In introducing his new book, To Set Prometheus Free, philosopher A C Grayling explains his choice of title by referring to Aeschylus’s play, Prometheus Bound, and quoting from it:
As so often, the Greeks themselves understood with a preternatural clarity the nature of the turning point they represented . . . Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, “a measureless resource for man, and mighty teacher of all arts”; and for making man powerful in this way, and no longer dependent on the gods’ favour – for helping mankind towards its maturity and self-reliance, and thus promising to free it from subjection to religion – Prometheus was punished by Zeus, who bound him to a rock on a high mountain, and set an eagle to gnaw his liver every day, the liver regrowing at night in preparation for the next day’s torture. The idea of freeing the world from the tyranny of religion can therefore be symbolized as the task of setting free Prometheus himself. Hence the title of this book.
Grayling also refers to Shelley’s understanding of the Prometheus myth as title inspiration:
In choosing it I follow Shelley’s version of the myth, expressed in the introduction to his Prometheus Unbound, having it that Prometheus’s liberation represents the overthrow of “mankind’s oppressor,” that is, Zeus.
Shelley surely would have smiled to see his understanding of the myth forwarded by Grayling, but I’m less sure about Aeschylus, for Aeschylus, like most Greeks living in the classical era, would almost surely have given his own loyalty (at least his open loyalty) to the Ground of Being (that is, the gods) over any act of hubris.
As the conservative philosopher, Erik Voegelin, speaking up for Zeus a bit in response to Karl Marx’s quoting Prometheus from Aeschylus’s play (“In a word, I hate all the gods”) writes in “Science, Politics, and Gnosticism” (1958):
The soul’s rebellion against the order of the cosmos, hatred of the gods, and the revolt of the Titans are not, to be sure, unheard of in Hellenic myth. But the Titanomachia ends with the victory of Jovian justice (dike), and Prometheus is fettered. The revolutionary reversal of the symbol—the dethronement of the gods, the victory of Prometheus—lies beyond classical culture; it is the work of Gnosticism. Not until the gnostic revolt of the Roman era do Prometheus, Cain, Eve, and the serpent become symbols of man’s deliverance from the power of the tyrannical god of this world.
Thus in gauging Aeschylus’s sympathies, Voegelin thinks we ought to give proper attention to Hermes, who is also in the scene cited by Marx:
Prometheus is riveted to a rock by the sea. Below on the strip of beach stands Hermes looking up at him. The fettered Prometheus gives his bitterness free rein. Hermes tries to calm him and urges moderation. Then, Prometheus crams his impotence and rebellion into the line quoted by Marx: “In a word, I hate all the gods.” But the line is not part of a monologue. At this outbreak of hatred the messenger of the gods replies admonishingly: ‘It appears you have been stricken with no small madness.’ The word translated here as ‘madness’ is the Greek nosos, which Aeschylus employed as a synonym for nosema. It means bodily or mental sickness. In the sense of a disease of the spirit it can mean hatred of the gods or simply being dominated by one’s passions.
So what is atheism? A liberation from the gods into existential freedom or a madness of the passions and intellect divorced from a wise moderation that is founded in ontological mystery? Isn’t this the rock upon which the lives of all agnostics (like myself) are, in a sense, tied upon and torn?