Have you ever struggled to figure out a way to illustrate an important but unwelcome point, to someone who isn’t interested in hearing it? Damocles is still famous, twenty four hundred years later, because of one extremely memorable approach to this problem.
King Dionysius II inherited a huge empire from his stern and very successful military father while he was still a young and famously irresponsible man – and even though his uncle brought in Plato himself, to try to straighten the slacker up, the new king proved to the great philosopher that he wasn’t up to the challenge of governing by sound enlightened principles.
In particular, Dionysius was not interested in hard work! When, on a later visit, Plato suggested there were many more things he could still helpfully study, Dionysius was offended, and claimed that he already knew all of these things – and needed no further instruction or wisdom.
Reminds me of that lovely Rumi quote about how a true teacher cannot resist a student who gains a new level of mastery, and yet still knows they have much more to learn, and still hungers for the path of humble study, rather than the exercise of arrogant half-informed confidence.
I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to hang around lazy brats who inherited empires from their folks, but my working-class writer-head has been fed wacky variations of this scenario for decades – and one of the funnier things about that life (and better reasons to never be jealous of people who fell into wealth) is that they are almost always surrounded by insincere friends, who flatter them more than they would, and also call them on their misbehaviour far less than they should, because of that unearned power and wealth.
A person vain enough to seek out such company, cannot get wiser or kinder at the rate which those with honest friends can – and someone who is both ignorant and confident – like Dionysius, for example – can actually get more stupid and childish as they go – ignoring the lessons even of their own experience, and using their power without the weight of empathy required.
But Dionysius wasn’t entirely without perception – he may have rejected the advice of the wise, and governed stupidly, wastefully and ruinously – but one day, when one of his favourite suck-ups Damocles, was going on about how fantastic Dionysius was, and how great his reign, Dionysius suggested that for just one day, they should switch places – and Damocles could be king.
But he wanted Damocles to get an idea of how he really felt – after isolating himself behind dishonesty, ignorance, and a long history of tyrannical excess.
So he had a sword suspended above the throne – by one single human hair, so that his lick-spittle could really appreciate what the throne weighed to him – constant unrelenting mortal fear, every second of every day.
When the brilliant Roman Cicero wrote about it – (many years later) – he used the story to make the point that you cannot ever be truly happy – no matter how much wealth, power or status you have – when you live in constant fear.
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Funny thing about the modern world, though – we have been living under a constant genuine mortal threat for far longer than I’ve been alive. Damocleans, one and all!
“Mutually assured destruction” – an incredibly expensive and deliberate plan, contrived mostly by the theorists at RAND and the Hudson institute – was also popularly known during the cold war as “The balance of terror.” Indeed, the cold war was not about armies facing armies, but two world-striding states with psychotic doctrines of confrontation, using all the civilian populations of the planet, as gunpoint-hostages.*
Somehow – so many millions of people adapted to consider the idea that their families might be incinerated at any moment without warning “Normal,” that we still haven’t recognized that a game of kill-everyone chicken was NOT a good solution, but a descent into perhaps the very purest form of evil ever.
More recently, we have put our concerns about nuclear weapons “On the back burner” because we’ve come up with an even more interesting plan. Don’t kill everything by incinerating it – cook it very slowly like a frog in a pot, so that by the time any of the frogs start to complain, they’re all dead anyhow.
When someone tells you the economy is important, during a discussion about the threat of collapse of the biological balance of the earth – within a few decades – it is important to stop for a moment and recognize this is true. Within very specific and clear limits only, mind you.
We DO need to keep the economy going – to an extent which is great enough to prevent general social collapse – if we want a chance to be able to create a society that is not actually structurally suicidal. It’s been awhile, but I swear this is still something of which we humans are materially capable – in terms of character, on the other hand – our capabilities are much less clearly adequate.
The absolute fact is that most of our economic activity is psychological – (when they admiringly say, majority service-sector economy..) labouring to meet created luxury needs for some, rather than looking after necessity, creativity, education and growth for most (which goods cannot ever be restrained, without greatly reducing our common chances of success).
So the real question facing us is – are we determined to be Dionysius, refusing wise counsel, turning our back on hard challenging work, and perpetually avoiding the new wisdom and principle this work alone can win?
Engaging and acting on the question of survival isn’t distasteful, icky and depressing, folks – that way lies responsibility, involvement, maturity, compassion – and genuine hard-earned love, also.
Dionysius is miserable, and his sycophants even more ignorant than he.
But the never-mentioned worker – who actually put the sword up there, all that time ago (with a level of practical skill almost certainly beyond either of the spoiled toffs), can also take it down – and goes home to real friends and family – not the endlessly repeating aftermath-emptiness of a party performance.
We empowered individuals can indulge our personal passions, dream dreams, even binge-watch fantasy programs every hour that we aren’t working – but until we face the real fear at last, and begin to do the hard work, happiness will never be one of our available selections.
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*Nuclear targeting was always global, and never limited to enemies only – as Edward Teller’s hand-picked protege Michio Kaku made clear in the fascinating zero-budget underground film “Borders” (1989) – which also introduced the actor Steve Buscemi, and gave writer Robert Anton Wilson a chance to explain a few of his wonderfully challenging and useful ideas. Track it down if you can – weird and unforgettable.