Wings of wax

Print edition : December 14, 2012

(From The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris)

"It comes from the ancient Greeks, who defined it as insolence toward the gods. In Aeschylus' play Agamemnon, the great warrior, fresh from his triumph at Troy, strides upon a lush purple robe, even though he knows that purple symbolises divine power. Angered, the gods withdraw their protection, and Agamemnon's vengeful wife hacks him to death in the bath. In another Aeschylus drama, The Persians, a young king, Xerxes, is tormented by feelings of inferiority, constantly reminded that Darius's empire `was won at spear point/ while he (Xerxes) not half the man/ secretly played toy spears at home/ and added nothing/ to inherited prosperity'. Determined to surpass his father's accomplishments and emboldened by Persia's military might, he traverses the holy Bosporus a body of water humans are not supposed to cross. Once again the gods retract their favour, and Persia's enemies massacre Xerxes' forces. Upon learning the news, Darius's spirit rises from the grave to bemoan `my son in his ignorance/his reckless youth. Mere man that he is/he thought, but not on good advice/he'd overrule all gods.'

"In Greek literature, people sometimes create their own hubris: Like Agamemnon, they win epic triumphs and thus decide they are more than human. And sometimes, like Xerxes they inherit their hubris from the triumphs of generations past. Take the legend of Icarus. Father and son are trapped on the island of Crete. But Daedalus, a resourceful man, builds wings of feathers and wax. Don't fly too low, he cautions his son, a light-hearted youth named Icarus, or too high: `Keep to a middle range if you can and don't try to show off.' At first, Icarus-heeding his father's warning-flies cautiously. But in his exhilaration, he gradually forgets Daedalus's words. As the Roman poet Ovid recounts the story, `the youngster's initial fears have been mostly calmed. His confidence now has developed. He wonders what he can do with this splendid toy, what limits there are to his father's invention. He flaps his wings and rises higher-but nothing bad happens. He figures he still has plenty of margin and rises higher still.' Watching from earth, observers assume that this winged creature must be a god. `It's exciting, wonderful fun, as he soars and wheels, but he doesn't notice the wax of his wings is melting and feathers are falling out.' He has flown too near the sun. The wings crumble, revealing him to be mortal after all. And he plunges to his death into the sea."

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