'Sword Of Damocles' Reference Sometimes Misused

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Lately, we've been hearing about a lot of "swords of Damocles" hanging over the heads of politicians in Washington. The term comes from an ancient Greek parable, and, according to classics scholar Daniel Mendelsohn, it's not always referenced properly. He joins Melissa Block to tell the parable of the "sword of Damocles" — and share tips on how to use it in a modern context.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: This summer, we've noticed that the debate over the debt crisis has led to a surge in metaphor and one in particular.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have this sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: With the sword of Damocles overhead, if not, we're going to default.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, the good news obviously is that the economy now doesn't have the sword of Damocles hanging over it. We are...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: At a time when the debt limit was not hanging over the economy's head like a sword of Damocles.

BLOCK: The sword of Damocles. Since that sword has been getting such a workout, we figured we should understand the origins of the metaphor. As author and classics scholar Daniel Mendelsohn explains, it goes back to the reign of a Sicilian tyrant at the end of the fifth century, B.C.

DANIEL MENDELSOHN: The story goes that Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse had a courtier named Damocles who was more or less a professional flatterer who lay around these opulent feasts saying nice things to Dionysius.

And once, he made a comment to the effect of, oh, how great it would be to be the king. And Dionysius said, oh, really? Well, if you want to know what that's like, you can come sit in my throne, which Damocles did and Dionysius made sure that he was well supplied with opulent food and great service and cute waiters and beautiful perfumes and scented candles going.

And Damocles was thinking to himself, how very wonderful then, it must be and then noticed that Dionysius had also hung above the throne a gleaming sword, which was suspended by a single horsehair. And he then begged Dionysius to be allowed to leave the throne and to go back to his subservient position as a courtier and obviously got the point, which is that anybody who gets to enjoy immense wealth, luxury and power also is living under a threat.

BLOCK: We found all kinds of references to the sword of Damocles as a metaphor. One goes back to 1961. JFK used the phrase...

MENDELSOHN: Right.

BLOCK: ...in a speech before the UN about the threat of nuclear war.

MENDELSOHN: Nuclear. Right.

BLOCK: Let's take a listen.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles hanging by the slenderest of threads.

BLOCK: So Professor Mendelsohn, it's come to be used as sort of the notion of impending doom. Is that the original intent, do you think, of the metaphor of the story?

MENDELSOHN: No, not at all. But it wouldn't be the first time politicians misread the classics. The real point of the story is very clearly a moral parable. It's not just, oh, something terrible is going to happen, but it's about realizing that what looks like an enviable life, a life of wealth, a life of power, a life of luxury is, in fact, fraught with anxiety, terror and possibly death.

And so that's the moral lesson of the original story, which has completely, I would say, gotten lost in the common usage. We all use that expression, oh, it's a sword of Damocles. But the point was all this stuff is meaningless, power, luxury and wealth, and if you know what's good for you, you'll be happy to be a much lesser kind of person. And that is not a sentiment I expect to hear from most politicians.

BLOCK: Well, Professor Mendelsohn, thanks for explaining the sword of Damocles to us today.

MENDELSOHN: My pleasure.

BLOCK: That's Daniel Mendelsohn, author, translator and professor of humanities at Bard College.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: This is NPR News.

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