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Are we then to count no other human being happy either, as long as he is alive? Must we obey Solon's warning,1 and ‘look to the end’? [2] And if we are indeed to lay down this rule, can a man really be happy after he is dead? Surely that is an extremely strange notion, especially for us who define happiness as a form of activity! [3] While if on the other hand we refuse to speak of a dead man as happy, and Solon's words do not mean this, but that only when a man is dead can one safely call him blessed as being now beyond the reach of evil and misfortune, this also admits of some dispute; for it is believed that some evil and also some good can befall the dead, just as much as they can happen to the living without their being aware of it— for instance honors, and disgraces, and the prosperity and misfortunes of their children and their descendants in general. [4] But here too there is a difficulty. For suppose a man to have lived in perfect happiness until old age, and to have come to a correspondingly happy end: he may still have many vicissitudes befall his descendants, some of whom may be good and meet with the fortune they deserve, and others the opposite; and moreover these descendants may clearly stand in every possible degree of remoteness from the ancestors in question. Now it would be a strange thing if the dead man also were to change2 with the fortunes of his family, and were to become a happy man at one time and then miserable at another; [5] yet on the other hand it would also be strange if ancestors were not affected at all, even over a limited period, by the fortunes of their descendants. [6]

But let us go back to our former difficulty,3 for perhaps it will throw light on the question4 we are now examining. [7] If we are to look to the end, and congratulate a man when dead not as actually being blessed, but because he has been blessed in the past, surely it is strange if at the actual time when a man is happy that fact cannot be truly predicated of him, because we are unwilling to call the living happy owing to the vicissitudes of fortune, and owing to our conception of happiness as something permanent and not readily subject to change, whereas the wheel of fortune often turns full circle in the same person's experience. [8] For it is clear that if we are to be guided by fortune, we shall often have to call the same man first happy and then miserable; we shall make out the happy man to be a sort of ‘chameleon, or a house built on the sand.’5 [9]

But perhaps it is quite wrong to be guided in our judgement by the changes of fortune, since true prosperity and adversity do not depend on fortune's favours, although, as we said, our life does require these in addition; but it is the active exercise of our faculties in conformity with virtue that causes happiness, and the opposite activities its opposite. [10]

And the difficulty just discussed is a further confirmation of our definition; since none of man's functions possess the quality of permanence so fully as the activities in conformity with virtue: they appear to be more lasting even than our knowledge of particular sciences. And among these activities themselves those which are highest in the scale of values are the more lasting, because they most fully and continuously occupy the lives of the supremely happy: for this appears to be the reason why we do not forget them. [11]

The happy man therefore will possess that element of stability in question, and will remain happy all his life; since he will be always or at least most often employed in doing and contemplating the things that are in conformity with virtue. And he will bear changes of fortunes most nobly, and with perfect propriety in every way, being as he is ‘good in very truth’ and ‘four-square without reproach.’6 [12]

But the accidents of fortune are many and vary in degree of magnitude; and although small pieces of good luck, as also of misfortune, clearly do not change the whole course of life, yet great and repeated successes will render life more blissful, since both of their own nature they help to embellish it, and also they can be nobly and virtuously utilized7; while great and frequent reverses can crush and mar our bliss both by the pain they cause and by the hindrance they offer to many activities. Yet nevertheless even in adversity nobility shines through, when a man endures repeated and severe misfortune with patience, not owing to insensibility but from generosity and greatness of soul. [13] And if, as we said, a man's life is determined by his activities, no supremely happy man can ever become miserable. For he will never do hateful or base actions, since we hold that the truly good and wise man will bear all kinds of fortune in a seemly way, and will always act in the noblest manner that the circumstances allow; even as a good general makes the most effective use of the forces at his disposal, and a good shoemaker makes the finest shoe possible out of the leather supplied him, and so on with all the other crafts and professions. [14] And this being so, the happy man can never become miserable; though it is true he will not be supremely blessed if he encounters the misfortunes of a Priam. Nor yet assuredly will he be variable and liable to change; for he will not be dislodged from his happiness easily, nor by ordinary misfortunes, but only by severe and frequent disasters, nor will he recover from such disasters and become happy again quickly, but only, if at all, after a long term of years, in which he has had time to compass high distinctions and achievements. [15]

May not we then confidently pronounce that man happy who realizes complete goodness in action, and is adequately furnished with external goods? Or should we add, that he must also be destined to go on living not8 for any casual period but throughout a complete lifetime in the same manner, and to die accordingly, because the future is hidden from us, and we conceive happiness as an end, something utterly and absolutely final and complete? [16] If this is so, we shall pronounce those of the living who possess and are destined to go on possessing the good things we have specified to be supremely blessed, though on the human scale of bliss.

So much for a discussion of this question.

1 See Hdt. 1.30-33. Solon visited Croesus, king of Lydia, and was shown all his treasures, but refused to call him the happiest of mankind until he should have heard that he had ended his life without misfortune; he bade him ‘mark the end of every matter, how it should turn out.’

2 i.e., if our estimate of his life as happy or the reverse had to change. There is no idea of the dead being conscious of what happens to their descendants (cf. 10.3 fin.), though this is inconsistently suggested by the wording of 10.5.

3 That raised in 10.1.

4 That raised in 10.4.

5 Perhaps a verse from an unknown play.

6 From the poem of Simonides quoted and discussed in Plat. Prot. 339.

7 This distinction of the two values of good fortune recalls the two classes of external goods defined in 8.15,16 and 9.7.

8 The clause ‘not . . . lifetime’ stands above after ‘external goods’ in the mss.

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hide References (2 total)
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (2):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.30
    • Plato, Protagoras, 339
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