Solon, the great law-giver of Athens, is visiting Croesus, the rich and poweful King of Lidya.
After showing off his wealth, Croesus is disappointed when Solon declares three unknown men of middling rank to be the happiest he’s ever seen.
Croesus snapped, “That’s all very well my Athenian friend, but what of my own happiness? Is it so utterly comtemptible that you won’t even compare me with mere common folk like those you have mentioned?”
“Croesus,” replied Solon, “I know God is envious of human prosperity and likes to trouble us; and you question me about the lot of man. Listen then: as the years lengthen out, there is much both to see and to suffer which one would wish otherwise.
“Take seventy years as the span of a man’s life… the total of days for your seventy years is 26,250*, and not a single one of them is like the next in what it brings. You can see from that, Croesus, that man is entirely a creature of chance. You seem to be very rich, and you rule a numerous people; but the question you asked me I will not answer, until I know that you have died happily.
“Great wealth can make a man no happier than moderate means, unless he has the luck to continue in prosperity to the end. Many very rich men have been unfortunate, and many with a modest competence have had good luck. The former are only better off than the latter in two respects only, whereas the poor but lucky man has the advantage in many ways; for although the rich have the means to satisfy their appetites and to bear calamities, and the poor have not, the poor, if they are lucky, are more likely to keep clear of trouble, and will have besides the blessings of a sound body, health, freedom from trouble, fine children, and good looks.
“Now if a man thus favoured dies as he has lived, he will be just the one you are looking for: the only sort of person who deserves to be called happy. But mark this: until he is dead, keep the word “happy” in reserve. Till then, he is not happy, but only lucky.”
“Look to the end, no matter what it is you are considering. Often enough God gives a man a glimpse of happiness, and then utterly ruins him.”Herodotus – Histories – Aubrey de Sélincourt translation (Amazon)
*See here for comment on Solon’s counting of days, which is different from our Gregorian system