Word Smith: Damocles

In Hong Kong the new rule of law seems to backtrack the 50 years of shared British and Chinese control of the city. Instead, all acts of sedition, treason, local loyalty are seen by the Chinese Communist Party as cause for imprisonment. The mainland Government is now the only one that matters and citizens beware: there is a “sword of Damocles” over your heads. All actions against the mainland are cause for arrest and jail time.

Boats in Victoria Harbor extolling the new Communist Rules, July 1, 2020

Where does the threat come from? And why?

Protesters in Hong Kong with umbrellas and masks for protection

As the story goes, Damocles [1] was the name of a man who was hired as a court jester, a flatterer and jokester of a mythical Italian king. The original storyteller was Cicero, who wrote his moralistic parable in 45 B.C. and its sting has lingered to this day. The actual tale, however, looks back 400 or 500 years earlier, when Syracuse (a city in Sicily) was controlled by the tyrannical king, Dionysius II. A rich, powerful and unhappy ruler, Dionysius was also paranoid: his many enemies might be lurking nearby preparing to assassinate him. He slept in a bedroom that was surrounded by a moat and he only allowed his daughter to shave his beard, fearing what anyone else might do with a razor at his throat. 

Cicero writes that Dionysius became fed-up with Damocles as he droned on and on complimenting the king and telling him how blissful palace life was. The king challenged the jester and asked, “Do you want to taste my life yourself and make a trial of my good fortune?” Damocles quickly agreed. Then Dionysius seated Damocles on a golden couch and ordered his personal servants to wait on him. Damocles was treated to juicy cuts of meat and lavishly scented perfumes and ointments for his body…. Just as Damocles was starting to enjoy his new life as a king, he noticed that Dionysius had also hung a razor-sharp sword from the ceiling. It was positioned over Damocles’ head, suspended only by a single strand of horsehair.[2]

A pro-democracy protester holds a placard August 13, 2019. Protesters blocked passengers at departure halls of Hong Kong airport. (Photo: Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)

From that point on, the jester’s fear for his life made it impossible for him to savor the opulence of the feast or enjoy the servants. After casting several nervous glances at the blade dangling above him, he asked to be excused, saying he no longer wished to be so fortunate.

Cartoon by Ramirez with the Weekly Standard

For Cicero, the tale of Dionysius and Damocles represented the idea that those in power always labor for their kingdoms under the specter of anxiety and death, and that “there can be no happiness for anyone under constant apprehensions.” The parable has become a common motif in literature, and the phrase “sword of Damocles” is commonly used as a term to describe a looming danger. Likewise, the saying “hanging by a thread” has become shorthand for a fraught or precarious situation.

Hong Kong protesters use Airdrop to breach China’s firewall.

The citizens of Hong Kong feel that the mainland China is the Dionysius of their nightmares. The horsehair is the slim thread of freedom that they will now enjoy and the sword of Damocles is the time that they will spend in the slammer for any transgressions and signs of disloyalty to the Communist Rule.

Hong Kong Harbor during the Opium Wars

[1] The story of Damocles was popularized by Cicero in his book, “Tusculan Disputations,” published in 45 BC. There are many versions and interpretations of the Latin, I have copied liberally from a version found in Wikipedia on the internet.

[2]  A horsehair, by the way, is much stronger than a human hair, but it is only reliably strong when it is in many strands (think of a violin bow). A single hair is precarious and easily broken, hence the danger of a single horsehair.

Image of horsehair, before it is combed and made into a violin bow.