About half a dozen times on The Hump I’ve made passing mention of the Prometheus myth in relation to modernity. Maybe I should expand that, as it truly is a foundation myth in the sense that it is a simple and potent key to understanding much of what our modern world is all about. I stumbled across its scope when researching how the original Christian teaching about the goodness of creation came to be changed into the modern Christian assumption that the natural world is fallen and spoiled – but that’s a smaller and more specialised story which may yet come into print. Prometheus himself may be understood, with little exaggeration, to rule our whole society.
The mediaeval European understanding of the cosmos was essentially spiritual, though informed by Christian reinterpretations of Greek philosophy. God’s creation was seen as a hierarchy of beings, each of which had its assigned place in a good cosmic order. Somewhere about halfway down was man, a little lower than the angels but uniquely privileged by being created in God’s own image, to rule the lower realm of the universe, earth.
Man’s fall through Adam and Eve created a breach in this order, rendering sinful mankind liable to judicial suffering, death and eternal judgement. It brought him into disharmony with nature, without actually changing the latter’s character significantly: man’s weakened constitution made him vulnerable to its forces, and God even sometimes turned these against him in providential judgement, so that wild beasts, plagues, earthquakes and so on, good in themselves, became evils to man. Jesus Christ was, of course, the ultimate remedy for this breach through his suffering for sin.
Fast forward to the beginning of the Renaissance, particularly in Italy. Along with the rediscovery of ancient classical knowledge came a general impatience with the old order and the elevation of reason and knowledge for their own sakes. Quite early on this began to involve seeing man as the central point of the Universe, drawing with enthusiasm on Protagoras’ 5th century BC dictum, “Man is the measure of all things”. Their interpretation of this led, in the midst of a deeply Catholic tradition, to increasing agnosticism that moved steadily towards the rejection of God’s right to govern man’s affairs and will at all. This culminated, several centuries later, in the active rejection of God in what we know as the Enlightenment, whose influence is still felt today. So the intellectual impetus of Renaissance autonomous humanism continues to this day, having increasingly replaced the mediaeval dependence on God.
Early in the Renaissance, this repositioning was sometimes expressed through a revised Adam story, in which Adam’s role in bringing man knowledge and independence was stressed, and the evil consequences that are the real point of the story were downplayed. Adam, then, became the second creator of mankind as an autonomous, rational lord of the Universe, rather than the foolish author of our ruin.
In the fourteenth century this story began to be displaced by Aeschylus’ version of the Prometheus myth, which was more approriate to humanist ideas. The Church Fathers had referred to this story in its earliest form, by Hesiod, which is quite parallel to the original Eden story. Prometheus the titan, demiurge of mankind, steals fire from Zeus for man out of mischief, incurring the god’s wrath against both the titan and our race (by creating the woman Pandora!). In Aeschylus, however, Prometheus is transformed into the hero who liberates mankind from the imposed ignorance of the Olympian gods through his gift of knowledge, and Zeus’ judgement, together with Pandora, disappears except as a vehicle for Prometheus’ courage. In effect Prometheus becomes the ideal humanist role-model.
The myth appears overtly and covertly throughout the Renaissance. It is re-expressed in the perennial story of Faust. Boccaccio’s Decameron makes extensive use of it, retelling the Prometheus story in various ways. Erasmus, accoding to Paul Bertagnolli, “judged Prometheus a hero of self-determined destiny, an incarnation of human potential, and an illustration of persistent struggles value, thereby approaching a heroic conception of the Titan that would thrive during the nineteenth century.” And thrive it did, acting as a symbol of the spirit of the Enlightenment age in Goethe’s eponymous poem of 1789, in Mary Shelley’s 1818 Romantic reaction to Enlightenment science, Frankenstin (subtitled “The Modern Prometheus”), in her husband Percy’s more sympathetic and pro-revolutionary Prometheus Unbound, and even in the twentieth century by Kafka, who turned it into an existentialist apologetic; in his piece even the gods forget Prometheus’ treachery and grow weary of “the meaningless affair”.
It is not coincidental that the last paragraph shows the influence of the Promethesus myth in literature, religion, philosophy, science, revolutionary politics and even modern disillusion – in other words, pretty well every aspect of life. For the human pride and autonomy at its heart are the spirit of the age in which we live, which we can trace directly back to the humanist project of the last five hundred years or so.
It’s very productive to use Prometheus as a touchstone to assess any movement or opinion one might encounter, especially if one juxtaposes it with the biblical story of Adam. I’ve mentioned Romanticism, which reacted against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but retained the aspect of rebellion against God himself, wanting to re-enchant nature and return to Eden, but re-deploy the angel with the flaming sword to keep God, and his requirements, out rather than man. The same idea can be seen in the New Age movement (Joni Mitchell: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”)
In religion, Arminianism could be interpreted as an attempt to retain human free-will at the expense of accepting God’s grace. Finney’s “new measures” take that autonomous trend even further, and movements as diverse as Open Theism and the Manifest Sons of God push it to extremes. But just as Faustian undertones have always been recognised to underlie aspects of the scientific enterprise (from Faust to Oppenheimer), “scientific” higher criticism is overtly Promethean, replacing judgement by the word of God with judgement on the word of God. In the neo-Arian views of incarnation now becoming popular amongst Evangelicals, that reversal of judgement even elevates our knowledge over that of the Incarnate Son.
In science, Prometheus can be seen in extreme guise in the prospect of transhumanism, but he underlies so much of our thought that his influence is often invisible. It’s not immediately obvious that much of our angst about saving the planet stems from a denial that there is a God who actually rules over nature, to whom we are accountable and whose redemption we ought to pray.
The myth in relation to evolutionary theory, including theistic evolution, Intelligent Design and Creationism, deserves a treatment of its own in view of the concerns of this blog. But maybe you can spot a few without too much difficulty – if only in the removal of Adam from the whole picture. Maybe they’ll decide Prometheus was a historic figure soon – but perhaps that would be just too obvious! Darwin will do as a proxy.
So that’s why I keep on alluding to Prometheus in these posts. I think you may find it a useful mirror with which to view many current controversies.