Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound is a lively testament to the Greek intellectual achievements of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. In Aeschylus’ poetry one finds subtle reflections of the new learning and advances in both ethical and natural philosophy.
For instance, Apollo’s defense of Orestes, that the mother is not even related to her children, but rather that the father provides the “seed” and the generative material, evinces the current state of medical theory and anticipates Aristotle’s efficient cause. Okeanos’ mandate to Prometheus to “come to know yourself” echoes the maxim inscribed at Delphi as well as a dictum attributed to Heraclitus that he claimed to have searched out himself. Kahn suggests that this little fragment may presuppose the Delphic maxim or even the Christian ideal of alienation from one’s (true) self. Awareness, knowledge, and understanding—of self and one’s environment—were the very cornerstones of early Greek philosophy whose purpose was to seek the causes of things and to understand the natural world. For Heraclitus and others, this line of rational inquiry was the path to wisdom.
Transparently, the play is about fire, which serves as the central image of Heraclitus’ natural philosophy and as the connective symbol of the Prometheus. Fire, according to Kratos, is the prerogative of Hephaestus, who unwillingly binds his kinsman. To Heraclitus, fire serves as the catalyst with which change occurs and by which the world is governed. At the most basic level, it serves as the foundation of the world. The world-fire correlates to the soul in an individual and that soul’s constituent fiery make-up determines to what degree one can understand and comprehend the cosmos. In the Prometheus, fire represents technological advancement and the means for understanding the causes of things.
Heraclitus’ balance of elemental properties can be seen throughout the Prometheus. The description of the eruption of Aetna manifests the central facet of Heraclitus’ natural philosophy; that fire is the dynamis by the agency of which all things cycle. Heraclitus’ binary cosmos is evoked in Prometheus’ antagonism and hostility to Zeus’ world order, the conflict between Logos and Bia or Kratos, the contrast between opposites and the equilibrium resulting from their unity, and the preeminence of fire, Heraclitus’ fundamental catalyst, as a reagent in the Prometheus and as the foundation of all human technology.
The author of the Prometheus astutely draws broadly from early Greek natural philosophy, and this is reflected in the tone, scope, and thematic resonance of the play. Isolated phrases suggest that the playwright engaged widely with trends in philosophical inquiry. Although much in the play does reflect and build from Heraclitus’ doxography—the prevalence of fire to actuate change, the preeminence of justice, the value of Logos over force as the path to wisdom—Prometheus Bound is no apology for Heraclitan natural philosophy. It, in fact, has no central philosophical goal which at times leaves it wandering aimlessly.
Prometheus’ opening and closing words may derive from or anticipate Empedoclean physics, not Heraclitan, where four elements provide the substrate for the material world. Finally, despite Prometheus’ Job-like suffering, unjust and public, Aeschylus’ outlook differs significantly from the pessimistic Heraclitus. Prometheus gives humankind blind hopes to alleviate the pain of foreseeing doom. He resists fully revealing Io’s future lest that knowledge adds to her despair. Like his mother, the mis-Gaia, Prometheus has the power of unerring prophecy, of foresight, and he knows that Zeus will mellow and mature. There is a limit to Prometheus’ sufferings, and there is a limit to the torments besetting Io whose travails parallel Prometheus’: she will be returned to human form by Zeus’ gentle touch. Prometheus will be freed by a descendant of Io in the thirteenth generation, and the elements, wind, water and earth, will find equilibrium through the modulations of fire.
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