Pernicious Prometheus

Prometheus brings fire to mankind Heinrich fueger 1817

It should probably seem strange to us that one of the memes we often use when trying to grapple with the question of how to understand the powers brought to us by modern science and technology is one inspired by an ancient Greek god chained to a rock. Well, actually not quite a god but a Titan, that is Prometheus.

Do a search on Amazon for Prometheus and you’ll find that he has more titles devoted to him than even the lightning bolt throwing king of the gods himself, Zeus, who was the source of the poor Titan’s torment. Many, perhaps the majority of these titles containing Prometheus- whether fiction or nonfiction- have to do not so much with the Titan himself as our relationship to science, technology and knowledge.

Here’s just an odd assortment of titles you find: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, Prometheus Reimagined: Technology, Environment, and Law in the Twenty-first Century, Prometheus Redux: A New Energy Age With the IGR, Prometheus Bound: Science in a Dynamic ‘Steady State’ . It seems even the Japanese use the Western Prometheus myth as in: Truth of the Fukushima nuclear accident has now been revealed: Trap of Prometheus. These are just some of the more recent non-fiction titles. It would take up too much space to list the works of science-fiction where the name Prometheus graces the cover.   

Film is in the Prometheus game as well with the most recent being Ridley Scott’s movie named for the tragic figure where, again, scientific knowledge and our quest for truth, along with its dangers, are the main themes of the plot.

It should be obvious that the myth of Prometheus is a kind of mental tool we use, and have used for quite some time, to understand our relationship to knowledge in general and science and technology specifically. Why this is the case is an interesting question, but above all we should want to know whether or not the Promethean myth for all the ink and celluloid devoted to is actually a good tool for thinking about human knowing and doing, or whether have we ourselves become chained to it and unable to move like the hero, or villain- depending upon your perspective, whose story still holds us in his spell.

It is perhaps especially strange that we turn to the myth of Prometheus to think through potential and problems brought about by our advanced science and technology because the myth is so damn old. The story of Prometheus is first found in the works of the Greek poetic genius, Hesiod who lived somewhere between 750 and 650 B.C.E. Hesiod portrays the Titan as the foil of Zeus and the friend of humankind. Here’s me describing how Hesiod portrayed Zeus’ treatment of our unfortunate species.

If one thought Yahweh was cruel for cursing humankind to live “by the sweat of his brow” he has nothing on Zeus, who along with his court of Olympian gods:

“…keep hidden from men the means of life. Else you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working.”

In Hesiod, it is Prometheus who tries to break these limitations set on humankind by Zeus.

Prometheus, the only one of the Titans that had taken Zeus’s side in coup d’état against Cronos had a special place in his heart for human beings having, according to some legends, created them. Not only had Prometheus created humans who the Greeks with their sharp wisdom called  mortals, he was also the one who when all the useful gifts of nature had seemingly been handed out to the other animals before humans had got to the front of the line, decided to give mortals an upright posture, just like the gods, and that most special gift of all- fire.

We shouldn’t be under the impression, however, that Hesiod thought Prometheus was the good guy in this story. Rather, Hesiod sees him as a breaker of boundaries and therefore guilty of a sort of sacrilege. It is Prometheus’ tricking Zeus into accepting a subpar version of sacrifice that gets him chained to his rock more than his penchant for handing out erect posture, knowledge and technology to his beloved humans.

The next major writer to take up the myth of Prometheus was the playwright of Greek tragedy, Aeschylus, or at least we once believed it to have been him, who put meat on the bones of Hesiod’s story. In Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus Bound, and the fragments of the play’s sequels which have survived we find the full story of Prometheus’ confrontation with Zeus, which Hesiod had only brushed upon.

Before I had read the play I had always imagined the Titan chained to his rock like some prisoner in the Tower of London.  In Prometheus Bound the rebel against Zeus is not so much chained as nailed to Mount Kazbek like Jesus to his cross. A spike driven through his torso doesn’t kill him, he’s immortal after all, but pains him as much as it would a man made of flesh and bones. And just like Jesus to the good thief crucified next to him, Prometheus in his dire condition is more animated by compassion that rage.

“For think not that because I suffer therefore I would behold all others suffer too.”

To the chorus who inquires as to the origin of his suffering Prometheus list the many gifts besides his famous fire which he has given humankind. Before him humans had moved “as in a dream”, and did not yet have houses like those of the proverbial three little pigs made of straw or wood or brick. Instead they lived in holes in the ground- like ants. Before Prometheus human beings did not know when the seasons were coming or how to read the sky. From him we received numbers and letters, learned how to domesticate animals and make wheels. It was him who gave us sails for plying the seas, life in cities, the art of making metals. What the ancient myth of Prometheus shows us at the very least is that the ancient Greeks were conscious of the historical nature of technological development- a consciousness that would be revived in the modern era and includes our own.

In Aeschylus’  play Prometheus holds a trump card. He knows not only that Zeus will be overthrown, but who is destined to do the deed. Definant before Zeus’ messenger, Hermes and his winged shoes, Prometheus Bound ends with the Titan hurtled down a chasm.

Like all good, and more not so good, stories Prometheus Bound had sequels. Only fragments remain of the two plays that followed Prometheus Bound, and again like most sequels they are disappointments. In the first sequel Zeus frees the Titans he has imprisoned in anticipation of his reconciliation with Prometheus in the final play. That is, Prometheus eventually reconciles with his tormentor, centuries later many would find themselves unable to stomach this.

Indeed, it would be a little over a millennium after Hesiod had brought Prometheus to life with his poetry that yet another genius poet and playwright- Percy Bysshe Shelley would transform the ancient Greek myth into a symbol of the Enlightenment and a newly emergent relationship with both knowledge and power.

Europeans in the 18th the early 19th century were a people in search of an alternative history something other than their Christian inheritance, though it should be said that by the middle of the 19th century they had turned their prior hatred of the “dark ages” into a new obsession. In the mid to late 1800s they would go all gothic including a new obsession with the macabre. A host of 19th century thinker including Shelly’s brilliant wife would help bring this transition from brightsky neo-classicism and its worship of reason which gave us our Greco-Roman national capital among other things, to a darker and more pessimistic sense of the gothic and a romanticism tied to our emotions and the unconscious including their dangers.

Percy Shelley’s Prometheus as presented in his play Prometheus Unbound was an Enlightenment rebel. As the child resembles the parent so the generation of Enlightenment and revolution could see in themselves their own promethean origins. Not only had they shattered nearly every sacred shibboleth and not just asked but answered hitherto unasked questions of the natural world their motto being in Kant’s famous words “dare to know”, they had thrown out (America) and over (France) the world’s most powerful kings- earthbound versions of Zeus- and gained in the process new found freedoms and dignity.

Shelly says as much in his preface:

“But in truth I was averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the  Champion with the Oppressor of mankind.”

There is no way Shelley is going to present Prometheus coming to terms with with a would be omnipotent divine tyrant like Zeus. Our Titan is going to remain defiant to the end, and Zeus’s days as the king of the gods are numbered. Yet, it won’t be our hero that eventually knocks Zeus off of his throne it will be a god- the Demogorgon- not a Titan who overthrows Zeus and frees Prometheus. There are many theories about who or what Shelley’s Demogorgon is- it is a demon in Milton, a rather un-omnipotent architect  a bumbling version of Plato’s demiurge- in a play by Voltaire, but the theory I like best is that Shelley was playing with the word demos or people. The Demogorgon in this view isn’t a god- it’s us– that is if we are as brave as Prometheus in standing up to tyrants.  Indeed, it is this lesson in standing up for justice that the play ends:

To defy Power which seems omnipotent

To love and bear to hope till

Hope creates

From its own wreck the thing it contemplates

Neither to change nor falter nor repent his like thy glory

Titan is to be

Good great and joyous beautiful and free

     This is alone Life Joy Empire and Victory

Now, Shelley’s Prometheus just like the character in Hesiod and Aeschylus is also a bringer of knowledge and even more so. Yet, what makes Shelley’s Titan different is that he has a very different idea of what this knowledge is actually for.

Shelley was well aware that given the brilliant story of the rebellion in heaven and the Fall of Adam and Eve that had been imagined by Milton Christians and anti-Christians might easily confuse Prometheus with another rebellious character- Lucifer or Satan. If Milton had unwittingly turned Satan into a hero in his Paradise Lost the contrast with Shelley’s Prometheus would reveal important differences. In his preface to Prometheus Unbound he wrote:

The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus is Satan and Prometheus is in my judgment a more poetical character than Satan because in addition to courage and majesty and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition envy, revenge and a desire for personal aggrandizement which in the Hero of Paradise Lost interfere with the interest. The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure.

That is, Prometheus is good in a way Satan is not because his rebellion which includes the granting of knowledge is a matter of justice not of a quest for power. This was the moral lesson Shelley thought the Prometheus story could teach us about our quest for knowledge. And yet somehow we managed to get this all mixed up.

The Prometheus myth has cross fertilized and merged with Judeo-Christian myths about the risks of knowledge and our lust for god-like power. Prometheus the fire bringer is placed in the same company as Satan and his rebellious angels, Eve and her eating from the “Tree of Knowledge”, the  story of the construction of the Tower of Babel. The Promethean myth is most often used today as either an invitation to the belief that “knowledge is power” or a cautionary tale of our own hubris and the need to accept limits to our quest for knowledge lest we bring down upon ourselves the wrath of God. Seldom is Shelley’s distinction between knowledge used in the service of justice and freedom which is good- his Prometheus- and knowledge used in the service of power- his understanding of Milton’s Satan acknowledged.

The idea that the Prometheus myth wasn’t only or even primarily a story about hidden knowledge- either its empowerment or its dangers- but a tale about justice is not something Shelley invented whole cloth but a latent meaning that could be found in both Hesiod and Aeschylus. In both, Prometheus gives his technological gifts not because he is trying to uplift the human race, but because he is trying to undo what he thinks was a rigged lottery of creation in which human beings in contrast to the other animals were given the short end of the stick. If the idea of hidden knowledge comes into play it is that the veiled workings of nature have been used by power- that is Zeus- to secure dutiful worship- a ripoff and injustice Prometheus is willing to risk eternal torment to amend.

Out of the three varieties of the Promethean myth- that of encouraging the breaking of boundaries in the name of empowerment (a pro-science and transhumanist interpretation), that of cautioning us against the breaking of these boundaries (a Christian, environmentalist and bioconservative interpretation), or knowledge as a primary means and secondary end in our quest for justice (a techno-progressive interpretation?) it is the last that has largely faded from our view. Oddly enough it would be Shelly’s utterly brilliant and intellectually synesthetic young wife who would bear a large part of the responsibility for shifting the Prometheus myth from a complex and therefore more comprehensive trichotomy to a much more simplistic and narrowing dichotomy.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus would turn the quest for knowledge itself into a potential breaking of boundaries that might even be considered a sort of evil. Scientists in the public mind would play the role of Milton’s Satan – hero or villain. Unfortunately in drawing this distinction with such artistic genius Mary Shelley helped ensure that the paramount promethean concern with justice would become lost.  I’ll turn to that tale next time…

4 comments on “Pernicious Prometheus

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  3. […] served as the tool of power leaned largely in the direction of the former, though Romantics like Percy and Mary Shelley gave us […]

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