“Prometheus Bound” (via Hesiod, Aeschylus, Heidegger, McLuhan)
Thinking of the Kuhn discussion, I’d like to look at how a mythical culture understands an innovation of techné/craft; here treated as both a divinely revealed gift and the ground of human tragedy.
We start with the Titan Prometheus. In the Theogony, Hesiod depicts Prometheus as a sly trickster who angered Zeus by giving him the bones of an ox wrapped in glistening fat to eat. For unclear reasons, Zeus responded by vowing to keep the secret of fire from mankind, but Prometheus secreted away a ray of fire for man in a fennel stalk, a story that could reflect earlier man’s experience with fire sparked by lightning and carried by similar means. When he found out, Zeus punished Prometheus by having him bound to a pillar, where his liver was munched on by an eagle each day and regenerated each night, until he was finally freed by Heracles. Man, meanwhile, was punished with the creation of woman, according to the misogynist Hesiod, the source of all his troubles. Ever the Zeus propagandist, Hesiod uses the Prometheus story to show, “It is impossible to hoodwink Zeus, or to surpass him”. But, of course, Prometheus did hoodwink Zeus.
Living in a time of Athenian optimism (mid-400s BCE), Aeschylus, instead, depicts Zeus as a tyrant, recently enthroned by coup, paranoid about losing power, and planning to exterminate man. Some readers doubt the generally pious Aeschylus could have created this Zeus, but he isn’t much different from the bullying character elsewhere in mythology. Also, Aeschylus doesn’t really describe Prometheus’s gifts as pure windfalls. For example, his first gift, the ability to imagine a happy future, hides from men their wretched actuality. The other gifts: medicine, astrology, writing, metallurgy, and fire are also mixed blessings. Man’s imaginative creations somehow alienate him from his own condition, allowing him to deceive himself as to his mortal physical state. Prometheus is still a trickster. This is pilfered divine knowledge, hidden from men because, with it, they would be as gods, but not gods. The human condition is tragic precisely because we can imagine a future brighter than we are allowed by nature.
Aeschylus recognizes that the Promethean revelations changed the character of human life. Before them, humanity lived underground, trapped in caves, with eyes that did not see and ears that did not hear. As in Plato’s depiction, this is a state of sensorial immediacy in which man is rapt in the body and the present moment. Aeschylus makes much of the name Prometheus, which is connected to “fore-thought”. Prometheus allows man to conceptualize the future and, thus, to escape embodied immediacy; to extend himself in time. Writing lets him do this with speech, separating it from thought and making it possible for his language to be extended thousands of years into the future. Writing also separates action and reaction, the mind and the body.
For allowing man to extend his mind beyond his body, Prometheus is punished by being nailed down to his own body. In a sense, Aeschylus realizes that the body, which we experience in finite space, is misled by the mind, which we experience in extended time. Human tragedy is in forgetting where we are, which is who we are.
Socrates worried about writing in part because he thought this externalization would cause the memory to atrophy. Some writers, who have bought into the current mantra/falsehood, “technologies are neither good nor bad, but neutral”, ridicule Socrates on this point. But ask yourself how many contemporaries you know who can recite the Iliad.
Innovation then is a mixed godsend. Heidegger writes of Greek techné as poi?sis- bringing forth, involving the mutual play of four causes: Material, Aspect (eidos), Boundaries, and the workman’s considering carefully (forethought). For example, Prometheus’s shackles were brought forth mutually by: Material (iron), Aspect (the form the shackles assume when completed), Boundaries (staying within physical boundaries, but also the boundaries of its purpose), and the ironsmith’s forethough. Heidegger’s point about techné is that the Greeks saw it as a bringing forth and a revealing of truth. He compares this to technology, in which nature is “reframed” as a storehouse of raw material and sees the Greek conception as superior. A typical German mystic, he mistakes a Greek curse for a volkish blessing.
Communications technologies are something else entirely. Against the Panglossian sunshine of an Esther Dyson (We are living in the best of all digital worlds), let’s counter with the Catholic mystic Marshall McLuhan, who saw machine technology as an extension of the human body and communications technologies as an extension of the human central nervous system; but who also saw this externalization as creating numbness and atrophy in the bodily part superseded by its own externalized creation. We became what we beheld. In changing our scale, we lose our place.
Both McLuhan and Heidegger are unequivocally pessimistic about technological change. I wonder if it’s not possible to do further damage to their ideas by blurring their warnings together. I wonder if McLuhan isn’t also talking about reframing thought as a reified and externalized storehouse of “raw material”. Certainly, when you watch digital addicts trying to function in the physical world, you recognize their discomfort with the body (boring!); but also their discomfort with the mind as private, internal, and sacred (even more boring!). The mass Gnosticism of the internet seems more like yearning for release from body and soul. Nevertheless, we remain nailed in place.
Ultimately, I think Aeschylus sees the creative imaginings of man as blessings of divine revelation, in that they have allowed us every innovation that has improved our lot; but the root of our tragedy, in that they have allowed us to imagine dethroning the gods and placing ourselves inside a larger scale than our finite existence really allows, at least without tragedy ensuing. And following the atomic bomb and factory-produced deaths of the last century, it’s hard not to feel that we would benefit a bit from a revival of the tragic sense. Sadly, the gods have already been dethroned.