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Sword of Damocles & Work Life

July 29, 2011

Not long ago I came across a short moral story related by Cicero, the great Roman orator, that really struck me. I thought it was a good metaphor for the way I sometimes make or resist choices in my life.

The Sword of Damocles: the name usually given to this brief anecdote. I read it in several different formats and find this version to be the best.

Dionysius (II) was a fourth century B.C. tyrant of Syracuse, a city in Magna Graecia, the Greek area of southern Italy. To all appearances Dionysius was very rich and comfortable, with all the luxuries money could buy, tasteful clothing and jewelry, and delectable food. He even had court flatterers (adsentatores) to inflate his ego. One of these ingratiators was the court sycophant, Damocles. Damocles used to make comments to the king about his wealth and luxurious life. One day when Damocles complimented the tyrant on his abundance and power, Dionysius turned to Damocles and said, “If you think I’m so lucky, how would you like to try out my life?”

Damocles readily agreed, and so Dionysius ordered everything to be prepared for Damocles to experience what life as Dionysius was like. Damocles was enjoying himself immensely… until he noticed a sharp sword hovering over his head, that was suspended from the ceiling by a horse hair. This, the tyrant explained to Damocles, was what life as ruler was really like.

Damocles, alarmed, quickly revised his idea of what made up a good life, and asked to be excused. He then eagerly returned to his poorer, but safer life.

I’ve read several different interpretation of this passage, such as power = danger or happiness is delicate, or the parallel to the idiom ‘walk a mile in my shoes’.

My personal take-away from the narrative is that power, wealth and influence brings with it more responsibilities and accountability.

I especially can relate the story to my work life. As I yearn to be more successful in my career and hold a more prestigious title for my role I can begin to visualize the mythical sword slowly materialising above, reminding me the greater privileges that come with more prosperity and decision making the more likely the string can be accidently snapped by me.

After analysing the paradoxical fears and desires I have of desiring more responsibility & influence, perhaps being Damocles, I would have asked Dionysius not to swap between with him, but rather with someone a bit lower in the royal entourage. Let the sword hang by a rope and still let me enjoy the riches that come with the position.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 29, 2011 9:27 pm

    Personally, I don’t think, power and influence mean more danger. It could mean more challenges. it is how we perceive the situation.

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