Mythological phrases and references make their way into our lives, and often the original story gets left behind. For example, anyone who has seen the cult movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show can probably sing a few lines from the song “The Sword of Damocles” and have a basic grasp of the contextualized meaning of Rocky’s dilemma. JFK famously used the line “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” when addressing the United Nations; it has been adopted as a political term for impending danger ever since. But how many of us know the origin of this phrase?
King Dionysus II, (also known as Dionysus the younger, aptly named as we will find out) was the ruler of Syracuse, Sicily, from both 367 BC to 357 BC, and 346 BC to 344 BC when he again reclaimed the throne from his uncle. The king was an unhappy man, but like his namesake Dionysus, was also a fan of opulence and luxury, a trait that did not sit well with his subjects. His excessive lifestyle cost him the throne in the interim period, when his uncle Dion, with the help of Plato, successfully plotted to overthrow him and instill a more frugal, conservative governance.
The moral tale of The Sword of Damocles is thought to have first appeared in Timaeus of Tauromenium’s History of Sicily (which has been lost to time) and appeared again in Tusculan Disputations by Cicero. The story tells the tale of Damocles, a courtier of King Dionysus, who was gifted in the art of flattery. As mentioned before, the King was not a happy man, a fact which eluded Damocles. Damocles’ covetousness of the king’s position began to irk him.
The king was equally irked; eventually he asked his courtier, “Have you an inclination, Damocles, as this kind of life pleases you, to have a taste of it yourself, and to make a trial of the good fortune that attends me?” Damocles jumped at the chance to take the King’s place.
Dionysus installed a golden bed covered with the most opulent and luxurious coverings that could be found. The king then sent his favorite attendants to wait on Damocles’ every whim and surrounded him with the finest smelling perfumes and most delicious assortments of food. Damocles was in heaven, encased in luxury; his every desire was fulfilled.
However, Dionysus wasn’t done lavishing Damocles with gifts. His pièce de résistance, his crowning touch to the bed of glory, was an exquisitely worked sword. However, he didn’t present this to Damocles as an offering; instead, he ordered that it be hung by a slender thread from the ceiling. The sharp blade was installed directly above Damocles’ head, pointing directly at him, swinging perilously from a single strand of horsehair tied to its hilt.
When Damocles saw the sword, and the precariously fragile strand that stood between him and certain death, he was horrified. He was no longer enchanted by his surroundings; his food went uneaten, the perfumed scents went sour, and his beautiful servants might as well have been corpses. All he could see was the shining blade the hung over him.
Finally, he called to the King, and begged to be let go, pleading to return to his previous circumstances. He no longer desired the life of a king; he realized that living in a constant state of peril isn’t living at all, regardless of wealth and material comforts. The constant threat to the throne was the king’s burden, and it afforded him no happiness.
In his Tusculan Disputations, Cicero shows little sympathy for King Dionysus II. He claims that the King should not have demanded such luxury if he deemed it irrelevant, and that perhaps being a better ruler would have lessened the threat to his throne. However, the moral of the tale stays the same; the knowledge that we can’t be truly happy in the face of impending danger.
As a species, we face the threat of catastrophic climate change, a result of choices we have made, and continue to make. Maybe it’s time to ask the question:
Are our excessive creature comforts worth lying under the Sword of Damocles?
Our collective answer to that question may determine the fate of humanity.