Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Oracles & Happiness

I have been wondering how it is that certain men always manage to misinterpret oracles and/or come to ignore sound advice. The reason for my preoccupation has been a few exchanges of late with my little sister about happiness. Why is it so difficult, these days, to be happy? Has happiness always been this elusive?

Mammon or Socrates?

Take Croesus of Lydia, as an example. Yes, that “rich as Croesus” one.

His defeat at the hand of Cyrus the Great is one of the more infamous recorded instances of the consequences of having misinterpreted an oracle.

“If you attack, you will destroy a mighty kingdom,” the oracle of Delphi had diplomatically cautioned.

Did he listen? Oops! The wrong kingdom!

One can’t be sure about his fate. But at least in one version of events narrated by Herodotus, he is reported to have cautioned Cyrus about attacking the lovely Queen Tomyris of Massageti. Does Cyrus listen?

Tomyris sends a message to Cyrus:

"King of the Medes, cease to press this enterprise, for you cannot know if what you are doing will be of real advantage to you. Be content to rule in peace your own kingdom, and bear to see us reign over the countries that are ours to govern. As, however, I know you will not choose to hearken to this counsel, since there is nothing you less desirest than peace and quietness, come now, if you are so mightily desirous of meeting the Massagetai in arms, leave your useless toil of bridge-making; let us retire three days' march from the river bank, and do you come across with your soldiers; or, if you like better to give us battle on your side the stream, retire yourself an equal distance."

The Persian chiefs, as is often the case in these matters, are gung-ho. Croesus, however, is a different matter,

"Oh! my king! I promised you long since, that, as Zeus had given me into your hands, I would, to the best of my power, avert impending danger from your house. Alas! my own sufferings, by their very bitterness, have taught me to be keen-sighted of dangers. If you deem yourself an immortal, and your army an army of immortals, my counsel will doubtless be thrown away upon you. But if you feel yourself to be a man, and a ruler of men, lay this first to heart, that there is a wheel on which the affairs of men revolve, and that its movement forbids the same man to be always fortunate.”

The actual debate-- again normal-- is over whether to let the queen cross to the Persian side, or to advance to the other side. Cyrus settles for the attack option--a combination of cunning and brutality.

Illusions of immortality are difficult to dispel, aren’t they?

At first, great success for the Persian. Persians under Cyrus “slaughtered great multitude” capturing “a large number of prisoners,” including Tomyris’ son. She sends another messenger,

You bloodthirsty Cyrus, pride not yourself on this poor success: it was the grape-juice---which, when you drink it, makes you so mad, and as you swallow it down brings up to your lips such bold and wicked words---it was this poison by which you ensnared my child, and so overcame him, not in fair open fight. Now hear what I advise, and be sure I advise you for your good. Restore my son to me and get you from the land unharmed, triumphant over a third part of the host of the Massagetai. Refuse, and I swear by the sun, the sovereign lord of the Massagetai, bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood."

The rest, as they say, is history. Let’s hear the account Herodotus offers about the aftermath of the battle:

The greater part of the army of the Persians was destroyed and Cyrus himself fell, after reigning nine and twenty years. Search was made among the slain by order of the queen for the body of Cyrus, and when it was found she took a skin, and, filling it full of human blood, she dipped the head of Cyrus in the gore, saying, as she thus insulted the corpse, "I live and have conquered you in fight, and yet by you am I ruined, for you took my son with guile; but thus I make good my threat, and give you your fill of blood."

Plutarch also reports a fascinating exchange between Solon and Croesus about happiness. A Coesus, mind you, who is “decked with every possible rarity and curiosity, in ornaments of jewels, purple, and gold, that could make a grand and gorgeous spectacle of him,” in a court with “great many nobles richly dressed, and proudly attended with a multitude of guards and footboys.” Croesus wants Solon to tell him “if ever he had known a happier man than he.”

Solon, of course being Solon, doesn’t respond in the expected manner, much to the chagrin of Croesus.

"What," said Croesus, angrily, "and dost not thou reckon us amongst the happy men at all?" Solon, unwilling either to flatter or exasperate him more, replied, "The gods, O king, have given the Greeks all other gifts in moderate degree; and so our wisdom, too, is a cheerful and a homely, not a noble and kingly wisdom; and this, observing the numerous misfortunes that attend all conditions, forbids us to grow insolent upon our present enjoyments, or to admire any man's happiness that may yet, in course of time, suffer change. For the uncertain future has yet to come, with every possible variety of fortune; and him only to whom the divinity has continued happiness unto the end we call happy; to salute as happy one that is still in the midst of life and hazard, we think as little safe and conclusive as to crown and proclaim as victorious the wrestler that is yet in the ring." After this, he was dismissed, having given Croesus some pain, but no instruction.

The wiser ones among the ancient Persians seem, in retrospect, to have concurred with Solon.

Zarathushtra asked Ahura Mazda: 'O Ahura Mazda, most beneficent Spirit, Maker of the material world, thou Holy One!'When one of the faithful departs this life, where does his soul abide on that night?'Ahura Mazda answered:It takes its seat near the head, singing the Ushtavaiti Gatha and proclaiming happiness: "Happy is he, happy the man, whoever he be, to whom Ahura Mazda gives the full accomplishment of his wishes!"

What should our wishes be? Who are we to be? Who are we, really?

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