Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Aeschylus: Reflections on Suffering, Law and Justice in "Prometheus Bound"

Aeschylus' play opens with Prometheus chained to a rock on a nameless cliff at the outer edge of the world, in Tartarus. Prometheus committed the ultimate sin of stealing fire from the immortal gods and giving it to human kind. For this act, Zeus condemned him to an eternity of suffering. The rest of the play considers whether Prometheus is unjustly punished for his deed. Like God at the murder of Christ, Zeus never appears in this play, but his messengers convey the idea that Zeus feels Prometheus betrayed him by giving fire to the human race, a species not worthy of such love. Although, no written law has been broken, the play suggests that fire was never intended for human use, and so Prometheus knew well the risk he was taking...

I have known all that you said: I knew,
I knew when I transgressed nor will deny it.
In helping man I brought my troubles on me;

Never does Prometheus deny having done the deed for which he is punished. Yet, like Job, he feels his punishment is too severe, that Zeus is not a just and noble god but a cruel, vindictive tyrant who abuses his power.

I can win no pity: pitiless is he
that thus chastises me, a spectacle
bringing dishonor on the name of Zeus...
I know that he is savage: and his justice
a thing he keeps by his own standard

Here, we might be tempted to respond, as Hermes does to Prometheus, that if you willfully break the law, you should expect to be punished. But in this case, does the punishment fit the crime, or is Zeus being petty and sadistic? It helps to recall that Zeus is not the father of Prometheus, whose real father was Kronos, the sovereign ruler of the Titans. Zeus and his immortal siblings subdued the Titans in a tremendous war for world supremacy, a war in which Prometheus was persuaded by his mother to join Zeus. Thus, according to Prometheus, Zeus only became master of the universe by a kind of coup d'état over Kronos. So, does that make Zeus an illegitimate ruler? And if Zeus is illegitimate, can he possibly be a just god?

Let us consider the crime of Prometheus: he stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind.

As soon as he ascended to the throne
that was his father's, straightway he assigned
to the several gods their several privileges
and portioned out the power, but to the unhappy
breed of mankind he gave no heed, intending
to blot the race out and create a new.
Against these plans none stood save I: I dared.
I rescued men from shattering destruction

So, to a weak and suffering race of people, Prometheus brought salvation. Not only did he bring fire, but he brought hope to a people that had none.

I caused mortals to cease foreseeing doom...
I placed in them blind hopes

In fact, he did more than this. He brought to them the skills of craft making, measuring, literacy, the domestication of animals, herbal medicine, brick making, the ability to interpret omens, and all manner of "subtle devices," such that "all arts that mortals have come from Prometheus." And for doing this he is,

...hated of all
the gods that enter Zeus's palace hall,
because of my excessive love for man.

Clearly, from the point of view of mankind, Prometheus is not a criminal but a hero, a savior of the human race. But other gods see things differently...

Now play the insolent; now, plunder the gods' privileges and give
them to creatures of a day. What drop of your sufferings can mortals
spare you?

It seems that in his act of rebellion Prometheus stands alone. Does that mean he is wrong? Are there times when it is noble to stand up to authority and resist injustice? If Zeus decides to annihilate mankind or simply ignore their miserable condition until they starve to death, is it unjust to oppose him? Where exactly does justice fit in here?

However Zeus came to power, he is now, de facto, ruler of the universe. No one, man or god, can withstand the lethal impact of his thunderbolts. But does superior power give anyone unlimited moral authority over life and death? If so, what does justice really mean? In the Roman Republic (from which we get our concept of law), justice is regarded as the proper administration of law, or the fair and equal treatment of individuals under the law. But when law becomes simply the will of a tyrant, then how are we to identify what is just or unjust? Without law, as Cicero would say, no man is free. What duty does the slave owe his master?

Worship him, pray; flatter whatever king
is king today; but I care less than nothing
for Zeus. Let him do what he likes,
let him be king for his short time: he shall not
be king for long.

Here, Prometheus gives the same advice as Odysseus might give to Agamemnon: to use flattery and deception when direct confrontation is not possible. Trickery might work sometimes, but is it right? Is lying to your sovereign acceptable, or is Prometheus just being spiteful?

One way to decide is to see how other characters in the play react to Prometheus's fate. Is he alone in his belief about Zeus, or do others feel the same way? At the beginning, when he is chaining Prometheus to the cliff, Hephaestus, the god of Tartarus, shows sympathy for Prometheus. He is not sure that gods should ever be imprisoned:

But for myself, I have not the heart to bind violently a god who is my kin
here on this wintry cliff. Yet there is constraint upon me to have the heart for just that, for it is a dangerous thing to treat the Father's words lightly.

To ensure that his orders are properly carried out, Zeus, acting like Tony Soprano, sends his enforcers, his muscle men Might and Violence. Yet these characters cannot be relied upon for any philosophical truth because they represent the power of Zeus, not his moral authority. Their duty is to carry out the will of their master. As Might says,

There is nothing without discomfort except the overlordship of the gods. For only Zeus is free.

In other words, no one is free but the one who rules over us all. So why talk about justice? In biblical terms, it is like Job or Abraham standing before God and asking why? Or, to put it another way, how can justice ever exist between unequal parties? Unless both parties adhere to a standard of justice, it cannot exist. Justice implies a relationship between one god and other gods, or between one man and other men. But there is no room for justice between dogs and cats, or between gods and men.

Since Prometheus is immortal, one might be argue that some type of justice does exist between Zeus and other gods. But this is not so. Zeus is much stronger than all other Olympian gods. In fact, he is so much stronger that no one even bothers to challenge his authority. This being the case, unless Zeus voluntarily limits his own power, there can be no justice (nor democracy) in Olympus. Zeus can be tricked (and often is by Hera), but he cannot be defeated in battle. Tyrants rule by intimidation, not by a show of hands. As Immanuel Kant would argue, moral authority is never derived from power alone but from reason. As long as Zeus remains all powerful, he cannot be a just ruler, for his judgment is indistinguishable from his will (desire). Unless the will is absolutely Good (as in the Hebrew god, Yahweh), then justice lies outside the province of any single creature. Unlike Yahweh, Zeus did not create himself nor did he create the world in which he lives. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that a power (or being) greater than Zeus must exist. Thus, it is to this greater power that we must look to find justice, for it cannot be found in Olympus.

To mortal man, justice stands apart from any particular form of government. We think we know the difference between justice and injustice because we believe we can tell the difference between good and evil. When Io appears before Prometheus and tells her sad story of harassment by Zeus and Hera, we all feel that an injustice has been done to her. Yet she, unlike Prometheus, did nothing to deserve her fate. But she suffers all the same. In a civilized society, one of the presumptions of justice is that guilty people are punished, and the innocent are left unharmed. So, even if one argues that Prometheus deserves his punishment, why is Io made to suffer?

This brings up the Greek idea of fate, or the law of necessity. Fate controls everything. Even Zeus cannot overpower fate. How can justice co-exist with necessity? If fate controls everything, what's the use of complaining about injustice? On the other hand, Prometheus has the gift of prophecy and can see what the future holds. He sees a time in the distant future when Zeus himself will be overcome by another, and his reign shall come to an end. Is Aeschylus saying that fate brings its own measure of justice? And if so, must fate be the ultimate judge of our actions? Of course, in the Christian universe, fate means the same thing as God's will, and so, in that sense, fate stands for the divine judgment that awaits us all. But in secular terms, fate just means whatever natural law brings about. In other words, the planets and stars above follow their own orbits, irrespective of our wishes. Is there justice between the sun and the moon? Maybe, if you believe that justice is what happens "when everything is in its place." But for mankind, justice, like religious faith, exists only as long as our belief in it continues to sustain us. Belief is what finally separates us from the rest of creation. We judge ourselves and, in doing so, we become fully human.


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