The Myth of Prometheus in Today's World: Progress and Transhumanism
The story of Prometheus is one of the most important Greek myths. Famous for stealing fire from the gods to give it to humans, Prometheus has been portrayed throughout the ages as the god of progress. Today, the myth can help us reflect on transhumanism.
Ancient stories have the advantage of capturing, in their simplicity, issues that are often hidden in the complex historical context in which we live. Indeed, thanks to their profound nature, myths pose direct questions and provide us with valuable reflections on contemporary issues.
Prometheus: the god of progress
The myth of Prometheus alludes to a fundamental element of human history: the development of technique, represented in the domain of fire. The discovery and management of fire was the most important milestone in prehistoric times. Indeed, fire actively accompanied the development of technology and civilization. It served to harden ceramic utensils and forge weapons of war and work tools. It even acted as a link between the gods and human beings via certain rituals.
Prometheus represents the symbolic framework of all cultural creation. His name is made up of the prefix pro, which refers to what’s before, and the root of the verb mantháno, commonly translated as ‘to learn’ or ‘to come to know’. Therefore, Prometheus was the one who came to know things before others. He was a provident god who was always one step ahead. On the other hand, his complementary twin, Epimetheus, was the one who was always late and only tended to think after he’d acted. He signified clumsiness and a lack of logic.
There are various interpretations of the myth of Prometheus. Throughout history, some have seen him as one who corrupted the natural order. Others considered him to be a heroic god who gave power to human beings, freeing them from the inclemencies of nature.
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The pessimistic view of progress
Hesiod was one of the first poets to write down the story of Prometheus. However, far from heroizing the figure of Prometheus, Hesiod’s version emphasized the transgression that he committed against the gods.
Zeus did, indeed, punish Prometheus and all of humanity with an endless variety of evils. Hesiod believed that Prometheus had upset the cosmic order which explained the imbalance and evils of the world. From this viewpoint, progress is synonymous with the decline of the human being.
We could say that this version is conservative. That’s because it attempts to uphold the established order and frowns on any challenge to authority. As a rule, visions against progress are based on the argument that, in the past, there was a cosmic order that gradually deteriorated as civilization advanced.
On the other hand, there’s an interpretation closer to our era that’s worth considering. It’s the idea that the unbridled progress of industrial activity breaks the natural balance of the environment, attracting all sorts of misfortunes to befall humanity. As a matter of fact, the ecological disasters generated in the last century do tend to show that our naive trust in progress had a dark side. Moreover, what’s new isn’t always necessarily better.
The optimistic view of progress
Other authors, like Aeschylus, viewed Prometheus as a benefactor of humanity. He believed that it was thanks to Prometheus that human beings not only enjoyed fire but also many other benefits. In this account, Prometheus is the founder of civilization. He provided artistic abilities, including the construction of houses, knowledge relating to agriculture, and even writing and mathematics.
Similarly, according to Plato, Epimetheus distributed, among all living beings, the qualities to serve them for their survival on Earth. However, by the time the humans arrived, he’d exhausted all his capacities, leaving them ‘naked, barefoot, and without coverings or weapons’. For this reason, Prometheus stole fire. He delivered it to these defenseless and forgotten creatures in the form of technology and knowledge. Consequently, they were able to provide themselves with shoes, clothes, and food.
This latest version has a twist. Because, in this account, Prometheus isn’t punished for his transgression. Instead, Zeus sees that, while humans had been given technology, they didn’t possess the art of politics. This meant they had a tendency to attack each other. For this reason, he sent Hermes to distribute moral sense and justice to them all equally. Therefore, he made peaceful life in the cities and bonds of friendship possible.
Prometheus and transhumanism
Transhumanism is a current philosophical current. It views the human being as something to be overcome. This can occur through biotechnological implementations, genetic modification, and robotic implants. In fact, any type of technology that possesses human characteristics that aren’t given by the natural course of life and evolution.
For transhumanism, the search to transcend the human condition is, paradoxically, what characterizes us as a species. The biophysicist and transhumanist, Gregory Stock, uses the figure of Prometheus to declare that the act of stealing fire from the gods is typical of ‘being human’. For him, biotechnological modifications to improve our natural condition are inevitable and desirable.
Therefore, from this viewpoint, Prometheus is a transgressive hero who frees us from natural limits. However, it’s worth asking if technical improvements are sufficient/necessary for us to achieve and survive. Are technological progress, the eradication of diseases, and the prolongation of life expectancy sufficient to overcome natural obstacles so that societies can live happily?
Is progress alone enough?
Certainly, there are many benefits to improvements in quality of life. But, these improvements seem vain and insubstantial without the kind of social order that guarantees prosperity and peace among human beings. Moreover, achieving a moral sense that legitimizes equal rights, as Plato was able to demonstrate in the Promethean myth, isn’t obtained through mere technological progress.
Confidence that progress will necessarily lead to the improvement of humanity may seem naive. After all, there are many different factors that make well-being possible. Transhumanist positions that blindly trust in biotechnological development lose sight of the social dimension of the human being.
As Plato pointed out, we need a civic and moral sense that serves as a guide for our actions. One that maintains peace and keeps us from fighting with our fellow men.It might interest you...
All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.
- Esquilo; Tragedias, Editorial Gredos, Madrid, 1993.
- García Pérez, D.; “Prometeo: tradición y progreso” en Noua tellus, 24·2, 2006.
- Hauskeller, M.; “Prometheus unbound: Transhumanist arguments from (human) nature” en Ethical Perspectives, marzo 2009. DOI: 10.2143/EP.16.1.0000000
- Hesiodo; Obras y fragmentos, Editorial Gredos, Madrid, 1978.
- Platón; “Protágoras” en Diálogos I, Gredos, 1985.
- Stock, G.; Redesigning humans, our inevitable genetic future, Houghton Mifflin company,Boston, 2002.