BRINGING PHILOSOPHY TO LIFE
Living with our Gift from Prometheus
Most of us are familiar with the ancient Greek myth about Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans so we might survive in a hostile world. Today, the symbol of fire has taken on new and frightening meanings. Literal fires are burning out of control in Canada, France, Spain, and the United States. We do not need news reports because we see the evidence in the air of New England and breath it the streets and sidewalks of New York City. Today the myth symbolizes the climate change that is responsible for the severity of those wild fires; the tactical nuclear weapons that the Russians are placing in Belarus (https://www.businessinsider.com/putin-warns-west-russian-tactical-nukes-being-put-in-belarus-2023-6); and, most recently, it has emerged as the new forms of Artificial Intelligence discussed in the previous three episodes of this series. Although the Prometheus myth has been told by several different authors, I will begin this episode with the version that appears in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras. Plato’s character Socrates is talking with Protagoras, one of the major teachers in the world’s first democracy. Protagoras was deeply involved in teaching the ethical and political values that are essential to creating and maintaining democracy.
Socrates: … When I listen to your words, I am tempted to think that there must be something in what you say, because I know that you have great experience and education. So, please show me a little more clearly that goodness can be taught. Will you do that?
Protagoras: I’ll be glad to do that, Socrates. But what would you like? Shall I tell a story or a myth, or shall I argue out the question?
Socrates: Our friends gathered here think you should choose for yourself.
Protagoras: Well, then, I think that the myth will be more interesting:
Long ago there was a time when there were only gods, no mortal creatures. When the time came for mortals to be created, the gods fashioned them out of earth and fire and mixtures of both elements. They did this inside the earth, and when they were about to bring them into the light of day, they ordered Prometheus and Epimetheus to equip them, to distribute appropriate qualities or powers to each of them. Epimetheus said to Prometheus: “Let me do it, and then you can inspect what I have done.” Prometheus agreed, and Epimetheus made the distribution. He gave some of the mortals strength without speed, and some of the weaker ones he equipped with speed. He armed some, and others he left unarmed, giving them another means of surviving. On some of the little ones he bestowed wings so that they could fly, and for others he provided a habitat underground. Those to whom he gave great size, he protected by their very bulk. And so it was with the rest of his distribution, always compensating deficiency with advantage. In this way he made sure that no species would be destroyed.  Once he had guarded against their destruction by each other, he also devised ways of protecting them against the seasons, clothing them with thick hair and skins sufficient to defend them against the winter cold, yet able to resist the summer heat. This also provided them with a natural bed when they wanted to rest. Some he furnished with hooves and hard and callous skin under their feet.
Then he gave them varieties of food—plants from the soil to some, fruits of trees to others, and roots to still others. To some he gave other animals as food. He arranged that some would have only a few young ones, while those they preyed upon were very fertile. In this manner each species was preserved.
This is how Epimetheus, who was not too wise, distributed among the other animals all the qualities he had to give. When he came to human beings, who were as yet unequipped, he was at a loss. As he stood pondering the situation, Prometheus came to inspect the distribution. He found that the other animals were quite suitably endowed, but humans were naked and shoeless, and they had neither beds nor weapons for defense. The appointed hour was approaching when human beings were to emerge from earth into the light of day. Prometheus, in order to save human beings from destruction, decided to steal skill in the crafts from Hephaestus and Athena, along with fire—skill in the crafts was useless without fire. In this way human beings acquired the skill required to support life.
But humans did not have political skill, which was kept by Zeus. Prometheus did not have the power to enter into the citadel of heaven, where Zeus lived. Moreover, Zeus had terrible sentinels guarding his palace. Prometheus was only able to sneak into the common workshop of Athena and Hephaestus, in which they used to practice their crafts. He carried off Hephaestus’ art of working by fire, and from Athena he took handicrafts and agricultural skill. These he gave to human beings. In this way people were supplied with what they needed to live. It is said that Prometheus was later prosecuted for theft, all because of the blunder by Epimetheus. 
Once they acquired these divine crafts, human beings shared some of the divine qualities; they were the only animals that worshipped the gods. They built altars and made images of the gods. It did not take long for them to invent names and articulate speech. Human beings constructed houses; made clothes, shoes, and beds; and they discovered how to get food from the earth.
Provided for in this way, humankind at first lived separated from each other—there were no cities. But they were so much weaker than the wild animals that they were being destroyed. Human technology was only sufficient to provide them with food, shelter, and clothing, but it did not enable them to make war against other animals. They lacked the skill of government, of which making war is a part. After a while, the desire for self-preservation gathered them into cities. But when they started living together, they began fighting with each other, and they were soon on the verge of dispersion and destruction. Zeus feared that the entire race would be exterminated, so he sent Hermes to give them mutual respect and justice to forge bonds of friendship and maintain order in their republics.
Hermes asked Zeus how he should impart justice and respect among people. “Should I distribute them as the arts are distributed—to a favored few only—as one skilled individual provides medicine or some other art for many unskilled ones? Is this the way I should distribute justice and respect among people? Or should I give them to everyone?”
“To everyone,” said Zeus. “I want them all to have a share, because cities cannot exist if only a few possess these qualities, the way only a minority excel in the arts and crafts. Furthermore, by my order make a law that anyone who lacks the qualities of respect and justice will be put to death. Such a person is a plague to the republic.”
Socrates, this is the reason why the Athenians and humankind in general allow only a few to share in their deliberations when the question relates to carpentry or any other handicraft. When someone else interferes, they object, because that person is not among the favored few. That is quite natural. But when they meet to deliberate about political skill, which only comes from justice and wisdom, they patiently listen to any person who speaks. That is also natural, because they think that everyone ought to share in it. Republics could not exist if it were otherwise.  Socrates, this myth shows why goodness can and must be taught (Translated by Albert A. Anderson, Ó Agora Publications, Inc., 2009).
This series began with the topic of democracy and its future not only in the United States but throughout the world. That topic becomes more urgent with each passing day. Rather than taking democracy for granted, it is now clear that powerful global forces are currently questioning the viability of democracy and calling for authoritarian rule. Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea quickly come to mind as countries that favor authoritarian rule rather than those forms of democracy that embrace values such as civil rights that apply to everyone, the right to vote by all citizens, sexual equality, universal education, and religious autonomy.
I am writing this episode on Juneteenth, a national holiday in the U.S. that observes the end of slavery designated as June 19, 1865. This day did not become a national holiday until 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law. This is an important holiday, especially at this point in history, because it reaffirms the priority of democracy from the standpoint of the U.S. Constitution. The historian Heather Cox Richardson summarized the Constitutional amendment that provides the foundation for celebrating Juneteenth:
In 1866, congressmen wrote and passed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Its first section established that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” It went on: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
That was the whole ball game. The federal government had declared that a state could not discriminate against any of its citizens or arbitrarily take away any of a citizen’s rights (“Letters from an American,” Substack, June 19, 2023).
Juneteenth provides a powerful reminder of the universal values manifested in the U.S. Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment affirms the position presented by Protagoras concerning the distribution of political wisdom—it should be distributed “to all alike,” not limited to a single authority or a limited number of people based on wealth, race, gender, class, religious affiliation, or bloodline. Philosophers have disagreed on this topic over the centuries, beginning with different interpretations of what Plato himself thought. I think that the best way to understand Plato’s dialogues is to interpret them as we would other forms of literature.
Let’s consider why Plato chose myth, rather than philosophical prose, to explore this issue, along with so many other topics. Plato wrote Socratic dialogues, which his student Aristotle designated as a form of poetry (Aristotle’s Poetics, 1447b). Myth and poetry are forms of symbolic language, not the kind of literal statements employed by the natural and social sciences. Aristotle put it this way:
Based on what I have said, it is clear that the poet’s role is not simply to tell what has actually happened but to portray what might happen according to what is probable or necessary. The difference between a poet and a historian does not lie in whether they write in verse or in prose. [1451b] If the work of Herodotus were put into verse, it would still be history—with or without meter. The difference is that history relates what has happened and poetry portrays what might happen. This explains why poetry is more philosophical and more significant than history: poetry presents what is universal, whereas history recounts particulars (Beauty and Truth: Plato’s Greater Hippias and Aristotle’s Poetics, translated by Albert A. Anderson, Agora Publications, Inc., 2007).
What matters most is not what Plato thought but what we, his readers and listeners, think after engaging in the dialectical process presented by his characters—all of his characters. Socrates is certainly an important character in many of the dialogues, but he is absent from some important dialogues and plays only a minor role in others. Ultimately, what matters is the truth.
If Aristotle is right about what he called poetry, we can apply that same insight to contemporary forms of art, especially to what we call fiction. Science and history are extremely important, but novels, plays, films, and other forms of art created by the imagination are even more valuable as we struggle to understand and apply the truth about what is just, good, beautiful, and holy in the world today. Recently, politicians have begun to wage “culture wars” concerning these fundamental values, so it is urgent for us to think seriously and deeply about the works that shape the education of the current generations, especially when some politicians are trying to censor what is presented in our schools, universities, libraries, and public performances. If Aristotle were alive today, I am confident he would promote including novels such as Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; plays including Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Kushner’s Angels in America, and Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt; and films like Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane, Merchant and Ivory’s Remains of the Day, and Zinnemann and Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons.
Today, throughout the globe, the question of the best form of government for human beings has emerged as a matter of serious dispute. Is the best form of government genuine democracy or some kind of authoritarianism? Stalin’s totalitarianism and the fascism sought by Hitler and Mussolini are specific versions of authoritarianism, but there are others that are less emotionally charged. For example, the 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes presented and defended a vision of government in which the citizens give all power to a single leader. He published it in 1651 under the title Leviathan (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm#link2H_4_0205).
Unlike democracy, this vision of government prohibits its citizens from changing its form or dissolving the covenant they have made. A declaration of independence would be totally unacceptable. Only final defeat by an external enemy can bring about dissolution of the commonwealth, in which case individuals return to what he calls “the state of nature.” According to Hobbes, the ultimate justification for placing so much power in the hands of a single authority is security. In the state of nature people have total freedom, but life outside the commonwealth is, as he puts it, “nasty, brutish, and short.” So, we form a covenant with each other, a “social contract,” in which we exchange freedom for security.
Even though the version of authoritarian government presented by Hobbes lacks the emotional baggage that we find today in communism and fascism, it is important to remember that in 1651 the British Commonwealth was ruled by King Charles II. In the 18th century that form of authoritarianism was replaced by a bold experiment with a new form of democracy that placed sovereignty in the hands of the people.