Hubris and the folly of youth

“The deepest definition of youth is life as yet untouched by tragedy”  — Alfred North Whitehead

LONG ago in the island of Crete, there lived a man named Daedalus, who was famed for his skills as an inventor. He worked for King Minos. Foremost among his many achievements was building the labyrinth in which the king kept the Minotaur, a fearsome, legendary beast who was half-man and half-bull that fed on human flesh. It was said that anyone who went into the labyrinth never came out of it again because of its complex, undecipherable winding walls and corridors.

Daedalus was brilliant and this was a problem for the king. Although Daedalus had been giving the king great and loyal service all his life, Minos was deeply insecure and feared that Daedalus who was wise, celebrated and ingenious would, one day challenge him to become king. As a preemptive move, Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son, Icarus in a prison tower. The king underestimated Daedalus, for one dark night, father and son escaped from their prison tower. They found out however that it was well nigh impossible to escape the island with the paranoid King Minos sending out an all points bulletin to his mindless minions. Minos’ soldiers carefully searched every boat that left the island.

Father and son took cover in a remote cave along the shore hidden from the watchful eyes of Minos’ soldiers while Daedalus figured out a way to escape. Watching the seagulls for hours soaring and diving for food on the shore, Daedalus was struck with the idea of flight as an escape route. He caught one bird and studied the structure and form of its wings and after careful thought, decided to copy how a wing is made. He instructed Icarus to catch seagulls and pluck their feathers. When there were enough feathers, he sewed them together and used melted wax to bind the feathers on a wooden framework. He created the contraption so skillfully that they looked like a giant replica of a bird’s wings. He customized two pairs of wings for himself and for his son, careful to take each of their individual body weights into consideration.

But having wings was one thing, knowing how to use those wings to fly was another. So Daedalus strapped his wings and still taking his cue from the seagulls on how to soar, swoop, dive and glide, he proceeded to learn how to fly so that the wings felt like a seamless part of his arms and his body. He studied wind currents, the waters of the sea and the heat of the sun. Having gained the skill, he proceeded to teach his son patiently. At first, Icarus stumbled and fell and when he got past the first few fumbles, the youth learned quickly, his lithe, svelte form seemingly destined for flight. He learned to fly like a bird, swooping and diving, gliding and circling about, looking down below at the blue waters and their island prison, now a mere speck from above, and frolicking about overhead, chasing the seagulls and rolling in the clouds. Freedom was a heady drink. Icarus felt complete elation, knew the incredible lightness of being and tasted the sweet freedom of flight.

Then came the day when Daedalus and Icarus were to fly out of Crete. The sun was up, and the wind was mild and Daedalus decided it was an auspicious day to make the great escape. Daedalus sat his son down and looked him in the eyes for serious pre-flight instructions knowing that once in the air, there would be little chance for communication. “Pay attention, Icarus. Stick close behind me and watch your altitude. Fly too low and the sea with its moisture will make your wings too heavy. Fly too high and the heat of the sun will melt the wax in your wings. Take heed and stay close.” Icarus nodded agreement but he was far too excited and his mind was already in the sky.

Daedalus took off flapping his wings faster and faster to get vertical lift-off and escape gravity. Icarus followed suit and took off shortly after. As they flew, the people on the ground in Crete watched in amazement wondering whether the winged creatures are the gods themselves flying.

Icarus trailed his father closely at first, following his flight pattern and struggling to take heed of his father’s admonitions. But feeling an overwhelming sense of growing power in his ability to fly, reveling in his freedom and giving in to his impetuous, youthful nature, Icarus deviated a little at first, taking little swoops and side trips and catching up with his father who was intently flying on a steady speed and altitude. As Icarus swooped, dived and indulged frivolously in his aerial acrobatics, Icarus soon forgot his father’s words and flew higher and higher towards the noonday sun. Then the wax in his wings melted, the wooden framework broke apart and the feathers blew away. Wingless and panicking, Icarus plunged headlong like deadweight into the blue waters. Daedalus swooped down in hot pursuit to save his son but it was much too late. All he saw were a few feathers floating on the surface.

Daedalus, with a heavy heart at the tragic loss of his beloved Icarus, managed to fly to Sicily. In his grief, Daedalus retired his wings, lost his love for life and never flew again.

Over and over again through the generations, we see this tendency of some of the young ones to “forget” the things they have been taught and allow hubris and folly to rule. Some throw away everything they have learned and painstakingly worked for in one impetuous decision or action. It is as if their overwhelming sense of freedom, newly-attained independence and sense of power goads them to “fly close to the sun.”

Humility gets torpedoed and overweening pride rules. They feel they no longer need guidance from anyone. Sometimes a good scare or a tiny thorn of bad experience can be humbling and worth more than a lifetime of warnings, advice and admonitions to nudge prideful youth back to reality and on the straight and narrow.

While we may think that this tendency of the youth today is unique to our times, we only have to look back several thousand years to know that the scenario may have changed, the cast of characters in every generation in every nation may be different, but the predilection for hubris and folly in some of the youth remains the same.

We need to be reminded too that as adults, we were once just as young and just as foolish, perhaps even more so. But we were lucky and got a pass because life was magnanimous enough to let us get past this harrowing stage with barely a scratch and live long enough to see the cycle repeated in our children.

And on and on until the sun dies, the cycle goes.


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Nota Bene: Monette Adeva Maglaya is SVP of Asian Journal Publications, Inc. To send comments, e-mail

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