Because he could see the future — because his name, after all, means Forethought — Prometheus had a knack for staying on the right side of history, and his brother Epimetheus was happy to follow his lead. That’s how they wound up arrayed alongside their cousins (those upstarts who’d later become known as the Olympians) against their own Titanic forebears. Call it the demand for justice, if you like. After all, their uncle Kronos was the first but one tyrant, whose scythe turns up everything the earth produces and whose teeth grind all grain to dust. And when Gaia unleashed her destructive powers in the form of giants and monsters bent on dragging Olympos itself back into the omphalos of the earth, Prometheus’s help again proved decisive. Here, the chief assistance he provided was to have created something capable of worshipping the gods: mortal human beings, whose lack alone of all the great lacks in the cosmos (for lack is both the first and last word of all that there is) were capable of experiencing their lack as lack. It was only with the assistance of we human beings, we limitless lackers, we constant fantasists, we inconstant, restless lovers, we betters on all the bad horses, we pathetically limited, weak, pathos-laden, frankly a little pathetic, certainly quite ridiculous human beings, that the Olympians for all their might could manage to eke out a victory against the Earth’s overwhelming desire to return all that she’s ever made in her infinite creativity back to the even more infinite embrace of her own slumber. We came to the gods’ aids by letting their powers come to enough presence to assume an effective form. And we did this by worshipping them, by looking up to the heights of Olympos and choosing the divine attributes arrayed thereupon from all the infinite possible divine attributes (that Spinoza assures us there are) and saying: “This, we worship. These are the things we aspire to. They are ours, these powers we identify with.”
You might think I’ve just repeated the same basic idea three times, obeying, no doubt the dictate of some overblown, high-falutin’ rhetorical theory, inspired equally by my lack of adequate sleep and the just human enough grandeur of foothills of the the Italian and French Alps parading themselves outside my train window. But don’t let yourself by fooled. Every one of those claims is different.
And in this, I’m simply following Prometheus’s lead. Prometheus, who had a knack for staying on the right side of history. This does not always mean: remaining faithful to the Gods.
|Moreau recalls the ruse of the Muses|
Hesiod tells us that Prometheus eventually betrayed Zeus. First, by stealing fire for his human creations and then (after that first betrayal had eventuated an equably Epicurean settlement) by tricking Zeus into taking the worst cut from the flesh of the animals the gods commanded that we mortals sacrifice to them, and which they taught us to eat. This is all true, of course. It happened just like the Muses told Hesiod it did when they appeared to him on the slopes of Parnassus. But Hesiod wasn’t one for irony so he missed the import of the bit when the Muses paraphrased without explicitly citing Plato. And so he failed to identify the deepest lie they told, in the grips of which they were in collusion with Prometheus. (Let’s call this not the most noble, but the most human lie: the myth of the truth). Hesiod, then, failed to notice the rebellion by the youngest Olympians against the very idea of Olympos, in the name of the idea of the idea itself.
Prometheus stole fire so we could compensate for our awareness of our own lack. In what at first appeared to be the compromise of sharing our meals with the God, Prometheus in fact taught both us and the Gods that we were locked in a struggle with them for the best bits of that of which there is never enough to share. But Prometheus, the first transcendental philosopher (here I follow the Muses in paraphrasing without citing a philosopher we would all do better to cite less), had already set up the condition for these conflicts in the very first gift he gave us, the one he tricked Zeus to ask of him. Our capacity to feel lack, our ability to worship the gods, was premised on our sharing with Prometheus — something even the gods for the most part lack — the capacity to see the future, not in the sense of predicting it accurately, but in the sense of seeing that there’s such a thing as the future at all. In this, he was colluding with the young Olympians who he knew would someday eclipse the tyranny of their parents.
Because Hesiod failed to identify Prometheus’s original betrayal, he also failed to notice Prometheus’s revenge. Aeschylus had intimations of it, but because he failed to recognize that the reason Prometheus knew the root of Zeus’s eventual (inevitable) downfall, was that he was a coconspirator, perhaps its primary author, he imagined the story ending with a reconciliation between Zeus and Prometheus. Thousands of years later, Shelley finally heard Prometheus’s laughter. But he too, in his triumphant humanism, in his conviction that surely the justice that motivated Prometheus was recognizable as justice to we humans, failed to hear the echo in that laughter, in which Prometheus and a few of the younger gods had hidden themselves.
And so it was we who were the ones who offed the Olympians, as we finally proceeded to realize our ideas were either simply in the world by virtue of its nature, or else perhaps of our making. As we proceeded to emancipate ourselves of the last vestiges of the superstitious worship of that more than human natural world to which, our mother/father/progenitorbeyondgender though it may be, we owe absolutely no worship, a force of whom we cannot fail to notice that justice is lacking, we have failed except in a few glimpses to notice the ominously but entirely immanently divine nature of the forces by which we effected this liberation, in whose mighty nature the youngest, most human of the Olympians hid themselves: the Muses, whom I’ve already mentioned, and their dreamy bandleader, Apollo, and his sister Artemis, who scorns the safety of fire at night to master the darkest corners of the wild, and wise, crafty Athena and slow but cunning Hephaestus, and yes even savage Ares and, okay, I’ll concede to you mad Dionysos, and madness making Aphrodite (but watch out! They’ve just tricked you with their young looks as they are in truth the oldest, least human divinities of all) and alongside them, Prometheus, deliberate philosophical architect of this cosmic Trojan horse, this world deprived of the divine in which the most human gods have smuggled themselves.
And what of Prometheus’s faithful brother? Was Prometheus really so faithless and fickle as to have abandoned him?
Or, in cosmic history, in the long genealogy of phantasms Gaia jealously dreams, are we really the final thought? Is our victory so assured as we are inclined to think?