Blog Post

A Tale of Two Prometheuses in Many Parts

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II ) 

Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound defies easy analysis. Shelley composed his verse drama to illustrate his father-in-law William Godwin’s radical social philosophy, at least in part. Although Godwin could not finish the poem, as he recorded in his journal. Shelley, in an oblique reference to Godwin and the Godwinian school, describes in his Preface to the poem the “great writers of our own age” as “forerunners of some unimagined change in our social condition or the opinions which cement it. The cloud of mind is discharging its collective lightning, and equilibrium between institutions and opinions is now restoring, or is about to be restored.” 

Shelley here echoes Godwin, who viewed inequities of power and the corrupt institutional arrangements of his day as errors to be corrected by an objective Reason in the fullness of time. Truth will specifically emerge through “the clash of mind with mind,” in Godwin’s early and agonistic version of the bourgeois liberal public sphere ideal-type. The work of enlightenment is nonetheless a matter of “private judgment” for Godwin who in this way maintains the form, if not the content, of his early Calvinist formation. It was for effecting enlightenment and converting the reader’s private judgment that Godwin turned to novel writing with his Caleb Williams. Yet, as critics such as Pamela Clemit argue, Godwin eschewed didacticism in favor of formal and thematic ambiguity, specifically to exercise the judgment of his readers. Shelley certainly pushes the Godwinian form to a visionary extreme in his Prometheus Unbound, declaring didactic poetry “an abhorrence,” while seeking to represent cognitive and perceptual processes through analogy with the natural world; a reversal of traditional figurative practice that accounts for the poem’s difficulty.

Yet, while Shelley’s poem offers us an allegorical vision of a utopian future in an arguably Godwinian form, Prometheus Unbound stands in stark contrast with the proto-accelerationist speculations with which Godwin concluded his 1793 Political Justice. This departure is a significant one, as Shelley reworks the myth of Prometheus in a fashion radically distinct from the Prometheanism that would come to dominate the later nineteenth- and twentieth-century political imagination. This “mechanical Prometheanism,"  in the words of Arthur Mitzman, represents one ideologically convenient myth of modernization. The exemplars of this view see in the Titan who stole fire from the gods a shorthand for their preferred flavor of progress: technological determinism and domination of the natural world.

This more familiar Prometheus finds one prototype in the early Godwin, while his anarchist successor Joseph-Pierre Proudhon gives the myth its definitive nineteenth-century form. But it was during the twentieth century that Prometheanism of this stripe reached its zenith, exemplified in the various futurisms and productivisms that shaped modern capitalism and state socialism alike. While certain Second International socialists and their productivist heirs in the USSR carried the torch for this mechanical Prometheus, it was Western Marxists ( such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse) who first recognized—in the mechanized slaughter of the First World War, a thoroughly technophilic fascism with its assembly line Judeocide, and the United States’ atomic atrocities—the endpoint of Progress conceived along these lines. These same thinkers shaped the intellectual formation of the sixties era New Left, who in rejecting this radioactive strain of Prometheanism necessarily rejected capitalist developmentalism and its nominally “communist” doppelgänger. As the twentieth century waned, so too did the taste for this techno-scientific drive to mastery, as leftists were forced to reckon with the ecological costs of industrial modernization. Now, as planetary civilization and the planet itself face imminent ecological collapse, techno-utopianism is making a come-back from the cyber-libertarian solutionists of Silicon Valley to the ostensibly left accelerationists, who seek to revive Prometheus, without ever asking which Prometheus they want to revive.

I argue—in this post and the several that follow—that we can discern in the Shelleys, Percy and Mary both, an early articulation of an alternative Prometheanism, which Karl Marx later develops, despite his undeserved reputation for machine worship.


There are multiple versions of the Prometheus myth from antiquity, but it is Plato’s Protagoras that most definitively identitfies the Titan with techne—a term that for the Ancient Greeks denoted craft, applied knowledge, and the mechanical arts--in an expansive sense. In Plato's version of the myth, Prometheus assigned his brother Epimetheus the task of distributing “proper qualities” among mortal creatures. And so Epimetheus worked according to an implicit principle of harmony with each species’ survival in mind, hence “he gave strength without swiftness, while he equipped the weaker with swiftness; some he armed, and others he left unarmed.” The unwise Epimetheus ran out of qualities to confer when he arrived at humankind, which is why Prometheus found the human being “naked and shoeless, without bed nor arms of defence.” In order to fill these gaps, Prometheus “carried off Hephaestus's art of working by fire, and also the art of Athene, and gave them to man."  Plato, in the guise of Protagoras, implicitly defines human nature as the absence of instinct, while the human capacity for survival consists in the extra-somatic ability to alter ourselves and our environments. Plato nonetheless anchors this myth of anthropocentric exceptionalism in Epimetheus’s blunder; and, in other versions of the myth, it is to the backward looking Epimetheus that Zeus, or Jupiter, gives Pandora and her box,  offsetting the benefits that flow from the Promethean gift of fire with something like a law of unintended consequences.

This Prometheus illustrates Hans Blumenberg’s theory of myth as a functional response to the “absolutism of reality.” Myth, according to Blumenberg, originally offered finite human beings symbolic orientation amid the chaotic contingencies of  living. Self-declared moderns transformed this myth in reviving it during the enlightenment period. What formerly oriented the pre-modern human community to the uncertain conditions of its own collective life was reconfigured to provide a new rationalism, a new science, and a new political economy with a raison d’être: from symbolic to actual mastery over life and nature.

Many modern readers nonetheless view Prometheus Bound—traditionally ascribed to Aeschylus, despite some skepticism on the part of classicists regarding this attribution—as the definitive rendition of the myth, despite some telling differences from Plato’s vision of Prometheus as homo faber. The drama consists in a series of exchanges between the Titan—chained to the rock where a bird gnaws on his self-regenerating liver in punishment for the grandest of larcenies—and various allegorical figures, including Might and Force, the henchmen of Zeus. Prometheus’s theft of fire, in violation of a tyrannical Zeus' prohibition, is just one among many instance of the titan’s intervention on behalf of mortals in Aeschylus’s drama. For instance, in recounting Zeus’s intention to destroy human beings, Prometheus recalls his intervention and his motivation for intervening: “I saved those death-bound creatures [because] I pitied mortals."

The Promethean gifts of fire and the useful arts are similarly justified as enabling human beings to live “a life of purpose.” Prometheus seemingly stands up for justice and mercy. In attempting to redistribute powers monopolized by Zeus to finite and semi-bestial humankind, the play suggests a more democratic ethos. Prometheus recalls how he initially sided with his fellow Titans against Zeus and his Olympian upstarts as they struggled for dominance. Yet, Prometheus, using the foresight implied in his name, switched sides once he realized the Titans would lose. The Titan then worked for the victory of the insurgent gods in their cosmic coup, through the use of his “superior guile” or cunning. Prometheus’s ability to see into the future fails him in the case of Zeus. In spite of its modern afterlives, Aeschylus’s version of the myth complicates one standard enlightenment era interpretation of Prometheus as an embodiment of enlightenment reason and revolutionary justice, as Corey Robin argues, “Prometheus made a mistake: not in giving fire (and much else) to humanity, but in hitching his wagon to such an unpromising star as Zeus. Prometheus’s growing contempt for Zeus and his followers is not that of a revolutionary against a tyrant; it reflects instead his old-regime hauteur, his contempt for the artless and the arriviste.”

Whether we interpret Aeschylus’s play in (anachronistically) progressive or conservative terms, the attentive reader will note that this text is concerned with questions of justice, power, and specifically political conflict.

In writing Prometheus Unbound, Shelley did not aim to provide the missing sequel to Aeschylus’s play, especially since that sequel dramatized “the reconciliation of Jupiter with his victim” as “the price of the disclosure of the danger threatened to his empire by the consummation of his marriage with Thetis." As Shelley makes clear, “I was averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of Mankind." Shelley specifically invokes Milton’s Satan as the closest analog to his Prometheus or, Milton’s Satan as refracted through William Blake’s (and William Godwin’s) powerful misreading of Lucifer as a righteous rebel struggling to overthrow an oppressive cosmic order and its tyrannical God. Mary Shelley also invokes the Titan in her own “Modern Prometheus,” written with some input from her husband, a few years prior to the publication of Prometheus Unbound. Though readers usually align Victor Frankenstein with this “Modern Prometheus,” there are two Prometheanisms at work in a novel that should be read in tandem with Shelley’s verse drama (as I will show).

More than a visionary political allegory, Shelley sketches in his Prometheus “the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.” As Earl Wasserman argues in an early and influential study of the poem, Prometheus is arguably the only character in a verse drama that personifies the Titan’s mental processes in the form of various gods and spirits. Wasserman makes one exception to this drama of personification and projection: Demigorgon. And it is with the entrance of Demigorgon —a figure that encompasses the force of necessity in addition to the power of the people and the revolutionary masses in particular— that Jupiter falls.

But, if Prometheus is for Shelley an ideal-type for human perfectibility how should we read the mental processes allegorized in Shelley’s verse drama? One answer to this question is that Shelley depicts in his Prometheus a new collective human subject. This subject’s previously unrealized capacities are unleashed through an unbinding that includes the transformation of social relations, especially those social relations Shelley observed first hand in what was then the world’s leading capitalist society, and a reconciliation between human and non-human natures.

Shelley recreates Prometheus, magnifying or—if we take Robin’s reading to heart—transforming Aeschylus’s Titan into a full blown exemplar of emancipated social relations, with an emphasis on collective freedom and love. Jupiter, or the “strife” among human beings engendered by this tyrannical god, initially stymies this vision of egalitarian social relations and unfulfilled human capacities, as Prometheus recounts: 

The nations thronged around, and cried aloud
As with one voice, Truth, liberty, and love!
Suddenly fierce confusion fell from heaven
Among them: there was strife, deceit, and fear:
Tyrants rushed in, and did divide the spoil.

Jupiter the tyrant is as much a representative of a new and destructive capitalist order as he is the proxy for the ancien régime initially overthrown by the French Revolution only to be reconsitituted in its Thermidorean conclusion. Shelley accordingly depicts Jupiter's reign, and Prometheus’s imprisonment, as marked by ecological catastrophe, when Earth, the Titan’s mother, reacts to Jupiter's punishment, by retreating from the world in despair. This retreat in turn precipitates an ecological catastrophe, when “fire and lightning and inundation vexed the plains” while “Blue thistles bloomed in cities; foodless toads/Within voluptuous chambers panting crawled; and plague had fallen.”

Shelley suggests another Prometheanism even as he critiques the dominant model of modernization, then and now, in poetic form as one of his allegorical spirits sings:

In the void’s loose field
A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield;
We will take our plan
From the new world of man,
And our work shall be called the Promethean.

And it is with The Spirit of the Hour’s account of the new dispensation that follows the ruin of “thrones, altars, judgment-seats, and prisons” that Shelley elaborates his version of Prometheanism:

The painted veil, by those who were, called life,
Which mimicked, as with colours idly spread,
All men believed or hoped, is torn aside;
The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself; just, gentle, wise: but man
Passionless? — no, yet free from guilt or pain,
Which were, for his will made or suffered them,
Nor yet exempt, though ruling them like slaves,
From chance, and death, and mutability,
The clogs of that which else might oversoar
The loftiest star of unascended heaven,
Pinnacled dim in the intense inane.

Shelley offers us a powerful image of enlightenment demystification in “the painted veil” that, in falling, reveals man as he is or should be: “sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed...Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless.” Yet, the forces unleashed with Prometheus’ unfettering can only be identified with techne or praxis in the broadest sense of making; or, poeisis,  if we attend to the passage above, the poem as a whole, and Shelley’s work in general. Giorgio Agamben explains the distinction between the two terms succinctly: “The Greeks …… made a clear distinction between poeisis and praxis (poiein “to pro-duce” in the sense of bringing into being) and praxis (prattein, “to do” in the sense of acting). Central to praxis was the idea of the will that finds its immediate expression in an act, while, by contrast, central to poiesis was the experience of pro-duction into presence, the fact that something passed from non being to being, from concealment into the full light of the work.” 

The loathsome mask is, significantly, a bad imitation, “with colours idly spread” of life and its potentials. The Spirit of the Hour insists on the persistence of passion, and those limits, such as finitude, constitutive of the human being, under this new Promethean order. Shelley in this way distinguishes his version of an emancipated social order from the perfectibilist utopias of the earlier Godwin and his enlightenment fellow travelers, as the poet details in his contemporaneous Defence of Poetry. Shelley’s most enduring critical work is, as suggested by the title, a defense of poets and the poetic vocation against “reasoners and mechanists” whose sole criterion of value is “utility,” in the Benthamite sense. Rather than the typically romantic—and organicist—diatribe against either incipient modernity or quantification, Shelley’s critique of mechanical science and the utilitarian calculus is notable for its focus on nascent capitalist social relations and the role of what was even then a recognizably modern techno-scientific rhetoric. As he writes, “whilst the mechanist abridges and the political economist combines labor, let them beware that speculations exasperate the extremes of luxury and wealth."

Shelley’s critique animates the distinction his Spirit of the Hour draws between “altars, prisons, their guilty human product” and “chance, death, mutability.” Shelley disentangles the realm of necessity from reified, hence naturalized, modes of human domination and exploitation. Demigorgon, who fuses the new popular power embodied in the French revolutionary-era crowd and the force of necessity, represents for William Keach, “a much more inclusive conception of human agency released from its own self-imposed bondage and capable now in the terms of Shelley’s utopian fiction of establishing unimagined relations to necessity and chance." The end of “Heaven’s despotism,” in the words of Demigorgon, entails a new relationship with necessity and the natural world. 

Lecturer at New York University

I study radical transatlantic literary culture of the 1790s and its afterlives in socialism, utopian fiction, and the gothic novel. My home base is in Brooklyn, where I grew up, although Brooklyn now hardly resembles Brooklyn then.