Whom Gods Destroy

Whom Gods Destroy: Elements of Greek and Tragic Madness

Princeton University Press, 1995, pb £9.95 ISBN 0-691-02588-6

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Why is there so much madness in tragedy including Shakespeare? Why was Dionysus the god of tragedy? How different were ancient conceptions of madness and personality from ours, and does that matter in our responses to the Greek plays? Following In and Out of the Mind (both were based on the first part of the PhD thesis which Ruth Padel wrote at Oxford) the book addresses both the general reader, and students of literature, poetry, history of ideas, classics and psychology.
It explores the theme of madness in Greek tragedy and beyond. Freud made an enormous difference to our ideas of madness but how historically credible are psychoanalytic interpretations of feelings and motivation in ancient tragedies?
Beginning by tracing to its roots the saying, “Those whom gods wish to destroy, they first make mad”, with Greek madness-words and the Greek sense of madness as inner darkness, Ruth Padel moves to the afterlife of these ideas in the “black sun” of Renaissance and Romantic melancholia, Christian ideas of “folly”, R D Laing’s argument that the mad may “see” more truly than the sane. She moves to madness as inner and outer “wandering”, then as pollution, disease, damage, and a sign of divine displeasure. She relates madness to the multiple divinities of the Greek world, to schizophrenia, Gregory Bateson’s concept of double bind, and the way tragedy in ancient Greece, Racine and Shakespeare and still today, reveals to us a knowledge we cannot do without but which “is sad to have to know”.


“Thrillingly learned, vibrant, and visionary, Ruth Padel’s fascinating new book shows brilliantly how the Greek playwrights revised and re-shaped their linguistic and intellectual inheritance to fit the context of an inchoate “scientific” revolution.” – Financial Times

“This roller-coasting study, storming its way from madness in Greek tragedy to madness today, helps us identify the thin and shifting line between what is believed to be mad and what sane, and how both feed on each other. Padel’s pellucid sentences have the urgency of a commentary on the Grand National.”
– Scotland on Sunday

“Flashing similes, imagery and wit.” – Independent on Sunday

“Lively, provocative, with a stunning breadth of reference, expanding beyond the Greeks to recent times.” – The Times

” Not one cliché, no jargon, and every sentence a delight. A stunning scholarly book. Simply and brilliantly, Ruth Padel lays bare insights which theorists strive after but obscure with abstraction, showing how our own grammar of madness has its long and gnarled roots in Greek tragedy. She shows are radically different concepts of madness are at different times and in different cultures. Her book is a subtle assault on naive notions of truth and reality” – Udi Eichler, psychotherapist, producer of BBC2 TV series “Family Therapy”, Hampstead and Highgate Express

“Suggestive, exhilarating, and wide-ranging.” The Telegraph

“Suggestive and tantalizing. She illuminates Greek writers by invoking modern thought, but also rebukes and extends the narrowness of modern thought by emphasizing the evidence of literature, and specifically tragedy.” The Spectator

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