What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
(translated by Edmund Keeley)
Yet at the core of the poem’s vision is not its ethnic preoccupation, but its philosophical backdrop. The arrival of the barbarians symbolizes the change that the citizens rely on to provide them with a purpose, a point to live. The community finds itself in a dead end, unable to find meaning within the existing conditions of their being. Ethical merits are undervalued or even neglected and political and legislative institutions have given up their duties. The paradox is that amidst the ruins of abandonment and absolute indifference, the humiliating subordination to the barbarians is portrayed as the only rescue. The citizens of this ancient state depend on external factors to alter their constant state of idleness and provide a solution to their community, which seems to be plagued by unprecedented social and political decline:
Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly.
Everyone going home so lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come. […]
And now, what’s going to happen with us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
But this temporary ‘solution’ is just a delusion, Cavafy suggests. Which brings us to the poem’s central and universally simple message, that we don’t have to wait in order to experience new feelings. We do not need to wait for external factors to make us happy. The meaning and happiness of life is in the present, not in the distant promise of a “someday when…” It is an attitude rather than a condition; it is about our attitude towards daily, simple things: good sleep, a fulfilling breakfast, a meaningful conversation. Our ability to be happy is given to us from the moment we are born; it is the mass-culture of media and commercialism that has shaped this new definition of happiness as a state founded on external expectations. We can unlearn what has been engraved in our heads, go back to our roots and release our ability to be happy with what we have. Happiness is a decision, and the active choice to be happy is enough, or at least, this attitude provides a very strong foundation for our happiness. Someone once said that a truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery while on a detour. Someone who can be happy without cause, who does not have to wait for the ‘barbarians’ to promise relief, salvation or grant a higher aim.