Who was Prometheus? Writer Virginia Postrel exposes modern misconceptions while highlighting the Greek myth’s pro-liberty, pro-technology themes

“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.” – Virginia Postrel

By Michael Grossberg

Who was Prometheus?

Despite modern misconceptions and fears, why does the titan of Greek mythology remain a positive and inspiring symbol of freedom, hope, revolution and progress today?

Virginia Postrel – the former Reason-magazine editor and Atlantic and New York Times columnist, and notable author of the seminal The Future and Its Enemies – brilliantly but concisely challenges common contemporary misunderstandings about the Greek legend in a fascinating and insightful essay on her Substack column.

In “The Myth of Prometheus Is Not a Cautionary Tale,” drolly subtitled “The Greeks didn’t think fire is a mistake,” the “dynamist” thinker counters trendy but superficial and wrongheaded fears about technology and liberty.

Writer Virginia Postrel in 2009. (Creative Commons license)

“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,” Postrel writes.

“The fear that technology of our own creation will rise up and destroy us is deeply coded into our culture,” she writes.

“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.

Prometheus depicted in a 1762 sculpture in the Louvre by Nicolas-Sebastien Adam (Creative Commons license)

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.”

Indeed.

Libertarian futurists and LFS members in turn should feel gratitude towards Postrel, one of the most brilliant and insightful thinkers of our era, and one whose “dynamism” philosophy embracing “spontaneous order” has reinforced her deep appreciation and celebration of the often-taken-for-granted myriad gifts of civilization — including how freedom (including the freedom to innovate) makes progress possible and modern society sustainable.

To begin to appreciate all that in mind-expanding detail, simply read Postrel’s enjoyable books – not only the widely influential The Future and Its Enemies, which introduced her “dynamist” perspective, but also her The Power of Glamour (incidentally full of wise insights about the dangers and falsehoods of utopian thinking) and The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture and Consciousness.

Her most recent book is The Fabric of Civilization, about the history of fabrics and weaving and how its emerging technologies have shaped so much of civilization – more than most of us realize.

The rest of Postrel’s essay about Prometheus – which includes a relevant bonus poem and a touching final hope about the promise of Artificial Intelligence and how it might at long last unlock a long-lost ancient Greek sequel about the titan – is worth reading, as are her other Substack columns.

But here’s a final tempting tidbit from her welcome essay reminding us about the true meaning of Prometheus:

“All human culture comes from Prometheus,” Postrel writes.

“…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.”

Poster’s analysis fits well with the Libertarian Futurist Society’s view of Prometheus, reflected at the introduction to our website’s Prometheus Awards page:

“The Prometheus Awards take their name from the Greek myth about a titan who brought fire to mankind. As Louis Rougier wrote in The Genius of the West, his 1971 book with a preface by the Nobel-Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek,

The myth undergirding the civilization of the West is the myth of Prometheus – the philanthropic hero who dared defy the will of Zeus by stealing fire from heaven and giving it to mortal men whom that jealous tyrant of the heaven and the earth had decided to destroy. The story expresses the spirit of revolt against the prohibition of jealous gods (and) embodies that love of action which incited Hercules to rid the earth of tyrants.

Art can fire up the imagination about the limitless possibilities of liberty – not only in the West but throughout the world and for all of humanity.”

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant elements of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch  videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt),Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.

Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread better visions of the future that help humanity overcome tyranny, end slavery, reduce the threat of war, repeal or constrain other abuses of coercive power and achieve universal liberty, respect for human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

 

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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