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“Call no man happy until he is dead”

Posted: Fri Mar 03, 2006 11:37 pm
by JANE DOErell
In a book review at: ... crbo_books sees life as consisting of the things that happen to you; if more good things than bad happen, you are happy.

“Call no man happy until he is dead” was the Greek way of saying this.
There is no attribution other than Greek. Does anyone know if this is a widely acknowledged bit of Greek wisdom, as it were?

“Call no man happy until he is dead”

Posted: Sat Mar 04, 2006 2:28 am
by Ken Greenwald
Jane, I don’t know how popular a Greek saying it is (Hans Joerg may be able to help us on this), but according to Greek historian Herodotus (484?–425? B.C.) in Book I, Chapter 32, it was Greek statesman Solon (638–c558 B.C.) who said:

“Until he is dead, do not yet call a man happy, but only lucky.”

Ken G – March 3, 2006

“Call no man happy until he is dead”

Posted: Sat Mar 04, 2006 12:35 pm
by Wizard of Oz
.. Jane .. there is little doubt that the Kensian quote above is correct .. but in the interest of balance and to show the variety of knowledge on Google I add the following .. they are variations on the theme ..
He is also presented by historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus in his historical accounts as a comment on the human condition. When in Lydia, he (Solon) offended Croesus when asked, "Who is the happiest man you have ever seen?" by answering, "I can speak of no one as happy until they are dead" instead of complimenting the king.
Source: Wikipedia
.. the following variation appeared in several places ..
It was said by Solon to Croesus:
"Call no man happy until he is dead; he is at best but fortunate."
.. and of course there is the Russian variation ..
"Call no day happy until it is done. Call no man happy until he is dead." -- Russian proverb, quoted Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, in The Oak and the Calf.
.. and some people who decided that they didn't like the Greek idea and found other origins ..
Call no man happy until he is dead - Voltaire
Source: ... 42&page=11

"Call no man happy until he is dead" - Chinese proverbe (sic)
Source: ... 00699.html
.. and as they often suggest you ain't made it until you are on the stage .. so ..
"Call no man happy until he is dead” Sophocles in Oedipus Tyrannus
.. so there ..

WoZ of Aus 04/03/06

“Call no man happy until he is dead”

Posted: Sat Mar 04, 2006 5:42 pm
by haro
Research is pretty difficult because the original Greek text can be translated in many ways. Here are just a few examples I found on the 'Net:

"Reckon no man happy till ye witness the closing day."

"Count no man happy till he has passed his final limit free from pain."

"Call no man happy before death."

"Only when man's life comes to its end in prosperity can one call that man happy."

"Hold him alone truly fortunate who has ended his life in happy well-being."

Solon lived around 638 -559 B.C.; both years are somewhat questionable because such stuff wasn't recorded in Ancient Greece. Sophocles lived around 496 - 406 B.C., a contemporary of Herodotus. Again the years may be a bit fuzzy, but they are not wrong by 150 years, so it's perfectly possible that Sophocles quoted Solon from a pre-Herodotian source unknown to me.

An even earlier occurrence of the sentence can be found in Agamemnon by Aeschylus (525 - 456 B.C.). Of course that doesn't mean Agamemnon truly said such. He may have lived in the 12th century B.C., long before Homer wrote his Iliad, let alone Solon visited Croesus or Sophocles and Aeschylus wrote their plays. Anyway, it looks like Aeschylus is the older source than Herodotus and Sophocles.

And here we go again... One of the translations of Aeschylus' version I found reads, "When a man's life ends in great prosperity, only then can we declare that he's a happy man" (by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada). Other translations simply say, "Never call a man happy before death" or the like. Which again shows how difficult hunting up translated quotations can be...

Needless to say that Voltaire lived more than 2000 years later than those ole Greeks. He was an erudite guy, so most likely he just quoted one of the sources above.

As for the Chinese connection - of course it is possible that some folks in China came to the same conclusions as the Greeks. After all, there were wise people in both cultures. On the other hand, there were cultural connections between Ancient Greece and China - of course not very tight ones, but they did exist. WoZ' link is not very helpful (that's why he addedd "sic" to place himself on the safe side), so we cannot tell in which direction the saying could have migrated.

“Call no man happy until he is dead”

Posted: Sat Mar 04, 2006 9:00 pm
by JANE DOErell
Thanks, I just mostly wanted to determine if it were really an ancient notion or if someone had just appended 'Greek' to some more modern idea to give it credence.

“Call no man happy until he is dead”

Posted: Sat Mar 04, 2006 9:21 pm
by Wizard of Oz
.. *laughing* .. Jane you should know by now that one can never asked a just mostly question on WW ..

WoZ of Aus 05/03/06

“Call no man happy until he is dead”

Posted: Sun Mar 05, 2006 2:20 am
by haro
Jane, while writing my previous post, I was about to mention that it is fairly easy to append something like "Old Chinese Proverb" to just about any popular saying. So your remark gave me quite a grin.

“Call no man happy until he is dead”

Posted: Sun Mar 05, 2006 4:35 pm
by JANE DOErell
If the reviewer in The New Yorker had written "Old Chinese Proverb" I wouldn't have even have blinked, just continued to the next article.

“Call no man happy until he is dead”

Posted: Sun Mar 05, 2006 5:10 pm
by Erik_Kowal
It's a bit like attributing every second-hand wisecrack and aphorism to Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, Groucho Marx or Mark Twain. Pasting such a provenance to an utterance can help to dignify even the lamest:

"As Dorothy Parker once remarked, 'No new taxes!' "

"In the memorable words of Oscar Wilde, 'Mission accomplished!' "

"According to an old Chinese proverb, 'time is like a river in which the character for opportunity will eventually float by like your enemies.' "

As you see, it works every time. Well, almost.

“Call no man happy until he is dead”

Posted: Sun Mar 05, 2006 9:43 pm
by haro
Erik, let's add George Bernard Shaw to your list and maybe Ralph Waldo Emerson for the more serious ones.

“Call no man happy until he is dead”

Posted: Mon Mar 06, 2006 1:40 am
by Ken Greenwald
We might as well add American humorist Will Rogers (1879–1935) to the list. This reminds me of my quest a few years back to find the author of the phrase boil the ocean, which had been attributed to both Mark Twain and Will Rogers and which very much sounded like something either of them could have said. I ended up expended more energy on researching that posting than any I have ever done on Wordwizard. It just seemed to me that if either one of these famous men had said that, I should easily be able to track it down – little did I know! For those who don’t have the interest or stamina to read that massive posting, my conclusion was that in all likelihood neither of them were the author of the remark! So with the proliferation of false attributions, figuring out who said what is often much more difficult than one might suppose.

Ken G – March 5, 2006