In his Histories, Herodotus tells the tale of a certain King Croesus of Lydia (reigned 585-547 BCE) who boasted of his happiness to a guest, the wise Solon. The guest warned him that – given life’s uncertainties – no one should be deemed “happy” until he is, safely and finally, dead. Eventually, the Persian king Cyrus conquered Lydia and set its former king on a pyre to be burned. From the fire, Croesus was heard to cry, “Solon! Solon!” Curious to learn why the doomed man called out that name, Cyrus got him out of the fire, listened to his story and decided to spare his life.
The tale was proverbial in classical times, but Aristotle added a qualification in the Nicomachean Ethics: no man should be called happy even after his death, since the deceased can still suffer, for example, when evils befall his descendants. A further reversal is possible, that Aristotle did not mention: it could happen that years after a person’s death someone, a biographer or historian perhaps, could uncover evidence that the deceased had a blameworthy secret – not known or else not considered discreditable at the time of his death.
America’s Founding Fathers stand out as a prominent recent case of that kind. Laid to rest with full honors by a grateful nation, but lately discovered (or rather acknowledged) to have been complicit in the regime of ante-bellum slavery, at this writing, their reassessments are ongoing.
What is it about the word “happy” that feels like a ticking time bomb? My father, Henry M. Rosenthal, was among the graduates of the celebrated Columbia College class of 1925. He and his friends were devoted students of Mark Van Doren, the poet, writer and Professor in the English Department, who taught them how to read literature and how to write. Students close to Van Doren stayed in touch with him through the years, seasonally exchanging wry and poetic greetings.
In 1958, Van Doren published an Autobiography, where he described himself as “a happy man.” My father, whose spiritual sensibility was pretty keen, immediately recoiled. Intuitively, he felt that Van Doren should not have written that. As if to keep in mind the gravity of the mistake, he took to referring to his former teacher as “the happy man.”
Not long after, Van Doren’s son Charles became a TV celebrity, the star of a quiz show in which the young academic appeared to be an educated whiz, coming up with instant answers to every question asked. Eventually, Charles testified before Congress regarding the deception in which he’d participated. He’d been given the answers, letting himself be persuaded by the show’s directors that this was only show biz. But it had not been understood that way by the TV-watching public or the people’s representatives in Congress.
Van Doren accompanied his son to Washington and told the press afterward that this had been “the happiest day” of his life! He was referring to the truthfulness of his son’s compelled testimony under oath.
I remember my father’s head-shaking, choked murmur: “Mark! Mark!”
When my mother was a small child, she used to go around her parents’ home, exclaiming, “I’m so happy!” In the family, it got her permanently typed as The Dumb One.
Why did Solon and Aristotle, and my father, warn against the claim that one is “happy”? Is it wrong to think so? Or only wrong to say it out loud? And what exactly is wrong about it? For the Greeks, such assertions display hubris, pride, and thereby attract reprisals from the gods. Also, as Solon explained to Croesus, by treating good fortune as securely held in the king’s possession, he overlooked the fact that fortune (luck) is unstable by its nature.
Why did my father react the way he did to Van Doren’s claim to be a happy man? I don’t know. Sometimes, he foresaw things …
Here’s what I suspect about happiness. There might be a kind of joy that persists despite the mischances of life, and perhaps through them all. It’s not the same as being rich, powerful, young and good-looking. Rather, it may have to do with coming into congruence with oneself. We aren’t born sincere and unconcealed. It’s something we struggle for. One makes an effort to become who one says one is. There is a sense of clicking into congruence with oneself.
All the same, and beyond our control – the ancients were right. Our lives remain threaded through and through with networks of contingencies and dependencies. Given that bigger picture, the sense of inward joy seems to meet internal resistance, as if one were wary of tempting fate. We don’t know whether it’s safe to feel joy or admit in public that one has done so. We’re not quite sure how to calculate
the hazards of joy.
Where I come from (NYC) confessing happiness is socially unacceptable. When asked, “How are you?” the correct answer would be, “Ugh! Don’t ask!” Thanks for chiming in on this delicate subject, Tom.
Thanks Abigail for this thoughtful piece … a much-needed corrective to an otherwise social obsession … in spite of the many intrusions of reality, we continue to “put on a happy face,” which may be needed now and then, just to keep things going; but there are times when a little Eeyore is needed. Sharing this …