DARRIN M. McMAHON Christ was born. As Herodotus tells it in The History, Croesus, given his unrivaled wealth and power, was rather confident that he was the happiest man around. To pump up his self-esteem, though, Croesus summons Solon, a wise old Athenian, who takes a tour of Croesus’ riches and announces that Croesus is not among the happiest three men, all of whom are dead. One of them was a young father who died in the glory of battle, perishing with all his precious manly honor intact. The other two were young men, two brothers, who died peacefully in their sleep one night after hauling their mother in a cart to a remote village festival. The brothers were late leav ing home that day, and the two ox were slow, so the brothers unharnessed them and pulled their mother themselves. Once at the fair, the other young men gathered around, marveling at the brothers’ strength; their proud mother, basking in their glow, prayed right then and there that “the goddess should give them whatsoever is best for a man to win,” as Herodotus writes. The goddess decided that the best thing would be for them to die with honor, and after dinner she put them to sleep, for good. There are a lot of good jokes just waiting to be wrung from that one, but at the time, Croesus was so angry at Solon for refusing to see how happy he was that he had him expelled. Soon afterwards, Croesus’ son died in a bizarre accident and Croesus’ kingdom was destroyed by Persian armies. The moral? “Happiness at the dawn of Western history was largely a matter of chance,” McMahon writes. It was also, clearly, a matter of how well you died that determined for the ancients how happy you were in life. So thank God for the Enlightenment. In a book that investigates the entirety of Western history, the Enlightenment emerges as the star because of the new thinking that emerged thennew thinking that remains with us still. The idea that it is our right to seek happiness obviously has its own complications, though. Rousseau knew that the happiness he felt on the Island of SaintPierre was temporary. “The happiness for which my soul longs is not made up of fleeting moments, but of a single and lasting state,” he wrote. In that way, he was similar to the ancients, but he also recognized that the drive for happiness is inherent and must be pursuedand that happiness was not, in fact, the tool of fate, the prevalent thought in antiquity. Rousseau saw that real happiness is unattainable but also knew how badly we all want it. “In wrestling with this contradiction,” McMahon writes, “[Rousseau] hit upon a vexing thought. What if the advance of modern civilization was the cause of this conflict, leading human beings not closer to their intended end but farther away, farther away from themselves?” Happiness is now a consciously competitive sport, with all of life as its playing field. We may want other people to be happy, but it doesn’t seem cynical to say that we are all so busy trying to ensure our own happiness that there’s not a lot of time left over for extensive and devoted management of others people’s happiness. Making the trek to a deserted beach in Mexico is not everyone’s idea of happiness, but it is for me, even if it’s illusory. I may wish you all the luck in the world, but you’d have to induce the Chinese water torture for me to tell you how to get to that beach. Clay Smith is the literary director of the Texas Book Festival. FEBRUARY 10, 2006 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23
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