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The Ancient Story of Icarus Hauntingly Portrays Modern "Progress"

The following is excerpted from Delsol's excellent book, Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World.


Does anyone not know the story of Icarus?

To escape from the labyrinth he flies up on a pair of waxen wings but, in spite of the warnings he receives, comes too close to the sun. The wax melts, throwing him into the sea, where he drowns.

Now let us imagine that young Icarus manages to actually live through this ordeal: he falls back into the labyrinth, where he finds himself horribly bruised but still alive. And let us try to imagine what goes on in his head after this adventure. He has to go back to a normal life after having thought himself capable of attaining the sun, the supreme good.

How will he get over his disappointment?

Today we find ourselves in a similar situation. For the past two centuries, in order to escape from the labyrinth of mediocrity, we have believed ourselves capable of radically transforming man and society. Since Condorcet, the philosophy of Progress has promised to eliminate war, disease, and need, and various ideologies have announced a radiant future. We have just come to the realization—because of the revelation of human disasters in Eastern Europe, and in the West through the reappearance of poverty, illiteracy, war, and epidemics—that these hopes were finally in vain. We have fallen back to earth, where we must re-appropriate our human condition.

But along the way we have lost the keys of understanding, and we no longer recognize this mediocre world, nor do we know its meaning.

Western Man Is Icarus

Western man at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the descendant of Icarus. He wonders into what world he has fallen. It is as if someone has thrown him into a game without giving him the rules. When he asks around for instructions, he is invariably told that they have been lost. He is amazed that everyone is content to live in a world without meaning and without identity, where no one seems to know either why he lives or why he dies.

This type of existential questioning usually occurs in young minds, agile enough to ask the questions but too inexperienced to be able to answer them. We observe today, however, that adults and even the elderly are haunted by these dizzying questions. And this seems historically abnormal, especially since after the initial question, a whole series of other questions comes tumbling out.

Why has Progress failed to prevent the re-emergence of endemic poverty, AIDS, and medieval wars in the heart of Europe?

How is it that “correct” thinking has been imposed on us at the very moment we proclaim the sovereignty of the individual conscience?

Why do people seem so dissatisfied when so many, in the West at least, have acquired everything they reasonably need to be happy?

Why has equality produced such unexpected inequalities?

Or why are we now obliged to rehabilitate the market economy and individual profit, which so many of us despise?

Icarus was obviously guilty of a terrible error in judgment. But more than this, he is a character who has lost hope. Having, in spite of himself, tumbled back down into the labyrinth where the Minotaur is lurking, he sums up the spirit of the times.

We Are Shaped by Our Events

Events shape men, and so does the lack of events. The spirit of the times—the collection of ideas, beliefs, moods, and ways of life particular to an era—singularly reflects the actions and the passions of the recent past. In this sense, men are at once both the fathers and the sons of their common history.

An era of combat gives rise to magnanimity, enthusiasm, and sometimes madness. Tragic events allow heroism, of both the wholesome and unwholesome variety, to flourish. High hopes feed the sense of the sublime and call forth leaders of deep faith. Totalitarian society stifles the creative energies and the dynamism of human solidarity. A society of facile comfort produces narrow, petty people, not because, through some kind of spontaneous generation, they are born without character, but because, in the absence of conditions that would allow it to develop, their character remains latent. A society that fears greatness silences its expansive personalities. Incapable of eliminating them, it forgets or shunts them off to the margins. A very long and prosperous peace devoted entirely to material comfort engenders a superficial kind of happiness, the passion for routine, the fierce protection of small advantages. With no other hope than the perpetuation of the ordinary, a people gives itself colorless elites.

By what miracle could it be any different?

And so it is that the zeitgeist puts its signature on an era. Because we have just emerged from pointless epochs like the stylish revolt of the late ’60s, followed by years of glitz and money, the spiritual tone of our society is one of idle recreation. No wonder we consider it empty and superficial. There are, however, collective ventures that men undertake together that go unnamed because they do not fit into standard categories—they resonate within individual consciousness alone. Only a spiritual sociology could capture their essence.

Certain pessimistic observers sometimes wonder if what characterizes our era is not simply that it has no spirit whatsoever. But this would be unfair.

Contemporary man is not a being who stands in the crosswinds of history, passively reflecting their effects but incapable of forming any judgments about them. Nor is he the project-less man described by Roger Nimier as being “the enemy of humankind.” In fact, the drama of Western society may sometimes seem to lead to such conclusions, but I would like to demonstrate that this observation is superficial, and that our contemporary is rather a being who is actually suffering from an illness of which he is not even aware. He perceives the consequences of this illness as being disorders that suddenly and inexplicably appear in his personal and social life with all the treachery of unexplained misfortunes. He is more aware of evil in all its forms, but is less prepared to understand it, and therefore to fight against it, than perhaps any of his predecessors.

He is disappointed by discourses and theories, but is unlikely to accept any new theory or to find any suitable discourse. He has rejected, often justifiably, prophets, theologians, and thinkers, but is incapable of living without them. He seeks heroes at random but quickly perceives their lack of greatness. He is a misanthrope, yet one who is perfectly aware of the vanity of self-infatuation. In other words, modern man is not a zombie or a monster, but a drifter with an unhappy conscience, because, having a right to everything, he is fulfilled with nothing, and due to this dissatisfaction, he does not even know the name of what he is looking for.

Our time seems to be characterized by a feeling of being locked in, a feeling that typifies physical or moral suffering. It asks the question not of where to go, but of how to get out. This spiritual discomfort holds the promise of metamorphosis, but no one can yet imagine what will come of it all. Nevertheless, by its very existence, this discomfort is an essential element, and points in an obscure way to the yet unknown future. As is always the case in periods of transition, most of us have moved to the sidelines, waiting to latch onto some newly legitimized reference. After all, not all members of a society can be seekers of meaning. Religions, which are rooted in habit, naturally attract far greater followings than does the skeptical questioning that occurs in periods of change. When, for various reasons, religions, ideologies, and traditional values are tossed aside, one can be sure that a countless mass of people will deliberately opt to wait the period out.

Since this wait seems to be self-contented and impassive, some have concluded that our society is also brainless, which, I believe, would be to seriously misjudge it. Obviously a lively spirit is to be preferred to a dull one, or the act preferred to the potential, as Aristotle said. But periods of metamorphosis hold within themselves, albeit in a veiled fashion, the hope of meaning, which they nourish unawares. We find ourselves today not so much in a brainless society as in a slumbering society, that is, in a society waiting for certainties to appear. One might wonder how to distinguish this gestation, which is after all invisible, from the total “desertification” that diagnosticians of decadence describe with such complacency.

To affirm the existence of this virtuality might seem gratuitous; it might simply express the desire to see something that is not there. This expectant spirituality, however, is oozing out of every pore, and one must deny it outright in order not to see it for what it is. Of course we are dealing here with a hope, the hope of somehow going beyond the technical-minded and banausic world in which we live.

Is There Hope Outside of Progress? 

Hope, when it exists, already indicates a sort of pre-knowledge, even more poignant than actual knowledge, which tends to become too quickly self-satisfied. We find ourselves in a society that is waiting, but does not know what it is waiting for. The feeling of being locked in implies the dream of liberation and implies, too, the suspicion of something hidden beyond the confines of daily life, however adequate daily life is claimed to be.

How could Icarus not be overcome with an inconsolable nostalgia for his extinguished hope? How might he newly apprehend the world of the labyrinth that he thought he would forever be able to forget? This self re-appropriation is happening amidst unhappiness and incomprehension: unhappiness, because of the reappearance of properties of existence that signify a fallen hope; incomprehension, because the human condition no longer makes sense, since its foundational narratives, mythical or religious, have been eliminated.

The return from exile is being experienced within an unhappy conscience. Contemporary man wanted this exile, and intellectually at least, he liked it; he refuses to view himself as constrained by a condition he has not designed himself. At the same time, he finds himself in the grip of necessities that impose themselves on him from without, against his will, and he is caught in the trap of what he is no longer able to name or interpret.

The present phase, experienced as a transition towards something yet unknown, does not express the gaping hole of a missing conscience or the hesitations of a rambling conscience that does not know where it is headed. It expresses rather the tragedy of a conscience torn between the desire to conquer everything, the recently acquired certainty of the limits of this conquest, and the inability to understand these newly revealed limits.

The unhappy conscience here resembles the dove that Noah saw in the sky. It pointed to coming certainties but did so in a negative way, by pointing to insufficiency alone. It contains almost nothing more than its own admission of resignation: it considers itself deprived, but does not know of what. But it does latch onto the half-truths it manages to find in the desert. If our time is ill, its illness just might be an illness of hope, as certain symptoms seem to suggest. This is why we can now begin to vaguely make out, through the misdeeds of an era guided by a clouded conscience, the features of a familiar face, that of the prodigal son who has just experienced a flash of doubt. And this doubt changes everything. As yet, it has resulted in almost nothing, but it is a sign of things to come.

The challenge facing the contemporary mind could be compared to that of walking on a glacier. When the climbing party slips from a wind-carved ledge, it is useless to reach for a hand, the guide rope, or the pickaxe in the snow: everything flies away at once. It is a world with no fixed points. In high altitudes, the fixed point, the certainty of rock or ice, reassures the adventurers and makes the undertaking possible. In the cultural and social realm, meaning takes the place of fixed points. The man who has meaning firmly in his grasp can allow himself to wander and explore.

He who knows the why, as Nietzsche said, can tolerate any how.


Chantal Delsol is a French philosopher, essayist, and novelist. She is the author of Unjust Justice and The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century.  


Complement with Jessica Hooten Wilson on how we can learn from the "dinosaurs," Gracy Olmstead on the three unpopular virtues conservatives need most in 2018, and Donald Kagan on why we should study the history of Western civilization


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