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Prometheus Bound

Aeschylus

Important Quotations Explained

Lines 907–1093

Key Facts

My poor friend, give up this angry mood of yours and look for means of getting yourself free of trouble. Maybe what I say seems to you both old and commonplace; but this is what you pay, Prometheus, for that tongue of yours which talked so high and haughty: you are not yet humble, still you do not yield to your misfortunes, and you wish, indeed, to add some more to them; now, if you follow me as a schoolmaster you will not kick against the pricks, seeing that he, the King, that rules alone, is harsh and sends accounts to no one's audit for the deeds he does.

This occurs in lines 316 to 328, and it is the first advice Oceanus offers Prometheus after appearing on the scene. Oceanus is a collaborator. Though he clearly does not fully approve of Zeus, he is unwilling to openly criticize the tyrant because he fears his power. Oceanus counsels Prometheus to follow the path that he himself is following: obey, and obey quietly. It is obvious from the beginning that Prometheus will not partake of any such advice, which adds to the feeling that Oceanus is offering his help only for the sake of appearances. We see throughout that Prometheus is too extreme and is punished, in part, for his excesses of defiance. Since Oceanus does not know the future as Prometheus does, it is natural for him to counsel Prometheus to drop this excess. Oceanus does not know that reconciliation will eventually come. The problem with Oceanus's advice is not that he advocates moderation, since moderation is the ancient Greek moral norm. The problem is that Oceanus advocates moderation not for its own sake, but out of fear. Oceanus is not a moral character; he is merely a prudent bureaucrat and, compared to the heroically defiant Prometheus, rather boring.

Then beneath the earth those hidden blessings for man, bronze, iron, silver and gold—who can claim to have discovered before me? No one, I am sure, who wants to speak to the purpose. In one short sentence understand it all: every art of mankind comes from Prometheus.

In lines 498 to 505, Prometheus wraps up the summary of his gifts to humanity for the Chorus. Prometheus takes credit for every human skill and achievement, or every art of humanity. At first this quotation seems simply like an attempt to find a patron god for human civilization. Apollo was the god of the sun, Hades was the god of the underworld, and it seemed only reasonable that there should also be a god of civilization. But this clearly is not what Aeschylus wants to achieve. He wrote Prometheus Bound at the beginning of a transitional period in ancient Greek thought when philosophers were starting to offer explanations for all sorts of human and natural phenomena that left the gods out of the account. This new thinking is already evident in Aeschylus. Though Prometheus retains the features of a real god, he is also an allegory for human progress standing in opposition to the arbitrary powers of nature.

Prometheus's explanation of his gifts to humanity clearly emphasizes the idea of human progress, suggesting that Aeschylus wants us to focus on that progress and not simply on Prometheus's role in it. Prometheus's gifts are listed in a logical order: first shelter, then writing and mathematics, then agriculture and harnessing of animals, and so on. Each gift results from natural human needs, and each follows upon a previous one of some importance. Finally, the listing of precious metals in Prometheus's account is a clear allusion to Hesiod's list of the ages of human Civilization. Hesiod believed that humanity had declined from the Golden Age to the Bronze Age. Aeschylus lists the metals in the opposite order, from bronze to gold, suggesting that humanity is progressing rather than declining.

Kindness that cannot be requited, tell me, where is the help in that, my friend? What succor in creatures of a day? You did not see the feebleness that draws its breath in gasps, a dreamlike feebleness by which the race of men is held in bondage, a blind prisoner. So the plans of men shall never pass the ordered law of Zeus.

In lines 546 to 553, the Chorus offers this counsel to Prometheus having heard the list of his contributions to humanity. Like Oceanus, the Oceanids advocate subservience to Zeus out of fear of his power. Yet the Oceanids clearly show genuine sympathy for Prometheus. The point that the Chorus makes here is different from the one Oceanus had made in the first quotation above. He had simply suggested that Prometheus should give in to Zeus out of fear. The Chorus, on the other hand, suggests that Prometheus has acted wrongly only insofar as his action was pointless. He helped human beings, but this was useless for him since human beings cannot offer him anything in return, and since in the end Zeus will never accept humanity anyway. The Chorus is not suggesting that Prometheus should bow down in fear, but that he should pick his causes more wisely. The Chorus does advocate prudence, but it also advocates something more than that: acceptance of inevitability. Unlike Prometheus, the Oceanids do not have any definite picture of the future. As a result, they believe what it is natural to believe, that Zeus will remain triumphant and all his enemies will be destroyed. In light of such a belief, the Oceanids offer the advice appropriate to the situation.

Time in its aging course teaches all things.

Prometheus exclaims this line, number 981, after Hermes tells him that Zeus does not know the word "alas." Here HeHH"alas" stands as the exclamation of pity, and this quote brings together the play's emphases on friendship and time. Pity is sympathy with suffering friends, and it is a feeling unknown to Zeus because he does not honor friendships. His power is absolute, so friendships cannot be important to him. Zeus is described as a tyrant because he places so much faith in his power, believing that he may do as he pleases while all others must obey him. Zeus's certainty rests on the assumption that his power is eternal. Prometheus's defiance rests on the knowledge that Zeus's power will, in time, be challenged. Time is significant because its passage limits Zeus's arrogance. In the end, he will be forced to either reconcile with Prometheus or be destroyed. Prometheus knows that the passage of time is stronger than even Zeus, and Zeus's weakness lies in his failure to recognize this fact.

There is not a torture or an engine wherewithal Zeus can induce me to declare these things, till he has loosed me from these cruel shackles. So let him hurl his smoky lightning flame, and throw in turmoil all things in the world with white-winged snowflakes and deep bellowing thunder beneath the earth: me he shall not bend by all this to tell him who is fated to drive him from his tyranny.

Here, in lines 987 to 998, Prometheus, challenged by Hermes to bow to Zeus's power and reveal his secret, utters the ultimate statement of rebellion. Though Hermes does not seem to notice, Prometheus here predicts what Zeus's punishment for him will be, thus showing his prophetic powers to be reliable. This quotation underscores the differences between Prometheus and a servant of Zeus like Oceanus. First, Prometheus does not let fear of punishment alter his resolution. He knows exactly what his punishment will be and, as he had indicated when first chained to the rock, he does fear this punishment. Yet he refuses to compromise, and here lies his strength. Oceanus gives in to Zeus's authority and counsels Prometheus to be submissive. Io's father throws out his own daughter when Zeus instructs him. Prometheus is aware that he can mitigate his punishment if only he will reveal his secret, but he knows that his secret is the only power in the universe stronger than Zeus, and he decides to suffer rather than cave in.

It is clear that Prometheus is extreme, which is why the Chorus and Oceanus counsel him to be more moderate, to watch what he says, and to avoid offending Zeus. Yet Prometheus shows that his excessive rebellion is different from the rebellion of other Greek tragic heroes who go too far. Others are excessive in their pride and are punished because this excess offends the moral norm of moderation. Prometheus, however, is excessive only in response to Zeus's own excess. His offense against the moral norm does not come independently from his pride, but derives directly from Zeus's own stubbornness. Thus Prometheus tells Hermes that he will gladly tone down his excessive defiance if Zeus will free him from his excessive punishment. That Zeus will not do so is reason for Prometheus not to relent.

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