Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

AESCHYLUS: Prometheus Bound

Some literature seems to grow over time. I first read Prometheus Bound as a college student and understood immediately what it was all about. It was obviously an allegory about the older generation (aka Zeus) trying to muzzle the artistic and spiritual freedom of the younger generation (aka Prometheus). To me, Prometheus was a great romantic poet who posed a dire threat to a decrepit social order, so he had to be crushed. Prometheus was like Shelley or like, well, me. Zeus was an old fogey. He represented an established order, like T.S. Eliot or Richard Nixon or somebody. According to this reading, Prometheus is a scapegoat and suffers unjustly.

Years passed and a funny thing happened to the play: it grew. Several layers of meaning either sprouted out of it or glommed on to it by the passage of time. Now I was reading almost a totally different play. It wasn’t at all about youthful artistic freedom (whatever that means) or breaking the bonds of tyranny, it was really about spreading chaos and anarchy versus the maintenance of an established orderly society. Here we have a traitor (Prometheus) willing to literally overturn Heaven and Earth to get his own way. He boxes in the authorities (Zeus) until there’s no alternative left but to punish the rebellious (Prometheus) in order to maintain safety and stability for the rest of the gods. Reading it this way, Prometheus was guilty of treason against his own kindred and got exactly what was coming to him.

Which one of these readings is correct? Maybe both are too extreme. For example, why is Prometheus so sure that he’s right and Zeus is wrong? Is it worth risking civil war to find out? Who gets to decide these things? And Prometheus is certainly courageous to make a stand against blatant injustice. But is it courageous to make a stand against overwhelming force, or is that just plain foolish and stubborn? These are the kinds of questions a younger reader must grapple with. A middle aged reader faces different dilemmas: Zeus has to punish Prometheus in some way. Why? Because he (Zeus) was the new king and Prometheus challenged his authority. If he did nothing the other gods might rebel too. On the other hand, was Prometheus’ punishment too harsh? Is there a better way to handle youth without totally crushing its spirit? Would a better leader have been able to gain his objective without resorting to brute force?

Years ago a seed was planted in my mind: the image of an immortal god chained to a rock for 500 years. From that seed sprouted all kinds of questions that have evolved over time: What is the nature of authority? How can we tell when it’s being abused? What is the purpose of punishment? What happened to faith in the ancient Greek gods? Why did it die away? These questions are seeds from within the text and they sprouted from reading the text itself. But other issues glom on from outside the text, coming from my own experience of life. As time passes the play becomes more complex and its questions pop up in the oddest places. For instance, the other day I heard a clacking-clacking in the woods and discovered two young bucks butting antlers for dominance. Is this the way conflict is settled in the real world – through brute force? I suspect that one of these years, close to the end of life, I’ll set aside questions of authority and punishment and brute force. I’ll be more interested in a bigger question at that point: what is death like? And yet another reading of the play may be revealed: What would it be like, really, to be immortal? Would I want to be immortal if it meant spending the next 500 years chained to a rock? I’m not sure. But I am sure of one thing - Aeschylus knew the important questions in life. And he knew how to write good plays too, plays that tend to grow along with you.

-- RDP


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