Many men are in the habit of seeing only the privileges of the powerful, while failing to take note of the crushing burdens that such men must carry. Nothing in this world is gifted to us for free; there is a price to be paid for every acquisition, every privilege, and every benefit. This cost may not be apparent at first; but over time, it will make itself known.
Those who occupy positions of power are servants of that power. The office itself issues forth its own slithery tentacles that wrap themselves around the limbs of the office-holder, restraining him and binding him in a hundred different ways. He thinks at first he is free to do as he wishes; but circumstances and experience teach him otherwise. This reality was what the Roman writer and diplomat Sidonius Apollinaris (430–489 A.D.) had in mind when he wrote these words to his friend and confidant Serranus:
But I will never endorse the idea that people who stand on the steep and slippery mountain-tops of our country are fortunate. [Sed sententiae tali numquam ego assentior, ut fortunatos putem qui rei publicae praecipitibus ac lubricis culminibus insistunt.] For one can barely convey the miseries which come every hour in the lives of these supposedly happy men, if even they should be called “happy” when they adopt this name just as Sulla did. These are men who have violated both human and divine law, and who think the greatest happiness is equivalent to the greatest power. They are miserable on account of this, because they do not fully comprehend that they are dominated by a most unrelenting slave-driver. [Epistulae II.13]
Sidonius’s quote above mentions Sulla, who was an especially vindictive dictator just before Cicero’s time. He gave himself–or his terrified followers gave him–the nickname “Felix,” which in Latin means “happy.” Sulla the Happy! When he had secured power for himself, he made a point of hunting down and massacring all those who had previously opposed him. Yet I wonder how happy he could really have been; for as the ancient writers tell us, he felt compelled to have the following words inscribed on his funeral monument:
There was neither a single friend, nor a single enemy, whom I did not repay in full.
Those who have never been in a position of great power or responsibility usually shake their heads, or roll their eyes, at such words, believing them to be exaggerations or distortions. “It wouldn’t happen to me!” they say. “I would be able to handle it, because it is all about maintaining one’s balance.” The bad things of this world always happen to others, never to them. Of course there is merit to this view. Some men were born to lead, and enjoy occupying the limelights of notoriety and authority. And I would never say that wealth is an unmitigated evil: I prefer to think of it as a dense, massive object that has, so to speak, its own gravitational field.
We must learn how to navigate its force-field; we must acquire the wisdom to learn how wealth and power “warp space-time” simply by virtue of their existence. Anyone or anything within the range of their gravitational field will be affected by them. We must arm and equip ourselves to live with the forces they exert on us, and on others. Above all, we must remember that all comes with a price, and that price will be paid in health, tranquility, peace of mind, and freedom. It cannot be otherwise.
Nothing comes without a price in this world except the attributes we have been gifted from Nature. This was the purpose behind the old fable of the Sword of Damocles. Many have heard this phrase, but the details of the story are not widely known. Damocles was a Sicilian from Syracuse, and a friend of the dictator Dionysius. Damocles would express his admiration for the dictator’s apparently perfect life of power and privilege. During one meal, Dionysius grew tired of such talk and offered his friend an opportunity to switch places with him just for the duration of the meal. Damocles accepted the offer, removed his purple robes, and draped them over the back of his overjoyed friend; he then sat him down on a luxurious couch covered with precious objects and beautiful cushions.
Sumptuous foods and wines were brought in, one after the other, to satiate the palate of the overjoyed Syracusan. There were exotic meats, Falernian wines, perfumes, flower-petals, and all of the other things that one would associate with royalty. But as Damocles reclined on the couch, he looked up and saw a large sword hanging from the carved and painted ceiling; it was not only hanging, but shaking, and appeared about to fall at any moment and impale him bodily. The sword was attached to the ceiling by only one horsehair, and it swayed back and forth as gentle drafts moved through the palace. In these circumstances, it became impossible for Damocles to enjoy his meal, as he could not get the image of the sword out of his mind. With every bite he took, and with every sip of wine he drank, he maintained its image in his mind.
He could not finish his meal quickly enough. When he had choked down the last morsel of food, he moved away from the couch, took off Dionysius’s robe, and bolted from the palace. As he was leaving, he looked with fondness and relief on his relatively low position and economic station. He now understood–not in an abstract way, but in a very real, tangible way–that the trappings of power and privilege are nothing more than a cage. One may hold on to riches, he now knew, and at the same time be gripped by another, outside force. This was the realization that came to Damocles after only sitting in Dionysius’s seat for a few short moments. As Sidonius says at the close of his letter to Serranus,
I do not know, my lordly brother, whether those who occupy such positions of power are happy; yet there is no question that those who reach them are miserable.
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