The Middle Way: The Story of Icarus & Daedalus

The story of Icarus

Daedalus warned Icarus of the perils of flying too close to the sun, but also of flying too close to the sea.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Most of us know the story of Theseus where he fought the Minotaur in the Labyrinth of Crete. But the other story of the Labyrinth is the story of Daedalus. Commonly, this is referred to as the myth of Icarus. Daedalus is a story of wisdom and balance—a tale of success. Icarus is a story of caution, how extremes lead to failure.

The Myth of Icarus

King Minos of Crete wants to imprison his stepson, the Minotaur. The King tasks Daedalus with building the right prison. Thus Daedalus, the wise and masterful inventor, builds the Labyrinth. However, the Athenian hero Theseus eventually defeats the Minotaur. With a spool of thread given to him by the daughter of King Minos, Princess Ariadne, Theseus escapes the Labyrinth. This special spool was given to the Princess by Daedalus. For this, King Minos imprisons Daedalus and his son Icarus inside the Labyrinth.

Cleverness and overcoming obstacles were natural qualities for Daedalus. He was the greatest inventor of his day, with a knack for problem-solving. In the Labyrinth, Daedalus fashions two pairs of wings, one for himself and one for his son. The story we all know is that Icarus, being too passionate and ambitious, ignores his father's warning and flies too close to the sun—burning his wings and drowning in what is now the Icarian Sea. Yet that's only half the story.

Daedalus warned Icarus of the perils of flying too close to the sun, but also of flying too close to the sea. Too high and the sun would melt his wings. Too low and the moisture of the sea would not only weigh down his wings, but the salty mist would tear them apart. Flying low looks deceivingly safe but is the closest path to drowning.

To test the new wings, Daedalus takes flight before Icarus. Knowing he would not be able to watch his son, he told Icarus to follow his path closely. Only in a balanced flight would he find safety. Icarus didn't die by being burned up by the sun, he died from drowning. It is the fall that gets us, whether we are high or low. Icarus fell from a lack of patience and discipline.

Several versions of this story exist. One where Icarus drowns from flying too low. Another where Daedalus and Icarus escape Crete by boat—taking the "low road." To outrace his pursuers, Daedalus invents the first sail. In this pursuit, Icarus falls overboard and drowns. Failure is like breaking a leg, there is no single path to get there. We avoid physical activity, thinking we are now safe, only to break our leg while stepping off a curb because we are too weak. This is the moral we miss, the moral Daedalus tried to impart to his son: Avoiding risk looks safe but can be just as deadly as too much risk. Inversely, too much ambition looks risky, yet too little ambition can be just as detrimental. Fly with low ambition and avoid the risk of burning up in the sun, giving the illusion you are safe from falling. Fly with high ambition and create greater distance from the water, giving yourself the illusion that you are somehow safe from drowning. This illusion of safety creates more harm; we see no need for caution. Therefore we no longer manage risk because we believe there are no risks. If you were aware of the risks, like Daedalus, you would know to fly right down the middle. You can believe Icarus flew high because he was too ambitious, but if you think about it another way, he flew too high because he was afraid of the sea. We all have that fear, of being a nobody. If Icarus were to fly too low, we might conclude he lacked ambition, but in reality he fears the higher fall. What if I try and I don't make it? Yet these are all variations of the same story, perfectionism and the fear of failure. Sometimes ambition, or the lack thereof, is misguided fear. Sometimes we don't know what we want, we only know what we don't want. Daedalus wanted to escape the Labyrinth with his son. But what did Icarus want? Rather than reason and purpose, we often make decisions automatically because our free will is overridden by emotion and fear.

There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask, “What if I fall?”
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?
— Erin Hanson

Depending on the times, one version of this story becomes more popular than the other. Whatever is the current spirit, aim low or aim high. But the spirit is never of balance, to hedge your bets and be cautious of extremes. An overprotective parent might tell his or her child to stay within boundaries of comfort, to aim low. A freewheeling parent might tell his or her child to do anything they want, to always be happy. Yet the data consistently shows, low or high, both paths lead to the same ends, the sense of drowning. Yet both opinions believe theirs is the right one, no matter how much we suffer, rather than meeting in the middle and not having to cycle back and forth repeating the same mistakes in alternating cycles. (In politics, this is known as the Horseshoe theory, that extreme views on either side of the political spectrum horseshoe out and end up being the same, using the same logic, and having the same pitfalls. They are both right when they call each other hypocrites, because they both contradict themselves in the same ways. This is why it's so obvious to the other and easy to spot. It's familiar. Thus we cycle: reaction to reaction, backlash to backlash.)

In Praise of Daedalus

But the real hero archetype we must follow is Daedalus, not Icarus. Daedalus survives. By combining creativity with restraint. Even if Daedalus were to fall into the ocean, he would devise a plan and stick with it until he was safely back on land. The middle path takes the most creativity and wisdom (and discipline not to veer off course). Absolutes are easy because they are cartoonish; even a fool can understand it, which makes it easier to recruit fools into extremism. Nuance takes granular thinking.

If you love cookies, it's easier to eat several or none at all, then it is to stop at one. Moderation takes control. What's harder to do, draw a squiggly line or a straight line? A line that veers up or down or a line down the middle? But the most direct path from A to B is a straight line. This is the story of Daedalus. In Buddhism, this known as the Middle Way. In ancient Rome, this was Stoicism. In China, this is Taoism. Discipline was a cardinal virtue in the classical world. In contemporary society, however, discipline is rarely honored. Yet in many ways, it is still one of the only virtues worth honoring.

Afterword

Minos chased Daedalus to what is now Sicily. This is where Daedalus got his revenge on Minos, drowning him in boiling water. Too much ambition kills. But so does a lack of ambition. You need enough to be engaged but not too much that you burn out. And in this sweet spot is where you'll experience the most growth.

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