The Sword of Damocles

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 18

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The Sword of Damocles

A quick refresher on the story of Damocles: Damocles liked to hang out in the court Dionysius II of Syracuse. Once, while sucking up to the king, Damocles suggested that it must be great to be the king and to live a life of luxury and wealth. Hearing that, Dionysius offered to let Damocles be king for a day. He ordered the servants to place Damocles on a throne of gilded cushions and to serve him the best the kingdom had to offer.

Damocles enjoyed all the luxuries and thought about how true his words must have been to see the king so willing to share his wealth until he looked up and saw a large sword suspended over the throne. As he looked at the sword, wondering why it was there, he saw that it was suspended by a single horsehair.

"My king," he said, "why have you put this sword here, over the throne?"

"Now, my friend, you understand what it is truly like to be king."

Damocles hastily returned to his former life and never again suggested that the king's job was an easy, or luxurious one.

***

The moral of the story, of course, is that apparent positions of power and influence often have hidden dangers and consequences.

Which means that when I’ve been kvetching about deadlines - These deadlines are looming over my head like the sword of Damocles! - I've been using the idiom completely wrong. Just like everyone else.

There's a great 2011 interview between Melissa Block (host) and classics professor Daniel Mendelsohn on NPR's All Things Considered, where the two talk about this very issue. Their interview starts with four examples of people using the sword of Damocles as a metaphor for possible negative effects of various economic mechanisms. Block and Mendelsohn go on to re-tell the story and to explain the original parable:

BLOCK: So Professor Mendelsohn, it's come to be used as sort of the notion of impending doom. Is that the original intent, do you think, of the metaphor of the story?

MENDELSOHN: No, not at all. But it wouldn't be the first time politicians misread the classics. The real point of the story is very clearly a moral parable. It's not just, oh, something terrible is going to happen, but it's about realizing that what looks like an enviable life, a life of wealth, a life of power, a life of luxury is, in fact, fraught with anxiety, terror and possibly death.

Unfortunately, that's where the interview ends; Block and Mendelsohn don't get a chance to talk about why or how the shift in meaning has occurred. And, of course, there's no easy answer there other than, that's just how language works. Over time and usage, meanings shift and change. Nuances are lost inside broader usages and contexts and we end up with new words and new idioms.

However, in this case, I can lay the blame for my misinterpretation squarely at the feet of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, specifically in the song "The Sword of Damocles" by Richard O'Brien:

The Sword of Damocles is hangin' over my head

And I've got the feelin' someone's gonna be cuttin' the thread

and

I woke up this mornin' with a start when I fell out of bed (that ain't no crime)

And left from my dream it was a feelin' of un-nameable dread (that ain't no crime)

My high is low, I'm dressed up with no place to go!

I first saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show when I was 14. I may have heard of the Sword of Damocles prior to that, but I know I hadn't read the original story until I heard the song and looked it up in my school's library. Even then, I didn't connect that the song's usage of meaning "a feeling like something bad is going to happen soon" didn't mesh with the original parable. Instead, the connection between the metaphorical sword and the “feelin’ of un-nameable dread” paired themselves in my vocabulary. (Although, or that matter, I don't think the phrase entered into my general, personal, lexicon for several more years and when it did, well, see the deadlines comment above.)

One of the reasons I started this newsletter was to try to examine some of the roots of our language; this case fascinates me because I'm not sure where to go. If I continue to use the metaphor, do I use it to mean a feeling of possible negative consequences or do I reserve it for its intended purpose, to comment on the perils that come with a life of apparent power and luxury? If I had to guess, I'd say the former situation will come up far more often, and therefore be more useful, but...

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Origin:

Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations as translated by C.D. Yonge, 1877:

XXI. … “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?”

…Does not Dionysius, then, seem to have declared there can be no happiness for one who is under constant apprehensions? But it was not now in his power to return to justice, and restore his citizens their rights and privileges; for, by the indiscretion of youth, he had engaged in so many wrong steps and committed such extravagances, that, had he attempted to have returned to a right way of thinking, he must have endangered his life.

Definition(s):

Collins CoBuild English Dictionary:

If you say that someone has the Sword of Damocles hanging over their head, you mean that they are in a situation in which something very bad could happen to them at any time.

Dictionary.com:

any situation threatening imminent harm or disaster.

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Notable Events of the Year 1877:

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…you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you!

That said, here are seven swords worth knowing about:

Next time: The tea. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.