The Promethean Paradox

Joanne Stroud, Ph.D.

Our dollar bill carries the motto: “In God We Trust”-but how much do we really trust in God in our daily lives and not just at a time of worship on Saturday or Sunday? Perhaps we trust Alan Greenspan more. It seems that even today, in the materialistic age in which we live, according to some polls, 96% of the people in the world believe in God (Chopra,14). William James declared that human nature has a “will to believe,” or, in contemporary jargon, our minds are hot-wired to seek God. C. G. Jung claimed that all human beings have an innate urge to experience the spiritual. It is natural to reach for the numinous realm: “All the old ideas of God, indeed thought itself, and particularly numinous thought, have their origins in experience. Primitive man does not think his thoughts, they simply appear in his mind. Purposive and directed thinking is a relative late human achievement. The numinous image is far more an expression of essentially unconscious processes than a product of rational inference”(Jung, para. 469). The God image, then, is archetypal, deeply infused, though often quite differently manifested, in our individual souls. Jung’s statement explains why our religious beliefs seem so essentially vital to us, but what is it about God, so universally worshipped, that causes such animosity when translated into dogma?

The audacity of trying to talk about God in twenty minutes keeps haunting me! Dr. Robert Dupree approached the subject this way: “By definition the concept of God is that of a being ungraspable by the intellect, indefinable in any totalizing fashion, and unrepresentable in language or image. A culture may well be delineated in terms of the way it copes with this paradox: that we are compelled to name the un-nameable.” I am choosing the way of polytheism, which “seeks to solve this problem by assigning a personality to each of the perceived aspects of God, ” again according to Dupree. God doesn’t leave any footprints in the snow, and yet we somehow are certain of the existence of a supreme force that orders the chaos of the universe. Today, science even is transforming itself from the old soul-less paradigm, newly aligning itself with the spiritual. Deepak Chopra, an Ayurvedic medical doctor, was a friend before he became so famous. Remaining many weeks on the N.Y. Times Best Seller List, his book, How to Know God-The Soul’s Journey Into the Mystery of Mysteries has been his most successful one, even beyond Ageless Body, Timeless Mind or Quantum Healing. His latest book couples quantum theory with an outline of steps for reaching knowledge of God.

I would like to return to the title of this paper, “The Promethean Paradox.” Classical Greek culture dealt with the many-sided aspects of God by division of the godhead into multiple parts. Poe, in describing the Greek pantheon called the gods and goddesses “springs of action become visible.” Psychology uses these images to better understand, to see through the dynamics of behavior patterns. Referring back to Greek mythology, I would like us to discuss the premise that our current American culture is Promethean, desiring freedom from authority and rebelling against dependency on the gods. Let’s review the mythology for a moment. You will remember that Prometheus was a Titan, the generation of gods that preceded the Olympians. The majority of the Titans ended up in Tartarus, or Hell. Prometheus was actually one of the most well-regarded of his generation of Titans, but his name symbolizes not only the wondrous gift of imagination but also its shadow side–the inflation of desires, overblown one moment and totally blown away with disappointment the next. When not in the euphoric mode of Promethean inflation, one experiences the alternate feeling, the counter sensation of being chained permanently to a rock with no vision of any foreseeable future, hopes dashed cruelly. This is the core problem of our Promethean era: hope is out of joint–either too expansive or too constrained. To be driven to excess and to suffer subsequent punishment is the nature of the Titanic (even with a ship by this name?). Hope can be demonic when it takes the form of self-delusion. Hope and its improper use pushes one into Titanism. The word Titan derives from titanein, “to overreach oneself,” and from tises, “punishment.” Carl Kerényi faults this generation that preceded the Olympians, saying “the Titans had overreached themselves in their foolhardiness” (Kerenyi, 207).

In Aeschylus’ drama, “Prometheus Bound,” Prometheus brags: “I planted firmly in their hearts blind hopefulness” (Aeschylus, 28). Certainly we can’t object to “hopefulness,” but it is the blindness in this case that gives us trouble. A general miasma is induced, a failure to accept the limits of being human. Under the influence of the Promethean Complex, we find ourselves blinded by hybris, unable to foresee boundaries or the perilous repercussions of foolhardy actions.

On the positive side, Prometheus’s bequest to humanity is the fabulous gift of fire, the essential element of transformation, which can change coarse substance into an artistic or consumable product. In an analogous way it is the spiritual gift of imagination. Among current scholars, Donald Cowan emphasizes that “The Promethean fire is imagination, not simply skills, or reason; and imagination is the power from a divine source whereby matter is permeated with spirit” (Cowan, 168).

In the last century we have failed to acknowledge that imagination is a spirit manifestation, a divine spark. For instance, we rarely consider it necessary to ask that the Muses sing through our words when we begin a creative endeavor, as was the custom of the ancients. Donald Cowan explains that “the theft of so mighty a power, even though man did not himself do the deed, allows the human race to declare its independence from divine order, and through imagination and inventiveness, elevate the human lot” (Cowan, 22). Isn’t this exactly what we do, declare our independence from the divine order? Then too, Prometheus’s gift was tainted, since it carried the curse of a blood feud. It was motivated by a desire for revenge, because Zeus orchestrated the destruction of his generation of Titans. In rebellious responding, Prometheus desired that humankind be able to challenge and even flout the gods and goddesses.

Today this forgetfulness of divine guidance is causing many difficulties. The shift toward the Secular City, the abandonment of the sacred in our daily lives, seems ever increasing. The lack of connection with the spiritual is accompanied by an elevation of the importance of individual choice. Frances G. Wickes writes about the consequences: “Prometheus stole the divine fire, the creative flame; he who consciously accepts his right to individual choice steals an attribute of God. Through this theft he brings upon himself the punishment of consciousness, of responsibility, of self-awareness, and of self-judgment. Yet this theft is also a gift, for the inborn creative spark, which makes the theft possible, is the potential of divinity implanted in man in the act of creation; and the punishment, which is also the gift, is that he must now enter upon a way of transformation, a journey through darkness into light” (Wickes 8-9). Few of us truly grasp the degree to which we have unleashed the Promethean paradox-the inborn imagination as divine spark without the concomitant recognition of attribution or acknowledgement of gratitude due. As Northrop Frye says in his Introduction to Bachelard’s Psychoanalysis of Fire, we have raised “the human state to a quasi-divine destiny” (Bachelard, viii).

In his poem “Prometheus Unbound,” Percy Bysshe Shelley accurately foresaw Prometheus’s acceptance as the secular god in Western intellectual thought. This willful deity is the prototypical American hero, always probing for new realms to conquer, quickly dismissive of past burdens or debts. His special gift is peering into the future, and he finds it teeming with opportunity. He is the future tense governing our projections. Prometheus is the will to new knowledge, the spur to experimentation. He is also our power overdrive, our will to exceed limits, our denial of all restraints, our defiance of the gods in the cause of self-aggrandizement, our glorification of what it means to be human. The Prometheus complex reigns in the secular environs of “exhausted spirituality” (Solzhenitsyn’s phrase), ever generating the lamentable belief that the gods are passè.

In earlier times, poets, philosophers, and theologians engaged in fierce debate about the proper use of the will-not my will, but Thine be done. A consistent thread woven throughout Judeo-Christian theology–from Abraham, Moses, and Job to Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Martin Buber–has been fabricated around the conflict between human and divine will. In the seventeenth century, Milton focused on those aspects of choice belonging to mankind and those belonging to divine Will. As Ginny Arbrey reminded us last week, Satan prefers to reign in Hell rather than serve in Heaven. Paradise, then, is also lost for humankind when we forget our derivative link with the Creator. Struggling to remain connected to God in the increasingly secular world of the seventeenth century, John Donne expresses the difficulty of keeping attuned to God’s Will. In his “Holy Sonnet XIV” he laments the fragile faculty of human reason and uses the language of desire to address the will that wavers in its devotion: “Batter my heart, three-personned God…. Take me to You, imprison me, for I, / Except You’enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me” (Donne, 86).

The French phenomenologist, Gaston Bachelard focuses attention on how, what he calls the Prometheus Complex, tempts us to ignore restrictions: “The many figures of Prometheus inherited from past myths and cultures have rooted themselves in us, making psychological techniques of self-transcendencepossible…. But if these imposing figures of Prometheus are to have any psychological effect on us, they must be experienced as attempts–or, better yet, temptations–to transcend our own natures, to experience the human, more than human” (Bachelard, Frag., 73-73).

The will-to-intellectuality, one aspect of an upwardly mobile imagination, easily turns into a Prometheus Complex. Describing this complex as “the intellectual mastery of fire,” Bachelard explains that “there is in man a veritable will to intellectuality.” It follows that this complex involves “those tendencies which impel us to know as much as our fathers, more than our fathers, as much as our teachers, more than our teachers” (Bachelard, Psychoanalysis, 12). It is the desire not only to surpass one’s father but, extended further, to deny any authority, to defy the gods, to steal their fire or their creative energy without attribution. It could perhaps be considered an complex ensconced at the level of the intellect. In Bachelard’s view of this epoch, “all educated persons organize their thinking around one figure of Prometheus or another…. There is a personal Prometheus for everyone” (Bachelard, Fragments, 66). Goethe’s “Ode to Prometheus” ends with Prometheus saying: “I am no God / Yet look on myself as not less worthy.” The Ode was planned as part of a play, “Prometheus,” that was never finished. Prometheus proved unconfinable, even for a man of Goethe’s genius.

In his book Christ and Prometheus, William F. Lynch has a baleful description of modern Titanism: “The Promethean which we have often associated with the image of secularity itself is a rigid, simplistic, unilinear image of movement through the human, based on power and the will and ultimately involving a lack of imagination. It is an image of power, victory, invention, engineering, unilinear progress, and unilinear evolution, the conquest of the world (Lynch, 56). The Promethean urge does not affect just America. After Nietzsche declared that God was dead, he had to project himself into that role, of Dionysus or Zarathusra. And Adolph Hitler followed suit a bit later. When one hears Hitler’s mesmerizing speeches today, one can’t help but be struck by the impression that he is trying to take the role of an absent God. When ego seizes the feeling of power associated with spirit as coming from itself, it inflates and knows no bounds. Perhaps our national will needed strengthening after 9/11, but I have problems with some of the current bellicose rhetoric that sounds like we are the dictators of the world.

We took so much for granted before 9/11 that now seems to need reflection. We wonder why we know so little of the Islamic God, but I believe the word “Islam” means “peace.” Why is it that extreme adherents of religions seem the ones most apt to commit acts that their religion doesn’t condone? There is such a difference between a holy sage, in touch with the Divine, who wouldn’t think of taking a life, and a terrorist. Is it Promethean inflation that causes such self-righteousness? Kirk Varnedoe, until recently Chief Curator of the Modern Museum of Art in New York and now at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, said in an interview: “I don’t want to sing “God Bless America,” because God being on our side is what the guys that flew into the towers were all about.” I’ll end with a question: How do we honor our country and honor our God and others beliefs as well?


Aeschylus, “Prometheus Unbound” trans. Philip Vellacourt. Harmonds-worth:Penguin Classics, 1961.

Bachelard, Gaston. Northrop Frye, “Preface,” Psychoanalysis of Fire, Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

Bachelard, Gaston. Fragments of a Poetics of Fire, trans. Kenneth Haltman,ed. Suzanne Bachelard. Dallas: The Dallas Institute Publications, 1990.

Chopra, Deepak. How to Know God: The Soul’s Journey into the Mystery of Mysteries. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000.

Cowan, Donald. Unbinding Prometheus–Education for the Coming Age. Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1988.

Donne, John. John Donne’s Poetry, ed. A. L. Clements. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966.

Jung, C. G. Psychology and Religion: West. Volume II of the Collected Works, Bollingen Series XX, trans. R. F. C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Kerényi,Carl. The Gods of the Greeks. London: Thames & Hudson, 1974.

Lopez-Pedraza, Raphael. Cultural AnxietyDaimon Verlag:Einseiden, Switzerland, 1990.

Lynch,William. Christ and Prometheus: A New Image of the Secular. Notre Dame: The University of Notre Dame, 1970.

Wickes, Frances G. The Inner World of Choice. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hough, Inc., 1976.

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