Humanity’s Icarus Complex.

Firstly a brief tale of Icarus:

Icarus needed to escape from Crete, constructing wings to fly to safety, the wings were made of feathers and wax. He was warned not to fly to low lest his wings get wet and not too high lest the sun melts the wax. The young Icarus was thrilled by the flight, but did not heed the warnings; he flew too close to the sun, at which point the wax melted and he fell into the sea.

Psychology has termed a concept the ‘Icarus complex’ which centers on a person’s insatiable ambition and the need to achieve excess in all things. To the Greeks the Icarus complex was known as hubris, the excessive pride and ambition usually leading to the downfall of the hero in a classical tragedy. The Icarus complex psychologically becomes a pattern that humanity exhibits through burning ambition and exhibitionism, often understood through the subjective lens that depicts a precipitous fall whilst craving immortality. The psychological characterisation of Icarus before his fall becomes an inevitable connection between the ascensionist and the narcissist cynosure.  Finally when Icarus has attained an excessive height he falls as his waxen wings have been melted by the sun. Stanley Kubrick taking the Apollonian stance towards Icarus’ flight: “I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings”. Contrasting to Kubrick is Oscar Wilde and his stance that one should:

“Never regret thy fall,
O Icarus of the fearless flight
For the greatest tragedy of them all 
Is never to feel the burning light.”

The fall of Icarus becomes a cautionary tale to understand the value of moderation. Henry Murray first coined the term ‘Icarus complex’, later the complex has been associated to mania, whereby a person exhibits grandiosity or narcissistic inclinations and a fascination for heights. The tale of Icarus is to take the middle way, cautioning against the heedless pursuit of instant gratification. The concept of the Icarus complex reveals that when the gap between the idealised goal and reality is great, there is a greater chance that the endeavour will end in failure. Icarus represents the sin of hubris, which can be interpreted through biblical texts which state that pride goes before a fall.

Imagery of Icarus shows him smiling as he descends as his father watches in horror, the painting illustrates that life goes on, the plight of Icarus is irrelevant, the farmer will continue to plough and the ship captain will continue on his voyage without a care as Icarus drowns in the water. The image of Icarus conveys the joy in flight, the value in his triumph, no matter how short-lived. The complex associated with Icarus conveys the pendulous emotional polarities, mania is exhibited by flying too high, whereby he got “burned”, followed closely by his inevitable emotional crash that followed his flight of mania into depression – drowning in the ‘sea’ of depression.

It can be argued that mania can therefore be interpreted as a form of ambition, an excessive ambition that ends in disaster. Another interpretation of Icarus regards his pursuit of enlightenment by transcending the Earth, this suggests grandiosity. The story of Icarus also embodies every humans potential to have differing levels of manic-depressive states, our moods fluctuating. The psychoanalysis of Icarus suggests that he was in a manic state, dominated by hyperactivity and euphoria. Icarus’ state of mind remaining unchecked, progressively losing his sense of reality and oblivious to the potentially fatal risk associated with his flight. His grandiose belief and overestimation of his personal capabilities allow a never ending energy and illusion to drive him onwards.

“It is not a matter of indifference whether one calls something a ‘mania’ or a ‘god’. To serve a mania is detestable and undignified, but to serve a god is full of meaning.” C. G. Jung.

Fall_of_Icarus_-_Brueghel_-Museum_van_Buuren Joos_de_Momper_Icarus

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14 thoughts on “Humanity’s Icarus Complex.”

  1. Insightful and love the image. When thinking of Icarus I can’t help but think of Auden’s meditation on the painting “The Fall of Icarus” where the boy’s fall goes by unnoticed:

    About suffering they were never wrong,
    The Old Masters; how well, they understood
    Its human position; how it takes place
    While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
    How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
    For the miraculous birth, there always must be
    Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
    On a pond at the edge of the wood:
    They never forgot
    That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
    Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
    Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
    Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
    In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
    Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
    Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
    But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
    As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
    Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
    Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
    had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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    1. I like how oblivious and indifferent they are towards his fall from grace. I wonder if that indifference also has psychological implications, whereby it is a conscious choice to be oblivious to another’s plight. Psychologically we view the world through a day-to-day lens, there will always be another one, tragedy or no tragedy. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thank you.

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  2. They’re both right, of course: an ambitious test pilot is often the best inspiration for the engineer. Always taking the plane just up to the edge. It’s a real tragedy when they don’t listen to the warning “She’s breaking up, captain!”

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  3. I believe, and also without checking back believe you implied thus, that Icarus’ doomed flight – down to a single feather flutter – was wholly intentional. After all, though I admit ignorance of the story beyond your reference, he did escape. And then gained a refreshing dip in the Mediterranean, from which he may have continued his escape by sea. But again if there’s more to the story which further confirms tragedy then I can’t claim to know if it. Point is: one person’s fall as objectively observed, and another’s dismissal or ignorance of it, could simply be the “sufferer’s” deliberate plunge into changed but not necessarily negative circumstances.

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    1. I’m not sure if I implied that exactly, his journey of flight was intentional, I think it was his high ambition that led to his doomed flight instead of an increase in flight height. He was trying to cross the ocean using wings, I think that is extreme ambition and absurd. I see the story as a metaphor, making the actual flight irrelevant, people become blinded by ambition, not seeing that it can lead to disaster. The analysis’ I read said that he drowned, I found the whole story a bit disheartening, everyone went on with their life without a care about his flight and death. I guess his plunge could be interpreted as change of circumstances, but it does caution against reckless ambitious actions. Change is good though or maybe the change from such great ambition to such lows would allow people to appreciate the high emotion more. The psychology termed ‘Icarus complex’ looks at the negatives associated with too much ambition yet doesn’t see its possible positives. I’d like to see a positive in the story that he swam to safety, but haven’t come across anything yet. Thanks for your feedback 🙂

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      1. I need to read more about this Icarus fellow and complex. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. You also exposed me to a word I’ve never come across before. Cynosure. Great word. That’s what I love about the English language: it’s never done teaching. Thanks for that, too.

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