What is the Sword of Damocles? (Legend)

The" Sword of Damocles "Is best known as a common expression that originally formulates a life lesson on the fragility of happiness.

The expression originates from an ancient moral account described by the philosopher Cicero In his book Related searches In the year 45 BCE, which speaks of the tyrannical king of Syracuse, Dionysius II, and his encounter and later episode with Damocles, a sycophant of his court.

1812 Picture of Richard Westall depicting the legend of the Sword of Damocles. The Sword of Damocles. Richard Westall.

The parable has been used by many authors and personalities throughout history to warn of the ever present and imminent danger of the positions of power and the ignorance of the envious ones about its true meaning.

The message of history has also covered how people with a lot of power can become distrustful and have constant fear of everyone around them, until reaching extreme points such as paranoia.

But more recently the phrase has been universalized as meaning of any kind of sensation, however small, of latent threat with possible catastrophic results.

According to many authors and contemporary personalities, this last meaning is erroneous and incomplete, because it releases from the message its initial intention to show that with power happiness is not reached.

The legend of the sword of Damocles in Related searches (Cicero)

Cicero on Dionysius (Tusculan Disputations, V.XX.)

According to Cicero, Dionysius was the ruler of the city of Syracuse in Sicily between the fifth and fourth centuries BC. The name is reminiscent of the Greek God of wine and festivals.

Thanks to the Greek historian Plutarch, it is known that there were two kings with the same name, Dionysius the Elder and the Young, father and son respectively, but Cicero makes no distinction in his account.

It is believed that this family was the best historical example that Cicero knew to show a tyrant, cruel and despot king but a very refined education.

Dionysius liked to enjoy his riches by giving himself ostentatious luxuries and celebrating lascivious and full of liquor. He was surrounded by young servants always at the command of his needs and whims. His government was diligent, but oppressive and unjust to act on state issues.

Despite fortune and unlimited power, Dionysius was totally unhappy. His tyranny had earned him many enemies and lived tormented by the fear of being killed. He was surrounded by many people he had known all his life but he could not trust any of them.

In his paranoia, his personal guards chose them from slaves owned by wealthy families and then made free men. His quarters surrounded them by a ditch, which could only be accessed through a bridge that he retired when he went to sleep. He never visited his wives at night, unless everything was thoroughly inspected.

To address his people, he preferred to speak from the safety of a tall tower as he dared not be on the same ground. He did not even trust a barber to be shaved for fear he would use the leaf to cut his throat. Instead, he made his virgin daughters shave his beard.

Usually when he enjoyed playing tennis, Dionysius gave his sword to a young man whom he greatly appreciated. Another of his close friends commented on how important this boy should be to entrust his life, to which the latter smiled. The King ordered them to be killed on the spot; One for showing how they could murder him and the other for approving the comment when smiling.

In spite of the misery that his life really was, it was imperative for Dionysus to show his way the"happy"way of enjoying it.

Cicero on Damocles (Tusculanas Disputations, V.XXI.)

Damocles was a flatterer of the court of Dionysius who used to fill with compliments the life his King enjoyed. He described it in wonderful ways, where his greatness, abundant wealth, power, and authority stood out as the greatest fortunes in the life of Dionysius. He assured that no one could be happier than the King.

An uncomfortable Dionysius asked Damocles if he wanted to experience and enjoy all those royal fortunes as he described them.

Damocles accepted gratefully and Dionysius made him sit on a golden throne covered in beautiful decorated fabrics. He then ordered young servants to serve the flatterer's wishes.

Damocles was surrounded by tables with silver platters served with succulent banquets for their tasting. The servants threw ointments and creams on their skin with the most delicious aromas and lit perfumes around them. The music also set the mood giving it a festive feel.

Damocles could not believe the immense happiness he felt to be wrapped in both luxury and abundance as a true king. While enjoying his happiness, he noticed a brilliant sword in the air a few feet from his head.

Dionysius had left the sword hanging from a single horse's hair, so that it was always pointing down, right at the head of Damocles.

Henceforth the fear of losing his life if his hair were broken prevented him from enjoying in the same way before the opulence of the feasts, the obedience of the young servants and the deliciousness of the banquets. He never extended his hand to the tables. Damocles, utterly nervous, could not help but see the sword above his head.

Unable to put up with the danger of that sword, he begged the King to withdraw because he no longer wanted that happiness. With this, Dionysius left his lesson clearly exposed. There can be no joy of happiness while undergoing constant tribulations.

The message

Although the full story attempts to give a life lesson on true happiness, the phrase"the sword of Damocles"is more commonly used to describe imminent danger.

In that context, the value of the sword lies not in its falling, but in the fact that it is hanging. The common saying"Hanging on a thread"has been a companion to expand this message.

President Kennedy used the phrase in 1961 in a speech at the United Nations during the Cold War , Where the"sword of Damocles"was the constant threat of a nuclear war. This possibility hung from a very weak thread that could be cut by accident, bad calculations or madness.

It has also been used to explain the delicacy of the economy in constant crisis over everyone's head.

It is believed that Cicero's intention with this account was more philosophical. The greatest evidence of this is his own book Tusculanas Disputations, which is a compendium of accounts with moral reaches where the latter, the fifth, explains about leading a virtuous life to achieve true happiness.

In this book, the story of"The Sword of Damocles"serves as a contrast between the false belief that money and power achieve happiness, and the happiness of leading a virtuous life.


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