Power and Nature: #Aeschylus’s #Prometheus Bound and #Aristotle’s Philosophy

posted May 24, 2014, 11:31 AM by Peter Joseph Moons

Power and Nature:

Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound and Aristotle’s Philosophy

By Peter Moons


Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound portrays a Greek god detained by a superior for disobedience against the latter’s rule.  This ancient Greek story is interesting in its own right but is also viewable through the philosophical writings of Aristotle; there are also several points that Plato discusses in his story of Timaeus that are worth noting vis-à-vis Aeschylus’s.  Several of the themes in Prometheus Bound that are shared with Aristotle’s and Plato’s philosophy include the nature of political power, dissent against extant rule, the elements, the senses, including suffering, and time.

 

Political Power

 

            The first shared philosophical point between Aeschylus’s and Aristotle’s writing is that of political structure, how a community is ruled, and the nature of the ruler.  In Prometheus Bound, all the characters are keenly aware of the power of Zeus: his name is invoked as the one who decided on Prometheus’s punishment and his fury is sensed by others.  For example, Prometheus describes Zeus as “hard-hearted” and “in constant anger with an unbending mind.”[1]  Prometheus’s opinion goes to the heart of Zeus’s rancor: any political system functions well so long as “nothing unexpected happens.”[2]  Under Zeus’s reign, Prometheus stole fire and then gave this element to humanity, thereby upsetting the existing paradigm Zeus ruled.

 

            Aristotle saw the best political structure as one where responsible citizens in a stratified community judge themselves and rotate among leadership positions.[3]  Clearly, this arrangement does not exist in the world ruled by Zeus.  Instead, Zeus is a “tyrant” who trusts not his “family or friends.”[4]  Aristotle also makes the foundational statement that to be a good leader, one must also be a good follower; these positions’ perspectives provide mutually supporting benefit.[5]  In contravention, Prometheus astutely recognizes that Zeus’s leadership is tyrannical; to have that concept, Prometheus would have to know that some other type of rule, besides the one he lives in, exists.

 

            While Ocean agrees with Prometheus’s assessment of Zeus -- “our king’s a harsh one, and his rule unchecked”[6] -- there are other characters who do not hold this same opinion.  Hephaestus, for one, is unable to support Prometheus’s lamentation about Zeus’s excessive power; he has “no reply,”[7] which is the ancient equivalent of ‘no comment.’  Of course, Hermes, son of Zeus, maintains a contrarian view to that of Prometheus, owing to his familial loyalty.

 

Hermes supports Zeus’s actions and reinforces the punishment of Prometheus when he affirms that Prometheus “wronged the gods in furnishing honors to mortals.”[8] In this case, “honors” mean fire, which implies to hold this mighty element in one’s possession is a right born solely by Zeus, Hephaestus, and other worthy gods.  So, in terms of a political structure, the gods have one, but theirs is not the proto-democracy Aristotle describes.

 

In a contrarian view, Zeus is a strong, albeit authoritarian leader, continuing a familial dynasty.  Thus, there is no surprise when Hermes dutifully reinforces the commands of his father.[9]  Zeus is required to rule, sometimes absolutely, and when someone under his rule commits an act of treason, he is required to address the issue.  When Zeus the leader acts forcefully, the rest of those under his reign will get the message.  Thus, Zeus acts as both leader and judge; there is no need for a group of judges or a deliberative body, as in a more enlightened political structure.[10]

 

Curiously, the political structure that Aristotle envisioned is almost completely opposite as that ruled by the mythological gods.  The latter’s style of leadership is more akin to today’s autocrats who are aided, abetted, and surrounded by sycophants and cabals who benefit from the dictator’s unipower rule.  With the Greek gods, the Aristotelian concepts of rotational leadership of the ruler[11] and “intelligent,” educated rulers[12] (who themselves had once been good followers)[13] do not exist as they do in a natural community[14] with stratified and diverse in its membership.[15]  Aristotle had the benefit of an imagined structure, as in Zeus’s rule, and that of the people around him, to use as starting points for his own ideas of politics.

 

Dissent

 

            Since there is no communal linkage between the rulers and the citizens in the power structure of the Greek gods, there is no shared responsibility of “judging and ruling.”[16]  While not describing how rulers are chosen per se, this system contrasts with any of the political structures found in Plato’s Books on the subject of the ‘best’ political system.  In the Aristotelian system, citizens would know the rules of the community, and receive punishment from their peers, such as becoming ostracized, or put to death as in Socrates, for misfeasance.  Under the system of the gods, any deviation likewise results in punishment but only as chosen by the lead god, in this case, Zeus.

 

            Prometheus’s act of handing over fire was indeed disobedient, even heterodox, as proven by the characters in Prometheus Bound acknowledging this fact.[17]  Gods who disobeyed the rule of Zeus would expect to be punished just the same.  In the city as described in Aristotle’s Politics, dissent is not discussed but is likely addressed by the body of citizens.  Prometheus, though, had no ability to dissent or act in contravention to Zeus’s power.  Prometheus does admit that his act was disobedient for he says, “In face of my defiance let him throw blazing fire, and disrupt all the world.”[18]

 

            By releasing fire to humans, Prometheus knew he would hurt Zeus.[19]  In De Anima, the process of the soul affecting the body, then the intellect and desire leading to action, is what Prometheus followed.[20]  So there were at least two reasons why Prometheus gave fire to humans: besides improving the lives of humanity, Prometheus was vengeful as his earlier scheme of unseating Zeus’s earlier had failed.[21] Indeed, Prometheus is the ancient example of either a ‘disgruntled employee’ who commits vengeance against his employer or the archetype traitor or whistleblower, like Fuchs who gave up the secrets of the atom bomb to the USSR, Wikileaks, or any other recent example of infamous people or organization who have done the same.  In total, Prometheus is stubborn in his pursuit of handing over fire and in fighting the power that Zeus holds unilaterally,[22] but he pays for his action.

 

Administration Of Justice

 

Curiously, Zeus administers justice to Prometheus, but only indirectly through Hephaestus, physically, and through Power and Hermes, verbally and psychologically.  A question arises, then in Prometheus Bound: where is Zeus?  He is neither seen nor heard, though all know he exists and wields power.  Quite unlike the populist-intelligent ruler from Aristotle’s Politics, Zeus is more like Orwell’s Big Brother character: omniscient and omnipresent, yet firm and distant, invoking both fear and (more often than not) obedience.  Zeus is most alike the unmoved mover: eternal, unseen, incomprehensible, though following some divine plan that perhaps he himself is solely capable of understanding.

 

Hephaestus is doing his duty like a public servant would or as the Greek public would in an ancient Greek city-state.  Thus, Hephaestus is acting in a role similar to the citizens in Aristotle’s Politics, where the latter must rule and judge.  This judicial process includes ostracizing a citizen; after the public makes their decision, the punishment must be executed.  This is where Power comes in, forceful, strict, and unforgiving, as representative of the punishment edict.  Curiously, this scenario in Prometheus seems strangely similar to that of Socrates, convicted of two crimes and sentenced to die, yet surrounded at the end of his life by those who lament his fate; Hephaestus and Ocean provide the lamentation in Prometheus Bound.

 

Symbolism of the Elements

 

The four elements of earth, air, water, and fire, as defined by Aeschylus, show fire as the most dangerous, for the gods themselves are “made mostly out of fire.”[23]  Aristotle would describe the process of chaining Prometheus as the following: rock was affected by fire and turned into metal chains.  The sequence is rock through fire to metal chains.  The chains exist in both the rock and the metal.  The rock has the actuality of being chains.  Supposedly, the metal chains, given enough time and fire, could be transformed into a mass that would eventually be subsumed back into, at least, sedimentary rock.

 

More symbolism abounds in Aeschylus’s story.  As Plato states, four elements comprise nature and man,[24] and all four are present in Prometheus Bound.  In the story, rock represents the earth and man resides on earth.  Therefore, Zeus is chaining Prometheus symbolically to man, who inhabits the earth, by using the element that Prometheus had given to man, fire.  Similarly, the liquid that will come out of Prometheus’s body (blood) represents water while the eagle that will eat Prometheus’s liver symbolizes the air.  Fire, of course, is the key natural element in the story.

 

            The universe itself is linked to the story of Prometheus.  Fire is foretold to be that element that will change the entire paradigm of the existence of humanity.  In this regard, then Prometheus’s release of fire is akin to the “unmoved mover” releasing the universe.[25]  Both are catalyzing acts that release a whole host of subsequent activities and actions.  Wherein the unmoved mover always had motion, the universe always had fire.  Plato proposes a significant question: “Is there such a thing as fire by itself?[26] 

 

Therefore, there is the possibility that fire is nearly an unmoved mover owing to its nature: always existing (or at least the potential for existence in things that can burn) and always transforming. Plato in Timaeus describes the element of fire as ‘transformational’ and, in that aspect, can destroy the status quo. [27]  Thus, the nature of fire can provoke the act that challenges Zeus.

 

Prometheus’s Gift

 

In Aeschylus’s story, the reader senses that Prometheus’s provided fire as a “gift” to mankind.[28]  What is unknown is the direct perspective of any human who may have received fire from Prometheus.  What was known is that fire is the last of the four elements to which humans did not have access: man walked on earth, breathed the air, and drank the water, but he could not eat cooked food nor warm himself nor clear land with this dangerous element.  All of the four elements existed in ‘nature’ and though their effects were not the reason for their being,[29] fire was denied to humanity.

 

The gift Prometheus provided changed the equation of the relationship between the gods and man.  Upon receiving this final element, man may have received “the truth” about nature, for he was no longer deceived nor denied about the nature of fire.[30]  So upon receiving the fourth element, man’s knowledge of nature would be deeper, if not complete.  Additionally, with the possession of fire, humans would “find out many arts.”[31]  In this aspect, the ‘arts’ could potentially bring much pleasure, or even longer-term happiness, to the humans because of the new ways of self-expression that would be available to them.  Maybe Zeus did not want man to experience such happiness, which could have been reserved solely for the gods.

 

Prometheus himself saw that what he did was, as Jeremy Bentham could clearly claim, providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  “And it was I who gave them fire as well,” said Prometheus;[32] he had, in addition to the benefits to humans shown directly above, given them the heretofore unknown power to turn the night into day.  This action is thus likened to the power of the unmoved mover[33] who created night and day.[34]

 

Aristotle discusses the power of the unmoved mover as if this entity is omnipotent.  A similar power exists through fire, through its destructive nature and, more appropriately, ability to cause objects to conduct metamorphosis, like ore to metal to chain links.  Fire causes things to come to “be…and subsequently perish.”[35]  Evidently, putting such an awesome resource in the hands of man not only increases man’s power, but puts him on a more equal footing to Zeus -- now one can understand the god’s rage at Prometheus’s traitorous act.

 

However, Prometheus does not expect the punishment that he received.[36]  His repeated astonishment at his painful predicament foreshadows the suffering humans will have from their possession of fire, such as accidents, violence, and wars.  One question to ask is why Zeus chose to punish Prometheus; a review of the elements as described by Aristotle is necessary.

 

In Zeus’s view, there were four elements: earth, water, air, and, of course, fire.  Aristotle would say that the “form”[37] or nature of fire is, perhaps, destructive, but definitely transformative.  One question to ask is the following: Why did Zeus want to keep fire from humans?  The reason may have pertained more to Zeus’s control of the power contained in this element, more than the fact that he merely controlled fire as an asset. 

 

Perhaps Zeus was more benevolent than previously thought.  Since fire contained was the catalyst that could transform matter into ash,[38] Zeus would not fire to be out of his sphere of influence…and rightly so.  Knowing how humans, his creation, had the ability to be driven by the constraints of the own mortality, the unpredictability of humans with fire in the possession provoked the god to retain this element’s control.  Therefore, Prometheus usurped the authority of Zeus to control fire, for which he was punished.

 

Senses

 

            Of the senses, there are two in Prometheus Bound that pertain directly to Aristotle’s discussion of senses in De Anima: Seeing and feeling.  While Prometheus “sees” the future,[39] he seems to wonder if Zeus knows his pain.  There is the pain of the fetters by which Prometheus is bound, the denial of his freedom, the future pain he will feel when his liver is consumed, and the empathy that other characters in the story feel for his condition.  There is also the cognizance of the anger Zeus has for Prometheus’s action.  In total, Aeschylus’s story is a complete tragedy.

 

Aristotle describes tragedies as containing six components: “story, characters, speech, thought, visual display, and song.”[40]  All of these elements appear in Prometheus Bound.  For Aristotle, “the story…is the soul of the tragedy,”[41] but in Aeschylus’s myth, different readers may take away different senses of appropriateness: is there justification in Zeus treatment?  Aeschylus may well have written the play to invoke this question.

 

Some audiences may feel that Zeus is treating Prometheus unjustly by for a minor act of insubordination.  Contrarily, Prometheus may be deserving of detention by Hephaestus and having his liver eaten out because of his rebellious behavior.  The ‘visual display’ of the eagle eating the liver links literally to that organ’s position as “the center of divination”[42] symbolizing Zeus eliminating Prometheus’s superpower.  Depending on one’s point of view, the tragedy of Prometheus Bound elicits “fear and pity”[43] for the title character or satisfaction that he is receiving his just desserts.

 

In the story itself, the following points on suffering are recognizable.  First, Zeus experiences a loss of control, both of fire itself and of the loyalty of the titan Prometheus, which relates to the former’s leadership ability.  Second, Prometheus is chained and suffers his liver eaten, over a long period of time, which he himself divines.  Third, while both Hephaestus and Ocean feel Prometheus’s pain profusely, there is nothing they can do to relieve Prometheus’s suffering; this is something that the protagonist must bear.[44]

 

To this end, Ocean even tells Prometheus to stop the complaining about his predicament.[45]  Indeed, if Prometheus “could master these emotions,” then his life “would be just.”[46]  Because Prometheus can see the future, he is fortunate to know that he will be free and that his offspring will be the catalyst of his relief vis-à-vis Zeus.  However, knowing his future does not bring him relief: He cannot visualize his future ‘actualized’ self, in an Aristotelian sense.

 

Finally, while Prometheus endures his punishment, ultimately he believes he does so unfairly.  In the last line, Prometheus proclaims, “How unjustly I suffer!”[47]  Aeschylus’s version of the tragedy leaves the reader sensing that above all, Prometheus is a narcissist who refuses to accept the fact that he caused his own predicament.  Aristotle would say that Prometheus has the “craft”[48] but is not wiser for the events that passed.[49] 

 

In this case, the power held by Zeus was fire and his desire was to keep fire under his control and out of the hands of humanity.  Thus, Zeus’s “knowledge [of fire] is a rational account” of its danger.[50]  Prometheus would have known the “form” of fire, knowing that this element was intended for use by the gods.[51]  Therefore, Prometheus can be seen as a narcissist in denial or a naïve believer in his own actions.

 

The Liver Organ

 

Worth noting is that in Timaeus, Plato saw several issues with the liver, two of which link to Prometheus Bound. First, impurities…turn up all around the liver,”[52] which must be cleansed in some manner.  Second, the liver holds the power of “divination.”[53] The eagle sent by Zeus eats Prometheus’s liver,[54] so just as the organ is purified, Prometheus’s power putatively putrefies.  Prometheus becomes both better and worse simultaneously: Zeus removes that which is causing Prometheus to subvert Zeus’s will and decreases Prometheus’s ability to see the future.

 

Because the liver grows back daily, Prometheus can divine that the eagle will return and once again feast upon him, thereby increasing his torture.  Nevertheless, this ‘purification process’ seems to have continued elsewhere in other cultures, with the Christian’s passion of Christ and the Hindu’s belief in suffering as part of the process of samsara.  Though the suffering in these religious cultures is not the end point, but part of a continuum of existence.  Likewise, the title character in Prometheus Bound knows he will be freed one day: perhaps Aeschylus wanted to show that the punishment is both “pointless”[55] and not fatal.[56]  Aristotle might say that the punishment Prometheus bears is transformative.

 

Time

 

Both Ocean and Hephaestus lament Prometheus’s punishment because of injustice and the stature of Prometheus in the pantheon of the gods; there is, though, a sense that time is being wasted by having Prometheus chained up, albeit temporarily.  Prometheus knows this state is transitory.  He is, therefore, in several Aristotelian states: while chained, he has the being of the free Prometheus and the punished one, with the potentiality of becoming the post-punished Prometheus.

 

Aristotle sees time as never beginning and always continuing -- eternal.[57]  Perhaps this is why Prometheus does not see the punishment by Zeus as worthy of the time spent chained, because he can see the future and knows he will be free.  So in the end of Aeschylus’s story, Prometheus may not be in denial, rather, he may be lamenting the time wasted until he is free again and can get his life back.  What appears to be missing, however, is the effect of fire on humanity.

 

Prometheus’s zeal to ensure man had fire is evident; the result, in the context of the story, is not.  All the reader is left with is the knowledge that fire is a destabilizing element.  Plato argues that the he who created the universe did so because “order was in every way better than disorder.”[58]  Of all the elements, fire is known for its ability to create disasters[59] and now Prometheus has given fire to man; perhaps Zeus knows chaos will disrupt the extant order, which thus justifies his anger.

 

Conclusion

 

Prometheus Bound, Timaeus, and Aristotelian philosophy share many similarities, and some disagreements.  Among these are political power, dissent against extant rule, the elements, the senses, including suffering, and the nature of time.  Politics and especially political structures are areas where the philosophies diverge, at least in their description and use.  Aeschylus describes a tyranny run by Zeus, whose power is usurped by the “young in soul,”[60] or impertinent, Prometheus.  Aristotle portrays a polity whose virtuous and responsible citizens perform their civic duty of leading themselves with a goal of “living well.”[61]  Quite a dichotomy exists between these two examples, but there are other ways to view these works.

 

            In Aristotle’s system, citizens know and follow the rules of the community, and judge each other.  In the gods’ system, failure to follow the reign of Zeus begets punishment; this is an autocracy against which Prometheus rebels.  Of course, Zeus punishes Prometheus for giving fire to man and ensures Hephaestus carries out that justice.  This method naturally disagrees with Aristotle’s city where citizens judge each other.

 

Of the elements, fire is the only one that man did not have, and while Prometheus sees that man will benefit from this gift, Zeus can only see the act as a threat to his power; a misunderstanding related to form and nature.  This dichotomy leads to Prometheus’s sense that he suffers unjustly, but again he is not living in an Aristotelian city.  Lastly, both Zeus and Prometheus will undergo a transformation,[62] brought on by this issue of fire: Zeus chains Prometheus and attacks his power center, his liver, but without long-term effect as the latter awaits the former’s foreseeable finish and ultimately his freedom.

 

 



[1] Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2012), 177-181.

[2] Aristotle, Politics (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1996), 1323a20.

[3] Ibid., 1252a1-1323b15.

[4] Aeschylus, 250-251.

[5] Aristotle, Politics, 1277a30-33.

[6] Aeschylus, 355.

[7] Ibid., 54.

[8] Ibid., 949-950.

[9] Ibid., 948-956.

[10] Aristotle, Politics, 1282a29-33.

[11] Ibid., 1261b1-7.

[12] Ibid., 1277a15-17.

[13] Ibid., 1277b10-11.

[14] Ibid., 1252b28-29.

[15] Ibid., 1261a10-25.

[16] Ibid., 1275a23-24.

[17] Aeschylus, 178. Ocean also decries Prometheus’s fettered state, but concedes the will of Zeus must be followed.

[18] Ibid., 997.

[19] Aristotle, De Anima, 433a9-30.

[20] Ibid., 433a22-27.

[21] Aeschylus, 225-240.

[22] Ibid., 969.

[23] Plato, Timaeus, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2000), 40a.  Interestingly enough, taking this line of symbolism further, if Zeus is made of fire and Prometheus steals that fire and gives that element to man, one could say that Prometheus has bestowed the power, if not the immortality, of the gods onto man.  In Aeschylus’s story, Prometheus steals the power of the gods for man; in Christianity, Jesus bestows the glory of God onto man so that man could have everlasting life.  Thus, here one can see the juxtaposition between the ancient Greek and the early Christian.

[24] Ibid., 42c-d; 42e-43a.

[25] Aristotle, Physics, 256a-256b.

[26] Plato, 51b-51c. Italics in the Zeyl translation.

[27] Ibid., 56c.

[28] Aeschylus, 275-280.

[29] Aristotle, Physics, 198b10-21.

[30] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1010b1-3.

[31] Aeschylus, 279.

[32] Ibid., 277. 

[33] Aristotle, Physics, 259a6.

[34] Plato, 63c-d.

[35] Ibid., 50a.

[36] Aeschylus, 293.

[37] Aristotle, Physics, 193b2-5.

[38] Ibid., 190b25-30.

[39] Aristotle, De Anima, 414b1-5.

[40] Aristotle, Poetics, 1450a8-11.

[41] Ibid., 1450a40-1450b1.

[42] Plato, 71e.

[43] Aristotle, Poetics, 1450a8-11.

[44] Plato, 315-319.

[45] Aeschylus, 340-350.

[46] Plato, 42b-c.

[47] Aeschylus, 1113.

[48] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1046b1-30 passim.

[49] Ibid., 981a25-30.

[50] Ibid., 1046b7.

[51] Aristotle, Physics, 194b10-11.

[52] Plato, 72c.

[53] Ibid., 71d-e.

[54] Aeschylus, 1025-1027.

[55] Ibid., 1005.

[56] Ibid., 1055.

[57] Aristotle, Physics, 239b5-240a5.

[58] Plato, 30a.

[59] Ibid., 22c.

[60] Ibid., 22b.

[61] Aristotle, Politics, 1280b40.

[62] Plato, 49e and 56c.  Plato describes fire as having “becoming.”  Because of fire, Zeus and Prometheus can go through a change by “subtraction,” “alteration,” etc, per Aristotle, Physics, 190b5-10.

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