Our Daedalian Dystopia

In contemporary society, we are familiar enough with the amoral/immoral technocrat, the inventor who is so carried away with the thrill of creation that they do not consider the consequences of engineering it in the first place. The character type dates back to antiquity in the form of Daedalus. While early-level myth textbooks may simply introduce him as the stock type of the inventor, it serves to note that he is the only character in myth imbued with the precise type of scientific and engineering intelligence which he has. The other candidate for smartest mortal in Greek myth would in the estimation of most people likely be Odysseus, but his is the intelligence of a sophisticated grifter, and is best captured in that description of the Grinch:

“But do you know, that old Grinch was so smart and so slick, that he thought up a lie and he thought it up quick.”

Daedalus was responsible for several inventions throughout the mythic career which can be cobbled together through various sources, but he is primarily known for a trinity of tricks conceived on the island of Crete: 1.) the cow in which Pasiphae was able to mate with the bull; 2.) the Labyrinth; and 3.) the wings which he and Icarus used to escape Crete. Each of these three inventions is either an instrument of cruelty or something done which subverts natural law and produces unforeseen suffering.

“Pasiphae, being desirous of the bull, enlisted as her coadjutor the inventor Daedalus, who had fled from Athens on the charge of murder[i]. He fashioned a wooden bull upon wheels, and having skinned a cow, he wrapped the wooden contraption inside it, and setting it into the meadow where the bull was accustomed to eat, he put Pasiphae inside it. The bull came along and had sex with it as though it were a real cow. Pasiphae then gave birth to Asterius, who was called the Minotaur. He had the head of a bull, and the rest was the form of a man.”

ἡ δὲ ἐρασθεῖσα τοῦ ταύρου συνεργὸν λαμβάνει Δαίδαλον, ὃς ἦν ἀρχιτέκτων, πεφευγὼς ἐξ ᾿Αθηνῶν ἐπὶ φόνῳ. οὗτος ξυλίνην βοῦν ἐπὶ τροχῶν κατασκευάσας, καὶ ταύτην † βαλὼν κοιλάνας ἔνδοθεν, ἐκδείρας τε βοῦν τὴν δορὰν περιέρραψε, καὶ θεὶς ἐν ᾧπερ εἴθιστο ὁ ταῦρος λειμῶνι βόσκεσθαι, τὴν Πασιφάην ἐνεβίβασεν. ἐλθὼν δὲ ὁ ταῦρος ὡς ἀληθινῇ βοῒ συνῆλθεν. ἡ δὲ ᾿Αστέριον ἐγέννησε τὸν κληθέντα Μινώταυρον. οὗτος εἶχε ταύρου πρόσωπον, τὰ δὲ λοιπὰ ἀνδρός· [Apollodorus 3.11]

Apollodorus is not the most detailed source for such important narrative considerations as internal psychology, but it is not a stretch to suppose that the story would mention any reluctance or objections proferred by Daedalus. Instead, we have the inventor who has literally helped to create a monster [subversion of natural law], and immediately afterward imprisons it in the Labyrinth [inconsiderate cruelty]. We tend to take these events for granted as a part of the mythic landscape which we grow up with, but a sensitive reading of the bare narrative details which we have for this story is enough to develop a sense of profound pathos. As I noted in a previous post, Spencer Krug’s latest album as Moonface perfectly encapsulates this suffering and the human agency which created it ex nihilo:

But you were not totally out of your mind
You still had the venom within you
To go find your friend the inventor
And maybe he loved you or he loved your eyes
He still had the venom within him
To help you step into his woodwork

One may argue about the morality of actions such as the blinding of Polyphemus, but it is clear that the Minotaur, in being created by the technologist zeal of Daedalus, imprisoned in the Labyrinth, and ultimately slain by a man who used a thread of Daedalus’ contrivance to escape is fundamentally different, as a victim, from Polyphemus. All of his suffering and even his very existence can be traced to the callous indifference of antiquity’s premiere technocrat.

When he and his son are imprisoned in the Labyrinth, Daedalus invents a set of wings [subversion of natural law and unintended disaster] which will take him and Icarus from Crete. Traditionally, the story of Icarus’ death is read as one of old-fashioned moralizing: maintain the middle ground, nothing in excess, don’t aim too high, etc. But Daedalus’ injunctions to Icarus can remind one of the rather unconvincing claim in opening of the Odyssey, where we learn that “he did not save his companions though he tried.” ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς ἑτάρους ἐρρύσατο, ἱέμενός περ· [Odyssey 1.6] Daedalus gives Icarus the tool, but most audiences absolve him of moral culpability for Icarus’ death on the basis of the fact that Daedalus warned his son about the dangers of flying too high. Yet, surely Daedalus knew something of his son’s nature, and could have predicted that his impetuosity would require a firmer check than old fashioned sermonizing. This situation is paralleled in our own time by those who have developed platforms and tools for human use, and have denied any moral culpability for the damage which they have done to society on that very basis – that they are simply platforms.

We do not know enough of Daedalus’ motivations and inner psychic state to make firm pronouncements here, but it is not impossible that the same attitude lay behind his creation of the wooden cow and the Labyrinth – he simply supplied the tools, but was not implicated in any of the moral decisions concerning how those tools were used.

It has been suggested that the chief problems which have confronted humanity since the early part of the 20th century can be traced to the fact that technological development has far outpaced our moral and social development. Despite the many successful progressive revolutions in moral thinking in the past two centuries, none of them have lead to an exponential increase in moral progress, which is often actively impeded by periods of violent reaction. And so, though we inhabit a world which would be, in physical and technological terms, wholly inconceivable in antiquity, we nevertheless find that moral and social problems take roughly the same form (with some improvements and refinements) as they did more than 2,000 years ago. In some sense, this is what makes the study of the humanities so relevant and indeed practically useful today, but perhaps we should wish that we lived in a world in which they were no longer relevant.

[i] It should be noted that Daedalus killed his nephew for being a better inventor than he was. This calls to mind the line in the satire Silicon Valley: “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else is making the world a better place better than we are.”

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