The Damon & Pythias Paradox

The ancient story goes like this: Damon and Pythias are good friends. Pythias is sentenced to death. Damon volunteers to stand in his place while Pythias goes off to say goodbye to his family. Damon is about to be executed when Pythias returns to honor his promise. The king is so impressed that he frees both of them. The story is used as an illustration of the moral virtue of friendship. People are willing to give up their lives for a friend and friends are to be trusted even if it means they are putting their own lives in danger. Rather than search for moral meaning, however, let us look at the structural situation of the two friends in the story, what is implied about being a voluntary hostage, and what that says, if generalized, about a structural feature of social life that is ubiquitous, to wit, that people are always incrementally putting themselves into more and more threatening situations because to do so is part and parcel of taking on any number of personal and organizational roles, such as being a soldier or a doctor or even just a friend.

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