Tag Archives: solon

Yogi Berra, my Personal Ancient Greek Tutor

I’m going off-topic today (well, not very off-topic considering how frequently I write about baseball).  I couldn’t let the passing of Yogi Berra go by without discussing how he helped me make it through my ancient Greek minor in college.

The scene begins 2500 years ago, when Herodotus wrote his history of the wars between Persia and the Greeks.

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My 28-year-old copy of a 2500-year-old book

 As the first widely-published Western writer of history, Herodotus earned himself the honorific “Father of History.”  However, his approach to truth did not always stop at the credible.  For instance, he claimed that Ukraine was full of werewolves and that Egyptian women pee standing up.  Of course, he wasn’t an idiot, either.  He often used language to indicate that he had heard a particular tale but that he neither endorsed nor gainsaid it.

In a Greek class I took as part of my minor, I wrote a paper about one of his his most famous apocryphal tales, a dinner between Croesus (the “rich as Croesus” Croesus) and Solon, the author of Athens’s first legal code.  Croesus, you may recall, held the world record for most poorly-interpreted military intelligence until George Bush came along.  An oracle told Croesus that if he crossed the River Halys, a great empire would be destroyed.  Unfortunately, the oracle meant Croesus’s Lydia, not the Persian Empire across the river.

Before the disastrous invasion, the emperor and lawgiver enjoyed a chatty meal.  Croesus asked Solon what made people happy.  Solon famously answered “call no man happy until he be dead.”  At first, this reply sounds incredibly gloomy.  However, Solon went on to explain that people who had ordinary lives but who somehow sacrificed themselves for a higher purpose achieved the highest level of happiness.

In my paper, I made sure to note this nuanced meaning of Solon’s assertion.  To hammer the point home, I employed the greatest footnote of my academic career:

c.f. Berra, Lawrence Peter (Yogi): “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

Thank you, Yogi, for helping me achieve what modest academic success that I did.  Should you meet Herodotus in the afterlife, I hope Red Smith is on hand to record the conversation.