After Friday’s inauguration, when Donald Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States, it is easy to imagine he will feel awestruck at all that he has achieved. Suddenly he will be the most famous, most powerful human on planet earth. At his desk in the Oval Office, he’ll sit roughly between Trump Tower, the crown jewel of his real-estate empire, and Mar-a-Lago, his lavish Palm Beach estate. What’s more, he’ll share all this wealth and power with his wife and five healthy children. Were he to broadcast his inner thoughts to the masses on Twitter, they might be something like, “Who would you say is the happiest of men?”
That was the question posed by Croesus, an ancient king so renowned for his riches that his name became synonymous for great wealth among ancient Greeks and Persians.
The historian Herodotus offered a portrait of the self-satisfied king at the height of his power and wealth. He is eagerly anticipating a visit from Solon, a man renowned for his wisdom, expecting that the wise man will attest to his unsurpassed greatness.
“Who would you say is the happiest of men?” the king asks, amid the splendor and opulence of his royal surroundings, expecting that the wise man will say, “Why, you, Croesus.”
Instead, he names an obscure older man admired greatly by his people because he sacrificed his own life on their behalf, falling on the battlefield while successfully defending them. An honored gravesite was erected on the spot that he fell.
Surprised, the king accepts this answer, but asks, okay, who is the next most fortunate? He’s still expecting that he will rank at least near the pinnacle of the human race.
Instead, the wise man answers, “Cleobis and Biton.”
And who, pray tell, were these two? Herodotus proceeds to offer the discombobulated king their story. Its paraphrased well by Daniel N. Robinson, a distinguished philosopher and fellow at Oxford. They were fine, loyal men, paragons of virtue, decent in every respect, he begins:
Their mother, a temple priestess and good woman, so fearful in being late to showing up at the temple of Hera for devotional exercises, found her sons, Cleobis and Biton, yoking themselves to the chariot, because the servants had not yoked the oxen. So they carry their mother swiftly some three miles in the heat of day so that she’s not late for her appointed rounds.
As they come into town people are in awe of these wonderful sons. Cleobis and Biton themselves are absolutely exhausted, as you might imagine. They offer their prayers in the temple and then, in this total exhaustion, just lay down to sleep under a shade tree. Their thankful mother is inside the temple now. She is supplicating Hera, thanking her gods for the sons she was given. And she prays that they die the happiest of man. And Cleobis and Biton never awaken. They did die the happiest of men because the happiest men, the happiest of us all, are those that die in a state of being that we would honor and aspire to emulate.
Herodotus had injected a morality tale in his history.
Robinson concludes by fleshing out the ancient text’s implications.“So sayeth no man that he is truly flourishing in his life until his days are over,” he lectures. “The answer to the question, ‘What was your life like,’ is to be rendered in that tense. I can’t tell you, Croesus, where you stand in the league table because right now is right now. The future is mute. Let us see what you do with the balance of your life. More importantly, let us see how you’re remembered. The Latin for remember is very good here, monumentum. Let us see what your monument is.”
What’s more, to quote Herodotus directly, “The very rich man is not more fortunate than the man who has only his daily needs, unless he chances to end his life with all well.”
Wealth is nothing. To be inaugurated president is nothing.
By pursuing and winning the presidency, Trump assured himself that history will judge him for his acts while in office. He will die a failure unless he conducts himself in a way that his countrymen later judge honorable and aspire to emulate. With his final chapter unwritten, I hope for the sake of all concerned that he defies expectations, governs virtuously, and dies happy.