Here and there – Shakespeare’s Promethean Fire

According to the massive Concordance that Barbara Sharpe referred me to, and which hourly stress tests an Ikea plank here at home, Shakespeare made four references to Prometheus.  Here is one of them.

From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive:

They are the ground, the books the academes,

From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire.

(Love’s Labour’s Lost, 4.3.301 ff)

So, the fire that Prometheus stole from heaven is what lights our minds – not back then in those days what distinguishes us from the apes, but what precludes us from being mindless drones in a hive.  Shakespeare, or more likely Berowne, was so attracted to the idea that he rehashed it fifty or so lines later almost word for word.  This time we are told that the sources of learning ‘show, contain and nourish all the world.’  (One of Shakespeare’s characters would speak of stealing from heaven – but this time it was courtesy, as a father lectures his son on being a king: I Henry IV, Part 1, 3.2.50.)

Here then is a large notion – Prometheus is our great liberator, if not our protector and father.

Someone once remarked that ‘The Melbourne Club I have no problem with.  It’s just the members I can’t stand.’  That’s about where I stand now with religion – all or any of it.  God is fine, if that’s your go.  It’s just the people who claim to represent him that I have trouble with.  The clerics, preachers, priests, pastors, mullahs, Brahmins, and shamans – the whole dusty and shady lot of them. 

Two sorts really get to me – the so called evangelicals who support Donald Trump, and those who say that the dogma of their faith take some issues – like abortion or assisted dying – right off the political table.  But if I had to choose between those and a mullah who sanctions the ‘honour’ murder of a girl in Afghanistan, that would be above my pay level.  And they are all now joined by blind sectarian zealots who want to defile God each morning in our parliament by having people go through a mindless ritual in the name of God – which most of them don’t believe in.  And while sectarian differences have mostly vanished here, they or ecclesiastic issues lie behind so many wars, including those we lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And the real die-hards now seek to impose their cruel, medieval views on sexuality upon all of us.

Kant said this about ‘priestcraft’:

Between a shaman of the Tunguses and the European prelate who rules over both church and state…between the wholly sensuous Wogulite, who in the morning lays the paw of a bearskin over his head with the short prayer, ‘Strike me not dead!,’ and the sublimated Puritan and Independent in Connecticut, there certainly is a tremendous difference in the style of faith, but not in the principle….The one aim which they all have in common is to steer to their advantage the invisible power which presides over human destiny…..

That seems spot on to me – and although the issue of clerical power did not present quite like that to Homer or Prometheus, that thought of Kant would have appealed to them, too.  The sad truth is that most people of faith think that their creed is somehow different, somehow better – when most of the rest of the world think that they are away with the birds.  It follows that most people of faith are held back by fetters that most of the rest of the world believe to be illusory and self-inflicted.  And what are we to say of creeds that gave the world caste, the Taliban, or ethnic cleansing in Myanmar?

If then you see the progress of mankind as lying in its liberation not from the supernatural, but from those who claim to be the gatekeepers – and generally the exclusive gatekeepers – of the road to human fulfilment – then we might look again at what Prometheus did for us. 

In considering Prometheus as the bearer of enlightenment, we might recall what Kant said:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.  Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without the guidance of another.  This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another…religious immaturity is the most pernicious and dishonourable variety of all.

There was a power struggle between the Greek gods that looks like our local state faction fighters at play.  Prometheus – ‘forethought’ – stole fire from heaven to relieve the fate of mankind.  Zeus, who makes the Old Testament God look very unjealous, just won’t cop this.  He binds Prometheus to a rock during his pleasure.

Zeus is a dead-set shocker.  As the hero in the Aeschylus version says, ‘I know that Zeus measures what is just by his interest.’  We have just had sickening reminders of that kind of ratbag.  Prometheus also says: ‘This is a sickness, it seems, that goes along with dictatorship – inability to trust one’s friends.’  Ditto.  And the arrogance is constant.  When Prometheus exclaims ‘Alas!’, Hermes says ‘That is a word Zeus does not understand.’  Like our politicians and kryptonite – or the word ‘sorry’. 

‘Now, first, when the gods entered upon their anger, when they split into parties, and strife rose among them’, Zeus exercised his will ‘to make the whole human race extinct, and to form another race instead.’  So, when Prometheus applies the power of his mind to ease our lot, he has to face the wrath of a very personal god.  (And you wonder why other models of God remain so stubbornly personal – so utterly less than divine.)

The Aeschylus play – and it is a play – ends in a fiery exchange between Hermes and the hero.  Insults are exchanged that Kim would have warmly saluted.  The conflict is alarmingly modern.  (It reminds me of the immortal Ralph Gleeson in The Honeymooners.)  Hermes accuses Prometheus of ‘self-conceit’ and says ‘you the clever one’ are ‘too sharp in your sharpness.’  He is like a colt before being broken in.  Prometheus says Zeus will never find out how he Prometheus will overthrow the dictator.  (‘Tyrant’ was a loaded word in ancient Greece.)  Hermes says Prometheus will remain in agony until ‘a god appears to take upon himself your load of suffering.’  The blood stays bad right until the end.

There you have two views of this myth – the contest between enlightenment and the darkness of mindless oppression; or divine intervention to bring redemption and to free mankind from a fate brought on after spite in the godhead.  The second is Milton’s Paradise Lost.  The first is dominant in Aeschylus – and, we will see, Shelley and Byron.

If the gods ran the ancient world, the Church claimed total governance in the medieval world.  There were then three types of people – those who fought, those who prayed, and those who worked.  And the Church dictated the terms for all of them.  Trust in the Church was mandated and total.  They could burn you at the stake for daring to want to read Scripture in your own language.  You just had to take their word for the whole lot.  And they had the power over life and death – for eternity.

Achieving liberation from this mindless servitude was the work of the movements known as the Renaissance and Reformation.  It was in truth a job for Prometheus.  Macaulay wrote:

The only event of modern times which can be properly compared with the Reformation is the French Revolution…Each of these memorable events may be described as a rising up of the human reason against a Caste.  The one was a struggle of laity against the clergy for intellectual liberty; the other was a struggle of the people against princes and nobles for political liberty. 

Prometheus was, then, a rebel; but unlike Jimmy Dean, he had a cause.  So did our other great rebel, Satan.  (The great mystery in our letters for me is – how did Milton not think that we would be bored to death by the Father and Son, mildly diverted by Adam and Eve, and completely seduced by Satan?)  Let’s take the views of two other poets who cast themselves as rebels – even if we think they may have been a bit twee in doing so.

Shelley got all fired up about all this in Prometheus Unbound, and humility is not the term that comes first to mind with this version of titan.

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…. Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.

He should have stuck with the poetry.  Is it any wonder these guys were called ‘Romantic’?  This is the kind of stuff that idealists in Germany were then mooning over.  And Shelley keeps on going to the end of the Preface to Prometheus Unbound.

My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; aware that, until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.

Percy Bysshe Shelley sounds like a fop not cut out for the terraces of Melbourne Storm.  But Jupiter is the bad guy needing to be tamed by Prometheus, and Shelley gives the hero some lines of raw majesty:

Evil minds

Change good to their own nature.  I gave all

He has; and in return he chains me here

Years, ages, night and day…

Whilst my beloved race is trampled down

By his thought-executing ministers….

Kindness to such is keen reproach, which breaks

With bitter stings the light sleep of Revenge.

Submission, thou dost know I cannot try:

For what submission but that fatal word,

The death-seal of mankind’s captivity,

Like the Sicilian’s hair suspended sword,

Which trembles o’er his crown, would he accept,

Or could I yield?  Which yet I will not yield.

Let others flatter Crime, where it sits throned

In brief Omnipotence…

What would Churchill have made of that?  We are a world away from Gethsemane, but it is all drop-dead gorgeous – and ‘thought-executing ministers’ is so apt for Mr Zuckerberg and all of his frightful ilk.

We get another picture from a poet with a clearer title to the status of fop – Lord Byron.  This is from his Prometheus:

Titan! To thee the strife was given

Between the suffering and the will

Which torture where they cannot kill;

And the inexorable Heaven

And the deaf tyranny of Fate

The ruling principle of Hate

Which for its pleasure does create

The things it may annihilate,

Refused thee even the boon to die

The wretched gift eternity

Was thine – and thou has borne it well.

So, the carrot of immortality has become the stick of eternity.  But Byron then gives us a walloping celebration of humanity for the sake of it.

Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,

To render with thy precepts less

The sum of human wretchedness,

And strengthen man with his own mind…

The poem ends with themes we grapple with in King Lear – ‘unaccommodated man’.

….And Man in portions can foresee

His own funereal destiny;

His wretchedness and his resistance,

And his sad unallied existence;

To which his Spirit may oppose

Itself and equal to all woes,

And a firm will and a deep sense,

Which even in torture can descry

Its own concenter’d recompense,

Triumphant where it does defy,

And making Death a Victory.

This is all very large, indeed.  We are what we are and we need no snake oil salesman or voodoo purveyor to tell us otherwise.  We can make it on our own.  The humanity of our ‘unallied existence’ is good enough in and of itself.  And it took a theatrical impresario from Stratford, the son of a glover, to teach us to see the light of the mind of man in the eyes of a woman.

And is that not so much more fit for our purpose than all that old guff about Eve and the bloody apple?  What a fearful sword did the Holy Men then wreak, not just for the subjugation of women, but for the subjection of all mankind?  Prometheus stuck it right up all those big hitters in religion with tickets on themselves.  He asked for nothing and he promised nothing.  He just did it for us. 

Well – that’s enough already of our creeping guiltily around the dark garden behind our fig leaves for fear of offending the Holy Men.  We want a champion who will steal fire from the whole bloody lot of them.  We want a trust-buster to blow up the monopoly.  Whose team would you rather be on?  Milton’s, where we cringe at our humanity because we are taught that God was just in punishing a woman because she dared to seek knowledge that was reserved for God and denied to us?  Or Shakespeare’s, where we walk taller because our hero dared to defy the gods to give us knowledge so that we can see the light of the mind of man in the eyes of a woman?

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