The ancient legend runs as follows:
Once - so long ago that it has almost been forgotten - people had wings. They were able to fly from place to place at will, like birds or angels. But then the gods became jealous and, feeling themselves threatened by this human ability to fly, they decided to remove it. This they did by binding up the people’s wings, forcing them to travel only by foot. Generations passed, and people’s wings became etiolated through lack of use until eventually they fell away like withered leaves. There was a time when, in moments of despair, people would go into the open and flex their shoulders uselessly; a sad and tragic ceremony. But even this is now long past. Few are aware that people once had wings, and, to all, the idea that we may one day fly like angels now appears a crazy illusion.
The legend isn’t really so ancient, of course. In line with Wittgenstein’s advice that imaginary stories can sometimes be just as helpful as real ones when it comes to getting a navigational fix on a concept, I’ve just made it up. Or at least I think I have. The fact that so many philosophers of a certain persuasion seem obsessed by the freedom (or ‘freedom’) to fly makes me less sure. Perhaps there is, after all, some truth in the version of the legend according to which, because the memory of flight persisted (as it still does sometimes ‘in the dreams of many people’), high priests of the new order were appointed by the gods to reconcile the people to their fallen state. ‘I may voluntarily walk to someplace I would prefer to fly to unaided’. 1 You too - so count yourself lucky you can walk! Their strategy, in the manner characteristic of high priests, was to replace the old myth with a new one; and according to this new myth we are not fallen, earthbound angels at all, but potential bees.
What are we to make of these stories? Each portrays the human condition in a way which captures a certain truth. For example, it is beyond question that humans, like bees, are social creatures. For each species, the individual’s conditions of existence - life itself usually - are dependent on the co-ordinated labours of the others. But the fable only highlights this truth by exaggerating it and thereby obscuring significant differences.