Icarus and Daedalus

Many of the Greek myths have the same flavor we find in the tale of Pandora’s box—warning against going too far, being too arrogant, and trespassing into the realms that more rightly belong to the gods. The famous story of Daedalus and his son Icarus is a prime example, and even today this theme survives in modern stories of special people who “flew too close to the sun” and failed.

Daedalus and Icarus and the merits of moderation

The story is simple. Daedalus was a master inventor and designer, trained by the mighty goddess Athena herself, and he was commissioned by King Minos to create a vast and complicated labyrinth. The purpose of the labyrinth was to forever trap the monster minotaur, who was half bull and half human.
The existence of this aberrant creature is a complex tale in itself—powerful Minos was favored by the gods and given a white bull. They told him to sacrifice it, but he disobeyed, and in revenge the gods caused Minos’s wife to fall in love with the white bull, producing their monster child, the minotaur. To hide his shame, Minos needed a place to put this creature, and this is where Daedalus and his son come in.
Having completed this glorious maze, however, King Minos imprisoned father and son inside it (Minos is clearly not the most ethical of characters!) to prevent anyone learning about the labyrinth at all. But crafty Daedalus concocted a plan on how to escape. Gathering feathers from birds and sticking them together with wax to make wings, the pair designed their escape—they would fly out of the maze.
As they made their escape, wise Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun because the warmth would melt the wax and disintegrate his wings. They succeeded for some time, but after they passed Delos Island, Icarus forgot the warning and flew higher and higher. As Daedalus predicted, the sun melted the wax, the wings broke, and poor Icarus fell to the sea and drowned.
This myth is a powerful one because it so clearly and simply explains rather complex ideas of overambition and human egotism. The warning takes the symbolized shape of flying “too high.”
In many languages and myths, those who are “down to earth,” “salt of the earth” or with their “feet firmly on the ground” are practical, realistic, and straightforward types. It’s the idea of ascension that belongs to lofty goals, rising up to new, better heights, grand visions and glorious achievements. These things are symbolized in all human psyches as belonging to the inviting but frightening realms of the air. Haven’t we all looked at the birds and dreamt that one day we, too, could break the earth’s hold on us and soar freely like them?
But in this story, ascension—especially when it is unwise and unchecked—leads to disaster. Not only does Icarus fall back to earth, his fall kills him entirely. In going too high, we are punished and made to fall an equal distance back down again. We see modern-day Icarus characters all around us in the form of celebrities who rise to meteoric fame only to be dashed down to earth through one scandal or another, seemingly punished with a fall that corrects their overambitious ascent. Precocious child prodigies, overnight millionaires or superstar entrepreneurs have all charted this path of too high too soon.
In interpreting this story, we can see that it’s not flight per se that is dangerous. Finding a clever and innovative way to solve problems is not strictly punishable, since the wise and crafty Daedalus survives using the very same tools and plan that his son does. He succeeds, perhaps, because he uses his wings purely as a tool to escape his predicament. He understands the limitations of these wings, and respects them. A crucial part of the story that is often left out is the extra piece of advice Daedalus gives to his son—that he is not to fly too low either, or the water will make his wings heavy and pull him down.
So, what was the nature of Icarus’s mistake? Why did he have to pay his life for this mistake? Icarus does not use the wings purely as a tool. He doesn’t remain cognizant of their limitations—his limitations—and forgets the wise advice of his father. Can you picture young Icarus, whooping and soaring and feeling like a king after being trapped in the dungeon-like maze? Can you imagine the thrill of having wings? It’s easy to think of the youth forgetting that the wings are there to help him escape, and instead getting caught up in the delight of flying, showing off, “spreading his wings” and daring himself to greater and greater delights in the air.
In other words, Icarus allowed his ego to overtake his common sense. His ambitions are understandable, but they were unbalanced, overreaching. They took him past his own limitations.
His was a failure to maintain moderation—why? Perhaps, in tasting a little bit of freedom and the thrill of flying, he was seduced to greater and greater heights, well out of the bounds of the normal and practical. This elevated range is not sustainable. The heat of the sun (an eternal symbol of something godlike, rarified, ultimately powerful, life giving but not safe to stare directly at!) is too strong and destroys his wings.
The wings here are the very things that allow him to reach the heights in the first place, but are undermined by too sharp an ascent. A modern parallel is a young rock star whose brilliant talent allows him a steep rise to fame. But he keeps on rising, getting closer and closer to his own “sun,” until the rigors of fame (exhaustion, drug use, poor mental health, money squabbles, family trouble, etc.) start to corrode the very talent that allowed him to find success in the first place. He “falls.”
A person suffering bipolar disorder may experience this same arc regularly—seduced by the sun in the form of overambitious and lofty goals, only to find the heights are unsustainable—and it’s a long, long way down.
Icarus’s behavior is a warning to us all. We can imagine Daedalus trying to teach his son—yes, it’s tempting to go as high as you can, to stretch your abilities to the limit and beyond, but you need to respect your limitations or be destroyed by them. It may seem far more fun to go all-out, have grand plans and epic dreams, but in the long run these ambitions may actually be less sustainable than a path forged more moderately.
The question of moderation turns up frequently, and not just in Greek mythology. The wise path is frequently the middle one: like Goldilocks’ perfect porridge, it’s not too hot or too cold. It’s just right. An implied corollary lesson in the tale of Icarus is that it would be just as bad to fly too low. Those people who have too few ambitions and who plod along too close to the earth can also suffer because of it. You get bogged down and perish all the same if you never challenge yourself, never rise to the occasion, never follow your dreams but instead stick close to the path well-trod by others.
The best way is seldom the biggest, best, flashiest and most dramatic one. The best technique is rarely to go all out. Rather, it’s a question of appropriateness. Of balance and a light touch to discern when to push and when to hang back. The truly successful in life, the tale seems to suggest, know how to practice self-control and restraint, tempering the human urge to vault into the unknown without a care in the world.
How can we apply these principles to our own lives, especially when it comes to moderation? It can be tricky when we live in a world that in many ways encourages epic and unsustainable levels of success. Surrounding us are stories and images of impossibly beautiful women, impossibly wealthy men, impossibly skillful scientists and creators, impossibly talented athletes and impossibly intelligent philosophers… We tell our children to dream big and lap up stories of rags to riches and the American Dream, telling us that an ordinary person can and even should aspire to the absolute peak of achievement.
Not only does the intensity of this ambition frequently backfire (how many of us actually achieve it?) but for the few that “succeed,” the intensity is often damaging. We don’t hear as often the stories of successful entrepreneurs who have sacrificed everything at the altar of business, including relationships, physical health, even their sanity. We forget about the stars after they burn out and retreat. Ours is a culture that encourages people to always be more, more, more.
The irony is that the more measured, mature (and to some, more boring!) approach actually has the better chance of lasting success and happiness. Fly, but not too close to the sun. Strive, develop and have goals—but temper these with realistic restraint. Daedalus never forgets what he is meant to be doing: escaping to safety. It’s this that is at the front of his mind, and not the wings themselves. Icarus’s downfall could also be a warning against narcissism and vanity.
By becoming enamored with his own ability to fly, Icarus forgets what the wings are actually there for. Thus, an author that finds sudden and spectacular fame may get a big head and start to view his art more as ego stroking for his vanity, and not about the writing itself.
To combat this sort of waywardness, we have to consistently be aware of and resist the temptation to go further than we should—or can. In all your goals and dreams, can you be honest with yourself and ask what proportion of the goal is simply for your own self-glorification? Have you ever tasted a little success and then ran with it, well beyond your limits? Self-discipline is difficult, and it’s most difficult to conjure up in the moments it’s most needed: those times when we feel seduced by the “big lights” of our own grand narcissism, the temptation to be a star in our own lives, to have a grand, thrilling life. This is, essentially, an immature state of mind, and one that the older Daedalus knows to ward against.
A young man could be raised up out of poverty by being selected for a sports scholarship. He is praised by others and soon starts to enjoy the attention, relishing in his own natural talents and pushing himself further. He achieves some success and almost becomes addicted to it. Why not expand? He could put his name to popular brands to make more money. He finds himself “living large” and going into debt to live in princely homes, indulging in expensive and unsustainable habits.
He stars in cameo roles on TV, his ego growing day by day. Some warn that he has forgotten his roots, and has lost touch with reality. He starts dabbling with politics, fancying himself as a businessman and philanthropist who wants to use his money to invest and start foundations and scholarships…
You already know the end to the story! However, you don’t have to actually live a dazzling tale like this to derive value from the Icarus story. Every time you ignore your own limits in order to strive for some lofty goal purely for your own ego, you are like Icarus, failing to heed the advice of moderation. A good technique is to constantly maintain awareness of your motivations, and your real goals. Icarus could have done well to remember what he was doing—escaping. Don’t forget your own goals. What are you truly after? Don’t get distracted from that, no matter what tempting offers come to sidetrack you.
Truly masterful and accomplished people know that the ego and naïve, youthful ambition can actually get in the way of achievement, rather than support it. Take yourself out of the equation and never forget to ask how you can be better, no matter how much success you feel you have and want to celebrate. Be moderate and measured.
Drop notions of godlike glory and fame—you may feel like a champion for pulling an all-nighter working on your brilliant new business idea, but you’d be better off living a more balanced lifestyle, channeling your excitement appropriately. The choice may be between one all-nighter followed by a crash and a completely failed project, or a week of patient, balanced workdays and a successful project.
“Pride comes before a fall” goes the old wisdom. Being too attached to the outcome of a goal can ironically undermine your performance. If you think of truly brilliant and accomplished people in this world (not the momentary celebrities, but the lifelong masters), their approach is slow-and-steady, and they work on their goal for the goal’s sake, not for their own glorification. They aren’t superstars, and they’re not failures, but rather they have found that perfectly moderate Goldilocks zone in the middle.