Wednesday, July 06, 2016 3:14 PM
I’ve been watching the PBS series “The Greeks”—fascinating stuff, and it ties together the ancient history of Greeks with their present-day, and ours. In last night’s segment they touched upon the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, father and son. Daedalus was a legendary scientist and engineer, forced by King Minos (so the legend goes) to design and build the great maze which imprisoned the Minotaur and the monster’s victims—a group of young people sent annually from the other islands of King Minos’s reign, to be sacrificed to the Minotaur in tribute to the king.
Daedalus didn’t care for his bloodthirsty, despotic boss—neither was he too pleased with being a captive employee—Minos had forbidden him to leave. So Daedalus invented marvelous wings made of wax and feathers, etc. He intended for himself and his son, Icarus, to escape the evil king by flying away to another island. He warned his son, before take-off, that the wings would get wet and fall apart if he flew too low, too close to the sea—and melt and collapse if he flew too high, too close to the sun.
Icarus’s flight is a popular tale—he ignores his father’s advice and is drawn towards the Sun, flying too high. His wings melt and his father, Daedalus’, joy at successfully reaching a free island—is dashed by his grief at watching his son plunge into the sea and die. Everyone has seen a picture or painting of this iconic scene—in my art-study days, I even drew or painted a few myself.
PBS’s “The Greeks” makes a connection between the fall of Golden Age Greece and Icarus—they, like most, take from this myth the lesson of Hubris—an overweening pride. I can’t argue with their interpretation of Ancient Greece’s fall—they got rich off the backs of their over-taxed protectorates—transforming the powerful unity of democracy into an elite that abused their power. They did indeed forget what it was that made them great to begin with. And one of their over-taxed satellites was Sparta—you know you’ve gotten too big for your britches when you go and make Sparta mad.
But Icarus I see quite differently. To me, the story of Icarus is the story of wisdom, learning, and maturity creating sophisticated mechanisms that can’t be trusted in the hands of the young and foolish. Daedalus invents a machine—a machine that, according to legend, he was able to use as it was meant to be used. But in sharing it with his son, he put a power that required responsibility into the hands of the irresponsible. It is, in a way, the story of modern man.
No genius ever invented the next big thing and thought to himself or herself, ‘what will the dumbest kid in the world do with this?’ No, they just invent new things, find new powers—and present them to the human race as a whole. But our technology does eventually end up in the hands of the dumbest among us—with predictable results. To me the story of Icarus teaches us that a wise man can invent more than a foolish man can be trusted with.