“Call no man happy until he is dead,” said Solon, the ancient sage, to Croesus.
Croesus was “rich as Croesus,” as the saying goes, and king of Lydia. So he was nonplussed at Solon’s reluctance to admit that he was happy, at a time when he was at the height of his power. Much later, when he had been captured by Cyrus the Great of Persia, and about to be burned alive, he remembered Solon and conceded the point.
“Don’t call him happy even then [after he’s dead],” Aristotle added, taking Solon’s warning a step further, since reputations can be lost, even in the grave.
With such precedents in view, it is with the greatest trepidation that I woke up this morning to face the fact that (ulp! and don’t quote me!)
I’m a happy woman.
Professor Mark Van Doren taught some of the brilliant young intellectuals of the Columbia class of 1925. He was a man of great refinement and distinction. Years later he wrote a memoir describing himself as “a happy man.” My father, who’d been one of his students in the class of ’25, read that sentence with instinctive foreboding. Not long after, Van Doren’s son Charles, then a young professor in his father’s Department and a TV quiz show idol winning a fortune, admitted publicly that the quiz show had been rigged. He had cheated. It was a national scandal.
When Charles testified at a congressional hearing, his father Mark was quoted telling journalists,
“This is the happiest day of my life.”
A thing said obviously from the depths of stupefaction and mortification.
Reading the report in the Times, my father said in anguish,
“Mark! Mark! He’s ruined his father’s life!”
However one might want to qualify my father’s instinctive reaction, the lesson would seem to be, again: call no one happy
… well, maybe it’s just safer
to call no man or woman happy!
Why does the word “happiness” seem to fit me right now? What gives me a license to use it, in the face of so much folk wisdom and classical-to-modern examples of the unspoken adage:
Don’t use the “h” word.
- For one thing: the birds of our neighborhood are starting to hold their daily bird convention at our small deck fountain. The alpha birds arrive first, get every feather bathed and jab at any late-comers who are smaller than they. The birds are quarrelsome little critters. We are delighted and flattered that they come to our deck.
- For another: I am finally finding help for my walking handicap. After the help from all the expected sources proved absolutely useless, I asked my hairdresser what she thought. Every woman knows that your hairdresser knows. She thought the acupuncturist, whose office was one flight of outdoor wooden steps up from her salon, might help. The acupuncturist in turn recommended a physical therapist he knew, who had genuine talent and dedication. This PT is working me hard and it’s helping!
Nota bene: if my usual medical support team hadn’t first promised specific treatment, then copped out miserably, leaving me quite desperate, I would not have sought help in such unexpected directions. So I wouldn’t have found Carl. He’s not a holy man who says, take up your bed and walk. He’s a devoted student of the kinetic syndromes of the human body.
- For yet another thing, going back a few years: if Brooklyn College hadn’t been about to degrade its curriculum, stirring me and a few other faculty to fight it, I would never have met Jerry – whose organization helped us to hold off the academic Vandals and Visigoths for that season, and who had the good taste to become Mister Right.
I could go on. But you get the picture. These are blessings that deserve acknowledgment. But how does that offset the advice of Solon and Aristotle to call no man or woman “happy”?
Perhaps the ancients really mean, call no one happy by that individual’s own efforts alone or by the effects of fortune alone. Happiness seems to be a divine gift. If you’ve been given the gift, it’s rather ungracious not to acknowledge it and thank the donor.
On the other hand, life can (and does) also withhold the gift of happiness, for one reason or another. I have been, at times, abjectly miserable – and not necessarily at fault, when I was.
What can I say about that, in my own case or the cases of those who are – with or without good reason – terribly unhappy right now? We all know about
suffering in nature;
wickedness in man:
the problem of evil and
whyever God allows it.
Without pretending to solve the problem of evil, my own attitude is set absolutely against resignation. Resignation is a classical virtue but — at least when I try it — it’s insincere. I only feel myself when I acknowledge happiness as my defining condition, whether present or absent, the way health is the defining condition of the body, which also allows us to detect illness. I understand unhappiness as painful precisely because it’s not the human norm.
I believe our Declaration of Independence is spot on to make “the pursuit of happiness” a fundamental right, to secure which “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
This is a “Non-Advice Column.” But, about happiness, I do have this advice:
It’s a birthright.
Don’t sell it.
Don’t sign it away.
It’s who you are.