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Ancient and modern

Ancient and modern

There is no point in Mr Cameron snooping into how happy we are unless he believes government can do something about it.

11 December 2010

12:00 AM

11 December 2010

12:00 AM

There is no point in Mr Cameron snooping into how happy we are unless he believes government can do something about it. Greek and Romans would have been aghast.

Greeks knew perfectly well what made people happy. Aristotle (384–322 bc) cites success, self-sufficiency, security, material and physical well-being and the capacity to safeguard them; ‘markers’ included good birth, creditable children, wealth, high status and a circle of respectable friends.


But Greek intellectuals knew such happiness was rarely lasting. The lesson was never more perfectly expressed than by Herodotus (490–425 bc) in his story of the meeting between the wise Athenian Solon and Croesus, the richest man in the world. When Croesus was offended that he did not feature among Solon’s three happiest people in the world, Solon replied with a long lecture, ending ‘So until a man is dead, keep the word “happy” in reserve. Till then, he is not happy, only lucky… Look to the end, no matter what you are considering. Often enough the god gives a man a glimpse of happiness and then utterly uproots him.’ And, indeed, Croesus was promptly uprooted.

So it was the philosophical question that interested them: what sort of happiness would survive the most catastrophic shocks? Socrates (469–399 bc) believed that goodness was the key. The Cynic Diogenes (4th C bc) went for inner resources, which could be nurtured only by severe physical and mental self-discipline. Self-sufficiency, freedom of speech, indifference to hardship and lack of shame were Cynic hallmarks.

For Plato (429–347 bc), the rational part of the psychê, with its commitment to timeless truth and ultimate reality, needed cultivation if one was to be happy. Aristotle was more interested in success than happiness. Success was ‘an activity of the psychê in accordance with excellence’, and by ‘excellence’ he meant excellence in that which differentiated us from animals and made us human — reason and thought. Success, then, required that a man engage in intellectual activity.

Next time, the Romans will pick up the theme.


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