Prometheus, Epimetheus & Pandora – does technology offer us hope?

October 30, 2013

The name Prometheus means forethought; clever, always thinking and one step ahead, inventive and creative, solving problems people didn’t even know they had yet.

Prometheus by FeugerPrometheus, imagined by Heinrich Fueger, 1817

By contrast, the Titan’s brother Epimetheus stands for afterthought; accepting what comes and reflecting upon it later, passive in the face of forces beyond his understanding, slow to react and seemingly simple for this.

But perhaps the positive and negative values we have ascribed to these two characters from Greek mythology need to be reversed in the face of climate change. Prometheus defends we poor humans with the gift of fire, and while this helped gather our cultures around a common power we could hardly imagine ourselves without, it has also led to coal powered electrical stations, oil fuelled cars (way too many of them), and the general problem of greenhouse gases out of control in the atmosphere. We love fire – and the power it grants us – to death. The whole project of ever-increasing technology follows this Promethean path towards devastating ecocidal behaviours.

Meanwhile, Epimetheus sits forlorn alongside Pandora, his beautiful gift of womanhood from the gods, whom he accepted against his smarter brother’s advice. She, out of pure curiosity, has slammed shut by now that gift that set upon us all the poxes and plagues that affect humanity. Like so many Greek myths, it is a patriarchal warning against the hubris and foolishness of ‘men.’ Women are the ultimate deadly enemy in this strange, unbalanced vision; while only hope, the one thing that we need the most, failed to escape this deadly gift from the higher realms.

But perhaps we are more like him – the dumb brother, the slow one – after all. And maybe, more controversially, we should aspire to be! All the things that come with nature – being born into a body that suffers and dies, living amongst creatures that can eat you, being exposed to the difficulties of social interactivity – should be our lot. We should be more at home with this receiving of life and not constantly trying to escape it into denatured fantasies of a world on purely human (let alone masculine) terms. Will more inventions save us? I don’t think so. Would more patience and acceptance help us to accept that we need to change, to slow down, to embrace the cyclical nature of life and love and loss and the pain – and gain – that comes with this? I suspect it would.

Pandora-John William WaterhousePandora with her box (originally jar), John William Waterhouse, 1896

And maybe that hope left in Pandora’s box is in fact the last and greatest gift, kept secure in her chest, saved by the same doltish, fumbling response as we saw with Epimetheus. Afterthought, more slow witted than the inventor and thief but also ready thereafter to reignite the heart, even when it is with the only thing we have left … hope. Perhaps it was meant to stay locked in, where it could survive the insane growth fetish that leaves us precariously balanced now at the edge of our ecocidal plunge into the next ‘great’ extinction event.

Perhaps Epimetheus is the hero after all, in his less impressive, more passive way. Certainly he speaks to the present moment better than his cleverer, thrill seeking, formerly helpful brother. And as Ernst Bloch saw, hope lights the way to a more deeply satisfied human heart and soul more surely than technology, any day.


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