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Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Mensch Theory of Success, College, Camp, and Death

So between last week and this week I have traversed a hilly winding road of ups and downs. There was the winding road North to Maine to pick up the 13-year-old from camp. This involved a fun dinner with the husband’s college friend and his wife and children, highlights of which included a brief explanation of Herodotus in relation to success and happiness. Then there was the reunion with the 13-year-old, who was happy to see us, but wanted to stay at camp. This was as I had hoped. I had prepared for utter dejection, because that was how I left camp every year, wallowing in misery over leaving my dear friends behind, tears streaming down my face as the Dodge Dart bumped along the camp’s dirt road and my father eyed me in the rear view mirror. The 13-year-old was much more self-contained (naturally). She reported a sob-fest had happened the night before, so what we witnessed was exhausted depression. She found her people at camp, and they are theater people. And now, according to her, she has nothing to look forward to at all this year, until camp next year. 

There was the decided down of visiting our accountant. This was an appointment I had dreaded for months, and the husband and I had to really get our budget on paper beforehand. The upshot is that we, like most people we know, are among the privileged group of folk who will be expected to pay the full tuition, room, and board at any private college our children wish to attend. And, like most of them, we can’t do that out of pocket. While our parents could swing it for us, we can’t do it for our children, and that feels like failure. If it is, however, then it is failure for the majority of Americans. So I think it’s something else. All that talk about stagnant wages and real income remaining about the same since the 1970s has come home to roost. The percentage of total income that a private college cost when I went to college was much smaller than it is now. Because I have spent most of my life not talking about money nor wanting to think about it, I don’t really understand why this is, but my suspicion is that public and economic policy has a lot to do with it. I’m hopeful that things will change by the time our children’s children want to go to college, but it won’t happen for my children. 

I have to admit I feel really embarrassed writing that last paragraph. Talking about money is something I was brought up to avoid. But this has been on my mind, and it’s on so many people’s minds, that I thought I’d dip a toe in the topic. 

Well, Readers, this post hasn’t been funny at all. I apologize. I’m off my meds. Or something. Maybe.

So let’s return up the winding road to that conversation over dinner in Maine. The husband’s friend is a stay-at-home dad (SAHD) with an interest in the Classics, married to a doctor, so he is in some ways my male counterpart. When I asked him how he defined success a few years ago, he referred to the following passage in Herodotus, which led me to derive my “mensch theory of success,” the basis of which is that if, when you die, people think you were a good person, then you are successful. On this visit we returned to the topic and I asked him where to find the story, since there are several volumes of Herodotus, and as much as I am interested in the classics, and as thankful as I am for the translations readily available through the Internet Archives, I had been a bit overwhelmed trying to find it by myself. 

So this is about King Croesus, who was very rich. You may have heard that phrase “rich as Croesus.” This is that guy. And he thought he had it pretty good. He was successful and happy. Until he met a wandering sage from Athens called Solon. After showing Solon all his store rooms of gold, which he could have used to help send many deserving children to the private colleges of their hearts’ desires, if such places existed in Ancient Greece, Croesus asks Solon, according to Herodotus, the following:

Stranger of Athens, we have heard much of thy wisdom and of thy travels through many lands, from love of knowledge and a wish to see the world. I am curious therefore to inquire of thee, whom, of all the men that thou hast seen, thou deemest the most happy?" This he asked because he thought himself the happiest of mortals: but Solon answered him without flattery, according to his true sentiments, "Tellus of Athens, sire." Full of astonishment at what he heard, Croesus demanded sharply, "And wherefore dost thou deem Tellus happiest?" To which the other replied, "First, because his country was flourishing in his days, and he himself had sons both beautiful and good, and he lived to see children born to each of them, and these children all grew up; and further because, after a life spent in what our people look upon as comfort, his end was surpassingly glorious. In a battle between the Athenians and their neighbours near Eleusis, he came to the assistance of his countrymen, routed the foe, and died upon the field most gallantly. The Athenians gave him a public funeral on the spot where he fell, and paid him the highest honours." 

Thus did Solon admonish Croesus by the example of Tellus, enumerating the manifold particulars of his happiness. When he had ended, Croesus inquired a second time, who after Tellus seemed to him the happiest, expecting that at any rate, he would be given the second place. "Cleobis and Bito," Solon answered; "they were of Argive race; their fortune was enough for their wants, and they were besides endowed with so much bodily strength that they had both gained prizes at the Games. Also this tale is told of them:- There was a great festival in honour of the goddess Juno at Argos, to which their mother must needs be taken in a car. Now the oxen did not come home from the field in time: so the youths, fearful of being too late, put the yoke on their own necks, and themselves drew the car in which their mother rode. Five and forty furlongs did they draw her, and stopped before the temple. This deed of theirs was witnessed by the whole assembly of worshippers, and then their life closed in the best possible way. Herein, too, God showed forth most evidently, how much better a thing for man death is than life. For the Argive men, who stood around the car, extolled the vast strength of the youths; and the Argive women extolled the mother who was blessed with such a pair of sons; and the mother herself, overjoyed at the deed and at the praises it had won, standing straight before the image, besought the goddess to bestow on Cleobis and Bito, the sons who had so mightily honoured her, the highest blessing to which mortals can attain. Her prayer ended, they offered sacrifice and partook of the holy banquet, after which the two youths fell asleep in the temple. They never woke more, but so passed from the earth. The Argives, looking on them as among the best of men, caused statues of them to be made, which they gave to the shrine at Delphi."  

So it looks to me like my Mensch Theory of Success needs some refining. From this passage we deduce that the happy person 
  • lives a good life, 
  • is a valiant warrior, 
  • has enough money to meet his or her needs, 
  • and dies a noble death. 

To these characteristics, I have to add one more. Since this passage is about happiness, but the husband's friend, the SAHD classicist, brought it up when I asked how he defined success, happiness is success.  

But you won't ever really know you've attained it because you won't attain it until you're dead. 

Have a nice weekend.