Two Unhappy Lives
The Greek statesman and poet Solon, who lived in the sixth century BC, said “count no man happy until he be dead”. His thought seems to have been that a person’s luck can change at any time. Aristotle went further. He believed that things can happen after one’s death to affect whether one is happy.
Initially, that seems an odd idea. Because the modern conception of happiness is that it is purely a subjective state.
But compare two lives, recently in the news. They concern two men – a few years ago both would have been regarded by most people as having lived highly successful, even exemplary lives.
Jimmy Savile – for non-Brits reading this – was a famous radio DJ and charity fund raiser, widely seen as a loveable eccentric. Formerly, the cliché to describe him would be ‘national institution’. Lance Armstrong had smashed cycling records, and his remarkable sporting accomplishments were combined with a compelling human interest story: he’d come back to cycling after recovering from cancer.
Now the reputations of both men are shot: Armstrong’s for drug-doping, Savile’s following numerous allegations of pedophilia. There’s this distinction. Sir Jimmy Savile died in his bed before the ongoing stories about him emerged and would have believed that his place as a darling of the nation was secure. Armstrong has lived to experience his character and actions being publicly exposed. Savile never felt that sense of humiliation.
If we were to judge their lives at this moment, we would say that Savile, in an important respect, lived the happier life – he had none of the anguish and tortured shame that accompanies public disgrace. But Aristotle surely had a point. A life is not purely to be weighed up by the quality of its subjective experience. Savile’s guilt – if, as seems highly probable, he was guilty – disfigured his life (as well, of course, as the lives of his victims), and this would have been the case had his crimes never been discovered. But how one is regarded, one’s standing among family, friends and the wider community, is also a component in the good life. He doesn’t know it, but Savile’s name is now mud.
So however contented Savile felt throughout his lifetime, that’s one reason why we can judge that, in fact, he lived an unhappy life.