The Sword of Damocles

Yesterday, I discussed the use of liberal extortion to gain power for themselves by invoking the Sword of Damocles in a crisis to coerce action.  There was a NPR article that discussed the usage of the term, which I briefly commented on.  Today, I want to provide a fuller explanation of the term. 

Original Story

There are many renditions and tales of the story.  The most complete seems to be here and another telling is here.

Indeed this tyrant [Dionysius II of Syracuse] himself gave his judgment as to how fortunate he was. For when one of his flatterers, Damocles, mentioned in conversation the wealth of Dionysius, the majesty of his rule, the abundance of his possessions, the magnificence of the royal palace and denied that there had ever been anyone more fortunate, he said, ‘So, Damocles, since this life delights you, do you wish to taste it yourself and make trial of my fortune?’

When Damocles said that he desired this, Dionysius gave orders that the man be placed on a golden couch covered with a most beautiful woven rug, embroidered with splendid works; he adorned many sideboards with chased silver and gold; then he gave orders that chosen boys of outstanding beauty should stand by his table and that they, watching for a sign from Damocles, should attentively wait on him; there were unguents and garlands; perfumes were burning; tables were piled up with the most select foods. Damocles seemed to himself fortunate.

In the middle of this luxury Dionysius ordered that a shining sword, fastened from the ceiling by a horse-hair, be let down so that it hung over the neck of that fortunate man. And so he looked neither at those handsome waiters nor the wonderful silver work, nor did he stretch his hand to the table. Now the very wreaths slipped off. Finally he begged the tyrant that he should be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be fortunate.

Now, it should be pointed out that this story is recounted by Cicero who read it in the disputed Histories II by Timaeus of Tauromenium, yet these Histories are lost to us from the Ancient world.  We have Cicero’s account and modern renditions and retelling to provide us the story.

Original Meaning

As the NPR article points out, the meaning (convenient for a more liberal organization) is clear that the wealthy life is undesirable and fraught with fear and worry.  So, we should all be not wealthy and we will not have the Sword hanging over our head.

However, I believe that the original meaning, the nuclear meaning and today’s colloquial usage invoke the same meaning: a demonstration of fear.

Nuclear Meaning

As the NPR article points out, the first use of the Sword of Damocles is by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and he is using it to discuss fear of nuclear annihilation.  Here is a longer quote from the speech:

Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. 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. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.

So the “nuclear sword of Damocles” to President Kennedy was the fear that every man, woman and child experienced by living with the knowledge that nuclear weapons could wipe out their life in an instant.  They weren’t afraid of being rich and powerful and unable to enjoy life.

This translated to the leaders of the Soviet Union and United States through policy prescriptions as “mutual assured destruction” and ensured that each action undertaken by one side was seen with a view to prevent the other side from resorting to nuclear war.  This understanding was perhaps best demonstrated by President Kennedy himself in his unwavering ability to not blink in public during the Cuban Missile Crisis and from a position of strength, negotiate an agreement from the edge of the nuclear abyss.

Modern Usage

In the context of crises, then, the “Sword of Damocles” is correct in its usage in modern political context because it is describing the state of fear that one side is using (mainly liberals, but Republicans don’t help much) to stir up and provoke the population (or Republicans) and pass this-or-that policy/raise this-or-that debt ceiling.  It is describing the political context within which the conversation is taking place. And, inversely to the nuclear meaning, where the nuclear MAD threat was to ensure politicians acted rationally and calculating, the domestic, modern meaning ensures that the Sword is wielded with irrationality in mind to further extort the American people out of fear.

Perhaps its time Americans utilized—effectively—a Sword of Damocles of their own: elections.

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