Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad

Your quiz for today:  who said "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad"?

Was it Shakespeare?  Was it Homer?

Nope.

If you googled for the answer, you probably think Euripides.  This is a classic example of something being repeated on the internet so much that people think it must be true.  The answer isn't Euripides.

In its usual wording as above, it comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  But he was rephrasing a saying that goes back more than 2,500 years.  The earliest use I know of is the play Antigone, where Sophocles quotes a version, which I've stolen from the Perseus translation:
For with wisdom did someone once reveal the maxim, now famous,
that evil at one time or another seems good,
to him whose mind a god leads to ruin.
Sophocles then adds:
But for the briefest moment such a man fares free of destruction.
Which is a variant of, "Well it seemed like a good idea at the time!"

And as the text makes clear, by the time of classical Athens it was already considered an old saying.  The origin must go back into prehistory.  Which is rather cool really for such a subtle idea.


5 comments:

Orange said...

Oscar Wilde, who experienced the worst of a self-destructive nature, commented on this. He was a scholar of the classics, and often refered to the Greeks. In De Profundis, he wrote (I quote from memory) - The gods are strange. They destroy us not through our faults, but through everything that is kind and humane in our natures.

Which, alas, is often true? Did one ever hear of anyone brought low through being hard and selfish?

Gary Corby said...

That's such a terrific point. Yes indeed.

Amalia T. Dillin said...

I'm thinking about Heracles, and how he was quite literally made mad by Hera, and led to kill his family. And then Ajax who was also caught up in divinely inspired madness, and THOUGHT he was slaughtering his friends. It certainly does seem to be a repeated trope, this god-sent madness, but it's fascinating to me that the idea was already old in Antiquity. Just the idea of an idea being old to a people we consider to be so far removed from us, and that idea still being in use today, is kind of mind blowing.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Amalia!

Yes, totally agree. Also it's such a subtle statement about the human condition to be coming from prehistory. Really shows how much people haven't changed, and that modern wisdom is no better than the ancient brand.

Alfred E. Newman said...

thanks for this, your effort is appreciated