The French answered these barbarities with atrocities of their own. Civilians were rounded up and put up against the wall to be shot dozens of Spaniards dying for every Frenchmen. Women were raped, towns burned and the inhabitants butchered. The Spanish took every punishment, no matter how grievous, as a provocation, and they fought more bitterly and savagely the more they suffered.

The smallfolk are unpredictable. If a great lord counts on them being sluggish, craven, and harmless, they will be peevish, irascible, and deadly. If the scion of a beloved former dynasty or a more deserving and attractive claimant to the throne will count on their affection and loyalty, they will prove too wise to follow him on his mad escapades but may come by as spectators to his beheading. Their motives are inscrutable and their responses are imponderable and that makes them as dangerous as Littlefinger in all his machinations. If the great lords understood the smallfolk they could manage them. The smallfolk may be taxed, tithed, and levied into forced labor but they can’t be predicted. The high and mighty must tread lightly because they can never know if they will encounter the sheep or the viper.

Federalist Number One: a Prologue and Caution

The Federalist Papers begin with the remark that the subsisting Articles of Confederation had shown themselves to be unsatisfactory. Hamilton alludes to an unequivocal experience and goes on to condemn the present constitution. The inadequacy isn’t put forth as an axiom but it is tendered as an obvious premise. Next, he expatiates on the importance of the deliberations underway and in this he was perfectly correct:

It has been frequently remarked, that it has been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.

By good government established by reflection and choice he clearly means a republican government, and the alternative, government by accident and force can be any form of government that isn’t a republic, but more particularly a hereditary monarchy. Reflection and choice should not be taken to mean that a republic can derive its constitution or its policies from pure reason alone. Politics is not deducible from the laws of logic by themselves. Constitutions will be established and decisions made in a certain time and place.

Is the nation agricultural, mercantile, or industrial? Is one tongue spoken by nearly all or are there many different languages? Is the country broken up into spheres by great swamps, bays, lakes, mountain ranges, or is it relatively contiguous? Are nearly all the people of one faith, or is the nation riven into differing and sometimes contending religions? The unique character of the Swiss constitution is perfectly adapted for a country broken into cantons by the Alps and speaking several different tongues. A small, flat country where nearly all speak the same language, like the Netherlands, may not need to be so loosely confederated. And although Hamilton and the other founders were intent on a separation of church and state, even the mild mentions they made to God might be dangerous in a nation where even a benign remark can be the occasion for a civil war of religion.

And not only in the setting down of the form of government but in the quotidian task of governing itself, chance and situation will play their part. It is undeniable that in a hereditary monarchy operating by primogeniture, it is often the virtues, vices, and capacities of a mere boy that will decide whether the realm has a good king or a bad king. In the selection of a ruler, a republic will have a far wider field of choice, but that does’t ensure that the choice will be a good one. There may be a great many middling men on offer with a few bad ones sprinkled among them, and the best that can be hoped for is that a fool or charlatan doesn’t get himself elected. A republic is just as susceptible to floods, earthquakes, droughts, and pandemics as a monarchy, and in a state where the people have not only a clamant but a decisive voice, these tragedies can enflame feelings and lead to blunders that a sovereign, left alone to let his passions abate and ponder at his leisure, might well avoid.

In both monarchies and republics, decisions are made by deciding among alternatives that are set before us by forces beyond our control. Among these alternatives, we may choose well or poorly, but the options themselves arise from the course of events not our chain or reasoning. As to force, every course adopted, no matter how kindly meant or how generally beneficial, will help some and harm others. A good policy will help more than it harms. And while any measure will the welfare or interests of some, a good measure may cost certain citizens but not impoverish them, it may inconvenience some but it shouldn’t ruin them. Yet no one likes to lose money or be caused trouble, and every measure decided upon by the government, whether a legislature, a king, or an emperor, must be imposed by force. In a republic, the force may be applied more gently, softened with condolence, and lubricated with sound explanations and promises of future considerations, yet the force must be applied all the same. Hamilton himself knew this well. In the very beginnings of the United States, he had to head out west to deal with whiskey distillers who refused to pay their taxes. Yet despite these quibbles and caveats, a democratic government may not be categorically different from other forms of government but it will be different.

Having touched on the importance of the issues at hand, Hamilton moved on to the strong feelings that these momentous issues were certain to evoke. He was expecting that the debate was going to be passionate and even vehement, and this was natural and probably laudable. He was also expecting that the debate was going to be often angry and venomous, and he was anxious to forestall such animosities. Our reasoning frequently leads us astray, and while our opponents may be pushing for something we are sure is wrong or harmful, they may be honestly mistaken and working from the noblest of intentions. Conversely, those who are aligned with us on what we take to be the right side of the question may be actuated not by a sincere conviction that this is for the best, but rather by enmity, avarice, envy, or some other base passion.

And if we must allow that our opponents may be mistaken, we ourselves are not infallible, and we must entertain the possibility that we ourselves have erred. In concluding his attempts to temper the coming argument and calm the approaching storm, Hamiloton mentions the violent and intolerant spirit that often animates political parties. He speaks of making proselytes by fire and sword and curing heresies by persecution. The French Revolution was not far off but it had not yet arrived, and these warnings carry notes of prophecy.

Having urged good sense and understanding, Hamilton proposes to heed his own advice and offer the public a series of papers on the subject of the proposed constitution. In cool and reasoned argument, he will point out the utility of the Union, the insufficiency of the present Confederation, the necessity of an energetic government, the conformity of the proposed Constitution with the true principles of republican government, the analogy of the proposed federal with existing state constitutions, and finally the additional security the Constitution will afford.

The subsequent papers will each treat of a specific questions, while this first paper is much more general, serving as an appeal to civility in debate and to reason as the ultimate arbiter of the tremendous issues under consideration. This prologue was meant to embody the very principles it exhorts. Hamilton is hoping for fervor without the taint of malice, earnest argument without recrimination.

Dreadnoughts and Death Stars

When HMS Dreadnought slid off the dock and slipped into Portsmouth Harbor, she was the mightiest and most terrifying weapon mankind had ever created. Admiral Fisher had pushed for the design and construction of a battleship capable of sailing at twenty one knots and armed exclusively with heavy twelve inch guns. This technological terror was intended to make it clear to the world that British supremacy at sea was to be perpetual and unchallenged. The navies of friend, ally, and foe were to look upon her huge guns, gigantic size, and tremendous cost, despair, and relinquish control of the oceans to Great Britain.

The idea for this huge new battleship had been born at the naval review for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Inventor and industrialist Charles Algernon Parsons had invented the steam turbine and to demonstrate its superiority to every other form of propulsion he sent the Turbinia, a ship powered by steam turbines, to crash the greatest massing of sea power the world had ever seen. In celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign, the combined might of the Royal Navy was brought together before the eyes of princes, lords, journalists, and foreign dignitaries. The Admiralty meant to awe them all with the stunning spectacle of the planet’s greatest fleet. The Turbinia appeared uninvited and unwanted, racing between, around, and in front of the battleships. As she flew by, she was seen by all the watching luminaries to be far swifter than the proudest vessels of the Royal Navy. A picket boat was sent out to catch her but she easily danced away. To humiliate the admirals in front of the Prince of Wales was a dangerous expedient, but while they may have wanted to throttle Parsons it was obvious that existing ships couldn’t contend with one powered by steam turbines, and they had no alternative but to take his point.

The Dreadnought was designed to be powered by the new engines and she was laid down in thirteen months, faster than any battleship before. Yet as impressive as this feat was, it turned out to be an Ozymandian effort. Her speed and long range allowed her to keep her distance from any enemy ship and tear it apart without taking so much as a scratch and her launching made every other battleship afloat obsolete.  But the other navies of the world didn’t throw up their hands, give up, and concede the seas to Great Britain as the Admiralty had hoped.   Instead they rushed to build and launch their own Dreadnoughts. The introduction of Great Britain’s awesome new weapon touched off an arms race and the governments and navies of the world cast their wealth into the building of Dreadnoughts. Rather than awing other nations into meek submission, the new ships heightened tensions between the great powers. Feeling themselves compelled to match and then to outdo the British leviathan, they all had to give up on the battleships they already possessed and come up with the money to construct brand new and catastrophically expensive ships. Rather than peace and the supremacy of the Royal Navy, exorbitance and belligerence followed in the Dreadnought’s wake.

This outcome should hardly be surprising since every weapon introduced down through the ages has been quickly copied and adopted. Iron, stirrups, chariots, cannon, the Monitor and the Merrimack, and every other technological advance in killing have spread from nation to nation, from army to army. The Philistines managed to keep iron out of the hands of their enemies but such control has always proved to be difficult. The Admiralty had gambled that the ruinous cost of building such a monster might deter the other navies of the world, but in the choice between guns and butter, even the poorest of nations will arm themselves no matter what the consequences. North Korea has demonstrated that even a poor country and a minor power can acquire the most powerful and terrifying weaponry if they are ruthless enough to condemn their own citizens to indigence, famine, and pestilence.

A gigantic floating weapon that will fill any opponent with terror and allow a government to impose its will appears in the movie Star Wars. The Empire built the Death Star to be the ultimate weapon but no weapon is ever really ultimate. The gargantuan battles station turned out to be vulnerable to small fighters and was destroyed by X Wings at the Battle of Yavin. During the Second World War, the mightiest ship in the Royal Navy, HMS Prince of Wales, was sunk in much the same fashion by Japanese torpedo bombers.