The Forgotten Warning to Icarus: Don't Fly Too Low

Daedalus was smart: he could make clever things. When he was trappen in the labyrinth on Crete with his son, Icarus, he made a set of wings that each could use to escape.

Because the wings were held together with wax, Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun: the sun would melt the wax, the wings would come apart, and Icarus would plummet to his death (which is what happened).

The Lessons of Icarus

Don't fly too close to the sun. Don't go too high. Don't go beyond your limit.

Those are the lessons of Icarus — the lessons of too much & too high — the lessons that we tend to think of when we think of Icarus.

But Seth Godin, in his book The Icarus Deception, says there's another warning that Daedalus gave Icarus, one that we tend to forget is part of the story: don't fly too low.

If Icarus would have flown too low, the moist air from the sea could have loosened the wax of the wings, just as much as the sun's heat. 

Nimis Audax — Too Daring — Audacity

The Icarus story gets told in Orberg's magnificent Latin text book, Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata. In that telling, Daedalus says to Icarus before take-off:

"Parati sumus ad volandum," inquit, "sed prius hoc te moneo: vola post me in medio aere inter caelum et terram, nam si in infimo aere prope mare volabis, pennae umidae fient, sin volabis in summo aere prope caelum, ignis solis ceram molliet atque pennas uret."
"Noli nimis audax esse in volando!"

I quote that at length (1) because I like Latin and (2) because it uses the word audax in that last sentence: Don't be too daring in your flying!

Audax is the word that gives us our word audacity.

Audacity is considered a bad thing, a vice: too daring, too forward, too bold. Oh, the audacity of that man!

The opposite of audacity is another vice, one that corresponds to the don't-fly-too-low warning: pusillanimity.

The Opposite of Audacity: Pusillanimity

St. Thomas discusses the vice of pusillanimity in the Summa:

Now just as presumption makes a man exceed what is proportionate to his power, by striving to do more than he can, so pusillanimity makes a man fall short of what is proportionate to his power, by refusing to tend to that which is commensurate thereto.
Wherefore as presumption is a sin, so is pusillanimity.
Hence it is that the servant who buried in the earth the money he had received from his master, and did not trade with it through fainthearted fear, was punished by his master (Matthew 25; Luke 19).

Godin's book — The Icarus Deception — is about overcoming your fainthearted fear in the new "connection economy." Be generous; give from your talents.

Don't fly too high. But don't let pusillanimity stop you from doing some soaring.