A fox won’t normally capture an eagle. But if the king of the birds stoops too low and foolishly endangers itself, the fox might have a go at it. Foxes are renowned for slyness, and an eagle that alights on its kill and gets overly fascinated with eating might become too distracted to detect an impending danger from behind.

Distraction is the key word. In a moment of distraction, the king of the birds, for all its kingship, may underestimate the potential threat of a simpleton. One such moment of heedlessness is enough to cost the eagle its life.

This essential principle is portrayed in the image above. By using symbolism from the animal world, Peter Paul Rubens is painting a psychological picture: even the highest in rank can commit a foolish error that will thrust it to the very bottom of the food pyramid.

Ancient wisdom often speaks symbolically, as in the case of using a fox to represent common slyness and an eagle to represent heedless kingship. In this particular metaphor, Rubens ties these symbols into a larger composition to underscore an even greater moral: behind the fox and eagle is a heel wounded by a lethal arrow, the famous heel of Achilles.

The Ancient Symbol of the Heel

ancient-wisdom-achilles-heelThetis made Achilles immortal by dipping his body into the river Styx. Wherever the magical waters bathed the infant Achilles, that part became immune to human attack, but since Thetis held her son by the heel, that one part remained mortal.

Thus did the Greeks formulate a hero that would embody invincibility with a single weakness, implying that even the greatest may fall through blind error.

Drawing from the Ancient Greeks, Rubens not only portrays mythology, but also emphasizes the wisdom behind it: through negligence, the greatest is overcome by the smallest. And, indeed, the mighty Achilles is defeated by mortal Paris, who shoots a poisoned arrow to his heel.

Achilles is dispatched like a heedless eagle who foolishly falls prey to the cunning of a common fox. It is a silly mistake with fatal consequences.

The Wisdom of Guarding Heel

The Achilles myth goes even deeper: the heel is carefully chosen as the farthest point from man’s senses. After all, man’s sensory organs are mostly located in his head (with the single exception of the sense of touch). Since the heel stands at the farthest extreme to the head, it is a natural physical blind spot.

This physical blind spot teaches of a corresponding psychological one: each man has a chief weakness that characterizes his psychology. It is his weakness primarily because he cannot see it. Everyone around him may be well aware of this blind spot, but he himself remains heedless to it – even to the point of insisting not to know about it.

For this reason, the Ancient Greek oracle advised man to Know Thyself.

Few have the courage and diligence to study themselves impartially. Few have the nerve to shed light onto their dark psychological weakness. But those who do will certainly labor to keep their ruling faculty up high and prevent it from foolishly alighting aground, where base foxes lurk in darkness.