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Leisure • Western Philosophy

On Flying Too Close to the Sun – And Not Flying Close Enough

We are – most of us – likely at some point in childhood to have been told the story of Daedalus and Icarus. This Ancient Greek myth – which dates back to the earliest days of civilisation – introduces us to the gifted and canny architect Daedalus, who was imprisoned by evil king Minos in a tall tower in an isolated corner of Crete, together with his beloved son Icarus. Unwilling to spend the rest of his days in captivity, Daedalus constructed some wings by glueing together the feathers of passing birds with beeswax and invited Icarus to join him on the window ledge in a bid for freedom. But with one caveat: if Icarus ever went too high, the sun’s rays would turn the wax into liquid and Icarus would be done for.

After successfully negotiating a way through Cretan airspace, somewhere past Samos, despite his father’s kindly and patient warnings, Icarus got carried away; the young man couldn’t keep a handle on his joy, his wings fell apart and he plunged into the sea just off the coast of a picturesque small island that honours his memory to this day, Ikaria.

The way we are typically told the story, the moral is weighted firmly in one direction: don’t get over-exuberant, keep a reign on your impulses, make sure you don’t get big headed, don’t show off, calm yourself.

The myth would not have entered the folklore of our species if this were not supremely sensible advice. Clearly no good life is possible without a sharp awareness of the perils of egomania and untempered raw appetite. 

But the very solidity of the message is at risk of blinding us to a crucial subsidiary idea lurking covertly within the narrative. This is not just a tale of pride and arrogance, not just a tale of getting too big for one’s boots and of neglecting one’s true position. It’s also a story of hope, of necessary escape, of giving something a chance, of not remaining locked up forever at the whims of foolish authorities; of daring to plot an alternative. 

For every one person who jumps out of towers without sufficient self-control, there are – we should note – others, perhaps many others, who – just as tragically – stay in towers their whole lives long, not just in one room, but at the edge of a box within a cupboard under a bed, too frightened ever to accede to their own potency and freedom, too timid ever dare to evade unfair restrictions, too cowed to bring themselves to imagine a better future. There are – when we look at the matter squarely – in fact two morals in this central Ancient Greek myth: the traditional one about the trouble of flying too close to the sun, and also, more quietly, the lesser-known one about the terrible risks of remaining a prisoner all one’s life.

There is a figure in this story to whom we should look for clues as to how we might handle the painful dichotomy at play. It is Daedalus who, despite what eventually transpired, should be recognised as having tried with particular dexterity to model for his son what a successful life could be like. He didn’t just warn Icarus of boundless dangers; he didn’t just go on about how bold schemes never work out and how timidity is mandatory. He expressly didn’t want his son to spend the rest of his days in confinement. He didn’t think it was a great idea to give the ultimate victory to tyrants. He spoke to him of the possibilities of trying on wings, he wanted his child to head out on the prevailing currents and have a shot at reaching new lands. 

We should not inevitably deploy examples of ghastly accidents to impede our appetite for novelty and satisfaction. We have clever minds with which to plot sound escape routes, we can be ingenious in the face of our enemies. We must – of course – take sensible precautions. We must – of course – at points be quiet. There are – of course – requirements for strategy and forbearance. But if we only ever think of safety, if all we are obsessed by are the crashes, then we are fated to die in despair in any case. There must and can be a good midway point between succumbing in a prison and drowning out at sea. 

What typically shapes our underlying attitudes is, as it were, who Daedalus was for us. There are fathers and mothers who talk to us gently and imaginatively about risks and returns; they discuss the downsides of over-excitement but also of those of meekness. And then there are others who cannot countenance their children ever taking to the skies – perhaps because they still haven’t worked a way out of prison for themselves. 

We might, in a quiet moment, attempt to fathom our place on the Ikarian spectrum:

– What did we learn from our caregivers about changing our circumstances?

– How much were the upsides stressed? How much were we taught to fear?

– Were we given permission to hope or merely warned of the dangers of hoping for too much?

– How frightened were our Daedaluses of our powers to take to the skies?

– And, most importantly, what aspects of our altitude might we now want to correct? Should we work on going a little lower – or, perhaps, with no less urgency, might we need to push ourselves a little higher?

We know a lot, maybe too much, about the catastrophes that can follow from ambition. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to forget that, whatever the fate of poor Icarus, there are always equally potent risks bound up with never pushing ourselves a bit closer to our sun’s vital and warming rays.

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