Sunday, April 24, 2011

Home schooling, week 8: The Sword of Damocles

I mentioned last week that one of the benefits of homeschooling goes to Mommy: she gets to learn, or relearn, stuff that she wishes she remembered from her earlier education--for example, the Sword of Damocles.

Why do I need reminding of Damocles' sword in particular? Isn't it one of our most frequent allusions to classical myths? Isn't it one of our preferred ways of dramatizing impending doom? In the words of, "if a sword of Damocles hangs over someone, they are in a situation where something bad is likely to happen to them very soon."

But when, perhaps for the first time, I read this week's classical myth, I learned that what Damocles was experiencing was more than a sword hanging by a single horse hair over his head. He was also experiencing what it was like to be an all-powerful ruler. According to the myth, Damocles was placed in this precarious circumstance by the tyrant Dionysius, who had tired of this courtier of his carrying on about how wonderful it must be to enjoy such great luxury and power. Dionysius ordered Damocles to spend a day sitting on his throne, and it was there that Damocles looked up and saw the suspended sword. Shortly thereafter he begged permission to step down, having seen, as it were, Dionysius' point: that wonderful as it might seem to enjoy so much power, those that do also face constant threats from their many enemies.

Interpreted in this way, the Sword of Damocles might more appropriately symbolize the threats incurred by those in power, as opposed to an impending doom that might strike anyone. But perhaps it's harder to see in Damocles' sword the threats of parody, satire, muckracking, censuring, impeachment, bad poll results, and electoral defeat.

After all, how many of us ordinary folk can relate to what it's like seeing this particular kind of doom looming whenever we look up?


Nancy Bea Miller said...

It's "pointy" at the top! ;-)

Katharine Beals said...

"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."