Prometheus Unbound

Prometheus – not the Prometheus of Shelley and Byron, but the Prometheus of Aeschylus and the ancient Greeks – was no liberator and no martyr. For his theft of Fire from the gods, he got what he deserved. He was trying to overturn the natural and divine order. He had committed something like the sin of Adam. He was attempting what could not be done.

The old Greeks were subtler and deeper than we realize. Their mythology was not superficial, as our children were once told. (These days not even this is taught.) We still imagine them as revolutionaries; as iconoclasts of one sort or another. They were the opposite.

We still imagine them as men who refashioned the world; as the “scientific” liberators from primordial superstition and tyranny; as Prometheans against a Jove who is petty and vindictive. We celebrate them as the initiators of “Western Civ,” and ultimately, the Modern. In that modern view, they were not passive; they took their own fate into their own hands, and their heritage is free speech and inquiry. We place them almost in opposition to the Hebrew prophets of Obedience.

Read Hesiod with attention. Read Aeschylus again: the surviving fragments of whose Prometheus trilogy are today read anachronistically, in a false romantic light. Note that the punishment of Prometheus was eternal; that with the Fire he brings down human misery. Aeschylus was a tragedian, not a comedian; he is not working towards a happy ending.

He is most certainly not a “progressive” in any modern sense.

The gods may be inscrutable to us. They do not answer to our own convenience. Yet to man was given from the beginning a gift greater than fire, or the wheel, or any other natural contrivance. We are able dimly to discern the order of things, and to work with, rather than against, the grain of reality. The Christian revelation came as a completion, a “perfection,” of the Greek understanding of things.

It came as a stroke through the knot. The conflict of Orestes at the heart of tragedy – exactly analogous to the myth of Prometheus – was unpredictably resolved. A harmony of the human with the divine will was proposed to the Greek mind. It had come into the world not by human but by divine agency, in the form of a Man, in utter humility. Philosophy and theology converged.

As we approach the anniversary of Pope Paul’s Humanae vitae – in danger now of revision by the glib spirits who prevail in Rome – I think of this longer history.

The human interest is not to rebel. There is in this world an order of things, a grain of reality, which we may acknowledge or deny. As the pagan Greeks knew, it cannot be changed. But as the Christians taught, it can be embraced. We can be saved from the consequences of our own rebellions, by trust and by faith in that divine order, from every angle converging not on Prometheus but on Christ.

Pope Paul VI left a mixed legacy. A man of real faith, he tried to accommodate the spirit of modernity, in disastrous ways. Yet in his deepest meditations and prayers, embodied in the text of his great encyclical, he encountered that unchanging God, who Is, law-giver and not law-taker. He came as close as any man to explaining God’s law in terms of human reason.

For me, a half-century ago, this was a shocking revelation.

I shall never forget a summer train, from Buffalo to Cleveland. From a newsstand, in the old Buffalo station, I had picked up a copy of a Catholic newspaper, which contained the full text of the encyclical, in English translation. This because I had a lot of time to kill.

Back then, I was a fire-breathing, adolescent atheist, and persecutor of nice Christian souls in high-school cafeterias. My intention was to provide myself with more ammunition against Christians generally, and Catholics in particular.

On the train journey, I read the encyclical with attention. Twice. The first reading disoriented me: for the document was very intelligently argued. At the second, I began to see that, given premises openly and honestly acknowledged, the argument was irrefutable. In order to mock it, I would have to misrepresent it.

I realized that I could dismiss the premises; but that if I did, I would have to argue that Man was a creature of no moral significance; that human life did not matter. I was a reasonably intelligent child. I could see the consequences of that position.

Nineteen sixty-eight was for other reasons a memorable year. In so many ways, it became clear that Western man was attempting suicide. The convulsions on American campuses, and in her streets, the parallel events in Paris and through Europe, blared in the news. Even then, my native “conservatism” was appalled: especially by the wincing cowardice of “authority figures,” abandoning their stations. It seemed to me that Pope Paul had made a stand.

My atheism was hard-boiled, if internally scrambled. It survived this encounter for a few more years. But I was no longer able to pretend that the Catholic and Christian position on human life was (as many in my parents’ generation thought) ridiculous. Rather, I could see that the line on human life had to be drawn at the moment of conception, not at birth; that abortion is murder.

Returning to a small-town high school in Ontario (for a last year before I dropped out), I added to my growing reputation for eccentricity. In the student debating clubs to which I belonged, I was now arguing – frankly as an atheist – that Pope Paul was dead right. If we did not draw the line at contraception, we would verily be on the “slippery slope” to real, murderous barbarism. (This in a Protestant town that despised atheists and papists about equally.)

Half a century has borne out every prediction.

David Warren

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: