Tuesday, July 11, 2000

The Dangers of Excess

When Classics Corner last month watched fatass rich guy Paul Allen smash a Chihuli guitar to celebrate his latest acquisition, we were reminded of nothing so much as Solon’s legendary advice to Croesus, that no one should consider themselves lucky until after they’re dead.

As Herodotus tells the story, which, like many of his instructive tales, probably never happened, Croesus, King of Sardis, was honored with a visit from Solon, the originator of Athenian democracy. Croesus, then the richest man in Asia, instructed his minions to show Solon about his various storerooms and treasuries. He then asked the wise man who was “most blessed of all.”

The unimpressed Solon answered, “Sir, Tellus the Athenian.”

This Tellus apparently died bravely in battle after having sired devoted sons in a well-run city. Croesus, a bit taken aback by this strange value system, asked who, then, was second most blessed.

“Cleobis and Biton,” said Solon. These men, when oxen were unavailable for their mother’s ride to the temple, yoked themselves to a wagon and pulled her the 6 miles themselves, and then, in an apparent paroxysm of filial piety, died. Their fellow countrymen were so impressed that statues in their likeness were erected at a holy shrine.

Croesus was unamused. Solon, who numbered a mans days at 26,250, reminded him that each of these was different from the last, that that while Croesus was rich and a King, he may or may not be blessed, depending on how his days went to the end.

That was pretty much the end of the King’s hospitality, and Croesus sent Solon away, “thinking him most assuredly a stupid man.”

Later, with his mighty empire in ruins and his mind concentrated by the prospect of being burned alive by King Cyrus of Persia, Croesus saw the wisdom in Solon’s little homily. As the flames kindled, he cried out “Solon! Solon! Solon!,” each utterance bringing the flames a little closer to his feet.

The Persian King, always up for a good conversation, asked who this Solon was, and Croesus told the whole story in perilous detail.

Cyrus, who like most ancient rulers was subject to wild mood swings, reflected on “how nothing of all that is in the world of men can be secure,” and gave orders to let Croesus go.
By then, however, the flames would not be doused, and the fire was out of control. Fortunately for Croesus, Apollo heard his prayers and sent a rainstorm. The Sardinian ruler became the slave of Cyrus, but at least he wasn’t roasted alive. In those days, this passed for a happy ending.

And so it goes. Today, WSU dropout Paul Allen owns a couple of sports teams, some cable companies, an entertainment empire, Janis Joplin’s feather boa, the Hendrix legacy, Mick Jagger’s ex-wife, and various other effluvia and ephemera too numerous to mention.

He thinks he’s so smart. We’d gleefully like to remind Paul that he has 10,058 days left, and as any ancient greek knows, excessive happiness is a very dangerous thing.

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