May 21, 2009

"Power newly won is always harsh"

Your kindness to the human race has earned you this.
A god who would not bow to the gods' anger--you,
Transgressing right, gave privileges to mortal men.
For that you shall keep watch upon this bitter rock,
Standing upright, unsleeping, never bowed in rest.
And many groans and cries of pain shall come from you,
All useless; for the heart of Zeus is hard to appease.
Power newly won is always harsh.

Those words are spoken by the metal working god Hephaestus at the beginning of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, the first and only surviving work of a tragic trilogy.

The Titan who gave humans the gift of fire and many others was brought to a remote spot in the land of the Scythians by Strength and Violence, the unquestioning agents of the new Olympian order. The lame Hephaestus regrets his task of fastening the bonds but is afraid to violate the orders of the new ruler of the cosmos.

In Greek mythology, the early days of the universe were scenes of violent struggle. Zeus has come to power in a bloody revolution against the old order and, like many in such situations, he is all too ready to use violence to crush any challenges to his rule.

Prometheus, whose name means foresight, saw it coming:

...I know exactly every thing
That is to be; no torment will come unforeseen.
My appointed fate I must endure as best I can,
Knowing the power of Necessity is irresistible.
...For bestowing gifts upon mankind
I am harnessed in this torturing clamp. For I am he
Who hunted out the source of fire, and stole it, packed
In pith of a dry fennel-stalk. And fire has proved
For men a teacher in every art, their grand resource....

Fire was not his only benefit:

...What I did
For mortals in their misery, hear now. At first
Mindless, I gave them mind and reason. --What I say
Is not in censure of mankind, but showing you
How all my gifts to them were guided by goodwill.--
In those days they had eyes, but sight was meaningless;
Heard sounds, but could not listen; all their length of life
They passed like shapes in dreams, confused and purposeless.

He taught humans to use tools and build houses and ships, measure the seasons, do arithmetic, domesticate animals, use medicinal herbs, interpret prophecies and dreams, use minerals and more. Zeus, on the other hand, was scornful of humans and may have wished to see them wiped out and replaced by a new model.

In his agony, Prometheus is visited by the Titan Oceanus and his daughters, who form a sympathetic chorus. He has a hostile interview with Hermes, messenger of Zeus. And he meets with Io, the unfortunate woman courted by Zeus who was turned into a cow by the jealous Hera and tormented by a gadfly.

Prometheus reluctantly relates to Io the course of her future wanderings and suffering, but, like him, she is destined to eventually be released from punishment. And one of her descendants, the future Heracles, is destined to free him from bondage.

It may sound like this is a story with a simple good guy (Prometheus) and a bad guy (Zeus), but the tragic spirit is too deep for that . Aeschylus is going after something else. About which more tomorrow.

ON THE BRIGHT (GREEN) SIDE, here's a nice item from CNN about how the Veteran's Conservation Corps is helping returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan with green jobs and a healing environment.

THE FUNCTIONS OF POVERTY. In case you missed yesterday's link to a great Washington Post story on how expensive it is to be poor, here it is again. That article reminded me of this classic essay in sociology by Herbert Gans titled The Uses of Poverty: the Poor Pay All.

DIRTY POOL. Here's a look at how employers have intensified their fight against union organizing in recent years.

IT'S WHAT WE DON'T KNOW that really bugs us.



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