Count no man happy until he is dead
May 7, 2013 4:56 PM   Subscribe

When I was a beginning Greek student, I translated something, I believe in Plato, about the man who led the happiest life. What was this parable?

I think that it went this way: one of Socrates' interlocutors asked him, who in your opinion was the happiest man who had ever lived? Socrates answered that it was a certain athlete, who had died at the age of twenty. He won the Olympic Games, and after the games he led a triumphal procession back to town. When his friends had carried him back home, he suffered a stroke, and fell dead on his parents' doorstep.

Possibly I am confusing this with a story that he told about two brothers who did something nice for their mother and then fell down dead. I think that I translated this around the same time.

Could you tell me which story I am thinking of? When I was eighteen, I thought it was horrible, but now I find myself giving it a lot of thought. I think that, like many Greek stories, it's a parable that appeals to middle-aged people who've always had a lot expected of them -- the idea of dying before you disappoint everyone you know.
posted by Countess Elena to Religion & Philosophy (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Possibly Diagoras?

The two brothers were Kleobis and Biton
posted by IndigoJones at 5:18 PM on May 7, 2013

That's Herodotus, not Plato.
posted by languagehat at 5:18 PM on May 7, 2013

Yup, Solon tells the story to Croesus in Herodotus' Histories, along with the story of Tellus of Athens.

But the one about the young man sounds very familiar to me too, and I can't remember where it's from.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 5:29 PM on May 7, 2013

That was definitely the story of Kleobis and Biton -- thank you. I did read Herodotus in college, but I read it long after I think I read this. I have a distinct memory of reading these particular stories in my first-year classroom, with my first-year professor.

Memory can be tricky, though. As it happens, I worked with some A.E. Housman-related records at my job in the library in college. The story of the athlete is very Housman-esque, isn't it? I wonder if I conflated "To An Athlete Dying Young" with the story of Diagoras in my memory.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:56 PM on May 7, 2013

Now I'm wondering if it's from The Last of the Wine or something...
posted by DestinationUnknown at 6:25 PM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh wow, I loved Mary Renault, then and now. I had definitely read that book at that time.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:58 PM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Any chance you read Plutarch's Lives first? Plutarch basically lifted that whole section from Herodotus (despite having very little good to say about Herodotus.) Plutarch would also account for how Plato got muddled up in there, since he had lots to say about Plato.

I wonder if Pheidippides, the Marathon runner, got into your happy dead men, too. Herodotus barely mentioned him, but Plutarch talks about him in Moralia (as Eucles, mostly about whether we ought to honor story-tellers or the deeds they celebrate, a popular theme for first-year term papers) and Robert Browning got all carried away and wrote of him "Like wine thro' clay,/Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died—the bliss!/So, to this day, when friend meets friend, the word of salute/Is still "Rejoice!"—his word which brought rejoicing indeed./So is Pheidippides happy forever" which sounds sort of similar.
posted by gingerest at 9:21 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

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