The Happy and The Wretched

“No man can know a happy man
From any passing wretch;
If Folly link with Elegance
No man knows which is which,”

William Butler Yeats, The Old Stone Cross

Four and a half years ago, one of these blog posts brought up the age-old question: when can a man be called “happy”? The reading for that week was from Herodotus, who related the story of Solon and Croesus. Solon enraged Croesus by refusing to call him happy. Happiness, Solon claimed, could only be determined after death. Sure, on any given day a man may seem happy. Or even for an extended period of time. But until a man has breathed his last, it is impossible to tell whether his life was happy or not. After all, “to many God shows but a glimpse of happiness and then plucks them up by the roots and overturns them.”

The above-quoted passage from Yeats looks like a similar claim: it is impossible for anybody to tell who is truly happy. But he goes even further; one cannot even tell happiness from wretchedness. He also says that it is impossible to tell folly from elegance. (An outsider’s view of fashion seems to confirm this notion. High-heeled shoes and all sorts of other fashionable attire appear to be equal parts folly and elegance.)

However, Yeats’s lines need more context. Solon apparently believed that it was never possible to say who was happy until after death. Yeats, however, qualified his claim. According to the man under the old stone cross, it is particular to our place and time that happiness cannot be discerned from wretchedness, nor folly from elegance. Such seemingly obvious distinctions cannot be made today “Because this age and the next age — Engender in the ditch”. Unlike Solon, Yeats seems to think that the happy should be easy to sort from the wretched. The reason that we cannot do so is the vulgar origins of our present society.

Society and Solitude #5

 

Beer of the week: Society and Solitude #5 – Alchemist Brewery may have all of the hype, but their neighbors at Hill Farmstead give them a real run for their money. This experimental imperial IPA pours cloudy and pale. The aroma has lots of mango and citrus. The beer is eminently smooth and there is hardly a hint of the high alcohol content. The hops are not overpowering, but they are perfectly balanced with the malt and the fruit notes. This is really a stellar beer.

Reading of the week: The Old Stone Cross by William Butler Yeats – Perhaps the driving factors in the degradation of society are modern politics and what passes for journalism. This poem starts with the statesman “who tells his lies by rote,” and the journalist who “makes up his lies.” This distrust for the political circus and the news media that foster it results in (what I consider) very sound advice from the poet: “stay at home’ and drink your beer — And let the neighbours’ vote”!

Question of the week: What would Solon say about the inability to distinguish folly from elegance?


Spencer Clark, you jerk!

While in the post office recently, I was struck by a poster advertising a postage stamp that I had not seen before, although it has been in use for quite a while. The stamp in question features a film frame of fictional character Harry Potter. Or is it of actor Daniel Radcliffe?

Aware that living persons are not allowed to be on American money or stamps, I immediately questioned whether such a stamp is permissible. I did a little research into the legal history of the ban on living persons on stamps. A very informative article from Numismatic News filled me in on the law and its background. In brief, living people were featured on American and Confederate money throughout the Civil War and in the years thereafter. But in 1866, the Department of the Treasury ordered a run of 5¢ notes (roughly the equivalent of a $0.75 bill in 2015) with an engraving of “Clark”, presumably meaning William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. Spencer Clark, the bureaucrat in charge of the printing office, intentionally misinterpreted the order and had his own portrait featured on the bills.

Congressman Russell Thayer was vehemently opposed.  Rallying the House of Representatives to ban the inclusion of living persons on American currency, Thayler declared, “I hold in my hand a 5-cent note of this fractional currency of the United States. If you ask me, whose image and superscription is this? I am obliged to answer, not that of George Washington, which used to adorn it, but the likeness of the person who superintends the printing of these notes… I would like any man to tell me why his face should be on the money of the United States…and I trust the House will support me in the cry which I raise of Off With Their Heads!”

Representative James Brooks supported the ban, echoing Solon’s advice to Croesus: “No man should be immortalized upon the public money of the country until the verdict of posterity has been pronounced upon his name, and it can go down upon that record sanctioned by the voices of men of all parties, of all politics, and all religions.” After all, a living person may yet do something horrific, rendering bills or stamps with his likeness a shameful collectible.

Thayler and Brooks won the day, despite opposition from Senator Fessenden (who was himself featured on the 50¢ note.) Now, by law, “no portrait or likeness of any living person shall be engraved or placed upon any of the bonds, securities, notes, or postal currency of the United States.”

So what do we make of the Harry Potter stamps? Fictional characters are certainly not banned by the law; Lady Liberty still appears on the obverse of the presidential dollar coin and postage stamps have included fictional characters from Batman to Tom Sawyer. Additionally, unidentified models are apparently acceptable when not being portrayed as themselves; since there are no known portraits of Sacajawea, a model was chosen for the design of her dollar coin. The US postal service has also previously allowed fictional characters portrayed by living actors; Star Wars stamps included several human characters. The difference between the Star Wars and Harry Potter stamps, however, is that the stamps were not film frames of the actors, but drawings. This distinction may seem minor, but it shows a conscious effort in the Star Wars stamps to ensure that it is the characters being portrayed, not the actors. The Harry Potter stamps are not idealized versions of the characters, but actual movie stills of the actors while portraying the characters.

For whatever it is worth, the Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee was unanimously opposed to the Harry Potter stamps. But I suspect that their beef with the stamps had more to do with the blatant commercialization and British actors.

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Beer of the week: Snapshot Wheat Beer – From film frames to Snapshots. A cloudy yellow beer with a bright white head, this offering from New Belgium is pretty tasty. The wheat dominates the aroma. The taste, however, includes notes of sour fruit that linger afterward. Overall, this is a good thirst-quenching drink. It isn’t exceptional, but it is plenty good.

Reading for the week: Metaphysics by Aristotle, Book IV – The Harry Potter stamp may be said to both be and not be of Daniel Radcliffe. Although this seems to be a violation of the principle of noncontradiction, Aristotle makes it clear that when things appear to both be and not be, it is because they are not being viewed in the same respect at the same time. The stamp is of Daniel Radcliffe in the sense that he is the actor portraying the character Harry Potter. The stamp is not of Daniel Radcliffe in the sense that the subject matter of the stamp is the character, not the actor himself.

Question for the week: Should stamps and money depict living people?


King of his Castle

A friend of mine has a refrigerator full of imported beer, a loving wife and a good job. Naturally, one feels inclined to call him happy. For that matter, many would call him happy even if he didn’t have the wife and job. Some would go ever further and suggest that having a wife and job actually detract from the happiness. But does such a man deserve the title: happy?

Herodotus reports that Croesus, a king so rich that he has become a byword for wealth, asked the Athenian statesman Solon whom he considered to be the happiest of all men. And when Solon named virtuous (and deceased) private citizens above Croesus, Croesus did not was none too pleased. But Solon explained himself.

If a man lives 70 years, how absurd would it be to call a man happy based on his condition on any one of those 26,000 days? Sure, a man can be fortunate on any given day, or any given week, or any decade. But nobody can really judge a man’s life until he has lived it all. As Solon said, you may think that a man is happy, but “for to many God shows but a glimpse of happiness and then plucks them up by the roots and overturns them.”

Beer of the Week: Gambrinus Premium – If Croesus is the king of wealth, Gambrinus is the king of beer. It is not totally clear that he was a real person, but he is credited with inventing modern beer. He has lent his name to beers around the world, including one of the Czech Republic’s most popular beers. It pours a beautiful dark gold with a white, fluffy head. The smell is malty with a delicious sour hint. The flavor matches the smell, malty with very little hops present in the finish. Overall, a very enjoyable beer of which it would be way too easy to drink way too much.

Reading of the Week: Histories by Herodotus, Book I, Paragraphs 30 & 32 – Chapter 31, which I have omitted for the sake of keeping the reading under one beer in length is the tale of two brothers whose filial piety earned them “the highest honor to which morals can attain.” Namely, death.

Question of the Week: Since all we can see are the externals, how realistic is it for someone to ever judge the happiness of another?


Histories, Book I, Paragraphs 30 & 32

From King of his Castle

Histories by Herodotus, Book I, Paragraphs 30 & 32

So Solon, having left his native country for this reason and for the sake of seeing various lands, came to Amasis in Egypt, and also to Crœsus at Sardis. Having there arrived he was entertained as a guest by Crœsus in the king’s palace; and afterwards, on the third or fourth day, at the bidding of Crœsus his servants led Solon round to see his treasuries; and they showed him all things, how great and magnificent they were: and after he had looked upon them all and examined them as he had occasion, Crœsus asked him as follows: “Athenian guest, much report of thee has come to us, both in regard to thy wisdom and thy wanderings, how that in thy search for wisdom thou hast traversed many lands to see them; now therefore a desire has come upon me to ask thee whether thou hast seen any whom thou deemest to be of all men the most happy.” This he asked supposing that he himself was the happiest of men; but Solon, using no flattery but the truth only, said: “Yes, O king, Tellos the Athenian.” And Crœsus, marvelling at that which he said, asked him earnestly: “In what respect dost thou judge Tellos to be the most happy?” And he said: “Tellos, in the first place, living while his native State was prosperous, had sons fair and good and saw from all of them children begotten and living to grow up; and secondly he had what with us is accounted wealth, and after his life a most glorious end: for when a battle was fought by the Athenians at Eleusis against the neighbouring people, he brought up supports and routed the foe and there died by a most fair death; and the Athenians buried him publicly where he fell, and honoured him greatly.”

Crœsus was moved to anger and said: “Athenian guest, hast thou then so cast aside our prosperous state as worth nothing, that thou dost prefer to us even men of private station?” And he said: “Crœsus, thou art inquiring about human fortunes of one who well knows that the Deity is altogether envious and apt to disturb our lot. For in the course of long time a man may see many things which he would not desire to see, and suffer also many things which he would not desire to suffer. The limit of life for a man I lay down at seventy years: and these seventy years give twenty-five thousand and two hundred days, not reckoning for any intercalated month. Then if every other one of these years shall be made longer by one month, that the seasons may be caused to come round at the due time of the year, the intercalated months will be in number five-and-thirty besides the seventy years; and of these months the days will be one thousand and fifty. Of all these days, being in number twenty-six thousand two hundred and fifty, which go to the seventy years, one day produces nothing at all which resembles what another brings with it. Thus then, O Crœsus, man is altogether a creature of accident. As for thee, I perceive that thou art both great in wealth and king of many men, but that of which thou didst ask me I cannot call thee yet, until I learn that thou hast brought thy life to a fair ending: for the very rich man is not at all to be accounted more happy than he who has but his subsistence from day to day, unless also the fortune go with him of ending his life well in possession of all things fair. For many very wealthy men are not happy, while many who have but a moderate living are fortunate; and in truth the very rich man who is not happy has two advantages only as compared with the poor man who is fortunate, whereas this latter has many as compared with the rich man who is not happy. The rich man is able better to fulfil his desire, and also to endure a great calamity if it fall upon him; whereas the other has advantage over him in these things which follow:–he is not indeed able equally with the rich man to endure a calamity or to fulfil his desire, but these his good fortune keeps away from him, while he is sound of limb, free from disease, untouched by suffering, the father of fair children and himself of comely form; and if in addition to this he shall end his life well, he is worthy to be called that which thou seekest, namely a happy man; but before he comes to his end it is well to hold back and not to call him yet happy but only fortunate. Now to possess all these things together is impossible for one who is mere man, just as no single land suffices to supply all tings for itself, but one thing it has and another it lacks, and the land that has the greatest number of things is the best: so also in the case of a man, no single person is complete in himself, for one thing he has and another he lacks; but whosoever of men continues to the end in possession of the greatest number of these things and then has a gracious ending of his life, he is by me accounted worthy, O king, to receive this name. But we must of every thing examine the end and how it will turn out at the last, for to many God shows but a glimpse of happiness and then plucks them up by the roots and overturns them.”

Complete text of Histories by Herodotus.


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