Puros antamoibē ta panta kai pūr apantōn: Heraclitus and Aeschylus' Prometheus

Georgia Irby-Massie

The College of William and Mary

Aeschylus' dramas were esteemed for their beautiful poetry, engaging story lines, and splendid spectacle. His tragedies are all the more compelling for their treatment of or allusion to contemporary issues, including the recent war with Persia (a substrate of much of the extant corpus), the controversial treaty between Athens and Argos in 462 (surely in the minds of the Oresteia's audience), recent political reforms (e.g., of the Areopagus council), and rising political tensions in Athens of the 4th century.

Aeschylus also lived in an era of lively intellectual inquiry, and in his poetry there can be found subtle reflections of the new learning, advances in ethical and natural philosophy. For instance, Apollo's defense of Orestes, that the mother is not even related to her children, that the father provides the "seed" reflects the current state of medical art and anticipating Aristotle efficient cause), reflects current medical theory (Eum. 652-664; cp Arist., Ph. 195b12-30). Kratos, as he binds Prometheus, calls him a "sophist" (sophistēs: Prom. 62). Prometheus, in his opening ode of the same play, sings a litany of Empedocles' four elements (he himself is fire: 88-92), a theory Aeschylus may have learned during his time in Sicily. Furthermore, medical imagery abounds in the Prometheus and Agamemnon, inter alia.

Aeschylus' description of the eruption of Aetna (PV 365-74) brings to mind the central facet of Heraclitus' natural philosophy, that fire serves as both the central element and the catalyst by which change occurs and the world is governed. This paper, in analyzing several such passages, will discuss Prometheus as a figure inspired by the moral and natural philosophy of Heraclitus: Prometheus' antagonism and hostility to Zeus' order; the conflict between logos and bias or krates; the conflict between knowledge and wisdom; the contrast of opposites and the equilibrium resulting from their unity; and the pre-eminence of fire which is the fundamental element and catalyst in Heraclitus (nb Kirk, Raven, Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, [Cambridge, 1983] #219) and the foundation of all human technology for Prometheus.


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