Camarina, Damocles and the Ring of Gyges

Posted on March 16, 2013 by Jay F

Creating content doesn’t always demand a particularly deep understanding of the issues about which you are writing or a lot of critical thought. Writing AP Style doesn’t lend itself to Faulknerian passages; describing how incredible the fishing is in a stagnant pond somewhere on the outskirts of Boston isn’t going to be heralded as the next Walden. It can sometimes be easy to fall into this kind of mindset, one in which you are simply typing as fast as humanly possible in order to move onto the next project, even in pieces where more is demanded of you.

Expert writing, however, requires more work. It pays a premium price because it requires a premium product. True, it doesn’t mean that you have to use every ten-dollar word you’ve learned or to toss in every potentially apt reference that you know, but it should be written for an audience with discriminating tastes.

It goes without saying that a good vocabulary and a well-rounded understanding of both history and literature will make you a better writer. Such knowledge allows you to articulate yourself better and to present to readers some relatively complicated ideas with brevity. Including more advanced words and references can also give your writing a degree of authority that it may lack otherwise. Furthermore, using a poignant reference, especially one from Antiquity, grants you an opportunity to show your readers that you are well-read without entering the realm of obscurity, as most of these references were, at one point in time, common knowledge to the educated public. Here are three such references.

The Ring of Gyges

The Myth: The version of the myth of the Ring of Gyges that most people know was described in Plato’s most famous dialogue, The Republic, which was written in approximately 380 BC. In this dialogue, one of Socrates’ pupils, Glaucon, attempts to persuade Socrates about the nature of justice, saying that it is “A mean or compromise, between the best of all, which is to do injustice and not be punished, and the worst of all, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation.” Glaucon then tells the story of Gyges, a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia, who came upon a golden ring with an immense amount of power. This ring, if put in a certain position, granted him the ability to become invisible. According to Glaucon, Gyges then used this power to seduce the queen, kill the king, and usurp the throne. Glaucon states that any person would act in a manner akin to Gyges, that if two men were granted such power, one of them just, one of them unjust, then the former would inevitably begin to act like the latter. In the words of Glaucon, “A man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, then he is unjust.”

What the Myth Conveys: The belief that all people can be corrupted by power, that most individuals behave in a just manner only out of fear of reprisal, and that, if the possibility of reprisal is eliminated, then all people will begin to act unjustly (think of the banks that have been deemed too big to fail or prosecute).

The Marshes of Camarina

The Myth: Camarina (also Kamarina) is an ancient city in southern Sicily that was sacked by the Carthaginians in the 5th century BC. As the story goes, the people of Camarina were suffering from a plague. They believed the nearby marsh to be the source of this disease. Before draining the marsh, however, the city’s leaders consulted an oracle. The oracle warned the men, “Do not move Camarina.” Her words, however, were ignored. What the people did not realize was that the marsh was serving as a defense against the Carthaginians who, once the marshes had been drained, conquered the city and put every last citizen to the sword.

What the Myth Conveys: It is best not to “stir the mud of Camarina,” in the words of Erasmus, lest we rid ourselves of one problem only to invite a far more severe one.

The Sword of Damocles

The Myth: As told by Cicero in his Tusculan Disputations, Damocles was a sycophant of the Syracusan king Dionysius. Dionysius was a remarkably paranoid tyrant who may have been even more fearful of potential assassins than either Caligula or Stalin. As the story goes, Damocles was flattering Dionysius about his wealth and power, which he, Damocles, said must have made Dionysius the most happy man in the world. Dionysius did not rebuke him, but instead asked Damocles if he would like to experience such wealth and power firsthand. Damocles, delighted by the offer, agreed. Dionysius then had his servants situate Damocles on a golden bed, where he was told that he could have anything he wanted–garlands, perfumes, food, wine, the whole nine yards. Damocles was overjoyed. Dionysius then made one further provision: that a sword be hung by a single horsehair directly above Damocles’ head. Suddenly, Damocles did not want any of the food or the wine; the garlands and perfumes brought him no joy; the beautiful servants repulsed him. Soon he was begging Dionysius to let him go.

What the Myth Conveys: What this lesson teaches, in a similar manner to John Gay‘s fable “The Miser and Plautus,” is that there is no happiness for an individual constantly beset by apprehensions. One living under the sword of Damocles is a prisoner to their own power.

Jay F is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.


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