13 Oct Nobody could ever be called happy until they were dead (EDITH HALL)
A primordial Greek proverb maintained that nobody could ever be called happy until they were dead. It was a favourite saying of Solon, an Athenian leader and one of the ‘Seven Wise Men’ of the Greeks. He once visited the fabulously wealthy king of Lydia, Croesus. Croesus wanted Solon to agree that he, Croesus, was the happiest man in the world. He was annoyed when Solon chose an ordinary Athenian named Tellus, who lived a long life, lived to see all his grandchildren, all of whom survived him, and died fighting for the country he loved. Solon’s point was that misfortune could strike at any time, and so a person’s total happiness cannot be assessed until after they have died. This turned out to be eerily prophetic: Croesus’ son was soon afterwards killed in an accident, his wife committed suicide and he lost his kingdom to the Persians. Aristotle cites Solon’s precept, and approves of it insofar as it requires thinking about your future and how you are going to face the challenges it brings.
Solon’s advice ‘look to the end’ is timeless. It doesn’t matter whether you are a teenager beginning to plan your life, a burnt-out midlife professional, or a pensioner wanting to make the most of the remaining years of your life. None of us wants to be haunted on our deathbed either by guilt or the knowledge that there was something we didn’t achieve simply because we were too scared to try. In 2012 Bronnie Ware, a palliative nurse who has attended to many people during their last few weeks, published a moving account of the most common regrets they have expressed to her.7 These chime almost miraculously with the pitfalls Aristotle advises us to avoid as we create happiness over our lifetimes. People say ‘I wish that I had let myself be happier’, thus acknowledging that they had somehow let the opportunity to be self-sufficient and choose to make their own happiness pass them by. They wish they had made more effort with friendships (one of Aristotle’s most important principles). But the most frequently expressed regret is this: ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’