In Part Two, Chapter IV, Hamilton tells the story of Phaëthon, the son of the Sun-god by a mortal woman. The doubtful Phaëthon goes to visit the Sun to verify his parentage and ends up joyriding on the Sun’s chariot, only to be shot down after losing control of it. Like Icarus, who flies too high on wings of wax only to have them melt, Phaëthon is an archetypal case of overreaching one’s place by an act of reckless arrogance. Tragedy inevitably befalls those mortals who confuse their position and worth with those of the gods.
Yet these two brief lines also contain a second, brilliant counterpoint to the lesson of humility in the story of Phaëthon’s tragic mistake. If the first line demonstrates the ill fate that overtakes him for overstepping himself, the second line subtly heroizes him. Phaëthon falls into disaster, but has striven equally far for greatness. As much as Greek and Roman myths caution humans against arrogance, they also pique our curiosity at, and celebrate those who have achieved, dazzling and original acts of triumph.