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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

It's how things end up that counts, not how they might seem in the meantime..Part--3

A.P. David, in the third of his readings of Herodotus , finds history a tough judge of events. It's how things end up that counts, not how they might seem in the meantime ...

" ... of all [the days of a man's life] not one brings to him anything exactly the same as another. So, Croesus, man is entirely what befalls him ... one must look always at the end of everything—how it will come out finally. For to many the god has shown a glimpse of blessedness only to extirpate them in the end." (Solon to Croesus, "Histories", 1.32, tr. Grene)

This is one of the most-quoted sentiments in all Herodotus's work, but a difficult one for most people to take seriously. Surely it belittles the power of our own character and virtue to make ourselves happy. Surely the way we live in real time, the success of our loves, careers and even our lifestyles, constitutes more of our happiness than sheer chance does.

But even Aristotle, champion and cataloguer of human virtue, concedes the place of fortune.

Could Priam, the Trojan king, be said to have had a "happy" life? For most of it he was the envy of the world, with his wealth, his children, and the beauty of his city. But he died childless and bereft, prey to his table dogs. In his own words—that is, in Homer's coinage—he was panapotmos, "altogether ill-fated". (Opposite him, Achilles coins a word to describe his own condition: panaorion, "altogether without a season of bloom".)

Croesus, King of Lydia, was, well, as "rich as Croesus". He had his esteemed Athenian guest shown around his treasuries. But when he asked this mirror on the wall "who was most blessed of them all", Solon replied: "Tellus the Athenian".

Tellus had died gloriously while turning the tide of battle for Athens at sacred Eleusis, leaving behind a prosperous city and healthy grandchildren. We would never have heard of him but for Herodotus.

And who was second most blessed? "Cleobis and Biton". These were brothers who had pulled their grateful mother to temple in a cart, like oxen, and died from the effort. Their statues were dedicated at Delphi, and—truth is stranger than fiction—they are still there today, in the museum. Yet I doubt we would know who they were, but for Herodotus.

Solon was the great reformer and poet, author of the original New Deal, the compromise that brought peace between the landed and the townsfolk, the rich and the poor. He was the Franklin Roosevelt of Athens.

Many would agree—looking to the end, some 160 years later, when Herodotus performed—that this revolution in law was the basis for the prosperity, the might, and the brilliance of a Periclean Athens to come. But unlike most legislators, he was not allowed to profit from his work. After he had brokered the compromise, Solon was required to absent himself from Athens for ten years. This is why he travelled, first to Egypt, and then to see what he could see about this famous Croesus.

During the cold war we used to hear that Roosevelt's New Deal was the compromise that saved America from communism, the dose of socialism that prevented a revolution. But with the demise of Marxism, and the enveloping contextualisation of Marxist history, it becomes easier to see the New Deal in a positive and uncompromising light: as the greatest reform in the history of capitalist democracy, admirers would say, since the reforms of Solon.

The New Deal has its modern enemies, and history is always judging and reassessing things. When we say, "history will judge"—and we use this phrase to counter claims of achievement or failure in the present or the recent past—we say what is essential in Solon's proverb. Perhaps we also see why an historian might put these cautionary words in Solon's mouth, cast in a sort of fairy tale (he probably never met Croesus). The ancient reform was a key to Athenian greatness, but the present was a turbulent one. Herodotus knew that a Peloponnesian War with Sparta was coming.

Tacitus the Roman referred to an historian who was brought up on treason charges for writing a work that praised Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius, 70 years after their fall. And, with Caesars still in power, Tacitus was unable to write such an history even in his own day, some 160 years afterwards.

Centuries later, Dante placed Brutus and Cassius in Satan's jaws. Shakespeare seemed to find Brutus, at least, a tragic figure. Both assassins were heroes to the American founders. These same founders, looking to an end that Herodotus surely did not foresee, drew such lessons from the catastrophic fall of Athens that they wrote and advertised a constitution for their republic that was designed to protect its citizens not only from the evils of tyranny, but from democracy as well.

Posted by Ajay :: 5:47 PM :: 0 comments

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