Friday, November 10, 2023

The Sword of Damocles: A Lesson from Ancient Times Still Relevant Today

“Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.”
--John F. Kennedy

I can't recall when I first became aware of the expression "the sword of Damocles" but it certainly stuck with me ever since. I was young and there was a sense in which cultural literacy was more common then. Sadly, today. we've become so splintered that many young people only have blank expressions when Bible or Shakespeare references are cited to illustrate a point. For this reason I thought it might be useful to explain the origin of this expression.

So here's the story of Dionysius and Damocles, according to Wikipedia. 

The well-known "sword of Damocles" originates from an ancient moral allegory that gained prominence through the writings of the Roman philosopher Cicero in his book "Tusculan Disputations," published in 45 B.C. Cicero's rendition of the story revolves around Dionysius II, a despotic king who once governed the Sicilian city of Syracuse in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. Despite possessing immense wealth and power, Dionysius was profoundly dissatisfied. His authoritarian rule had earned him numerous adversaries, leading to constant anxiety about potential assassination attempts. To mitigate this fear, he took extreme precautions, such as sleeping in a bedchamber surrounded by a moat and entrusting the task of shaving his beard only to his daughters.

As Cicero tells it, the king’s dissatisfaction came to a head one day after a court flatterer named Damocles showered him with compliments and remarked how blissful his life must be. “Since this life delights you,” an annoyed Dionysius replied, “do you wish to taste it yourself and make a trial of my good fortune?” When Damocles agreed, Dionysius seated him on a golden couch and ordered a host of servants wait on him. He was treated to succulent cuts of meat and lavished with scented perfumes and ointments. Damocles couldn’t believe his luck, but just as he was starting to enjoy the life of a king, he noticed that Dionysius had also hung a razor-sharp sword from the ceiling. It was positioned over Damocles’ head, suspended only by a single strand of horsehair. From then on, the courtier’s fear for his life made it impossible for him to savor the opulence of the feast or enjoy the servants. After casting several nervous glances at the blade dangling above him, he asked to be excused, saying he no longer wished to be so fortunate.

For Cicero, the tale of Dionysius and Damocles represented the idea that those in power always labor under the specter of anxiety and death, and that “there can be no happiness for one who is under constant apprehensions.” The parable later became a common motif in medieval literature, and the phrase “sword of Damocles” is now commonly used as a catchall term to describe a looming danger. 

Similarly, the phrase "hanging by a thread" has become a concise way to describe a precarious or tense situation. One notable instance occurred in 1961 during the Cold War, when President John F. Kennedy, in a speech before the United Nations, remarked that "Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness."

I share this in part because of the desire many people have to be in someone else's shoes without understanding what it really means to be in those shoes.

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