The Fire of Prometheus
The Promethean fire affords us the ability to forge the world anew and even reshape ourselves in ways that are to our own benefit. Prometheus is the one who breaks open the “close-knit” mind of Zeus, which is supposed to be synonymous with Fate, so as to liberate Athena, the goddess of Wisdom and War. His foresight overreaches that of Zeus, and insofar as this Promethean mentality is really our own, what we see here is a mythic presentiment of our utopian birthright to build a better world.
The following consists of excerpts from the Introduction to Jason Reza Jorjani’s Prometheus & Atlas, which was recently published by Arktos.
There is something curious about the fraternal statues of Prometheus and Atlas at Rockefeller Center in New York City. Instead of simply bearing a celestial globe on his shoulders, Atlas is supporting several interlocking rings that outline the shape of a hollow sphere. These bear astrological markings which suggest the precession of the equinoxes through the rise and fall of world ages. The very same zodiacal symbols are also impressed upon a ring through which Prometheus is triumphantly emerging. An inscription from the Greek tragedian Aeschylus reminds us that the torch of craftily stolen fire that he holds stands for techne, the essence of Technology: “Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved for mortals a means to mighty ends.” We find yet another hint to the meaning of this symbolism in a bolder inscription beneath a depiction of Zeus holding a compass over the central doorway of the main building that is visible immediately behind Prometheus, which reads: “Wisdom and Knowledge shall be the stability of thy Times.”
This is paradoxical. Discoveries fostering the advancement of knowledge would usually be taken to upset tradition and unleash instability, to demand changes that both the masses and established interests fear. What kind of society could have its stability grounded not in tradition, but in the persistence of the quest for Wisdom and Knowledge at all costs? It would have to be a civilization led by those rare individuals who have the titanic psychical constitution to endure uncertainty, and even to thrive in its midst. It is no accident that King Atlas, ruling over the Atlantean world empire through Time, stands opposed to the Cathedral of St. Patrick, the Serpent-slayer, and that his head is turned aside in such a way that his gaze spurns the Lord’s altar. Taking a position behind Atlas, the significance of this defiant posture should be as clear to any mindful observer as it must have been to the devious planners of this Temple of Man. It is amusingly ironic that every year Gotham lights up its “Christmas” tree behind Lucifer.
One does not have to look too far to see that there is something of the mercurial Joker in this spectacular arrangement. Whoever had Hermes sculpted into the facade of the Grand Central train station in the greatest city in the New World knew exactly what he was doing. Hermes is the god of aliens, merchants, thieves, and liars. He is akin to the confidence artist. Confidence men, especially the great ones like P. T. Barnum, after whom the famous circus is named, are in the business of creating beliefs, but that does not mean that everything they produce for the wonderment of the public are fakes. They are not consummate charlatans. Unless there is some truth mixed with the deceit, it would all be totally unbelievable. Barnum was so successful because hardly anyone could tell the difference between which of his freakish curiosities were genuine and which were cons. Certain attributes of Prometheus are even perversely reflected in the persona of Hermes, as if in a distorting funhouse mirror.
Hesiod refers to titans such as Prometheus and Atlas as the most primordial gods. My work takes its departure from Martin Heidegger’s prophecy of a return of the gods as the future of a poetic reflection on the sciences from beyond the end of Philosophy. Heidegger’s technological interpretation of Science is rooted in his understanding of human existence. The practice of scientific research is only one of the modalities of our existence, and it does not secondarily yield technology, but is grounded by the use of tools and made possible by certain technical developments. All science is always already Technoscience. Science does not apprehend the elementary constituents or laws of an objective world prior to our existential engagement in technological development and scientific research. Heidegger goes so far as to try to demonstrate the way in which our scientific world-pictures cannot be extricated from political history and the spiritual values of our community – for which the arts, as led by dichtung, are determinative. This is a bold claim and Heidegger only obliquely, or at best esoterically, addressed that feature of human experience which has the greatest potential to light up the deep structure of scientific practice, to literally comprehend it, from out of what currently lies at its fringe: the spectral.
The thesis of this work involves three inextricable propositions. The first proposition is that the basic concepts and methodological constraints employed by the sciences are the expression of personal agencies that are spectral and that act on the world through demonic possession. The second is that life forms psychically battle one another to abide within the horizon of worlds structured by what is of vital concern to them, and Nature is not objectively there to inhabit prior to, or outside of, this historical struggle. The third proposition, which presupposes the first two, is that although there is no objective standpoint outside of worldview warfare, the form of life spectrally structured by the essence of Technology has a unique power to assimilate all others.
The word Atlas is derived from the Greek root for “to suffer, or to bear” and refers to his punishment at the hands of Zeus, which Aeschylus notes is the only one as terrible as that to which Prometheus is subjected, namely to be condemned to bear the weight of the celestial sphere on his own shoulders. Ancient mapmakers or mariners used the stars above all to draw up their maps or navigational charts, and the repeatable certitude of celestial mechanics ultimately became the paradigm for all anticipatory calculation in the sciences. Consequently, the mythic burden of Atlas is connected to his status as the aesthetic idea of atlases of all kinds: star charts, topographical maps, scale models, and skeletal frames. What I argue, after Heidegger, is that the modeling of the atlas, whether it is an atlas of the human body or an atlas of the world, is a technical endeavor that has ontological priority over the world picture elaborated by theoretical sciences. The idea of framing the entire world as a domain of calculation, measurement, and verification entails a spiritual revolution that, unbeknown to himself, Descartes effected when he subjected the reality of the world as such and as a whole to question. This subjection of the world to the measure of the subject is inhuman. It is, as Heidegger suggests, “gigantic,” and this titanic specter overshadows everything.
The atlases, in their spectral essence, are not representational copies of putative things-in-themselves in Nature. Although I do suggest that the first picture of the Earth taken from a satellite in space is as epitomizing an exemplar of Atlas as the atomic flash is of Prometheus, the “world picture” that Heidegger takes to define our age is not a picture of the world. Atlases are not simply models of the world, they are built into the world, and the equipment of scientific experimentation is crafted in such a way as to coerce and compel Nature to present itself in accordance with the designs that these machines have. This violently world-forming machination is not an abstraction; it actually tears through the social fabric of the meaningful worlds of traditional cultures. We first see this in the way that the metric system, with its precise, homogenously universal conception of measure – a shining example of Atlas at work – destroyed whole cultural practices and the cosmologies implicit in them when it supplanted the measurement systems of the non-Western cultures that were subject to colonization.
This world-colonizing power seems to have already been implicit in the aesthetic idea of Atlas when Plato portrayed him as the sovereign of Atlantis, a maritime empire that conquers the whole world. I set the inseparable dialogues of Timaeus and Critias, where the Atlantis story is told, in the context of two other closely related dialogues, namely Cratylus and Republic, so as to draw out its full significance. Thusly contextualized in Plato’s corpus, Atlantis appears to be a civilization established by a titanic race of giants who are born of a hybridization of the divine descendants of Poseidon (Neptune) and “Earth-born” mortals. These giants eventually defy Zeus and his Olympians, seeing sovereignty over Earth as their own manifest destiny. Zeus punishes their rebellion with earthquakes and a worldwide deluge, which destroys Atlantis and all the cultures of those colonized by it. At the dawn of the age of exploration, Sir Francis Bacon wrote The New Atlantis, in which he emphasizes the elements of the “Atlantis” folklore that depict the mysterious island as a utopian scientific society with godlike techne. While Sir Bacon’s “Atlantis” bears the marks of the rising rationalism of his epoch, the German philosopher Rudolf Steiner elaborates the folklore of Atlantis in a way that emphasizes those elements in Plato’s legend concerning the daimonic psychical prowess of its titanic population. The lore of Atlantis mirrors the account of the gigantic antediluvian civilization of “fallen angels” in the Bible. It is the common origin “myth” that lies at both founts of Western civilization: Classical Greece and ancient Israel.
As Paul Feyerabend argues, drawing on a thread in the thought of the late Ludwig Wittgenstein, by whom he was deeply influenced, the forms of life of various cultures are foundational for even the most elementary linguistic and conceptual structures that condition their experience of the world. The world traveler and, especially, the colonizer who comes face-to-face with the natives of many different geographical regions has a unique opportunity to recognize that the various worldviews that he encounters are distinct and finite perspectives and that this also applies to his own native culture. Feyerabend connects the rise of a pragmatic cast of mind that seeks to learn from different cultures by encompassing their perspectives within a new and broader perspective to the Greek colonial milieu in the age of Protagoras, who epitomizes this nascent awareness with the aphorism: “Man is the measure of all things.” The exploratory expeditions wherein the connection between scientific discovery and sociopolitical conquest is most explicitly manifested are opportunities for something other than the mere conversion of natives by zealously self-satisfied missionaries. Here also lies the context for developing a cosmopolitan free society, wherein a pragmatic orientation to life allows us to manipulate different maps or atlases of the world fit for different situations without taking any one of them to be the representation of Reality.
The mind of Prometheus is there wherever no mere mortal can be; he possesses the eyes and ears of the travelers at different speeds in Einstein’s theory of relativity; he is the observer of Heisenberg’s otherwise indeterminate quantum phenomena; he is Laplace’s “demon,” and Maxwell’s as well. The insertion of daemonic points of view into things is geared towards increasing our capacity for their practical manipulation. Technical innovation based on axiomatic projection not only collapses vast lived distances, as in radio and television, it also allows us to split the atom, which for the purposes of such projection was taken to be, by definition, the most elementary building block which could not be cut or divided (atomon). In other words, the projection reveals itself as such through its practical effects. Following Heidegger, who compares the flicking on of a radio or television to the unearthly destruction of an atomic blast, and who claims that the whole history of physics is enfolded in atom smashers, I suggest that the lightning flash of the atomic bomb is the fire of Zeus that was stolen by Prometheus and brought down to the Earth of mortals.
Aeschylus satirized the theft of Prometheus in a play entitled Prometheus, the Fire-Bringer. This drama, which is distinct from the Promethea trilogy for which Aeschylus is more famous, was the satyr play that followed The Persians. I suggest that this is not at all incidental. With reference to Paul Feyerabend’s analysis of how the birth of tragedy catalyzed the rise of perspectival awareness in Greek culture, I present some evidence to the effect that it was not a coincidence that this took place at just the time of the extensive and repeated Persian campaigns to conquer Greece. Feyerabend observes a striking lack of perspective in archaic Greek art and poetry, which evince not just the failure to grasp a certain artistic technique or manner of literary expression – as if the acquisition of these were not bound up with attendant psychical capacities or the lack thereof – but a cast of mind so different from our own contemporary high culture that it is hard to imagine. The archaic Greeks of the Homeric age were not human beings, they were dolls – the playthings of fate as expressed through gods that manipulated them from without and passions that moved them from within in a way beyond their own control. They were able to analogize their gods with those of other essentially like-minded, albeit in some cases more technically advanced peoples, such as the Egyptians and Phoenicians, and their notion of “knowledge” was merely additive – which is why I refer to their “notion” of knowledge rather than their concept of it, because this mode of “knowing” did not involve any conscious grasp of concepts and the organization of instances of them.
In my view, the fact that this changed all of a sudden in the very century that the Persians colonized the same parts of Greece out of which the first Greek philosophers arose has everything to do with how different the Persians were, not only from the Greeks, but from the foreign peoples to whom the Greeks were somewhat more accustomed. The religion of Iran could not be analogized to Hellenic religion or hybridized with it in the syncretic way that allowed the Greeks to, for example, see Thoth as Hermes or absorb Dionysus and Artemis into their pantheons from Crete and Asia Minor. The major features of Ahura Mazda, Zarathustra’s “Titan of Wisdom,” do bear a striking affinity to those of Prometheus – but only if the archetype of Prometheus is understood in more abstract terms than the archaic Greeks were able to understand it. Beginning with Aeschylus, Prometheus becomes a counter-principle to the entire Olympian world-order governed by Zeus.
Moreover, the hubris of Prometheus is one and the same as that of Xerxes, the Persian Emperor who is the central figure of The Persians. That Aeschylus sets The Persians in Iran and writes it from the perspective of the Persians, with a sympathetic portrayal of Xerxes as a tragic figure, and then couples this drama with Prometheus, the Fire-Bringer is one example of a much wider phenomenon of inter-cultural engagement that was taking place during this period. Among the Achaemenid Persian dynasty, Xerxes was the one and only real crusader on behalf of Zarathustra’s god, who was symbolized by fire above all else, and on behalf of which Xerxes burned the Acropolis down with the intention of replacing its shrines to false gods with fire temples. In their trying encounter with the Persians, the Greeks of the tragic age gained a liberating Promethean perspective on their own religious culture as exemplified by the Olympian pantheon of Homer’s epic.
Prometheus is not only the gift-giver of techne to mankind. This titanic artisan crafted the human race itself in his own image. Drawing on the work of the mythologist Carl Kerényi, I argue that Prometheus symbolizes the character of our uniquely perfectible existence. He is the archetype not of merely “human” being, but of the human potential. As Kerényi recognizes, the titans are próteroi theoí, or the “earlier gods,” not in a merely sequential sense wherein they precede the Olympians chronologically, but in a primordial sense that is suppressed and covered over by the minions of Zeus. This is why the titans are often mythically conflated with the gigantes, the hybrid “giants” or heros born of eros between gods and mortals. The titanic or gigantic is the godlike capacity that mortals could unleash and cultivate so as to rise up in rebellion against the heavenly gods. Zeus punished Prometheus not only by chaining him to the pillar in the Caucasus where the Eagle devours his liver, but also insofar as he binds the children of Prometheus in the chains of servitude. We can melt and break these chains with the stolen fire of techne, and this fire affords us the ability to forge the world anew and even reshape ourselves in ways that are to our own benefit. Prometheus is the one who breaks open the “close-knit” mind of Zeus, which is supposed to be synonymous with Fate, so as to liberate Athena, the goddess of Wisdom and War. His foresight overreaches that of Zeus, and insofar as this Promethean mentality is really our own, what we see here is a mythic presentiment of our utopian birthright to build a better world.