I Also Have A Dream

[In honor of his day, I have decided to re-blog a post I wrote some months ago that attempts to echo some of the great man’s words.]

Martin Luther King had a dream that one day people would be judged by “the content of their character” rather than the color of their skin. I share that dream, but I also have a related dream that pops up (on alternative nights) that some day people will be judged by the content of their character rather than the size of their pocketbook. It has always bothered me that we measure success by such ridiculous standards as income and the number of toys in the three-car garage. But the point was made long ago by Herodotus, “the father of history” who wrote in order “to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time.” One would also hope that we would learn by reading history, since we are very much like the people who preceded us, though we seem determined to make the same mistakes our predecessors made. Herodotus tells a story about the visit of Solon of Athens, reputed to be a wise man, to the domain of Croesus in Sardis, reputed to be the wealthiest man in the world.

“In the course of his travels, [Solon] visited Croesus in Sardis, where Croesus put him up as his guest in his palace. Two or three days after his arrival, Croesus had some attendants give Solon a thorough tour of his treasuries and show him how magnificent and valuable everything was. Once Solon had seen and examined everything, Croesus found an opportunity to put a question to him. ‘My dear guest from Athens,’ he said, ‘we have often heard about you in Sardis: you are famous for your learning and your travels. We hear that you love knowledge and have journeyed far and wide to see the world. So I really want to ask you whether you have ever come across anyone who is happier than everyone else?’

In asking the question, he was expecting to be named as the happiest of all men, but Solon preferred truth to flattery and said, ‘Yes, my lord: Tellus of Athens.’

Croesus was surprised at the answer and asked urgently: ‘What makes you think Tellus is the happiest of men?’

‘In the first place,’ Solon replied, ‘while living in a prosperous state, Tellus had sons who were fine, upstanding men and he lived to see them all have children, all of whom survived. In the second place, his death came at a time when he had a good income, by our standards, and it was a glorious death. . . and the Athenians awarded him a public funeral and greatly honored him.'”

The Greeks were convinced that happiness can only be measured by the way a person lives and cannot be measured until the day of that person’s death. It doesn’t matter how much wealth that person happens to have — since wealth can be lost in the blink of an eye (as Croesus learned to his chagrin) — but how one lives one’s life: it’s a question of a bit of luck and living what the Greeks considered “the good life.” One wonders if anyone today can even begin to grasp what Solon was saying.

I Also Have A Dream

Martin Luther King had a dream that one day people would be judged by “the content of their character” rather than the color of their skin. I share that dream, but I also have a related dream that pops up (on alternative nights) that some day people will be judged by the content of their character rather than the size of their pocketbook. It has always bothered me that we measure success by such ridiculous standards as income and the number of toys in the three-car garage. But the point was made long ago by Herodotus, “the father of history” who wrote in order “to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time.” One would also hope that we would learn by reading history, since we are very much like the people who preceded us, though we seem determined to make the same mistakes our predecessors made. Herodotus tells a story about the visit of Solon of Athens, reputed to be a wise man, to the domain of Croesus in Sardis, reputed to be the wealthiest man in the world.

“In the course of his travels, [Solon] visited Croesus in Sardis, where Croesus put him up as his guest in his palace. Two or three days after his arrival, Croesus had some attendants give Solon a thorough tour of his treasuries and show him how magnificent and valuable everything was. Once Solon had seen and examined everything, Croesus found an opportunity to put a question to him. ‘My dear guest from Athens,’ he said, ‘we have often heard about you in Sardis: you are famous for your learning and your travels. We hear that you love knowledge and have journeyed far and wide to see the world. So I really want to ask you whether you have ever come across anyone who is happier than everyone else?’

In asking the question, he was expecting to be named as the happiest of all men, but Solon preferred truth to flattery and said, ‘Yes, my lord: Tellus of Athens.’

Croesus was surprised at the answer and asked urgently: ‘What makes you think Tellus is the happiest of men?’

‘In the first place,’ Solon replied, ‘while living in a prosperous state, Tellus had sons who were fine, upstanding men and he lived to see them all have children, all of whom survived. In the second place, his death came at a time when he had a good income, by our standards, and it was a glorious death. . . and the Athenians awarded him a public funeral and greatly honored him.'”

The Greeks were convinced that happiness can only be measured by the way a person lives and cannot be measured until the day of that person’s death. It doesn’t matter how much wealth that person happens to have — since wealth can be lost in the blink of an eye (as Croesus learned to his chagrin) — but how one lives one’s life: it’s a question of a bit of luck and living what the Greeks considered “the good life.” One wonders if anyone today can even begin to grasp what Solon was saying.

Can We Buy Happiness?

It appears you can buy happiness — especially if you are part of the 1%. A recent story in the Atlantic as summarized by Yahoo explains:

In the modern $1.4-trillion luxury economy, bling is out, and high-priced adventures are in. So says a new report from the consultants at BCG, which explores the lifestyle habits of the world’s wealthy based on interviews with roughly 1,000 affluent individuals. Cartier jewelry, Hermes handbags, and Tourneau watches are being eclipsed by exclusive getaways to the Maldives and helicopter skiing vacations in Alaska (which, in case you’re interested, you can book for about $5,750-a-person, all inclusive). Spending on those sorts of mind-bendingly expensive experiences now accounts for more than half of the luxury market and is growing more than 50 percent faster than sales of luxury goods.

The implications of this report are worth considering. For one thing, if true it gives the lie to ancient wisdom that insists that happiness cannot be bought at any price. Going back as far as the pre-Socratics in the West, the thought was that happiness was a function of inner-peace brought about by contemplation of eternal verities: possessions just divert attention away from what really matters. In the New Testament Christ tells his disciples to rid themselves of earthly possessions and follow him. Eastern wisdom also stresses inner peace as the means to true happiness.

In any event, since the sort of happiness discussed in the above-mentioned study is bought at a very high price, it is restricted to the very few. And it is based on simply asking a sample of the rich if they are happy having fun, which is suspect. The implication here is that the rest of us are doomed to be unhappy. I doubt that. I don’t trust what the rich tell us. I doubt their honesty and their perceptiveness. In fact, I side with the ancient wisdom that finds possessions a diversion from what really matters — such things as family and friends and the peace of mind that comes from a life well lived. I take it that was the point of the story, recounted by Herodotus, of Solon’s exchange with Croesus of Lydia. I cannot persuade myself that those who buy trinkets and take trips are doing anything but diverting their attention away from what really matters. Of course if you are rich enough you can keep doing that until the day you die and you will never know the sacrifice you have made — until on your death-bed you realize that you have been running away from yourself your whole life and worshipping a false god.

The study disagrees, as the article goes on to say that Psychology tells us that purchasing experiences can actually make us more content. In general, it’s better to buy up lots of little experiences — going to a series of concerts, or taking regular classes — than pouring our money into one gigantic splurge. But by shifting their spending away from watches and perfume, the rich may have finally figured out a way to turn their money into peace of mind.

While I suspect any claim that starts with words like “Psychology tells us that…” I dare say that buying “lots of little experiences” might indeed lead to contentment, if not happiness. But, as Aristotle reminds us, it’s a question of moderation. For those who can afford the little pleasures, no doubt contentment will follow. But I doubt that those who must go without even the small pleasures of concerts and classes cannot be happy. I have spoken with people who have visited the rag-tag poor in villages in remote parts of the world who insist that the people there are quite happy, indeed some of the happiest people they had ever met. I’ll never know for certain, but I also doubt that those with immense wealth who can afford to spend their lives taking trips and buying new homes and fast automobiles are truly happy. In the end, it is the kind of person we are that determines whether or not we are happy — regardless of how many “things” we own or concerts we are able to attend.

Measuring Success

The Greek historian Herodotus tells the story of Solon of Athens visiting Croesus of Sardis, reportedly the most powerful and wealthiest man of his time. Croesus gave Solon “a thorough tour of his treasuries to show him how magnificent and valuable everything was.” After the tour Croesus asked Solon who he thought was the happiest man he knew — expecting him to name Croesus himself. Instead, Solon named “Tellus of Athens.” His choice was based not on Tellus’s wealth, which was not exceptional, but on the fact that he lived a long and good life and had “sons who were fine, upstanding men”  and died “a glorious death.”

The story is interesting because it makes us think about what it is that makes us happy — or successful, which in our culture has come to mean the same thing. We tend to measure success by the amount of wealth we have amassed in our lifetime (like Croesus) and/or the position of power we might hope for in a society focused on free-enterprise capitalism. In a word, our notion of success is a measured one, measured by the quantity of stuff we can claim as our own.

Solon’s response to Croesus suggests another standard, one that takes into account the quality of life a person lives. We hesitate to talk about quality, though, because we cannot measure it, and in our culture today that means it doesn’t count.

This, of course, is nonsense, since it ignores the possibility that there is another perfectly sensible (more sensible?) way to measure success, and it focuses squarely on the quality of life a person lives and has nothing whatever to do with quantity. Think of Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer who devoted their lives to others and turned their backs on a life of luxury and “success” measured in graduated cylinders. Or think of the local school teacher who is about to retire after 40 years of affecting the lives of countless youngsters while barely making enough to pay the bills; or the nurse at the local hospital who works an impossible schedule helping to ease the pain of others; or think of the man who has devoted his life to the preservation of the earth. Indeed, think of those who devote their lives to something or someone other than themselves. Those are the truly successful people. And here I disagree somewhat with Solon. It is a matter of the quality of one’s life, but It’s not the one who lives a long life and dies a glorious death. It is the man or woman who finds happiness and joy in the delight of others or making the earth a better place than they found it when they arrived here.

A man by the name of David Orr has written an interesting book entitled Earth In Mind in which he pilloried the perverted sense of success built around what I have characterized as the quantitative model. He is convinced that this model of success is spawned by capitalism in the interest of perpetuating a system that requires a work force preoccupied with their own financial well-being. Capitalism in Orr’s view has “destroyed morality altogether.” This is so because the current model of success is ego-centric and built around notions of competition, where some win and many lose. And, he insists, our colleges and universities are responsible in large part for perpetuating this narrow view of success as they concentrate their efforts on turning out future managers and entrepreneurs who care little about the world they are exploiting. Students today are concerned almost exclusively with careerism and upward mobility, with their future “life-style,” rather than with the quality of their lives. As Orr would have it, “The decimation of morality and nature has been carried out in large measure by people who, within the paradigm of techno-industrialism, are generally deemed ‘successful,’ and most of whom have had considerable intellectual preparation at our schools and universities.”

Whether or not we agree with Orr, it is certainly the case that our culture is committed to an extremely narrow view of human success and perhaps it would be wise for us to widen our perspective and consider alternative views — such as I have suggested above.