King Midas (if you remember the myth) recognizes a prisoner brought before him as Silenus, the stepfather of the disrupter god Dionysus, and Midas not only releases the prisoner, but he also honors him with feasting and drinking. Dionysus, extremely grateful, offers Midas an incredible gift, namely, anything he would like to have. This open-ended offer is immediately abused by Midas, who thus reveals his hubris. Without hesitation, Midas asks for the golden touch.
Everything he touches does indeed become gold—everything. The folly of hubris in the case of Midas is that his request is out of all proportion to the benefit he had delivered to Dionysus. And it’s also hubristic in its essential nature, since we now have a man with godlike power. Furthermore, the gift itself destabilizes the order of the cosmos, and so life itself. How could it not—his touch turning everything to gold?
We remember that hubris in Greek thinking was the worst “sin” of all, the equivalent of the Christian notion of the sin of pride. Hubris is when human beings either ignore or deliberately disobey the gods. And when they do, a terrible retribution is as bound to follow as night follows day.
In one sense, Midas’s hubris is shown in his violation of the god Apollo’s two maxims: first, “not too much,” clearly Midas requesting this much gold violates that injunction. And his second is “know thyself.” This latter injunction is often taken by the contemporary personal development movement as meaning: Discover yourself, become more self-aware, and so grow as a person.
The Greeks—and Apollo, the god of music and poetry, truth, healing, the sun and light, and more, however—didn’t see it that way. For them, knowing yourself meant knowing your place in the scheme of the cosmos: that you were mortal, not a god, and that, therefore, you submitted to their higher powers in all aspects of your life.
A Universal WitnessThere is, then, a virtual universal witness to the concept of walking humbly with God, and to deviate from this path is to bring down punishment. Now in the case of Midas, we saw that Dionysus was pretty lenient in terms of his treatment of him. Midas simply had to wash himself in a particular river and the gift–curse–was removed. Probably why the treatment was so lenient had to do with the fact that Midas was a true worshiper of Dionysus and his cohorts. It was perhaps mildly amusing to Dionysus that Midas behaved as he did.
But the thing is, Midas clearly learned nothing from this experience, for the hubris and the folly accompany him to his next, and disastrous, exploit, which is almost as famous as his golden touch.
The Hubris of MidasThat Midas was a devout follower of Dionysus is shown by the fact that when he succeeded to the throne of Phrygia, he promoted the worship of Dionysus. It was onward from this point that Midas witnessed the musical contest between Apollo and, some say Marsyas while others say Pan, but the identity here is not significant. Marsyas was a satyr—a male attendant of the god Dionysus, often naked, and known to be bestial and boisterous. Pan was the god of shepherds, flocks, and fertility, or the “goat-god.” Like Dionysus, then, both stand as antagonists in their antinomian and bestial aspects against all that Apollo represents.
Both challenged Apollo’s musical supremacy, and a contest was arranged in which Tmolus, a river god (sometimes called a mountain god), would be the umpire. Apollo would play his lyre, and Pan (and Marsyas too) would play the pipes. Interestingly, we see that we are talking about the contrast between the carefully controlled plucking of musical notes with mathematical precision versus the coarser charm of an instrument that one roughly blows into.
Taking the Pan version of the event, all who heard both musicians unanimously gave the verdict to Apollo: His music mesmerized them all. All, that is, except Midas, who loudly and “dissonantly” (a good word in this context) declared his preference for Pan’s playing, claiming the verdict was unfair!
This act of incivility, this aesthetic lapse in taste, this predilection for the grosser–this act of hubris before the god–could not be allowed to go unpunished.
As Ovid put it, “Apollo couldn’t allow such insensitive ears to preserve their human appearance,” and so Midas’s ears are transformed into asses’ ears to manifest his stupidity.
Midas and Modern ArtBut I think what is important about the story is its relevance for today. It can be summed up in Plato’s dictum: “To love rightly is to love what is orderly and beautiful in an educated and disciplined way.” And that is what art (in its widest sense) was and is, at least until the 20th century. But now—alongside the political bestialities of communism and fascism—we have developed a taste for the brutish and the bestial in art too. More exactly, art reflects the falseness of the prevalent ideologies. For, put politely, as Tom Stoppard said, “Imagination without skill gives us modern art.”
Everywhere we look we find just such art, and nowhere better summed up than by Andy Warhol’s candid comment: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” Wow! Who’d have thought that? We are almost back here to Midas’s golden touch—that surely was art too!
Imagine that! Our contemporary artists, musicians, and poets “contemplating heaven” as the source for their inspiration? What we are talking about here is the transcendent: some “thing” bigger than humanity, or mankind, or humanist and secular utopias, some thing whereby we approach the deep truths of human nature and the human predicament.
French philosopher Luc Ferry said, "Worth noting especially is that it is through music—the cosmic art above all others since it relies entirely upon a structure of sounds that must, so to speak, ‘rhyme’ or accord with one another—that the cosmos is saved." This is the high view, the high position, that is represented by Apollo and his art.
Midas represents the corruption of taste, and so of values, which if the myth is to be believed—and I believe it—suggests that for all those mini-Midases of today, it won’t end well; there are dark consequences for all those abandoning themselves to the Dionysian god. As Midas discovered for himself.