King Croesus and Reputation Beyond Death

Co-Published on Unbillable Hours

In Persia, well before the time of Christ, well before Julius Caesar, and long, long before any of us, lived a king named Croesus. Croesus ruled the Kingdom of Lydia, part of the Persian Empire. It came to pass that Solon of Athens, a wise thinker, was traveling through Lydia. Croesus heard this, and had Solon brought to his palace in Sardis, in what is now Western Turkey, just south of the Dardanelles.

I thought of that story, told by Herodotus in his History of the Persian Wars, when X asked me to guest-post on his "Whuffie" blog.

Croesus sized up Solon, and thought for a moment before asking Solon who he thought was the happiest man on Earth. It was the Classical Era. To them, Earth meant the land that bordered the Aegean down to the Fertile Crescent, now Iraq, and Persia, now Iran, and east to Libya and Morocco, then known as Carthage. Solon told him that he thought that Tellus of Athens was the happiest man on Earth, for he had a large, happy family, moderate wealth, and had died well during combat.

Croesus, a rather wealthy king, was disappointed with Solon’s answer. He thought that, given his wealth, Croesus himself should be the happiest man on earth.

Croesus asked Solon who, in his opinion, was the second happiest person on Earth, after Tellus of Athens. Solon thought again, and answered that Cleobis and Bito were the next happiest people. Cleobis and Bito, Solon explained, were beloved sons of their parents. One day, their mother needed to get to a temple for a festival honoring Hera. Because the oxen were in the fields with the father of Cleobis and Bito, the boys hitched themselves to their mother's cart and pulled her to the temple. There, the worshippers saw the devotion of the two boys, and had a great feast in their honor. The gods saw this too, Solon explained, and in homage to the boys' devotion, put them in a deep sleep at the end of the feast. Cleobis and Bito never awoke from that deep sleep, as the gods had taken them from the Earth. They would never know sorrow, Solon explained, or betrayal, or want. They were happy because the gods had preserved them in the greatness of their youth.

This drove Croesus mad, as Herodotus noted.

When Solon had thus assigned these youths the second place, Croesus broke in angrily, "What, stranger of Athens, is my happiness, then, so utterly set at nought by thee, that thou dost not even put me on a level with private men?"

Thus, Solon realized that Croesus did not understand happiness as he did. He finally explained to Croesus why he was not counting him as happy along with Cleobis, Bito, and Tellus of Athens.

For thyself, oh! Croesus, I see that thou art wonderfully rich, and art the lord of many nations; but with respect to that whereon thou questionest me, I have no answer to give, until I hear that thou hast closed thy life happily. For assuredly he who possesses great store of riches is no nearer happiness than he who has what suffices for his daily needs, unless it so hap that luck attend upon him, and so he continue in the enjoyment of all his good things to the end of life. For many of the wealthiest men have been unfavoured of fortune, and many whose means were moderate have had excellent luck. Men of the former class excel those of the latter but in two respects; these last excel the former in many. The wealthy man is better able to content his desires, and to bear up against a sudden buffet of calamity. The other has less ability to withstand these evils (from which, however, his good luck keeps him clear), but he enjoys all these following blessings: he is whole of limb, a stranger to disease, free from misfortune, happy in his children, and comely to look upon. If, in addition to all this, he end his life well, he is of a truth the man of whom thou art in search, the man who may rightly be termed happy. Call him, however, until he die, not happy but fortunate. Scarcely, indeed, can any man unite all these advantages: as there is no country which contains within it all that it needs, but each, while it possesses some things, lacks others, and the best country is that which contains the most; so no single human being is complete in every respect- something is always lacking. He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, is, in my judgment, entitled to bear the name of 'happy.' But in every matter it behoves us to mark well the end: for oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin."

Herodotus, History of the Persian Wars, Book 7

Reputation, in a sense, is a lot like the happiness Solon spoke of in Herodotus' Histories. It is fleeting, and the full measure of reputation that we possess is not known until after death.

This is precisely the problem presented to us in Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. In Doctorow's novel, I find myself dealing with the concept of "Whuffie" as a commodity based on reputation. However, the reputation spoken of is fleeting. It is the same sort of reputation that Croesus would have sought. I am of a mind to assume that Doctorow recognized this by giving this reputation-based economy a comic element.

So what, then, do we make of the fleeting, changing, commodifiable reputation system put forward by Doctorow? It is a system that I find fascinating, despite Herodotus' classical refutation. First off, it seems logical to deal with the elements of this reputation economy in a manner that was not refuted by Herodotus. What is recognized by both Doctorow and Herodotus is that, because I am measured by the final quanta of reputation I possess, it behoves me – at every moment of my life – to preserve and do my best to improve the reputation I possess at all moments of my life. In every action, I must remember to be that which garners myself the reputation I desire at the end of my life.

I won't even begin to address the implications that are raised by the fact that Herodotus points out that the second happiest people in the world were snuffed out by the gods. Perhaps I should not work too hard to improve my reputation.

Herodotus and Doctorow differ significantly with regard to another issue concerning reputation. Herodotus' version of reputation was based on the "objective." It was based on the glory of the gods (at least in the Hellenic system). So long as one believed that the gods were pleased, it was reasonably verifiable that one’s reputation would improve accordingly. Within a religion, a belief that satisfies the divine is effectively a true belief.

Outside of religion, when beliefs are dealt with in a social context, as was done in Doctorow’s novel, reputation is inherently subjective. So long as my reputation is tied only to the beliefs held by others, it is no more verifiable or objective than the opinion polls used by major media to address political issues. It is based on the moods, whims, and ideals held by a diverse group, namely, the world around me.

The subjectivity of reputation poses the central problem dealt with by Doctorow’s protagonist, Julius. Julius' reputation swings up and down the scale throughout the novel based on the wrongheaded conclusions of others concerning his involvement in the various projects in Disney World and in his adversary’s attempt to take over part of the park.

This is how you hit bottom. You wake up in your friend's hotel room and you power up your handheld and it won't log on. You press the call-button for the elevator and it gives you an angry buzz in return. You take the stairs to the lobby and no one looks at you as they jostle past you.
You become a non-person.
Scared. I trembled when I ascended the stairs to Dan's room, when I knocked at his door, louder and harder than I meant, a panicked banging.
Dan answered the door and I saw his eyes go to his HUD, back to me. "Jesus," he said.
I sat on the edge of my bed, head in my hands.
"What?" I said, what happened, what happened to me?
"You're out of the ad-hoc," he said. "You're out of Whuffie. You're bottomed-out," he said.

Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Chapter 9

The danger, pointed out in this passage from Doctorow's novel, in having a completely subjective, reputation-based economy is that it is quite possible for someone like me to be made an outsider from the economy due to actions for which I had no responsibility. Granted, similar problems exist in a cash-based economy. The market could bottom out, as we all certainly know, and I could be left with stock in… nothing. Still, there are objective factors, along with the subjective ones that move the market, that justify such occurrences. With a reputation economy, the threat of being ostracized unfairly is very real, and very much free from the protections of objectivity. Thus, this points to a problem with such a system. I do not think it is a problem that would defeat the system, as a general concept, but it is one that may justify eschewing it as a device for commerce.

The subjective nature of reputation is an interesting issue that goes beyond Herodotus. It is one that troubles modern politicians and entertainers, sometimes rightly, and sometimes wrongly. It's for this reason that I think X's website, and Doctorow's novel, are such interesting topics of discussion. Reputation is a matter that merits consideration, because it is a value that, subjectively, has massive impact on our life -- and on the lives of the ancients.

FOR REFERENCES, GO TO http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/herodotus-creususandsolon.html

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