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The Myth of Prometheus Is Not a Cautionary Tale
The Greeks didn't think fire was a mistake. (P.S. You're also getting Frankenstein wrong.)
Listening to Marc Andreessen discuss his Techno-Optimist Manifesto on the Foundation for American Innovation’s Dynamist podcast, I was struck by his repetition of something that is in the manifesto and is completely wrong. “The myth of Prometheus – in various updated forms like Frankenstein, Oppenheimer, and Terminator – haunts our nightmares,” he writes.1 On the podcast, he elaborated by saying that, although fire has many benefits, the Prometheus myth focuses on its use as a weapon. He said something similar in a June post called “Why AI Will Save the World”:
The fear that technology of our own creation will rise up and destroy us is deeply coded into our culture. The Greeks expressed this fear in the Prometheus Myth – Prometheus brought the destructive power of fire, and more generally technology (“techne”), to man, for which Prometheus was condemned to perpetual torture by the gods.
No. No. No. No.
Prometheus is punished for loving humankind. He stole fire to thwart Zeus’ plans to eliminate humanity and create a new subordinate species. He is a benefactor who sacrifices himself for our good. His punishment is an indicator not of the dangers of fire but of the tyranny of Zeus.
Prometheus is cunning and wise. His name means foresight. He knows what he is doing and what the likely consequences will be.
Eventually his tortures end when he is rescued by the hero Herakles (aka Hercules), who shoots the eagle charged with eating Prometheus’ liver every day, only for it to grow back to be eaten again.
The Greeks honored Prometheus. They celebrated technē. They appreciated the gifts of civilization.
The ancient myth of Prometheus is not a cautionary tale. It is a reminder that technē raises human beings above brutes. It is a myth founded in gratitude.
I gave them intelligence,
I made them
masters of their own thought.
I tell this
not against humankind, but only to show
how loving my gifts were …
Men and women looking
and did not hear,
but like shapes in a dream dragging out their long lives
they made hodgepodge of everything, they knew nothing of making
houses the sun warms,
nor how to work in wood.
They swarmed like bitty ants
in sunless caves.
They hadn’t any sure signs of winter, nor spring
nor late summer when the crops come in.
All their work was work without thought,
until I taught them to see
what had been hard to see:
where and when the stars
rise and set.
What’s more, for them I invented
above all other.
And the painstaking, putting together of
LETTERS: to be their memory
of everything, to be their Muses’
And I was the first to put brute beasts
under the yoke, fit them out
with pack saddles, so they could take
the heaviest burdens off the backs of human beings.
Horses I broke and harnessed
to the chariot shaft
so that they loved their reins, they showed off
the pride and wealth of their owners.
I, I alone invented
chariots for sailors.
All these devices, I invented for human beings.
All human culture comes from Prometheus.
These aren’t just an English major’s pedantic quibbles. The stories we tell ourselves matter. That even a “techno-optimist” inverts the Promethean myth reveals how deeply hostility to technology has penetrated our collective consciousness.
For thousands of years, the myth of Prometheus has taught us to appreciate the gifts of technē and the costs that bringing those gifts can exact. Prometheus connects our high-tech present with our poetic past. He reminds us of the continuities of human culture as well as its flux. He unites the Two Cultures.
In that spirit, I cherish the hope that, as artificial intelligence makes the library of Herculaneum decipherable, we will recover the lost sequels to Prometheus Bound—an appropriate fruit of the latest Promethean gift.2
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Frankenstein isn’t The Terminator either. Frankenstein is a creator who won’t take responsibility for his creation, a father who rejects and abandons his child. The Creature is frightening and dangerous but he is also the book’s moral center, a tragic, sympathetic character who is feared and rejected by human beings because of his appearance. Only then does he turn deadly. Frankenstein arouses pity and terror because we empathize with its central figure and understand his rage.
The novel’s most reasonable political reading is not as a story of the dangers of science but as a parable of slavery and rebellion. “By the eighteen-fifties, Frankenstein’s monster regularly appeared in American political cartoons as a nearly naked black man, signifying slavery itself, seeking his vengeance upon the nation that created him,” writes historian Jill LePore, who calls the “Frankenstein-is-Oppenheimer model…a weak reading of the novel.” I agree.
The Romantics tended to identify with Prometheus and Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote a play called Prometheus Unbound, further undermining the reading of Frankenstein as an anti-Promethean fable.
Inspired by the Herculaneum example, historianhas some good ideas for ambitious historical projects that could be aided by new technologies and encouraged by relatively modest prizes. He says the “lack of wow factor when compared to goals like, say, launching a spaceship, is probably part of the reason why there isn’t a long track record of setting up inducement prizes for history.” But these projects have plenty of wow factor for me. Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to fund them.