History Lessons

After Athens and Sparta led the Greeks in battle against the mammoth forces of Persia and won the battle of Marathon — where Herodotus estimates that they were outnumbered as much as 10 to 1, the Greeks formed the Delian league which exacted tribute from the various Greek City-States too help build Greek forces against possible future attacks. The funds were kept at Delos, home of the Delphic Oracle and a place sacred to the Greeks.

Eventually, Athens transferred the money to Athens and used it to help them build their navy and arm their forces (and the Parthenon), while assuming control of many of the City-Sates that were weaker than they. Indeed, the Athenians thought it only natural that the stronger should take control of the weaker. And, oddly enough, the rest of the Greeks seem to have adopted that view as well — even the weak ones! But eventually Sparta realized that the growing power of Athens was a direct threat to them and to those City-States that looked to them for protection, such as Corinth. Soon began the Peloponnesian War that lasted 27 years and ended with Sparta taking control of the country and occupying Athens. The war is chronicled by Thucydides who lived thorough it and who gave us what many regard as the first truly factual historical account of what was happening in the dark and distant past. It should be noted that Thucydides was intent to dismiss the poetical “fancies” of such people as Homer who didn’t tell is “like it was.” The new history was to be factual and the historian seeking above all else to be objective.

Well, it is a fascinating question whether a historian can be objective and many now think that all history is poetry — or fiction at the very least. But the lessons that Thucydides sought to teach the future he was convinced were lessons that could help us all understand the forces that operate on us all and assist us in dealing with an unknown future. He regarded history as cyclical, major trends repeating themselves while the personages and specific challenges changed with the times. What happened in Greece in the fifth century B.C.E. can teach us how to prepare for what is happening to us right now. The decision of the Athenians to send a majority of their troops to Sicily late in the war (resulting in 40,000 Athenian deaths) parallels almost exactly Hitler’s decision to attack Russia during the Second World War — with almost identical results. And George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq following the huge success of his father’s adventure in The Gulf War may be yet another parallel.

The key elements in this repetition are the greed and ambition of human beings coupled with their aggressive instincts — according to Thucydides. Those elements are still very much with us, as noted above. And it should also be noted also that toward the end of the Peloponnesian War Athens became arrogant and in its excessive pride took a step too far and brought about its own ruin. There are lessons here for us all.

In our eagerness to “make America great again,” we must recall the lessons that the fifth century historian sought to teach: pride and arrogance coupled with fear and our aggressive impulses often, if not always, lead to tragic consequences. I have noted in the past that the greatness of this country lies not in its military power — such things as increasing the already obscenely huge nuclear arsenal and a “defense” budget that dwarfs all others on this planet — but in its espousal of values such as honor, nobility, and generosity. These were values that the Athenians paid lip service to, but which were displaced in their frenzy to build their empire and amass land and wealth — which brought about their demise. We, too, have paid lip-service to values such as these while we play the game of power politics. And we have a leader recently elected whose avowed purpose is to disconnect with the rest of the civilized world, build walls, and increase our military strength in pursuit of what he regards as “greatness.”

Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it, according to the philosopher Santayana. And Americans are notoriously ignorant not only of world history but of their own history as well. It is not a formula for success, and we would be wise to pause and reflect along the way toward “greatness” and ask repeatedly whether we really want to go where we seem to be headed. We must cling to such values as integrity, nobility, true heroism, sacrifice, and charity toward those who rely on us if we are to approach greatness, which does not wear armor but wears, rather, the cloak of generosity and selflessness.

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.