Prometheus Bound: A Labor Day Story for the Left?

I wonder how Prometheus came to be championed by the left. At least in Aeschylus’s hands (there are other versions of the story, but I think Aeschylus’s was the most well known), he’s a more ambivalent figure, politically speaking, than the one we’ve come to know on the left. Yes, he sides with the insurgent Zeus against the the old order of the Titans, even though he is a Titan himself, but he comes to regret that. And not just because Zeus turns on him but also because, as the Chorus keeps repeating, insurgent power is always crueler than its predecessor, ancient power has more majesty. Part of the backdrop to the story is that Prometheus made a mistake: not in giving fire (and much else) to humanity, but in hitching his wagon to such an unpromising star as Zeus. Prometheus’s growing contempt for Zeus and his followers is not that of a revolutionary against a tyrant; it reflects instead his old-regime hauteur, his contempt for the artless and the arriviste (not unlike Burke’s contempt for the lawyer revolutionaries in the National Assembly). And while he’s eager to share knowledge of the arts (technology) with humanity, he’s not so keen to share political knowledge. He knows that one day Zeus will be undone by a usurper, and he knows who that usurper will be, but he tries to keep that knowledge—the fact that Zeus will be overthrown—a secret: “You may not know this,” he tells the Chorus. “Ask no more.” That is, as the Chorus says, “sacred knowledge.” (Eventually Prometheus does reveal that Zeus will be overthrown, but he refuses to say who this usurper will be; that is his final act of defiance against Zeus, who wants to know whence the danger will come. Which is itself interesting: Prometheus’s true majesty is revealed by his withholding of a much sought after truth from a tyrant.) So, Prometheus seems to suggest, you can share technological knowledge but not political knowledge; technological knowledge need not emancipate, politically. Which is in fact a lesson for the left, though not the one we usually look to Prometheus for.


  1. Josh K-sky (@JoshKsky) September 7, 2015 at 5:32 pm | #

    Prometheus the Disruptor!

    • fosforos17 September 7, 2015 at 6:18 pm | #

      I wonder what we would think of Prometheus if we had the other two acts of the “trilogy?”

  2. Joel in Oakland September 7, 2015 at 5:55 pm | #

    Happy Independent Contractor’s Day (so renamed by Harry Shearer of Le Show, Simpsons, Spinal Tap, etc).

    It’s a day to reflect on labor/unions bringing us the 40 hour work week and the push for the 32 hour work week, which we now more or less have, but not as envisioned way back there in the 20th Century.

    And we can thank unions for a lot of that, too – that is, for the Archie Bunkers falling for the racist bait and voting in Reagan, who took the opportunity to give tax breaks for moving auto manufacturing to Mexico.

    But then one can thank (us) liberals who forced people to potentially sacrifice their kids’ education in the social experiment of forced busing. And that goes to show that if one creates a social experiment, it’d better either be voluntary or be pretty much guaranteed to work and work quickly.

    On that cheery note…

  3. originalsandwichman September 7, 2015 at 7:18 pm | #

    “I wonder how Prometheus came to be championed by the left.”

    Percy Bysshe Shelley

  4. yastreblyansky September 7, 2015 at 8:13 pm | #

    Pretty sure the leftist Prometheus, resister of tyranny, was Shelley’s invention. Beethoven wrote a score for a ballet called “The Creatures of Prometheus” and recycled some of the music into the last movement of the Eroica symphony, which is certainly one of his more radically political works, but there wouldn’t be any evidence that he thought of the Prometheus character that way. Amazingly, however, it turns out–Google is so awesome–that there’s a Beethoven connection to Shelley, in that Shelley saw two of the the choreographer’s works, not the Prometheus one, in Milan and was very enthusiastic about them, and there is some internal evidence that he read the Prometheus program book and may even have been inspired through it to the Prometheus subject.

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