“Call no man happy until he is dead” – I think it’s okay to be happy

In a comment on my reflection on leisure, Thomas Worthington mentioned the story of Solon and Crœsus. Crœsus had asked Solon who the happiest person was, and Solon’s answers focused on people who had died admirable deaths. The idea is that you can’t say people are happy or blessed person until they die, since their luck could always go bad.

 I’d come across that idea before. Aristotle says something similar in Nichomachean Ethics:

He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life. (1101a10)

It got me thinking about the differences between how I think of happiness and how I think they thought of happiness. I can see the point of those ancient philosophers, but it seems unnecessary to focus on what people would judge as happy.

2014-08-13 Call no man happy until he is dead - #philosophy

2014-08-13 Call no man happy until he is dead – #philosophy

For me, it’s much more useful and more real to be able to think of myself as happy, and to keep in mind that the ups and downs of fortune are small waves in a very deep lake. It’s like Louis CK’s rant, Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy. I’m writing this on a computer and the text will be sent off through radio signals and electrons and photos around the world! And I have windows and indoor plumbing and all these other luxuries beyond those enjoyed by ancient kings.

But this kind of happiness comes easy to me, at least at this moment. We’ve learned a lot about how the mind works, but not enough – there are things that can take away your ability to appreciate and enjoy and hope. (Note to future Sacha: if this happens to you, remember that things will work out.) In the meantime, giving myself permission to be happy–not a tempting-fate sort of happy, just an appreciative sort of happy–makes it easier for me to enjoy life.

People have different ideas about happiness. Some people think happiness requires wealth, fame, pleasure, freedom. I doubt there’s much point in trying to change someone’s mind about happiness or get them to agree with you on your definition; and even your definition might change over time, as you learn from other people. Live your own life as well as you can. Perhaps by illuminating those possibilities, you might help other people explore their own.

  • Sue O’Mullan

    agreed! lovely post!!!!

  • Thomas Worthington

    Hey! My name in lights! I’ve been busy at work and hadn’t seen this. I think there is a value, especially for coders and designers, in focusing on the idea that quality is a characteristic of a completed thing.

    Applying it to life is a little harsh, I agree, and reflects the concern about hubris that the Athenian circle in particular focused on even so, it’s worth reminding yourself that there is a long-term – especially when you’re young (like that’s going to happen ;)).

    • That note about coders and designers is an interesting one, because it teases out the difference between focusing on the end product and focusing on the process. =) I’m reminded of how Aristotle talks about art as something where the result is good in itself and how you made it does doesn’t matter as much, while virtue/excellence is something where the process and mindset matters a lot. Likewise, we can talk about good design or good code – which can probably only be evaluated at the end, when it meets the real world – but that’s not quite the same as good designing and good coding, which we can continuously get better at. There will always be better design and better code, but that doesn’t mean that nothing is good. It simply means we might not reach “perfect”, but we can enjoy the journey towards “good (enough)”.

      There’s also something interesting in the proclamation of happiness as something that demonstrates hubris (as sort of a “one-up” position) versus the acknowledgement of happiness as gratitude and humility (as a “one-down” position). The former takes pride in such transient things. The latter seems much more real and lasting to me.