“Aeschylus’ tragedy represents the most elemental aspects of our human condition: all human flourishing comes with a cost.”
It is a sweet thing to draw out
a long, long life in cheerful hopes,
and feed the spirit in the bright
benignity of happiness:
but I shiver when I see you
wasted with ten thousand pains,
all because you did not tremble
at the name of Zeus…
— Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound
bove all else, the human mind seeks meaning. We live our day-to-day lives by generating meaning. Out of what William James calls “the blooming, buzzing confusion” of reality, we generate some kind of order, structure, and harmony as we go about our daily activities. We get dressed; we cook breakfast; we drive our cars. Even when we tie our shoes, we are creating a precise and meaningful relationship between laces and shoes. We don’t randomly wander about like zombies, nor are we programed like robots; we participate in the world around us in meaningful ways.
We, human beings, are enveloped by forces, which can either kill us or sustain us. All of our technologies, conventions, and institutions have arisen over time as means of transforming suffering and conflict. Enveloped by a modern world dedicated to comfort and convenience, we tend to forget that all the human arts (how we produce food, how we clothe and shelter ourselves etc.) evolved as meaningful forms in response to suffering and conflict. Generating meaning is how we adapt to the world around us.
Generating meaning consists of creative acts, which sustain life. It is the poet who is most aware of humans as creative, discriminating beings, as well as the precarious nature of all human forms. The poet, says Emerson, is “emblematic of man.” We, humans, are not only capable of creating meaning in our individual lives, but we are also capable of creating meaningful relationships with other human beings. Society, with its language, laws, mores and conventions, is itself a common and meaningful configuration of relationships between human beings. With our poetic powers, we articulate what Plato calls the good, the true and the beautiful. Meaning also consists of a relationship between human beings and forces or powers beyond us: between the known and the unknown, between our daily, mundane existence and the greater universe. Poets and artists, with what William Blake describes as “their enlarged and numerous senses,” create stories and images, which extend through time and space and tell us where we came from, who we are, and where we are going.
The Greek myth of Prometheus starkly dramatizes the precarious nature of human power in relationship to greater powers. As told by Aeschylus, the Titan Prometheus defies almighty Zeus by teaching humanity the use of fire and the life enhancing arts. For his defiance, Prometheus is chained to a rock and perpetually tortured by vultures sent by a jealous and capricious Zeus. Aeschylus’ tragedy represents the most elemental aspects of our human condition: all human flourishing comes with a cost. The conflict of Prometheus and Zeus represents the eternal conflict of our abilities to generate order and meaning, as well as the limits of that ability. Our promethean powers are always—at some point—rebuked by greater powers.
…we require evil gods, insists Nietzsche, as much as good gods.
Recognizing the eternal conflict of our inner human powers with greater powers is what Nietzsche calls the “tragic attitude.” For Nietzsche, this is the highest, most elemental form of knowledge or “reality as it is.” This reality of conflict and of limits underlies and transcends all human attempts to deny or obscure their necessity; we require evil gods, insists Nietzsche, as much as good gods. Human history could be described as various ways of accepting or wandering from reality as it is, various ways of dealing with the limiting powers of Zeus. How we transform, explain, and justify conflict and suffering determines meaning. A human civilization represents the sublimation of suffering, a way of understanding our promethean powers and what limits those powers. We may worship greater powers humbly or, like Melville’s promethean Ahab, defiantly. Or, as we are inclined in our modern secular world, we may not worship them at all.
Zeus frightens us; Zeus limits us. We need to somehow explain and give meaning to suffering. Historical Christians, distrusting their own promethean capacity to confront greater powers, looked for meaning elsewhere. Our earthly world was understood as fallen and our promethean powers to control our destinies denigrated. Meaning was to be found not in the reconciliation of earthly and divine, not even in the here and now; rather, true meaning would only be found in some imagined afterlife, not here and not now. A whole system of beliefs and hierarchies of power arose and flourished for centuries which justified present suffering and which answered the questions of origins, identity, and destiny.
Ultimately all human interpretations are limited. Whatever ideas or beliefs we generate to protect ourselves from conflict and suffering (and which give meaning to reality) tend to break down over time. We are, at least periodically, thrown back into the world of experiential reality; reality as it is reasserts itself: the stark tragic world of the suffering of Prometheus at the jealous hand of Zeus. The breakdown of a great system of meaning may generate chaos and disorder, but it may also renew hope. The European Renaissance represents a return to experience and a stimulation of the human imagination to generate new forms (and, not coincidentally, pagan myths and imagery are revived). As the absolute authority of greater forces declines, power shifts back toward experience—and the power of the individual human; man becomes “the measure of all things.” For instance, humble Christians become no longer subject to the unquestioned authority of a hierarchy of priests; rather, every Christian, insists Martin Luther, becomes his own priest.
With the Enlightenment, the perceived authority of forces greater than ourselves continues to recede, and our own human powers dramatically increase, especially given the rise of modern science and its technologies. We become skeptical about the very existence of the gods, and Prometheus becomes our liberator from the chains of superstition. Karl Marx, that capitalist heretic and champion of human progress and emancipation, declares Prometheus: “the eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar.” Our rising capacity for control over nature apparently renders our need for gods irrelevant. “Human self-consciousness,” for Marx, represents, “the highest divinity.”
In the emergent secular world, meaning is to be found not in recognizing powers beyond ourselves but in recognizing that History itself culminates in our own liberation from powers beyond ourselves. Meaning is not to be found in acknowledging limits, but, rather, in destroying limits. Prometheus is unchained, Zeus is denied, and the march of Progress commences. The great secular project begins: How to create meaning in a meaningless universe.
Many of the great Romantic artists and poets recognize the highly problematic nature of this new power relationship, of this denial of limits, this denial of unity. How can there be goodness, truth, or beauty without limits? Emboldened by our promethean powers, our need to articulate a common relationship to powers beyond ourselves atrophies. Man appears to lose his meaningful place in the universe. Having traded wisdom for information and meaning for power, the gods vanish. Society, then, no longer requires poets and artists to generate unifying myths or images of who we are in the universe. And, thus, in Shelley’s prophetic words, “the world becomes imageless.”
The portentous implications of ideas of perpetual human progress were only apprehended by the most powerful minds. If indeed the greater limiting powers are irrelevant (if indeed they are meaningless), what about all of the institutions, conventions, and mores which have arisen over the centuries in relationship to those powers? Why should we expect the institutions which bind and structure society to persist? Understanding the implications of such questions is why the likes of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky understood the Death of God not to be simply liberation from outmoded dogma and superstition—but a world historical calamity portending civilizational collapse.
The great totalitarian ideologies have proven to be fantasies devoid of enduring meaning. They do not deliver us from suffering; they do not deliver us from the torment and capriciousness of powers beyond ourselves.
And in little more than a generation, the European world does indeed collapse with an apocalyptic “war of all against all.” Shocked and disoriented by The Great War—and having lost faith in any traditional unifying vision—modern man finds himself in a world of psychological fragmentation and social atomization; where then is meaning to be found?
The great totalitarian ideologies fulfill this need for greater meaning by providing a kind ready-made explanation for human suffering with promises of deliverance and visions of utopia. Again, our human tendencies to escape the tragic and limited nature of reality are provoked. But again, reality—as it is—reasserts itself. The great totalitarian ideologies have proven to be fantasies devoid of enduring meaning. They do not deliver us from suffering; they do not deliver us from the torment and capriciousness of powers beyond ourselves. As the great totalitarian ideologies play themselves out as world historical farce, our great tormentor Zeus reappears (and as cruel and as capricious as ever); only this time, he takes human form and is called, “Hitler,” “Stalin,” or “Mao.”
With the collapse of totalitarian systems, our promethean powers continue to flourish. The conflated powers of what Wendell Berry calls “science, technology and industry” continue to objectify reality, generate wealth, and pursue comfort and convenience on a global scale. Virtually no one on the planet remains untouched by dreams of Progress.
As we become more fully enveloped by an objectified reality, we become what D.H. Lawrence calls “social beings.” We are no longer concerned with who we are in relation to greater powers, but, having lost our “at-oneness with nature,” we are concerned with who we are in our secular objectified world. According to Lawrence, there are two types of social beings: those who are fixated on “material assurances”—and those who are fixated on making sure all these materially assurances are spread around fairly; “causes,” as Roberto Calasso observes, become “the parvenus of meaning.” Our conflicting ideologies explain and generate a kind of tentative form to the incredible wealth generating powers which have been unleashed upon the planet. Like Shakespeare’s angry apes, we squabble over the nature and use of our promethean powers with little or no concern for the limiting powers of Zeus.
As we continue to transform reality into so much usable data, we are, evermore, enveloped by an objectified material world. The more successfully we objectify reality, the more we become convinced of ourselves as subjective powers. All forms appear arbitrary, accidental, and devoid of inherent meaning; even nature appears to have no nature. All attempts to articulate a common universal meaning, either religious or secular, appear as naïve or pernicious: as the source of self-serving hierarchies of power and oppression. Who’s to say what is good, true, or beautiful? For the most sensitive, even science and language itself are potential forms of oppression and power. We are now fully “woke” and liberated from our final oppressor: the very search for a common meaning is oppression.
Wokeness is the fulfillment of Marx’s divinity of human self-consciousness, but, this time, human self-consciousness is not simply “the highest divinity” but the only divinity. All limits are illusory; there is no reality as it is; we, as individuals, get to create our own realities. Every man is not simply his own priest; rather, every man (woman etc.) is now his (her, their etc.) own Prometheus.
Yet suffering persists. There is still war, poverty, social decay, climate disruption. These problems, for our best and brightest, apparently do not represent a call for the recognition of limits. Quite the contrary, they are occasions for the further exaltation of our promethean powers. What’s needed is more liberation, more smashing of limits, more self-consciousness, more science, more material assurances, more inclusion, more diversity, more education, more skepticism, more experts. We must, above all, get our minds right.
However, the great modern project of liberation from the wrath of Zeus does not appear to be culminating in a harmonious world free of division and conflict. It appears to be ending up more as a tactical retreat into our heads. Should we be surprised that those who believe that all divinities are found in human consciousness frequently end up acting as if they are possessed?
So where now is meaning to be found? Has Prometheus been unchained and has Zeus finally been fully demystified? Is the conflict of Prometheus and Zeus eternal or not? Can meaning be discovered by science? Is the very search for a common meaning oppressive? How can there be meaning without conflict, without form, without discrimination, without limits?
To create any form is to transform conflict by making discriminations. Meaning is the sublimation of conflict. The existence of a Prometheus is only meaningful in relation to the existence of a Zeus. A pure promethean world without conflict is a world without form. Or, put simply: a world without Zeus is a world without meaning.
Chris Augusta is an artist living in Maine.