‘Let no man count himself happy until his end.’ This saying pops up again and again in classical Greek writings. Oedipus utters it when he discovers that he has unwittingly killed his father and committed incest with his mother. The philosopher Solon refuses to call the rich king Croesus happy because of the possibility that tragedy might be waiting around the corner (and he was right).

Oedipus had reason to regard his life as blighted. All that he thought he had accomplished – winning the riddle game with the Sphinx and thus freeing the inhabitants of Syracuse from its curse; becoming their king and wedding the wife of the dead king – was destroyed by revelation of the sacrileges that he had unwittingly committed.

But not everyone’s life is a Greek tragedy. Not everyone is in danger of discovering that they are living a lie. So what must we believe about fate and the meaning of life in order to take the Greek adage seriously?

Let us assume that the relevant sense of happiness is not a subjective feeling but a judgment that a person makes about her life as a whole: is she happy with the way things have gone for her? When people wonder whether their life is meaningful – whether it counts as a good life – they are concerned with what the Greeks called happiness.

One of the questions raised by the adage is why the end stage of a life should be so highly privileged in making judgments about the goodness of a life. Croesus was for a long time a rich and successful king; he lived well. Disaster struck at the end of his life. He lost his kingdom to the Persians and his beloved son died. It would have been better for him if these bad things had not happened. Nevertheless for a long time he not only had a good life but he also created peace and prosperity for those he ruled (let us assume). Why is this not enough for him to regard his life as reasonably successful? After all, nothing good lasts forever.

Even less intelligible to our way of thinking is the story of the two brothers who demonstrated filial piety by transporting their mother to a religious festival in an oxcart. Their mother prayed to the gods for their perfect happiness and the gods answered her prayer by causing them to die in their sleep.

One explanation for the Greek way of thinking is the idea that counting yourself happy (as did Croesus) is a form of hubris against the gods. You are asserting mastery over your life – a control of events that belongs only to the Fates. And they are liable to teach you a lesson. This view is, of course, very different from ours. We do think that individuals are largely responsible for their fate. Indeed we are inclined to overstate their responsibility for how their lives go.

Another explanation is not so alien to our way of thinking. If you have managed to achieve a great thing, then anything that happens to you afterwards is likely to be a falling away. Death before that happens seems not such a bad thing. This thought is expressed in Houseman’s poem, ‘Ode to an Athlete Dying Young’ and it may be the reason why the gods answered the mother’s prayer by killing her sons. They had achieved excellence in the virtue of filial piety. They had nothing better to hope for. Or we can look on the dark side. So many bad things are likely to happen in a person’s life that death before they happen may seem preferable. ‘Why did I not die when I was born,’ says Job, and he had reason.

The latter makes the pessimistic assumption that there is nothing good in life to hope for (which turned out not true for Job). The former is not what most people would choose for themselves. Death for the young athlete is at best a consolation prize. Why wouldn’t he have been content with the knowledge that he did achieve something great even though the rest of his life might have been mediocre? Thinking about an early achievement can be a continuing source of satisfaction.

One reason for being especially concerned about the bad things that might happen to you before your death is the narrative that you want people to tell about your life. If the story has a happy ending then this compensates for sad things that happened along the way. If it does not then this colours the whole narrative. In fairy tales we are assured that the king and queen or the prince and princess lived happily ever after. If we had doubts about this, the tale would not be so charming.

But the story of a life is not a simple narrative. It can be told in many ways and the high point of the narrative need not be the end of a life but a significant event that happened earlier on. If a great scientist lapses into Alzheimer’s disease this is sad, but a biographer would not allow it to detract from an account of her accomplishments. After all, we are accustomed to the fact that old age is generally a falling away from a person’s best achievements and we don’t judge the worth of a person and her works by her senile utterances. Nor do we judge a life to be unhappy if the person is not happy in the last stages of his life.

A life is not necessarily rendered unhappy or meaningless if a person devotes himself to a cause that fails. Failure can be heroic and in struggling for something of great importance a person can have a good life. In any case, causes are rarely entirely lost. Hope is almost always possible.

The Greek adage makes better sense when the happiness of a life depends on a future over which the person has little control. If the happiness of a father’s life depends on his children doing well, then if they don’t do well his life turns out to be unhappy. He may look back fondly on their childhood, he may be satisfied that he did all he could for them, but the past, however good, is overshadowed by the death of his hopes. If Croesus’s purpose was to build up a kingdom that he could pass on to his children, then the fact that he prospered for a while is no consolation. In the end he failed.

We like to believe that we are in control of our destinies. But the Greek saying reminds us how much the meaning of life depends on the existence and continuation of a social world that we take for granted. Oedipus’s life was destroyed by his discovery that his world was not what he assumed. What Croesus built up for himself and his family was lost. But a social world can also be destroyed by loss of the social connections on which people depend: the destruction of their communities, families or the contexts that gave meaning to their activities and a reason for hope. Claudia Card expresses this idea when she says that genocide survivors suffer a spiritual loss that is comparable to, and not less bad than, death.

The Greek saying reminds us that our lives, and thus our happiness, is the plaything of fortune – subject to forces we cannot control and events we can often not foresee. This is simply the human condition.