The ancient Greek myth of the flight of Icarus brings with it hard lessons even in modern times. If you already know this story, feel free to skip down to the bottom to view my takeaways on what we can glean from it. If you don’t this story, below is a short synopsis on what happens in the myth.
Icarus and his father, Daedalus, were trapped on the island of Crete in a tall tower. Daedalus, a master craftsman, devised a plan for himself and Icarus to escape by flight. Daedalus constructs wings made of feathers and wax, and trains himself how to fly. Before their planned escape, Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too high to be scorched by the sun, nor too low to have his wings dampened by the sea, for it was only that only following his own flight path in the middle of the horizon that their escape and ensuing salvation would be attained. Icarus fails to heed his father’s warning, and in the excitement of his first flight, he flies too closely to the sun. His wings melt, and he drowns in what is now known to be the Icarian Sea.
The story of Icarus seems to tell us that our desire to ascend, though it may be overwhelming, will end in ultimate destruction, despite having every opportunity to fly safely. Though Icarus was imprisoned for many years of his life, it was not prison that took his life from him; it was actually the burden of responsibility that led him to a final demise. There are two key moral lessons to learn from Icarus: that our attempts to become God lead to catastrophic failure and that the “middle road” is paradoxically the highest mode of being for man.
God in Flight
The first takeaway seems to be that Icarus craved a higher mode of being, evidenced by his flying too close to the Sun. The Sun very obviously has many ancient meanings, but in this story it seems to represent a greater point of view. With this greater point of view comes more knowledge than a Man can bear, for only God can possess such a point of view and knowledge. Despite the gift of the wings, his only chance for salvation, the responsibility that came with flight proved to be too much for him. Icarus teaches us that Man must know his place in the horizon. Thus we can learn from Icarus that salvation is a problem not only of altitude but also of trajectory. Man is designed to fly in the middle of the horizon.
The Middle Road
Daedalus tells Icarus to follow his flight path through the middle of the horizon; not too close to the sun and not too close to the sea. Remember, it was only if Icarus flew in the middle of the horizon that he would reach deliverance. This seems to tell us that our flight path should be fine-tuned to a certain balance that keeps Man in between the god-like region of the sun and the lower godless region of the sea. This middle flight path represents the tensions of the human experience: the balance between pleasure and pain, independence and dependence, grace and holiness, etc. Perhaps the middle flight path represents any and every spectrum of opposites. We can learn from the middle flight path that the redeemed human life is a disciplined and intentional choice to live below God but above uninspired Nature. As such, we can say that any imbalance in our flight pattern is a veering towards either destination that we do not truly belong to; however, as Icarus learned, any trajectory besides the middle of the horizon will eventually lead us to the Sea.
Daedalus: Daedalus, a master craftsman and Icarus’ father, is understood to represent wisdom in our lives. He represents competence, which is to know what to do.
Icarus: Icarus obviously represents the normal Man. As such, he must have both the chance for freedom and the wisdom to follow his father’s flight path of salvation.
The Wings: This is a tricky one, but I believe the Wing represent a fighting chance of salvation. They are not salvation itself because salvation comes only by following the middle of the horizon. However, without the wings, Icarus stays imprisoned.
The Sun: Represents the highest mode of being, a fully aware, high visibility and high resolution existence. This is how most people understand God to be like.
The Sea: Serves as a low resolution mode of being: depression, darkness, and the failure to be God. One might say that the sea is unredeemed Nature.
The flight path: This is perhaps the most important symbol in the story because it is the only one that acts as a standard to follow. Daedalus’ flight path in the middle of the horizon is clearly the right way to live. For Christians, the right way to live can be found in following Jesus (John 8:12) which is not all that different from the middle road.