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?


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.

The long, long childhood of the Greeks

One of the weirder aspects of Athenian life was that a man was legally a child until his father died.

Thus when he rose to power, Pericles was the foremost man in Athens...and a child.

The effect of legal childhood was that a man had to run to Daddy for his allowance from the family estate (if the family was wealthy), for approval of any commercial action, in fact for approval of just about anything.

You might think reasonable fathers would interpret the requirement loosely, giving their 30+ year old sons lattitude to make their own decisions. But you'd be wrong. There are numerous known instances where fathers reversed decisions they didn't like made by their fully grown sons.

Xanthippus, the son of Pericles, thought his allowance from the family estate was niggardly. (It probably was...Pericles had a reputation that way). Xanthippus was a fully grown man with a demanding wife, who expected the son of the most powerful man in the city should be able to do better by her. So Xanthippus borrowed money from lenders to maintain his lifestyle. It all came out when repayment fell due. Pericles was furious. He repudiated his son's agreement, and sued the lenders for fraud against him. Why fraud? Because the lenders were demanding money based on an unenforcable contract with a legally incompetent child.

This system reached its ultimate ridiculous position when the great playwright Sophocles, at the age of 90, was sued by his eldest son Iophon. Iophon wanted his father declared mentally incompetent so he could take control of the family estate. Family dinners must have been interesting affairs while this was going on! But it's hard not to feel some sympathy for Iophon; at the age of about 60 he would still have had no more legal status than a 12 year old. Sophocles defended himself in court by reciting, on the spot, the ode to Athens from his latest unpublished work, Oedipus at Colonus. The poetry was so brilliant that the jury dismissed Iophon's suit, who one can imagine got a sound spanking from Daddy when they got home.