By Gerald Therrien
In Part 1 of my recently published Trilogy on the School of Athens (The Pre-Socratic Philosophers Explored), we read that, ‘Prometheus therefore, being at a loss to provide any means of salvation for man, stole from Hephaestus and Athena the gift of skill in the arts, together with fire, and bestowed it on man’ (from Plato’s Protagoras dialogue), and it was then asked, ‘What was this gift to man from Prometheus?’
In this article, I propose we try to discover this gift.
In the painting of ‘The School of Athens’ we saw how the whole upper half of the painting – of the columns and arches, and of the clouds – the realm of ideas, contained two persons – the statues of Hephaestus and Athena.
In Plato’s Timaeus dialogue, we read of the story told to Solon of the founding of Athens 9,000 years ago and the founding of Sais, in Egypt, 8,000 years ago.
“I will be pleased to go over this, Solon, for your sake and your city’s, but especially for the sake of the goddess who chose and raised and instructed your country and ours, yours first a thousand years earlier, having received the seed from Gea and Hephaestus, and ours later. As for the establishment of the present civilized order in our part of the world, it is written in our sacred texts to have been 8,000 years ago …”
But where did this ‘civilized order’ come from? And who was it that raised and instructed these two cities? Further on in the Timaeus dialogue, we read that:
“of all the many and marvelous achievements of your city recorded here, there is one that exceeds all in magnitude and virtue. For our scriptures report how your city once stopped a great power which was arrogantly advancing against all of Europe and Asia, proceeding outward from the Atlantic Ocean. For the ocean was during that time navigable. The ocean had an island in front of the straits which you call, as you say, the Pillars of Heracles, and this island was larger than Libya and Asia combined, and from that island travelers in those days could reach the other islands, and from those islands the whole opposite continent which surrounds that true ocean”.
And, continuing on with Solon’s story, we read that:
“This entire dynasty, assembled in a single force, attempted to enslave in one stroke your land and ours and the whole region within the straits. It was then, Solon, that the strength, virtue, and power of your city became manifest to all men. Because her audacity and military skills were great, both when she led the alliance of the Hellenes and when she was left alone, by necessity, as the rest had deserted her, after facing ultimate perils she overpowered the invaders and triumphed. She rescued those who were in danger of being enslaved while the others, those of us who lived within the Pillars of Heracles, she generously liberated.”
Now, to summarize this story, we refer to ‘Prometheus and Europe’, by the late American philosopher Lyndon LaRouche [Fidelio, Spring 2000]:
“The obvious chronologies include those referenced by Plato (i.e. the Timaeus and the Critias dialogues) and those of Diodorus Siculus, (i.e. Book 3, chapters 56, 57, 60 & 61) as these might be compared with the work of Herodotus. Taken together, all these chronologies, tell us a story…”
“About 12,000 years ago, or somewhat earlier, a flotilla of ships arrived from the Atlantic Ocean, to found a colony in the region of modern Morocco, near the Straits of Gibraltar, in the vicinity of the Atlas Mountains. The colonists found there a relatively primitive culture, that of the ancient Berbers, whom the colonists educated in methods of agriculture, and made subjects of the colony. After a time, the sons of a royal concubine, Olympia, conspired to murder the tyrannical ruler, and seize power for themselves. The leading figure among these revolting sons of Olympia, was Zeus.’
“Prometheus was one of the legitimate heirs to the power of the colony. He joined the Olympians in the opposition to the tyranny itself, but fought against the brutalizing new tyranny which the patricidal sons of Olympia imposed upon the Berber population, over the corpse of Zeus’s butchered father.’
“This occurred within the same, Peoples of the Sea, colony of the Atlas region, which extended its cultural impact throughout the Mediterranean littoral, to the included effect of participating in the founding of Egypt at a time now about 10,000 years ago.’
We can assume that this ‘whole opposite continent’ refers to the continent of the Americas, and so, can we also assume that this ‘Atlantic’ culture came from the Americas? We must tread carefully here …
For, if we can assume that civilization was brought to the Mediterranean world from the Americas, then all those reams of nonsense and all those tomes of silliness, that were written by all those Doctors of Blah Blah Blah, concerning the ‘so-called’ peopling of the Americas, perhaps, could be more usefully employed, as being recycled into rolls of toilet paper.
And perhaps, the racist eugenic theory from the Smithsonian Institution (perhaps to be renamed the Smithsonian Mental Institution) of ‘Clovis First’ – that the Americas were populated and colonized by a race of ‘white’ supermen, for supermen they must have been, to leave northern Asia (for what reason, who knows) and to travel across the Bering Strait land bridge to Alaska, and then to miraculously find the gap between two ice sheets (somehow most fortunately being there at just this correct point in time) and to travel through this inhospitable, foodless, maze of swampy wasteland, and to arrive at a utopia of wild mega-fauna that they could hunt, and then to populate all of north and south America – all of this to be accomplished in a very short period time, and all of this to be done, for absolute certainty, no sooner than 9,000 BC (at the same time as the founding of Athens!!!) – perhaps then, this assertion (for it cannot be truly called a theory) can finally be thrown out, dans la poubelle, or better still, can be burned, so as not to be embarrassingly found by any future human civilization.
But what happened to this Atlantic culture – that went from raising and instructing new cities, to attempting to conquer and enslave other cities?
Plato gives us a clue, in his (unfinished) Critias dialogue, where the story told to Solon is continued, that:
“The gods, then, once were locally allotted the whole earth … Different gods, therefore, being allotted, adorned different places. But Vulcan (Hephaestus) and Minerva (Athena), who possess a common nature, both because they are the offspring of the same father, and because, through philosophy and the study of the arts, they tend to the same things; – these, I say, in consequence of this, received one allotment, viz. this region, as being naturally allied and adapted to virtue and prudence …”
“Neptune, indeed, being allotted the Atlantic island, settled his offspring by a mortal woman in a certain part of the island … he also begat and educated five male twins; and having distributed all the Atlantic island into ten parts, he bestowed upon his first-born son his maternal habitation and the surrounding land; this being the largest and the best division. He likewise established this son king of the whole island, and made the rest of his sons governors. But he gave to each of them dominion over many people, and an extended tract of land. Besides this, too, he gave all of them names. And his first-born son, indeed, who was the king of all the rest, he called Atlas, whence the whole island at that time denominated Atlantic … All these and their progeny dwelt in this place, for a prodigious number of generations, ruling over many islands, and extending their empire, as we have said before, as far as to Egypt and Tyrrhenia (i.e. western coast of Italy). But the race of Atlas was by far the most honourable; and of these, the oldest king always left the kingdom, for many generations, to the eldest of his offspring …”
“For many generations, the Atlantics, as long as the nature of God was sufficient for them were obedient to the laws, and benignantly affected toward a divine nature, to which they were allied. For they possessed true, and in every respect magnificent conceptions; and employed mildness in conjunction with prudence, both in those casual circumstances which are always taking place, and towards each other. Hence, despising every thing except virtue, they considered the concerns of the present life as trifling, and therefore easily endured them; and were of opinion that abundance of riches and other possessions was nothing more than a burthen. Nor were they intoxicated by luxury, nor did they fall into error, in consequence of being blinded by incontinence; but, being sober and vigilant, they acutely perceived that all these things were increased through common friendship, in conjunction with virtue; but that, by eagerly pursuing and honouring them, these external goods themselves were corrupted, and, together with them, virtue and common friendship were destroyed. From reasoning of this kind, and from the continuance of a divine nature, all the particulars which we have previously discussed, were increased among them.”
“But when that portion of divinity, or divine destiny, which they enjoyed, vanished from among them, in consequence of being frequently with much of a mortal nature, and human manners prevailed, – then, being no longer able to bear the events of the present life, they acted in a disgraceful manner. Hence, to those who were capable of seeing, they appeared to be base characters, men who separated things most beautiful from such as are most honourable; but by those who are unable to perceive the true life, which conducts to felicity, they were considered as then in the highest degree worthy and blessed, in consequence of being filled with an unjust desire of possessing, and transcending in power.”
“But Jupiter (Zeus), the god of gods, who governs by law, and who is able to perceive every thing of this kind, when he saw that an equitable race was in a miserable condition, and was desirous of punishing them, in order that by acquiring temperance they might possess more elegant manners, excited all the Gods to assemble in their most honourable habitation, whence, being seated as in the middle of the universe, he beholds all such things as participate of generation: and having assembled the gods, he thus addressed them: … ” (the end of the dialogue)
Perhaps, we can assume that Plato had wished to show us what happens to a civilization when it allows its culture to decay, and what destruction awaits such a degeneration. And so, after all these assumptions, we may now, perhaps, adduce the idea that Prometheus’ gift had something to do with saving mankind from the collapse of the Atlantic culture; that somehow, the raising and instructing of civilization could no longer be entrusted to the decaying ruling elite, the decadent gods of Olympus; that mankind itself must assume this work, this responsibility.
So, it has been said that Prometheus gave the gift of ‘skill in the arts’ and ‘fire’ to mankind. But, we shouldn’t look at this gift of ‘fire’ as if we were sitting around a campfire and gazing at the fire of burning logs. We should look at this ‘fire’ as something that leads to man’s ‘skill in the arts’.
In Plato’s ‘Statesman’ dialogue, we see the Elean stranger again (that we earlier saw in the ‘Sophist’ dialogue), and we read of the attempt to define the royal science of justly governing a city, and wherein is described a different type of ‘fire’ – ‘in a manner similar to those that purify gold’.
“Those workmen first of all separate earth, stones, and many other things; but after this, such things as are allied to gold remain, which are honourable, and alone to be separated by fire, – I mean brass and silver, and sometimes diamonds. These being with difficulty separated by fusion scarcely suffer us to see that which is called perfectly pure gold.”
“After the same manner, we also appear now to have separated from the politic science things different, and such as are foreign and not friendly, and to have left such as are honourable and allied to it. But among the number of these, the military and judicial arts, and that rhetoric which communicates with the royal science, persuading men to act justly, and which, together with that science, governs the affairs of cities, may be ranked. These if some one should after a certain manner separate with facility, he will show naked and alone by himself, the character which we were investigating …”
“If, therefore, one man governs, who truly possesses a scientific knowledge of government, he is entirely called by this name a king, and by no other … but when one man governs neither according to the laws, nor according to the customs of the country, but at the same time pretends that he possesses a scientific knowledge, and that it is best to act in this manner, contrary to the written mandates, though a certain intemperate desire and ignorance are the leaders of this imitation, must not a man of this kind be called a tyrant?”
What is this ‘fire’ that can lead us to understand that ‘scientific knowledge of government’? What is that reason, that passion, that drive, that leads mankind to investigate new hypotheses and new ideas, using its ‘skill in the arts’ to discover how the universe was created. In Plato’s dialogue, the Republic (book 6), Socrates was asked:
“If in the same way as you have spoken of justice and temperance, and those other virtues, you likewise discourse concerning the good …”
And Socrates responded, that:
“But as to the beautiful itself, and the good itself, and in like manner concerning all those things which we then considered as many, now again establishing them according to one idea of each particular, as being one, we assign to each that appellation which belongs to it; and these indeed we say are seen by the eye, but are not objects of intellectual perception; but that the ideas are perceived by the intellect, but are not seen by the eye …”
This idea should remind us of something that our friend, John Milton, once wrote about – in his ‘Paradise Lost’, his beautiful Ode to Light, at the beginning of book 3, where he praises light (Hail, holy Light), then when thinking of his lost sight, does not despair, but instead, he sees that something good could come from it.
‘… Thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sovran vital lamp; but thou
Revisit’st not these eyes, that rowl in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quenched their orbs,
Or dim suffusion veiled. Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt
Clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill,
Smit with the love of sacred song …’
‘… Thus with the year
Seasons return; but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn.
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer’s rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and, for the book of knowledge fair,
Presented with a universal blank
Of Nature’s works, to me expunged and rased,
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou, Celestial Light,
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate; there plant eyes; all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.’
And Plato continues that:
“Conceive then that this is what I call the offspring of The Good, which The Good generates, analogous to itself; and that what is in the intelligible place, with respect to intellect, and the objects of intellect, that the sun is in the visible place with respect to sight and visible things …’
“Understand then, in the same manner, with reference to the soul. When it firmly adheres to that which truth and real being enlighten, then it understands and knows it, and appears to possess intellect: but when it adheres to that which is blended with darkness, which is generated, and which perishes, it is then conversant with opinion, its vision becomes blunted, it wanders from one opinion to another, and resembles one without intellect …’
“That therefore which imparts truth to what is known, and dispenses the power to him who knows, you may call the idea of The Good, being the cause of science and truth, as being known through intellect …’
And now, we can finally see that the gift of ‘fire’ from Prometheus, is this ‘idea’ that Plato calls ‘The Good’. For a look at this ‘Good’, we can read from our friend, Lyndon LaRouche, ‘The Classical Idea: Natural and Artistic Beauty’, (Fidelio, Spring 1992).
“The strict usage of the term “classic” within the modern Western European tradition arises from former policies of education which placed the emphasis upon the Greek and Latin classics. “Classic” values signified reference to the idea of beauty associated with ancient, “classical” Athens. The models of the “classical” notion of beauty were centered around the image of the design of the Athens Acropolis and the expositions on the interrelatedness of the Good and the Beautiful found as central features of the dialogues of Plato …’
“In Plato, the first quality of higher emotional state is associated with the notion of the Good and the Beautiful – agathos, as in the woman’s name, Agatha. In the original Greek of the New Testament, a related notion is identified by the verb-related term agape, as directly opposite to the lower quality of emotional state, eros.”
“In Western European Christian culture, agape is rendered as caritas in the Latin, and the charity of the King James Authorized Version of the New Testament. It signifies, for Western European culture, the quality of love of God, love of mankind, love of truth, and love of beauty, and the controlling emotional state with which we approach life’s challenges.”
“We observe that this quality of agape occurs in a special way in connection with valid forms of creative mental activity. It occurs as the prize secured when we effect a valid discovery. Yet, without this same emotional quality as a driving force, we are unable to sustain the qualities of concentration needed to effect such discoveries.”
Similarly, in ‘Paradise Lost’, Milton imparts to us the idea, that man’s free will is not simply a matter of deciding right from wrong – that we are not like the artificial intelligence of computers, that decide between a ‘1’ or a ‘0’ to compute right from wrong; but, he says, that free will is deciding whether or not to accept the grace of God – whether we make our decisions from the basis of a creative agape, or a sensual eros.
And so, this gift of Prometheus – our ability to generate new hypotheses and new ideas, is present in all of us, as we are all made from that same ‘exemplar’, in the agapic image of the Creator, and so from that, we can adduce the idea that ‘each one of us is a Promethean – but some of us, just don’t know it yet!’
Gerald Therrien is a historian and author of a four volume series on Canadian History entitled “Canadian History Unveiled”. He has lectured on topics ranging from poetry, ancient Athenian culture, the renaissance and the Haitian Revolution. He is a member of the Rising Tide Foundation Advisory Board.
Feature Image: Frederic Edwin Church : Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866)
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