My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
The Triumph of Moderation
The golden mean as presented in the story of Icarus, ethos held by his father, represents a common sense view of what makes the good life: finding the just right amount, level, between too little or too much, the mean between 2 extremes.
Our parents or first caretakers are the ones to first impose their views on us about the good life, happiness. However, if it worked for them does it mean that it will work for us as well? Maybe, and in our Western democratic societies, we have the luxury to be able to check for ourselves, without too much harm, relatively. It is at about (pre) adolescence that we begin to question these 1st assumptions about the good life, about happiness and to go and find out for ourselves. Our experiments with more or less perceived ‘dangerous’ behaviors are mostly harmless: a little fright; sometimes, some may come close: a good lesson at least, but it shall pass. Is it a sign of a good, successful education or the product of chance or providence ? Difficult question. What is sure is that it is the fate of Icaruses to become Icaruses only a posteriori; i.e. when it’s too late, at least metaphorically.
We were, we are and, if society and culture continues to do its job as a regulator of passions, we shall continue to be a pretty reasonable bunch for the majority and the greatest good …with a little bit of luck. After all, the ethos of finding just right between two extremes presupposes that the choice of a correct way of living for oneself can be ascertained only by experimentation and by trial and error: highly tolerated, even encouraged by our mercantile societies!
Through ‘socialization’, we have a pretty good sense of what serves us and what does not. As regards happiness, society and culture in the western world, make sure to leave enough leeway for freedom and expression and give us the illusion of building our identity to live as we choose; while, at the same time, in the name of the greatest good, of course, brandish means of repression for anyone who dares trespassing a certain threshold: piercing, tattoos are ok; hacking is not ok, and with reason, big moneys, employment, families are involved.
So, society looks out to make sure that the ones that took experimenting outside of the allowed regulations, rebels, are few and far between. With mass media culture, Icaruses’s fates become even a potent means of regulation. Their pharmakos usually self-imposed (suicide?) is a deterrent for whomever gets too many ideas: the headlines for a day or two. Would you be ready to pay the price? However, if the rebel succeeds, he can’t be called an Icarus even though his ( there are plenty of female Icaruses too) feat was reckless, he might even become a hero… in spite of himself. Here again the mass media society is only too ready to exploit the icon.
Icarus’ Flaw: Rebellion or…Passion
One can attribute Icarus’s flaw to temperament: too much passion. Yes, temperament probably has something to do with an attraction to extremes. However, I suspect that all youth have a propensity to become Icaruses. For one, passionate youths tend to be idealistic and passionate harbingers of justice: they rebel against hypocrisy and treachery of all kinds. For second, they forget sometimes to evaluate their own capacity in comparison with the power of the family, the society, the times and whether ‘society’ is ready for the change they so over enthusiastically want to see in the world: they lack a view of the whole picture, they ignore their own limits and society’s limitations, as much a question of education to help them develop as temperament, no? The difference between the ones who will become full blown Icaruses and those who will survive depends on education and, in some cases, in the absence of a ‘good’ model, chance or providence but can that be controlled? If youths build enough trust in their educators and consequently the power that be, they may less likely desire to rebel. Let’s pray that these educators are ‘good’ people.
It is easy to understand why passionate souls rebel against an ethos of happiness found in moderation, between two extremes: the amount of control that is demanded is not appealing to them, to say the least… Neither is being scapegoated, though.
This essay can look like an appeal to moderation and common sense. Maybe: a dead hero is of no use to no one in our pragmatic times. There is more. Through the lens of history, and we don’t need to look very far in time, we may notice what happens to the revolutionist (rebel with a cause) be s/he the pop star gone ‘bourgeois’ or the political revolutionist, enduring, prevailing and even coming to power to do good or even gone tyrant in his turn : plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose.
So, if making a difference is all that matters for passionate youths, if their passion is dictated by conscience rather than an impossibility to delay gratification, for example; developing critical thinking, understanding how people are manipulated and learning from leaders, good or bad, by reading and pondering on their biographies, can have a sobering and salutary effect.
By questioning their rebelliousness, quietly, in light of their education, their models, their society; by learning to hide their light when tyrants (a metaphor) are in power until the time is ripe (kairos) to make a move; (for artists) by questioning the romantic notion that art and suffering are inseparable (the martyr archetype is not Prometheus); youths can find a balance that can both make them true to themselves and live! Maybe their innovative and revolutionary ideas will have, thus, time to develop and within time triumph over any tyrannical situation, provided they are not too addicted to extremes already.