The Rev. Frank
When Victoria was pregnant with Griffin, I was often asked, “What do you want?” meaning a boy or a girl. I had not yet raised a daughter and so I didn’t know a girl is the best thing one can have. So, I genuinely didn’t have a preference. I would avoid the issue by answering, “I want a happy baby.”
Some would ask, “A happy boy or a happy girl?” to which I would respond, “Yes.” Others would say, “Then don’t you want to ask for a healthy baby.” Then I would let them know that I had already figured out that a happy baby would also be a healthy baby. When Griffin was born, I got everything I asked for, a happy baby, who was also healthy. Lucky for us, she is also a girl.
I never asked of myself further about happiness. No questions like, “What would it take for your happy baby to grow up into a happy woman?” Or “What sort of life would be the happiest for her?”
Yet these two questions are essential questions in philosophy. And Greek philosophers struggled over which life was the best to live 500 years before Jesus. To appreciate the answer that Jesus gave those who followed him to the question of which is the best life, I would like to first take a very brief detour into one Greek answer to the question. It’s my favorite philosophical answer, because it comes as a story from Herodotus, who knew how to weave fact and fiction into a seamless whole.
Herodotus is often credited with being the first historian because of his book The Persian Wars, which scholars know to be a largely fact-based account of the Greek’s wars with Persia. Yet Herodotus did not merely tell tales of epic battles, he also interpreted what he saw for the reader. Early in the book, before he gets to the epic exploits of men of battle, he inserts a curious dialogue between two men who are larger than life.
The men are Croesus and Solon. Croesus will figure prominently in The Persian Wars. Croesus was so stinking filthy rich that it became a saying to be “Rich as Croesus.” It was roughly equivalent to the saying today, “He has more money than God.” In Herodotus little scene, Croesus speaks with Solon, who was known to be a great wise man, much like Plato or Socrates, except more well traveled.
Solon died before Croesus was born. But Herodotus knew that his readers knew Croesus and Solon could never have met and he still considered it fair game to use the literary device of having the richest man discuss The Good Life with the wisest of men. It is a very Greek dialogue, in which Croesus wants to know, “Who is the happiest of men?”
Herodotus writes of Croesus approach to Solon saying,
Stranger of Athens, we have heard much of your wisdom and of your travels through many lands, from love of knowledge and a wish to see the world. I am curious therefore to inquire of you, whom, of all the men that you have seen, you consider the most happy?
In case we could not read between the lines, Herodotus adds, “This he asked because he thought himself the happiest of mortals.” When Croesus asks who is the happiest, he is asking in the Greek who is it that has the most Eudomania. Eudomania is better translated “human flourishing” instead of happiness. Croesus wants wise Solon to tell him and everyone listening that he, Croesus, is the most flourishing human of all.
Solon gives the true answer as he sees it from his travels and names “Tellus of Athens.” The odd thing is that no one before or since had ever heard of Tellus of Athens. Solon explains that while unknown, Tellus lived when his country flourished, he had sons and daughters he saw grow to have sons and daughters and he died in battle routing the foe from his beloved country. Tellus fellow citizens gave him high honors at his burial.
For Solon, this is the greatest life as seen through the eyes of Tellus’ country and his family. Croesus does not want to be detoured. Yes, Yes, this Tellus fellow was happy, but Herodotus writes, “Croesus inquired a second time, who after Tellus seemed to him the happiest, expecting that, at any rate, he would be given second place.”
Solon responds again naming now two names which no one had heard of. He said, “Cleobis and Biton” and goes on to tell the story. We learn that Cleobis and Biton were of the Argive race, and they had already earned their country honors in the games. Their mother worshipped regularly in the temple of Hera at Argos. On the day of a festival to Hera, the oxen had not come home to the pen. Seeing their mother in need, Cleobis and Biton yoked themselves to the cart and pulled their mother to the temple. Through the heat of the day, the two sons drew the cart five miles to Argos. The whole assembly noticed this loving act of the two sons devoted to their mother. Herodotus writes,
The Argive men stood thick around the car and 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 such praises as it had won, standing straight before the image, besought the goddess to bestow Cleobis and Biton, the sons who had so mightily honored her, the highest blessing to which mortals can attain. Her prayer ended, they offered sacrifice, and partook of the holy banquet, after which the youths fell asleep in the temple. They never woke more, but so passed from the earth.
So ended the story of Cleobis and Biton. Croesus was furious. Herodotus cays “He broke out angrily, ‘What, stranger of Athens, is my happiness, then, valued so little by you that you do not even put me on a level with private men?’”
Solon answers letting Croesus know that he is unimpressed with wealth saying, “he who possesses great store of riches is no nearer happiness than he who has what suffices for his daily needs. Solon goes on to say that it is how one dies that matters. Is one still happy then? Croesus is still alive and one may not know if he is the best example of happiness, of human flourishing, until he has died. For Solon, it is only in retrospect that one can know which life was the best.
I have heard one scholar compare this insight to the life of Princess Diana. During an early period in her marriage when she seemed to have the love of Charles and certainly enjoyed the love of all Britain, Diana was living a fairy tale life. Many a person could envy Princess Diana. Yet, now, sadly looking back on her life, no one would say that her entire life had been the best example of human flourishing. Even though she did have moments that would have been enviable, in her death Princess Diana did not have the happiness we would have wanted for her.
Herodotus is now ready to go on with his story of The Persian Wars having first warned that one’s death matters most, he turns to the fields of battle. Yet, even in his stories of good deaths, Herodotus noted Cleobis and Biton, who died not in battle, but in assisting their mother with her duties. So Herodotus has already let us know that a society does not need epic battles in order to have heroes.
What are we to make of this Greek thought on The Good Life? I point it out because Herodotus is an example of which there are many of someone who pursued further my answer that I wanted a happy baby. Herodotus took my idea of a happy baby from the cradle to the grave before deciding if the life was a good one. And then the way to judge whether a life had been the best or not was to decide what one’s family, and more importantly, one’s fellow citizens, thought of you.
Cleobis and Biton died because they had already reached the peak of the good life. They were in the full blush of the love of their fellow citizens and their noble mother. It would have been all downhill from there and so the boys died in answer to their mother’s prayer for the best life for them.
Contrary to this idea that the best life is the one most admired by one’s countrymen, Jesus taught that we can know in the here and now which life is the best. Jesus was asked which of the 613 commandments found in the Old Testament was the greatest and he selected two. One as the greatest and then a close second. Jesus gave us those words that are now so well known that we hardly hear them anymore. Jesus said,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
This is Jesus answer to what was then the centuries old question of “How do I live The Good Life?” Jesus taught that the way to judge whether a life was good was not what your countrymen thought of you or even what your family and close friends thought of you. The way to judge whether a life is good is by the love shown. The person who loves God completely and loves their neighbor as they love themself, is living The Good Life no matter what anyone thinks.
Elsewhere Jesus warned that following his example could put you on the outs with your family and with the government, so Jesus stands in opposition to Herodotus claims. For Jesus, what matters most is what God thinks of the life you are living. And to have a way to judge that for yourself, Jesus gives the word “Love.” Are the things you do done out of love for God, for your neighbor, for yourself?
Don’t forget that last one. You are to love your neighbor as yourself. So any love of neighbor already depends on loving yourself. As a child I was taught that the way to have JOY is Jesus first, Yourself last, and Others in between. That is right, but it only works if you do love yourself as God loves you.
If love is the measure of The Good Life, then who is it that is the best example of that Greek ideal of Eudomania, or human flourishing? The answer from scripture is, of course, Jesus. When Jesus endures the pain and suffering of the cross out of love for us, his fellow countrymen scorned him, and his family and close friends did not yet understand. When he was placed in the grave that Friday we call Good, no one would have dared to say that Jesus had died the happiest of all men.
Yet, Easter Sunday is God answering back that we see the world upside down when we view our lives by what other people think of us. If we instead consider our own lives through God’s eyes, we see that Jesus did live a life of human flourishing. And if we too want to live the best of lives, we don’t have to wait until we die to figure out if we got it right. Instead we can look to our day to day lives and increase the ways in which our actions flow from love of God, our neighbors and ourselves.
Jesus taught that it is this self-giving love which matters most. The Apostle Paul would later write, “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” It was a very Jesus thing to write. Then there are the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel appropriate for closing today as Jesus covered what I have been trying to get at more succinctly in saying,
These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. "This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. (John 15:11)
 Daniel N. Robinson of Oxford University in his lecture on Herodotus for The Teaching Company course “The Great Ideas of Philosophy, 2nd Edition.”