The first part of the track is steep, and one that my fresh horses at dawn can hardly climb. In mid-heaven it is highest, where to look down on earth and sea often alarms even me, and makes my heart tremble with awesome fear. The last part of the track is downwards and needs sure control. Then even Tethys herself, who receives me in her submissive waves, is accustomed to fear that I might dive headlong…You will not easily rule those proud horses, breathing out through mouth and nostrils the fires burning in their chests. They scarcely tolerate my control when their fierce spirits are hot, and their necks resist the reins. Beware my boy, that I am not the source of a gift fatal to you, while something can still be done to set right your request! –Ovid, Metamorphoses
The above excerpt is from Ovid’s wonderful classic about Greek mythology, perhaps one of my favorite sources for metaphors and parables of character outside the Scripture. One of the things I have noted the more trips around the sun I make is the inability of the English language to truly capture and quantify the range of emotions humans exhibit. Ovid tells the story of Phaethon, the son of Helios (the sun god) which represents one of the more well known parables about hubris. Contrary to the story of Icharus however, Phaethon was motivated by more than just a desire to excel or an overestimation of his own abilities. Insecure about his own position as a demigod and challenged by his friends, he sought assurances from his father Helios. Helios made the fatal error of granting Phaethon whatever wish he wanted, and one can imagine a Marlon Brando figure drinking campari or Disaronno grudgingly granting his son’s request. Without the ability and skill to do so, Phaethon took Helios’ chariot (the sun) and proceeded to just about kill life on earth by losing control of it. Zeus steps in to handle the disaster and strikes Phaethon with a lightning bold, killing him and bringing the whole goat rope to an end.
The story is interesting because despite the focus on Phaethon by Ovid, there are several more layers to the story that echo in life. The most obvious of lessons is intersection of hubris, incompetence and colossal insecurity to result in disaster. The more subtle lesson however is that of the enabler, Helios. Helios knew exactly how difficult it is to do his job, describing in agonizing detail to his son how perilous it is. Yet at the end of this he relents and proceeds to allow this disaster to run its course. The alleged results of this ill-fated experiment resulted in the Sahara desert and drying various rivers up. One can imagine the death toll from such catastrophic ‘global warming.’ The resolution of the matter happens when Zeus steps in and takes corrective action, which today would be seen as extreme, but the Greeks saw as fitting punishment for one who aspires to be that which he is not. We all know Phaethons, but disaster strikes when people become willing accomplices to idiocy and enablers like Helios.
The success of a community, organization and even a family unit is not the elimination of those too incompetent, arrogant or ignorant to even know they posses such character traits. Rather, it is those who are not those things to recognize the consequences of indulging such an individual. Whether because of senility, magnanimity or apathy, choosing to ignore such a thing, let alone promote it, is a dereliction of duty. I reserve the highest scorn not for those too stupid to know better, but those who do and passively allow such a person to wreak havoc. The immediate gratification of not being the ‘bad guy’ in a given situation ignores the long-term affects an incompetent egomaniac can have on your friends, allies, employees and family. In my professional life the Helios’ are what keep me up at night, those competent people who suffer a catastrophic lapse in judgment, often times leading to their own firing in addition to whatever Phaethon-esque character they allowed to drive the project. In my world, good intentions and $3.50 will get you a cup of coffee. You are judged by your results and the part you played in getting those results.
Ovid, or the unknown Greek who came up with the original tale, brilliantly described human nature’s tendency to mimic Newton’s 1st law of motion. Helios was nowhere to be found while Phaethon was busy torching the planet, and intervention arrived only after a crisis had happened and half a continent was on fire. Zeus steps in and deals out harsh punishment to the offender, resulting in Phaethon perhaps being the first human to ever reach terminal velocity. In our weak and effeminate society, often the Zeus of the situation instantly becomes the ‘bad guy,’ the ‘____-ist’ or ‘____-phobe’ because the rubric we use to judge actions is largely based on emotion. Even within the liberty movement has this attitude pervaded the discussion, far too many are content to sit back and criticize while declining to do much else except throw stones at their betters.
Ultimately, the real moral of Ovid’s story is not one of hubris by a fool. It is the enabling of fools by those who know better, resulting in disaster. Oft times resulting in harsh measures having to be meted out to correct the situation. The Phaethon’s of the world are not going to be reasoned out of their ignorance and pride. Perhaps if they survive a sufficiently jarring encounter with reality, but often not even then. What will derail the liberty community, and whatever other communities are important in your life, is either being or tolerating those who enable such bad actors and allow them to claw their way to the levers of power. Whatever the emotional satisfaction, you will regret it. Helios knew the perils, knew the sheer ineptitude and inadequacy of his son and ignored the logical result of such a decision. The Phaethons, Icarus’, Custers and Bernies don’t scare me, it is the myriad of enablers behind such people. The Phaethons will read this and not understand a word, it is simply who they are. I’m speaking to the Helios’ of the liberty movement that suffer fools far too willingly. A Zeus will come, and it’s going to hurt.