Feet of clay

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Feet of clay is an expression now commonly used to refer to a weakness or character flaw, especially in people of prominence.[1]

Origin and meaning[edit]

The phrase derives from the interpretation of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, by the prophet Daniel as recounted in the Book of Daniel:[2]

Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible.
This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,
His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. (Daniel 2:31-33)
And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potters' clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; but there shall be in it of the strength of the iron, forasmuch as thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay.
And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken.
And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay. (Daniel 2:41-43)

The implication is that however impressive or strong the materials are that are used in the body of the statue, if its feet are made of clay, then the whole thing will topple over and fall to the ground.

Notable uses[edit]

A well known instance of this phrase is in Byron's poem, "Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte":

Thanks for that lesson—it will teach
  To after-warriors more
Than high Philosophy can preach,
  And vainly preach’d before.
That spell upon the minds of men
Breaks never to unite again,
  That led them to adore
Those Pagod things of sabre sway,
With fronts of brass, and feet of clay.[3]

In psychotherapy[edit]

In psychology, especially psychotherapy, the expression "feet of clay" does not refer to a character defect, but the disappointment the patient may express to the therapist in once admiring a parent. In the eventual realization that a father, for instance, is a mere mortal - only a man, after all - the patient may express what the therapist perceives as a trauma. This disappointment is a normal experience, but can be misinterpreted or processed poorly by the patient as most painful and lasting. The therapist can then guide the patient to a better insight with which to cope with disappointments in general, most of which have little significance; if the patient has difficulty in processing disappointments in general, it may attract the attention of the most intuitive therapist. The patient's inability to cope with life's disappointments may be the very anxiety which brings the patient to the therapist to begin with, and may begin a process of working through many anxieties and improving the patient's general ability to cope.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Leonard Mann, "Feet of Clay", Green-eyed monsters and good samaritans 
  2. ^ Zdravko Stefanovic, "King Nebuchadnezzar's first dream", Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise: Commentary on the Book of Daniel 
  3. ^ Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte http://www.bartleby.com/205/31.html