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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #318: Icarus

Listen to your father.

The story of Icarus is one of the most painful in all of Greek mythology. We all know the basics: Daedalus, the genius inventor, seeks to flee his enslavement by King Mos of Crete, and so he crafts artificial wings with which he and his son Icarus can fly to freedom. Daedalus is wise as well as inventive, and he issues stern warnings to the boy to keep to the middle ground. To fly too low is to expose the delicate wings to the dangerous spray of the sea, but to fly too high is to risk the sun's warmth melting the wax that holds the contraptions together. The middle road, he cautions, is safest and surest. Icarus, of course, seduced by the rapture of flight, soars too high, his wings come apart, and he plummets to his watery death. Daedalus, unable to save him, carries on alone.

There are layers and layers, as with so many old myths. The father trying to counsel his son to the least dangerous paths while the son turns a deaf ear, courting peril with the arrogance and perceived invulnerability of youth. The allegory of the artificial versus the natural, the precarious fragility of humanity's constructs in the face of climactic forces. But the theme that has always stuck with me, and to which I find my mind turning again and again recently, is this admonition to seek the middle path, to neither sink too low nor raise too high. It seems at odds with the Greek worship of excellence, of striving, a nod to incrementalism in a culture that professed to seek the ideal. In my younger days, I had great difficulty in reconciling the apparently contradictory concepts.

As I've grown older, I've come to embrace a more nuanced interpretation of the Icarus tale, and the lens it presents for understanding Hellenic perfectionism. It seems to me that the value is not in the height itself - in the glory, the majesty, the proximity to the regal sun - nor is it in the depths, the debasement, the vulgarity, the ugliness. There is danger in both extremes, in smug self-righteousness as much as dehumanization of our opponents. The high road can lead to arrogance and detachment; the low road to hatred and anger. But here's the key: neither gets us where we're headed. Neither gets us to the shore, to safety, to freedom.

Daedalus was right. There may be momentary rapture in soaring to the heights, and apparent comfort in hugging the lower climes. But both will consume us, and destroy us if we stray too far from the track. The excellence comes in achieving our goal, not in how glorious the journey.

Stay on target.

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