Prometheus and the Drive to Mastery

Writers who express caution about the over-enthusiastic embrace of new technologies, such as Michael Sandel, who worries about human enhancement and genetic engineering, and Clive Hamilton, who worries about geoengineering, sometimes warn us about the ‘Promethean attitude’, or ‘the Promethean urge’. According to Sandel, human enhancement and genetic engineering ‘… represent a kind of hyperagency – a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires. The problem is not the drift to mechanism but the drive to mastery. And what the drive to mastery misses and many even destroy is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements’ (‘The Case against Perfection’, in J. Savulescu and N. Bostrom (eds.) Human Enhancement, OUP 2012, p. 78). Hamilton worries about geoengineers who desire ‘total domination of the planet’. He describes this desire as a ‘Promethean urge named after the Greek titan who gave to humans the tools of technological mastery’ (Earthmasters, Yale 2013, p. 18).

Many proponents of genetic engineering, human enhancement and geoengineering would protest at these descriptions. They might seek to alter certain aspects of human nature, or prevent deleterious changes to the Earth’s climate, however they do not usually think of themselves as seeking total control. But perhaps they are possessed by urges that they do not acknowledge, or that they are unaware of? Perhaps Sandel and Hamilton are pointing to the myth of Prometheus as a warning about such hidden urges?

There are various different myths about Prometheus. He is credited with providing human with architecture, astronomy, mathematics, the art of writing, the treatment of domestic animals, navigation, medicine and metallurgy. But although these arts help humans to make their way in the world, they seem to fall far short of providing us with mastery. Prometheus does not actually seem very interested in enabling humans to achieve mastery. He is also said to have deprived humans of knowledge of the future. If Prometheus’ aim was to enable us to master nature then depriving us of knowledge of the future would seem to be a very odd way to achieve that aim. If we knew what the future held then it would be much easier for us to master nature than it is now.

Prometheus is perhaps best known for giving humans the gift of fire. But it turns out, if the myth is to be believed, that we humans already had the gift of fire, but that this was taken away from us by Zeus, as a way of punishing Prometheus, who cared about humans. It seems that he earned this indirect punishment by playing a trick on Zeus, which benefited humanity – it’s complicated and has to do with preventing Zeus from fully benefitting from the sacrifices that humans made— and Zeus responded by withholding fire from humans. However, Prometheus stole the gift of fire and returned it to humans … and that’s when Zeus got really nasty. He had Prometheus chained to a pillar and tormented by an eagle which consumes his liver. At night his liver is restored and this allows the eagle to return and consume his liver once again, and so on ad infinitum. Prometheus’ mistake was not that he sought to enable humans to control nature, but that he dared to defy Zeus, a more powerful supernatural being. To Zeus, whether humans have the gift of fire or not appears to be a side issue. Prometheus was punished for returning the gift of fire to humans, but after meting out a harsh punishment Zeus seemed to have lost interest in the issue of whether or not humans continued to possess the gift of fire. At any rate, he allowed humans to continue to possess the gift of fire and, indeed, we still have it.

The charge that others possess a ‘Promethean’ drive to mastery is one that Sandel and Hamilton are quick to make. But they do not provide sufficient evidence to establish that any of their targets possess such a drive and they appear to misunderstand the myth of Prometheus when they associate his name with that charge.

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One Response to Prometheus and the Drive to Mastery

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    The problem with using myths as a shorthand is that they only work if they are understood in the same way. I think most educated Westerners get the gist of what Sandel and Hamilton want to say without going into the actual messiness of the myth. Most biblical stories have a commonly understood “official” meaning, which tends to fall apart when you read and think about them too closely.

    Prometheus is interesting since his crime and punishment were clearly not due to an universal moral law but rather Zeus the king getting angry. Compare that to the fate of Agamemnon and his descendants, cursed by his hubris. Or Daedalus, a morally rather deficient polymath who certainly meddled with things he was not supposed to meddle with, but met his demise from an assassin (the loss of his son Icarus was tragic but happened due to the actions of Icarus, not the hubris of dad).


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