In my work, I look at Cicero’s quotations of Latin poetry across his corpus. Most of my time is spent examining specific examples in a granular way, but as I’ve been doing that I’ve had some opportunities to contemplate the wider operations of quotation. While I was recently reading José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), a novel written principally in Castilian Spanish but supplemented by words from Tagalog, I came across a Latin phrase that I had not encountered before. The phrase is used in a scene which stages a private discussion between two privileged figures – two priests – discussing the state of affairs in the Philippines.
We will lose everything, as we did in Europe! And what’s worse is that we are the instrument of our own destruction. For example, the rash way that we, at our own discretion, go about raising tax on property, that rashness I have vainly fought against in every one of our chapters, that energy is killing us…Quos vult perdere Jupiter dementat prius. Which is why we are not increasing our wealth, the people are already whispering.
Quos vult perdere Jupiter dementat prius… “Those whom Jupiter wants to destroy, he first makes mad.” Harold Augenbraum, who translated Noli into English for the Penguin Classics series, leaves all instances of Tagalog or Latin in their original language, explaining their meaning in footnotes. The footnote in this particular case gives an English translation and then reads: Sophocles, Antigone. This is interesting. Even if the phrase did have some ancestor in Sophocles’ Antigone, there is clearly more to the story, since that original line was obviously Greek, not Latin.
I put down my copy of Noli, I investigate further. The phrase appears, either in the same form as in Rizal’s 1887 Noli, or as quos deus vult perdere dementat prius, “Those whom god wants to destroy…” etc., and in some other variations. In James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), he asks the learned man about this phrase in the context “of some of the sayings which every body repeats, but nobody knows where to find.” In a note to this passage of Boswell’s Life, Edmond Malone wrote that “perhaps no scrap of Latin whatever has been more quoted than this,” and that after a long search which was part of a bet, some “gentlemen” at Cambridge found it in the fragments of Euripides “in which edition I do not recollect.” Malone adds that the so-called Euripidean snippet was used as the suicide note by a man of “classical acquirements.” Here are the screenshots from Boswell’s life, which can be read on google books (pp171-172):
The attribution to Euripides, as it turns out, is false – and the verse itself a fabrication. The first time the Latin phrase occurs is in James Duport’s Gnomologia Homerica (1660), where he used quos vult perdere as a gloss to Odyssey 23.11. There are similarities between our Latin phrase and a gnomic couplet which is found in the scholia to Sophocles’ Antigone and also quoted by Athenagoras in the 2nd c. CE, but despite these similarities, it seems like the Latin phrase was invented in the 17th c. (Taylor 1931:20).
What we learn from this strange interchange in Boswell’s Life is that in the 18th c., quos vult perdere was in circulation among an elite who wanted to perform the fact of their education. But in the act of its repeated use as a witty apopthegm, the origin becomes lost. Those who parrot the phrase quos vult perdere are performing a level of education that contains within it an intellectual failure – a lost link to the apparent virtues or contexts which should theoretically give the phrase its value. Proverbs, of course, can have this kind of elusive and mysterious quality. That they are repeated and proliferated comes precisely from their gnomic nature – the fact that something about the phrase, though created within the parameters of a specific set of circumstances, can be applied to the general state of human experience.
Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere is a novel which meditates upon language and its power to circumscribe class. Rizal, who received his humanistic and medical education in Europe in the late 19th c., has such a mastery of classical knowledge that he often uses it as a sign of colonial buffoonery. The entanglement of the phrase quos vult perdere with the intellectual fervour to find its origin in classical sources is a nice exemplification of the mess which philology can make, a mess which is paralleled by the priestly entanglement in the financial management of the Philippines.
Further reading: José Rizal Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), translated into English by Harold Augenbraum. James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), available online through google books. Archer Taylor, The Proverb, 1931. Fred W. Householder Jr. traces the origins of the Latin phrase in 1936 article, Quos vult perdere Jupiter dementat prius, in The Classical Weekly.