The Sword of Damocles

The Sword of Damocles

The Sword of Damocles is an object in a Greek legend which is designed to illustrate the perils of being in a position of power. The term is often used in popular culture to talk about an imminent threat or peril, with the idiom “the Sword of Damocles” in reference to such a threat dating back to around 1747, along with the related concept of “hanging by a thread.” The story of Damocles is relatively brief, and as a result many people are familiar with it.

According to legend, Damocles was a courtier in the palace of Dionysius II, a king who ruled Syracuse in the 4th century BCE. Like many courtiers, Damocles constantly flattered the king, in the hopes that he would be given a position of greater power in the court. Apparently, Dionysius tired of the constant flattery, and he asked Damocles if the courtier would like to switch places for a day, to see what it would be like to be a ruler.

Damocles eagerly assented, and spent a day being waited on by the king and other attendants. Towards the end of the day, while seated at dinner, Damocles looked up to see a heavy sword suspended directly over his head, hanging by a hair. In a panic, he asked Dionysius about the meaning of the sword, and the ruler explained that he wanted to show Damocles what it was like to be in a position of power, which might seem privileged from a distance to the casual eye but was actually quite dangerous.

The sword terrified Damocles into fleeing the court, with no more thoughts of power in his head, and the parable about the Sword of Damocles became a symbol for the hidden dangers of power. Timaeus, an Ancient Greek historian, recounted the parable about the Sword of Damocles, and it was picked up by Cicero several centuries later, entering popular culture in Europe. In the 17th century, the concept of the Sword of Damocles appeared in many works by popular authors and artists, making many people in the West familiar with the idea even if they hadn’t read Cicero.

The concept of hanging by a thread as a leader is very poignant. It illustrates the incredible danger which many leaders find themselves in, as they are often beset on all sides both literally and figuratively, making their positions far from enjoyable. The Sword of Damocles is a somber reminder that power comes with many dangers attached.

How Strange Was Socrates?

Standards of beauty are different in different eras, and in Socrates' time beauty could easily be measured by the standard of the gods, stately, proportionate sculptures of whom had been adorning the Athenian acropolis since about the time Socrates reached the age of thirty. Good looks and proper bearing were important to a man's political prospects, for beauty and goodness were linked in the popular imagination. The extant sources agree that Socrates was profoundly ugly, resembling a satyr more than a man—and resembling not at all the statues that turned up later in ancient times and now grace Internet sites and the covers of books. He had wide-set, bulging eyes that darted sideways and enabled him, like a crab, to see not only what was straight ahead, but what was beside him as well; a flat, upturned nose with flaring nostrils; and large fleshy lips like an ass. Socrates let his hair grow long, Spartan-style (even while Athens and Sparta were at war), and went about barefoot and unwashed, carrying a stick and looking arrogant. He didn't change his clothes but efficiently wore in the daytime what he covered himself with at night. Something was peculiar about his gait as well, sometimes described as a swagger so intimidating that enemy soldiers kept their distance. He was impervious to the effects of alcohol and cold, but this made him an object of suspicion to his fellow soldiers on campaign. We can safely assume an average height (since no one mentions it at all), and a strong build, given the active life he appears to have led. Against the iconic tradition of a pot-belly, Socrates and his companions are described as going hungry (Aristophanes, Birds 1280–83). On his appearance, see Plato's Theaetetus 143e, and Symposium 215a-c, 216c-d, 221d-e; Xenophon's Symposium 4.19, 5.5–7; and Aristophanes' Clouds 362. Brancusi's oak sculpture, standing 51.25 inches including its base, captures Socrates' appearance and strangeness in the sense that it looks different from every angle, including a second “eye” that cannot be seen if the first is in view. (See the Museum of Modern Art's page on Brancusi's Socrates which offers additional views.) Also true to Socrates' reputation for ugliness, but less available, are the drawings of the contemporary Swiss artist, Hans Erni.

In the late fifth century B.C.E., it was more or less taken for granted that any self-respecting Athenian male would prefer fame, wealth, honors, and political power to a life of labor. Although many citizens lived by their labor in a wide variety of occupations, they were expected to spend much of their leisure time, if they had any, busying themselves with the affairs of the city. Men regularly participated in the governing Assembly and in the city's many courts; and those who could afford it prepared themselves for success at public life by studying with rhetoricians and sophists from abroad who could themselves become wealthy and famous by teaching the young men of Athens to use words to their advantage. Other forms of higher education were also known in Athens: mathematics, astronomy, geometry, music, ancient history, and linguistics. What seemed strange about Socrates is that he neither labored to earn a living, nor participated voluntarily in affairs of state. Rather, he embraced poverty and, although youths of the city kept company with him and imitated him, Socrates adamantly insisted he was not a teacher and refused all his life to take money for what he did. The strangeness of this behavior is mitigated by the image then current of teachers and students: teachers were viewed as pitchers pouring their contents into the empty cups that were the students. Because Socrates was no transmitter of information that others were passively to receive, he resists the comparison to teachers. Rather, he helped others recognize on their own what is real, true, and good (Plato, Meno, Theaetetus)—a new, and thus suspect, approach to education. He was known for confusing, stinging and stunning his conversation partners into the unpleasant experience of realizing their own ignorance, a state sometimes superseded by genuine intellectual curiosity.

It did not help matters that Socrates seemed to have a higher opinion of women than most of his companions had, speaking of “men and women,” “priests and priestesses,” and naming foreign women as his teachers: Socrates claimed to have learned rhetoric from Aspasia of Miletus, the lover of Pericles (Plato, Menexenus); and to have learned erotics from the priestess Diotima of Mantinea (Plato, Symposium). Socrates was unconventional in a related respect. Athenian citizen males of the upper social classes did not marry until they were at least thirty, and Athenian females were poorly educated and kept sequestered until puberty, when they were given in marriage by their fathers. Thus the socialization and education of males often involved a relationship for which the English word ‘pederasty’ (though often used) is misleading, in which a youth approaching manhood, fifteen to seventeen, became the beloved of a male lover a few years older, under whose tutelage and through whose influence and gifts, the younger man would be guided and improved. It was assumed among Athenians that mature men would find youths sexually attractive, and such relationships were conventionally viewed as beneficial to both parties by family and friends alike. A degree of hypocrisy (or denial), however, was implied by the arrangement: “officially” it did not involve sexual relations between the lovers and, if it did, then the beloved was not supposed to derive pleasure from the act—but ancient evidence (comedies, vase paintings, et al.) shows that both restrictions were often violated (Dover 1989, 204). What was odd about Socrates is that, although he was no exception to the rule of finding youths attractive (Plato, Charmides 155d, Protagoras 309a-b; Xenophon, Symposium 4.27–28), he refused the physical advances of even his favorite (Plato, Symposium 219b-d) and kept his eye on the improvement of their, and all the Athenians', souls (Plato, Apology 30a-b), a mission he said he had been assigned by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, if he was interpreting his friend Chaerephon's report correctly (Plato, Apology 20e-23b), a preposterous claim in the eyes of his fellow citizens. Socrates also acknowledged a rather strange personal phenomenon, a daimonion or internal voice that prohibited his doing certain things, some trivial and some important, often unrelated to matters of right and wrong (thus not to be confused with the popular notions of a superego or a conscience); the implication that he was guided by something he regarded as divine or semi-divine was suspect to other Athenians.

Socrates was usually to be found in the marketplace and other public areas, conversing with a variety of different people—young and old, male and female, slave and free, rich and poor—that is, with virtually anyone he could persuade to join with him in his question-and-answer mode of probing serious matters. Socrates' lifework consisted in the examination of people's lives, his own and others', because “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being,” as he says at his trial (Plato, Apology 38a). Socrates pursued this task single-mindedly, questioning people about what matters most, e.g., courage, love, reverence, moderation, and the state of their souls generally. He did this regardless of whether his respondents wanted to be questioned or resisted him; and Athenian youths imitated Socrates' questioning style, much to the annoyance of some of their parents. He had a reputation for irony, though what that means exactly is controversial; at a minimum, Socrates' irony consisted in his saying that he knew nothing of importance and wanted to listen to others, yet keeping the upper hand in every discussion. One further aspect of Socrates' much-touted strangeness should be mentioned: his dogged failure to align himself politically with oligarchs or democrats; rather, he had friends and enemies among both, and he supported and opposed actions of both.

 

Dante Alighieri

Dante was born in 1265 in Florence. At the age of 9 he met for the first time the eight-year-old Beatrice Portinari, who became in effect his Muse, and remained, after her death in 1290, the central inspiration for his major poems. Between 1285, when he married and began a family, and 1302, when he was exiled from Florence, he was active in the cultural and civic life of Florence, served as a soldier and held several political offices.

Since the early thirteenth century two great factions, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, had competed for control of Florence. The Guelfs, with whom Dante was allied, were identified with Florentine political autonomy, and with the interests of the Papacy in its long struggle against the centralizing ambitions of the Hohenstaufen emperors, who were supported by the Ghibellines. After Charles of Anjou, with the blessing of the Papacy and strong Guelf support, defeated Hohenstaufen armies at Benevento (1265/6) and Tagliacozzo (1268), the Guelfs became the dominant force in Florence. By the end of the century, the Guelfs were themselves riven by faction, grounded largely in family and economic interests, but determined also by differing degrees of loyalty to the papacy and to Guelf allegiances.

In 1301, when conflict arose between the “Blacks,” the faction most strongly committed to Guelf and papal interests, and the more moderate Whites, Pope Boniface VIII instigated a partisan settlement which allowed the Blacks to exile the White leadership, of whom Dante was one. He never returned to Florence, and played no further role in public life, though he remained passionately interested in Italian politics, and became virtually the prophet of world empire in the years leading up to the coronation of Henry VII of Luxemburg as head of the Holy Roman Empire (1312). The development of Dante’s almost messianic sense of the imperial role is hard to trace, but it was doubtless affected by his bitterness over what he saw as the autocratic and treacherous conduct of Pope Boniface, and a growing conviction that only a strong central authority could bring order to Italy.

During the next twenty years Dante lived in several Italian cities, spending at least two long periods at the court of Can Grande della Scala, lord of Verona. In 1319 he moved from Verona to Ravenna, where he completed the Paradiso, and where he died in 1321.

Dante’s engagement with philosophy cannot be studied apart from his vocation as a writer—as a poet whose theme, from first to last is the significance of his love for Beatrice, but also as an intellectual strongly committed to raising the level of public discourse. After his banishment he addressed himself to Italians generally, and devoted much of his long exile to transmitting the riches of ancient thought and learning, as these informed contemporary scholastic culture, to an increasingly sophisticated lay readership in their own vernacular.

This project was Dante’s contribution to a long-standing Italian cultural tradition. His reading in philosophy began, he tells us, with Cicero and Boethius, whose writings are in large part the record of their dedication to the task of establishing a Latinate intellectual culture in Italy. The Convivio and the De vulgari eloquentia preserve also the somewhat idealized memory of the Neapolitan court of Frederick II of Sicily (1195–1250) and his son Manfred (1232–66), intellectuals in their own right as well as patrons of poets and philosophers, whom Dante viewed as having revived the ancient tradition of the statesman-philosopher [Van Cleve, 299-332; Morpurgo]. Dante himself probably studied under Brunetto Latini (1220–94), whose encyclopedic Livres dou Tresor (1262–66), written while Brunetto was a political exile in France, provided vernacular readers with a compendium of the Liberal Arts and a digest of Aristotelian ethical and political thought [Meier; Imbach (1993), 37–47; Davis (1984), 166–97].

But the fullest medieval embodiment of Dante’s ideal is his own writings. In them we see for the first time a powerful thinker, solidly grounded in Aristotle, patristic theology, and thirteenth-century scholastic debate, bringing these resources directly to bear on educating his countrymen and inspiring them to pursue the happiness that rewards the philosopher.

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