Solon, Croesus and Gaddafi

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The final moments of Muammar Gaddafi represent only the latest images of a despot driven to ground. In the past history was occassionally captured on film; now it appears cellphones will mean that not a single moment of human civilization and its various failures will escape capture for posterity's viewing pleasure--or disquiet.

As much as he was apparently capable of great cruelty himself, as I'm sure the residents of Misrata can surely attest, as can apparently any person unfortunate to work in the service of his family, it is still impossible not to feel sorry? disturbed? horrified?, I don't know, something, when watching these videos of Gaddafi's final moments. All the swagger and the power gone, hiding like a rat in a sewer. Just a hunted and trapped animal. His gold (!) revolver taken from his hands. I am not going to link to them. They are all over the interent and you can find them yourself if you are inclined. I watched one with ghoulish fascination. That's enough for me.

At the moment of his apparent execution, Gaddafi may have been the richest man in the world. By some estimates his personal wealth may have totalled in excess of $200 billion. Now the remnants of his family are on the run. His daughters and two sons in exile; one son unaccounted for, the rest dead.

I find myself thinking of the words of Athenian archon Solon to Croesus, king of the Lydians, who perceived himself the happiest of men and encouraged the wisest of Athenians to corroborate that assessment after offering him a walking tour of his great shining wealth and brillant family. Solon cannot agree. The king is miffed. Solon explains:

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....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."

Solon departed to continue his retirement tour of the known world and Croesus cursed him for a fool. Soon after, his beloved son was killed in a hunting accident, and Croesus himself doomed to a burning pyre after intemperately launching a pre-emptive attack on his Persian rival Cyrus. His family, wealth and empire in ruins around him, he remembers Solon's wise words and moans the sage's name. Cyrus hears Croesus, halts the execution and demands an explanation. Upon hearing it, he is moved to spare the fallen king, perhaps mindul of his own possible fate, and makes Croesus one of his advisors.

A show of great mercy to a great provocation, but that, alas, is another tale with a different moral. There are a lot of them in Herodotus. Perhaps Gaddafi might have benefitted from thumbing through The Histories from time to time. As the U.S. continues to traipse through history and this part of the world, I frequently find myself hoping that someone in the State Department or the Pentagon is consulting not the latest action report or threat analysis, but an old, well-worn copy of Herodotus.