Socrates? Sophocles? Plato? Cephalus? Russell Brand? David Niven? Kingsley Amis? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is an ancient and provocative simile that helps to explicate the irrational actions of infatuated males:
The male libido is like being chained to a madman.
To have a penis is to be chained to a madman.
These words have been attributed to Socrates, Sophocles, and Plato, but I have never seen a solid citation. Perhaps this is not really a venerable observation. The comedian and actor Russell Brand mentioned the adage in his memoir “My Booky Wook” and credited Socrates. Would you please examine this remark?
Quote Investigator: QI hypothesizes that these expressions have evolved from remarks contained within one of the most famous works of Ancient Greece, “The Republic” by Plato. The confusing multiple attributions stem from the indirect framing of the quotation.
In Book 1 of “The Republic” Socrates approached Cephalus and asked him about his experiences in the latter part of life. Cephalus responded by presenting some of his thoughts about aging and then relaying key remarks made by the prominent playwright Sophocles. Hence, the primary comments were made by Sophocles and were transmitted though Cephalus to Socrates and then were written by Plato.
Here is an excerpt from a translation of “The Republic” published in 1852. This passage did not mention chains; however, later translations used the word “bondage” with its connotations of enchainment, Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
…I may mention Sophocles the poet, who was once asked in my presence, ‘How do you feel about love, Sophocles? are you still capable of it?’ to which he replied, ‘Hush! if you please: to my great delight I have escaped from it, and feel as if I had escaped from a frantic and savage master.’ I thought then, as I do now, that he spoke wisely. For unquestionably old age brings us profound repose and freedom from this and other passions.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Another translation of “The Republic” by Francis MacDonald Cornfield was published in England in 1941. In this version the analogy for the libido referred to a “raging madman” and “bondage”: 2
For instance, I remember someone asking Sophocles, the poet, whether he was still capable of enjoying a woman. ‘Don’t talk in that way,’ he answered; ‘I am only too glad to be free of all that; it is like escaping from bondage to a raging madman.’ I thought that a good answer at the time, and I still think so; for certainly a great peace comes when age sets us free from passions of that sort.
A version of the remark by Sophocles was spoken in a popular and influential 1946 British fantasy-drama film titled “A Matter of Life and Death”. The character Peter Carter played by David Niven was conversing with a character named Conductor 71 while the two were ascending a supernatural staircase. Conductor 71 suggested to Carter that Plato could act as his legal counsel during an upcoming trial. But Carter rejected the suggestion because he felt Plato would not be sympathetic to his feelings of love for the female lead: 3
Conductor 71: Anyhow, Plato had very elementary ideas about love.
Peter Carter: Besides, didn’t he quote Sophocles when somebody asked him if he was still able to appreciate a woman?
Conductor 71: What did the old boy say?
Peter Carter: Well he said, ‘I’m only too glad to be rid of all that it’s like escaping from bondage to a raving madman.’
Conductor 71: Tut! These Greeks—cold as their marble.
Here is an excerpt from a translation of “The Republic” by Allan Bloom to give the reader another perspective on the passage: 4
I was once present when the poet was asked by someone, ‘Sophocles, how are you in sex? Can you still have intercourse with a woman?’ ‘Silence, man,’ he said. ‘Most joyfully did I escape it, as though I had run away from a sort of frenzied and savage master.’
The important reference work “Brewer’s Famous Quotations” edited by Nigel Rees contained an entry discussing the words of Sophocles. Quotation expert Rees recounted a variant of the saying with the word “unchained” that was spoken on his radio program in 1989: 5
When the jazz singer George Melly was on BBC Radio “Quote … Unquote” in 1989 he quoted a ‘Greek philosopher’ who, on being asked if he was upset at losing his sexual appetite, replied: ‘Upset, certainly not. It’s like being unchained from a lunatic.’ In a 1988 epistle from The Kenneth Williams Letters: ‘Understand exactly what Plato meant when he said that after the sexual compulsion vanished with age, he felt “released from a demon”.
In 2001 “The Guardian” published a profile of the Welsh actor and comedian Paul Whitehouse who attributed a version of the saying to the British novelist Kingsley Amis: 6
He told another interviewer: “I think it was Kingsley Amis who said it was absolute joy the day that he hit 70 because his libido gave up on him. He said that for 50 years it was like being chained to an idiot.”
In 2007 “Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs, and Stand-Up” by Russell Brand was published, and Brand invoked an instance of saying with the word “chained” which he credited to Socrates: 7
Socrates says the male libido is like being chained to a madman…
In 2008 “The Telegraph” in London published a review of a book by Guy Kennaway that included an instance of the saying ascribed to Socrates instead of Sophocles followed by an entertaining quip: 8
“Socrates said the male libido was like being chained to a madman,” he writes. “In my case the chain broke and I was the madman.”
In 2013 “The Globe and Mail” of Toronto, Canada published a review of the book “God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis” by Tom Hickman that included an instance of the saying: 9
Sophocles said that to have a penis is to be “chained to a madman;” Leonardo da Vinci noted that “it remains obstinate and follows its own course.”
In conclusion, the analogy ascribed to Sophocles in “The Republic” was translated into English in several different ways. These expressions founded an evolving family of sayings about the male libido. Originally words like “escaped”, “savage”, and “master” were used. Later instances used words like “chained” and “madman”. The confusion regarding the ascription was probably due to the transfer of the statement from Sophocles to Cephalus to Socrates to Plato.
Image Notes: “The Kiss: Illustration to the Book of the Marquise” by Konstantin Somov from Wikipaintings.org. Sophocles bust in the Pushkin Museum. Image from Shakko; file licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported via Wikimedia Commons. Russell Brand image by Eva Rinaldi from Sydney, Australia. File licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic. Image from Wikimedia Commons and Flickr.
(Great thanks to James Austin whose email inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1852, The Republic of Plato, Translated into English by John Llewelyn Davies and David James Vaughan (Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge), Book 1, Quote Page 3 and 4, Macmillan and Company, Cambridge. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1968 (Reprint of 1941 England edition and 1945 U.S. edition), The Republic of Plato, Translated by Francis MacDonald Cornfield, Quote Page 5, Oxford University Press, New York & London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- YouTube video, Title: A Matter Of Life And Death (1946) – Part 2, Uploaded on May 9, 2012, Uploaded by: learntospell, (The film is split into two pieces on YouTube; quotation appears in the second part; quotation starts at 4 minute 55 seconds of 47 minutes 08 seconds), (Accessed on youtube.com on March 15, 2014) link ↩
- 1991, The Republic of Plato, Second Edition, Translated by Allan Bloom, Quote Page 5, Basic Books, New York. (Questia Gale Cengage) ↩
- 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section Sophocles, Page 437, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2001 September 21, The Guardian, “Whitehouse conspiracy” by Susie Steiner, Guardian News and Media Limited, London. (Accessed theguardian.com on March 15, 2014) link ↩
- 2010 (First UK edition by Hodder and Stoughton 2007), My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs, and Stand-Up by Russell Brand, Chapter 15, Quote Page 131, itbooks: An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with Amazon Look Inside for 2010 edition) ↩
- 2008 July 19, The Telegraph (UK), “Michael Bywater reviews Sunbathing Naked and Other Miracle Cures by Guy Kennaway”, Telegraph Media Group Limited (Accessed The Telegraph archive at telegraph.co.uk on March 15, 2014) link ↩
- 2013 January 4, The Globe and Mail, “In God’s Doodle, the penis is the thing” by Rosemary Counter, Toronto, Canada. (Accessed theglobeandmail.com on March 15 2014) link ↩