"The Sword of Damocles" is a literary phrase often used to denote imminent danger. Its origin is a tale from ancient Greece.

Damocles was an active and well-known courtier during the reign of Dionysius the Elder, around 400 BC. At one point, he went overboard in his flattery of the Greek ruler's privileges of power. As a reward, Dionysius invited him to a banquet to show appreciation for the praise. Arriving at the feast, Damocles saw that there was a sword hanging over his chair, suspended by a single horse hair. As refusing to sit would have been a mortal insult, he was forced to take his perilous seat. Naturally, his enjoyment of the meal was hampered by his awareness of his peril, and the subtle message that Dionysius was sending was evident: A ruler's position is not all feasts and indulgence; his responsibilities hang heavy over him.

Incidentally, this is also where the phrase hanging by a thread comes from.

The versions of the story from modern times suggest that an imminent danger comes with having wealth and power. I have no idea why the story would be told that way. It seems more an injunction against the method one uses to gain the wealth and power rather than the actual having of it. The wealthy person, in this case was, after all, a cruel and unjust king who was known as a tyrant.

James Baldwin wrote the version I just read, and in it, he writes that Damocles says "I now see that I was mistaken, and that the rich and powerful are not so happy as they seem." Would he have said to King Dionysius, "King Dionysius, whatever threatens you does not threaten me. This is why you have hung that sword there - because my use of your riches does not put me in danger of your enemies. I did not ask for the rage and anger that you have brought upon yourself by being cruel and unjust, but only to see how the rich and powerful live. Surely there are good kings, kind and just, who also have such power and riches. You could show me that, but you chose to add the sword that your cruelty has created."

No, of course he wouldn't have said that. Instead, he plays the king's game, as is his reputation, pretending that it is his power and riches, rather than the injustice and cruelty he used to get them, that presents imminent danger. But the story itself does this too, for it says (in Baldwin's words) "And so long as he lived, he never again wanted to be rich, or to change places, even for a moment, with the king."

Did this come through the story, or was it added by Mr. Baldwin? Does it matter? Does this story create a fear of being wealthy in you? Can we, today, tell our politicians off because they use deceit and empty promises to gain power and then abuse it to gain more? Or will the media pay more attention to the lack of decorum to which our passion drives us, than to the unjust cruelty out of which that passion is born? Or will they invoke the Patriot Act and silence us with threats, or use previously illegal wiretapping to spy on us and stealthily degrade our livelihood in order to prevent us from making these accusations?

The meaning of the sword has been hijacked. I write to right this wrong. It is not wealth that raises the sword to your necks, my friends, but cruelty, injustice, and deceit.

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