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Prometheus in the Modern Age: from Frankenstein to Elon Musk - by Emma Bentley

Who is Prometheus?

Myths of tricksters stealing fire to benefit humanity are common across world mythology. For the ancient Greeks, this takes form in Prometheus. Prometheus first appears in the works of the archaic poet Hesiod (c. 750 - 650 BCE). Known for his deceptions, Prometheus fools Zeus by presenting him with two sacrificial offerings: beef concealed by a stomach, and bones covered in glistening fat. Zeus chooses the latter, and, angry about being fooled, hides fire from mankind in response. Prometheus steals this fire and returns it to humanity. Subsequently, Zeus orders him to be chained to a mountainside as an eagle pecks his eternally-regenerating liver. Zeus also punishes humanity by gifting them Pandora and her jar of evils (commonly known as Pandora’s box).

In the fifth-century BCE tragedy Prometheus Bound, the playwright Aeschylus interpreted the myth differently. Prometheus’ gifts of fire, intelligence and technical skill facilitate human advancement. The differences between the Hesiodic and Aeschylean strands of the myth invite varying interpretations: does progress via the Promethean powers of intellect and technology bring prosperity, or will reaching beyond one's position result in suffering? Should human advancement, facilitated by fire, be celebrated or interrogated?

From antiquity to the present day, there is a rich tradition of engagement with these questions, especially surrounding science and technology. For example, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) is subtitled 'The Modern Prometheus', alluding to the consequences of seeking knowledge and power through scientific discovery, and Prometheus, the 2012 prequel film to Ridley Scott's Alien franchise, borrows themes from its Greek namesake. More recently in 2020, Elon Musk, the CEO of tech companies such as Tesla, Neuralink and Space-X, ambiguously tweeted the phrase 'Prometheus Unbound'.

Why does this myth resonate with such a varied audience, particularly in relation to science and technology?

Prometheus Brings Fire, 1817, by Heinrich Friedrich Füger
Prometheus Brings Fire, 1817, by Heinrich Friedrich Füger

Prometheus in the 19th Century

The potential danger of new knowledge and technologies is a central theme of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Here, Victor Frankenstein creates a murderous creature from human cadavers. Shelley may have been inspired by multiple versions of the myth: the Roman poet Ovid has Prometheus create mankind from clay; Hesiod writes that humans were implicated in Prometheus' punishment; inquiry and technological development are central to Aeschylus' tragedy. One should not over-emphasise the significance of the subtitle, yet Frankenstein and Prometheus are both creators, one transgressing against Zeus, the other against the laws of nature; in both, knowledge causes pain.

Shelley interrogates the failure to consider the ethical consequences of playing god (creating life) via scientific experiment, especially as Frankenstein pursues knowledge over human benefit. Here, we begin to see an association made between Prometheus and the work of the scientist.

Promethean Individuals

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it is not uncommon to hear individuals described as 'Promethean'. They usually work within the fields of science and technology and are considered to push the boundaries of human endeavour. Prometheus, interpreted as intellectual and rebellious, becomes a symbol for the human spirit. This version of Prometheus has the most in common with the depictions by Aeschylus and, as we shall see, Mary Shelley's husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

A figure who has referenced Prometheus, and been referred to in Promethean terms, is Elon Musk. It is easy to see why: his company Neuralink aims to develop 'ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers', and Space-X was founded with the goal of enabling colonisation to Mars, reportedly to save humanity from potential disaster. Articles that compare Musk to Prometheus draw upon the Aeschylean strand of the myth, where Promethean technologies cause intellectual and societal progress. Yet innovation is never wholly positive: Musk’s self-driving Tesla cars have previously crashed with fatal results, raising the question of who is responsible.

Musk's tweet, 'Prometheus Unbound', is the title of a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here, a tyrannical Jupiter (the Roman version of Zeus) loses support and falls from power. Prometheus is subsequently released from his punishment. With this two-word tweet, is Musk countering critics by presenting himself as a rebellious, philanthropic Prometheus? Or, does he suggest that knowledge will elevate mankind beyond current limitations and restraints? Perhaps this tweet is meaningless nonsense, yet Musk, knowingly or not, draws upon the image of Prometheus the inventor.

Musk is not the first real-life figure to be compared to Prometheus. In 2005, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin released a biography of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, entitled 'American Prometheus'. Oppenheimer is best known for his role in the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb. Here, he is represented as intellectually brilliant but tormented by the consequences of his scientific work: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Prometheus, reduced to a symbol for technology-driven change, embodies a major advance in knowledge that caused many deaths.

Why Prometheus?

A key question arises: why is Prometheus evoked as a symbol to describe an individual, group, or invention? The Prometheus myths of antiquity are each philosophically nuanced, and their reflections on what it means to be (and become) human are inherently mouldable. As we saw with Frankenstein and Oppenheimer, a mention of Prometheus may prompt us to consider the dangerous ethical consequences of technological innovation.

However, Prometheus the rebellious philanthropist can be evoked to suggest that somebody would sacrifice themselves for the benefit of human knowledge and prosperity. This implies the existence of a Zeus-like tyrant, standing in opposition to noble Promethean aims. For example, biophysicist Gregory Stock suggests that it is “characteristically human” to act like Prometheus and resist the obstacles of nature via human genetic engineering. The Prometheus of antiquity has nothing to do with modern genetic science; however, myth and metaphor help Stock present his argument, one that may have troubling ethical results, as inherently true.

Myth can be a tool to explore the changing world around us, carefully curate an image of an individual or oneself, or present an opinion as a fact. Science-fiction novels, atom bombs, and Musk’s spacecraft would have been unimaginable to Greeks engaging with Prometheus, yet his function as a symbol for either the dangers or benefits of knowledge mean that the myth can be used for personal, political, or ideological purposes. It is the job of the Classicist to ask how and why.

Further Reading

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound.

Bear, Elizabeth (2017) “Frankenstein Reframed; or, the Trouble with Prometheus” in Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. 231 – 238.

Bilton, Nick (2020) “Elon Musk’s Totally Awful, Batshit Crazy, Completely Bonkers, Most Excellent Year” in Vanity Fair, December 2020: 54-57; 88-89.

Bird, Kai and Sherwin, Martin J. (2005) American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. New York.

Hauskeller, Michael (2009) “Prometheus unbound: Transhumanist arguments from (human) nature” in Ethical Perspectives 16.1: 3-20.

Hesiod, Theogony; Works and Days.

Ovid, Metamorphoses.

Shelley, Mary (1818) Frankenstein.

Shelley, Percy (1820) Prometheus Unbound.

Stock, Gregory (2002) Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future. New York.

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