This article explores Friedrich Nietzsche’s reception of the ancient Greek mythical figure Prometheus as a window onto the philosopher’s changing notions regarding antiquity. In the first instance it will examine the sources of the myth, both ancient and modern, in order to assess how Nietzsche’s appropriation fits into the broader history of Promethean receptions. It will then turn to two of Nietzsche’s main philosophical works, The Birth of Tragedy (1872) and The Gay Science (1882). By closely analysing the texture of Nietzsche’s Prometheus in these works this article will demonstrate that Nietzsche initially used the Titan as a marker of the relationship between ancient Greece and modern Germany and of the potential for a shared identity that might link them. In addition to this it becomes clear that Nietzsche’s conception of the Titan changed dramatically between the two works as well as afterwards, and this article will argue that these changes are key to understanding Nietzsche’s evolving attitude to the relationship between antiquity and modernity.
In the spring of 1859, the young Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) had just returned to boarding school after the Easter holidays when he realized that he had not written to one of his oldest friends for the entire time. He was in his first year at the prestigious Schulpforta near his hometown of Naumburg, a school renowned for its emphasis on the texts of ancient Greece and Rome and its consequent production of many eminent classical philologists during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.1 When Nietzsche detailed three things that he had written during the holiday, he demonstrated not only that he had found these studies interesting but also that one figure in particular had fired his imagination:
Within only a few months of his exposure to Graeco–Roman antiquity, Nietzsche was already expressing an interest in the ancient Greek mythical figure Prometheus.3 This particular character would reappear throughout a good portion of Nietzsche’s later writings, and in this article I want to explore some of the ways in which an examination of Nietzsche’s evolving appropriation of Prometheus can lead us to a better understanding of his reception of antiquity.4
First of all an unsuccessful play, entitled Prometheus, cluttered up with countless false perceptions on this topic, secondly three poems on the same subject which I do to death in a third work. This third work, incidentally, is a curious thing but not yet ready: it is six closely-typed pages long and is entitled ‘Question marks and comments along with a general exclamation mark concerning three poems entitled Prometheus.’ It tells the story of a poet’s opposition to the public, and the whole thing is a mixture of rubbish and nonsense. … I don't know how I could have such ridiculous ideas.2
Ideas and figures drawn from the ancient world informed much of Nietzsche’s thought. Before devoting himself entirely to a nomadic philosophical life, Nietzsche spent ten years (1869–79) as Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Basle. When we add this to the years he studied classics at school and university, we find that he spent almost half of his active life in some way devoted to the study of antiquity.5 However, it is not immediately clear what role Nietzsche’s interest in the ancient world should play in writings that so often tackled contemporary concerns. This apparent incongruity has sometimes led scholars to draw a clear demarcation between Nietzsche’s philological and philosophical writings, and furthermore between his interests in antiquity and modernity.6
This tendency, however, has started to change and there have been several recent attempts to infuse studies of Nietzsche’s output with an appreciation of his philological past.7 James Porter (2000: 5) has suggested that:
Porter makes two separate but connected arguments here and throughout his study. The first is that Nietzsche’s interest in antiquity functions as a recurring touchstone in his critique of modernity. The second is that Nietzsche’s sensitive appreciation of the myths and texts of the ancient world gave him an insight into the ways in which his contemporary society conceived of itself.8 Antiquity, in this reading, functions less as an actual historical era than as a construct that bolsters an ideology of modernity and which can be reworked and refashioned depending upon the role that it needs to play in different instantiations of that ideology.9 Nietzsche was in a good position, therefore, to interrogate these ideologies and to create his own relationship between antiquity and modernity on account of his philological training.
Nietzsche’s critiques are no less interesting for first taking shape in the field of classical philology. On the contrary, philology gave Nietzsche an immediate view onto the condition of modernity and especially of the modern German cultural imaginary, … that is, the ways in which Nietzsche’s contemporary modernity imagined itself, its identity, and its history.
In this article I will use the figure of Prometheus to explore and enlarge upon these two points. Simply as a result of the large number of appropriations and representations of the Titan that took place during the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it is clear that the figure was an important part of the contemporary ‘cultural imaginary’ with which Nietzsche was engaging. The fact that Nietzsche did return to Prometheus throughout his life can provide us with insights into how he engaged with a particularly charged part of his own cultural heritage.
Nietzsche’s depiction of Prometheus will also help us to explore Porter’s idea that antiquity is as much a product of modernity as it is a historical entity in its own right. I would like to make two additions to this argument. The first is that such a conception of antiquity relies on the perception that there are certain overlaps and continuities between the two historical contexts that are in-play. In the case of Nietzsche, these would be ancient Greece and modern Germany. Without these continuities and without the feeling that ancient Greece and modern Germany were in some way similar I suggest that there would be no attempt (or desire) to study and recuperate the ancients. My second point is that this dialogue between antiquity and modernity comes to have its force when figures such as Prometheus are considered to have significance that spans the different historical and cultural situations. That is, it is activated when they are deployed as ‘modern’ though they are ostensibly ‘ancient’. In this article I will interrogate how Nietzsche, one of the most archetypally ‘modern’ of thinkers, conceptualized this relationship.
My argument will proceed in four sections. First, I will examine various ancient Greek and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German (and more broadly European) depictions of Prometheus to investigate why the Titan was such an important part of the German cultural self-conception by the time that Nietzsche was writing. My focus will shift in the second section to Nietzsche’s invocations of the Titan in The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872) and then, in the third section, to The Gay Science (1882). In the conclusion I will address the striking absence of Prometheus from Nietzsche’s published writings after The Gay Science. As we will see, the various answers that Nietzsche gives to the question of whether Prometheus was Aryan, German, or Greek provide competing interventions into the debate about the possibility of antiquity informing our perception of the modern world.
Promethean contexts: ancient and modern
Hesiod and Aeschylus are the two main ancient literary sources for the Prometheus myth and, although Nietzsche alludes briefly to the Hesiodic version in his notes, it was the Aeschylean tragedy Prometheus Bound (PB) that most informed his later use of the Titan.10 Aeschylus presents Prometheus as a figure in defiant rebellion against the tyrannical king of the gods, Zeus.11 The play depicts the Titan chained to a mountain for the entire duration as punishment for stealing fire from the gods in order to give it to humankind and thus aid humanity’s development in contravention of a plan amongst the gods to destroy them. Prometheus maintains his defiance against Zeus despite mounting threats and the play concludes when the king of the gods sinks the Titan into the mountain as punishment for his intransigence.12
The characterization of Prometheus in this tragedy provided two threads that would run through later appropriations of the myth: the Titan’s defiance in the face of omnipotent divinity and his philanthropic actions for the benefit of humankind.13 This latter narrative, repeated in Prometheus’ appearance in Plato’s Protagoras (320c–328d), casts the Titan and his gift of fire as the catalyst for all human culture and subsequent technical development.14 By depicting Prometheus both as a rebel and an initiator of culture, the Aeschylean tragedy provided later writers with a fertile ground in which their own concerns could take root and flourish.
From the late eighteenth century onward appearances of the Titian became increasingly regular in literature and philosophy.15 Hans Blumenberg (1985: 561) has suggested: ‘In a way that was comparable to no other epoch before it, it comprehended itself in and by means of the Titan’, and proof of this suggestion can be found in the striking fact that a group including, but not limited to, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, the two Shelleys, A. W. Schlegel, Friedrich Schelling and Karl Marx all turned to the Titan to explore their own contemporary concerns.16 Prometheus was the perfect paradigm for those who, in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, wanted to highlight humankind’s growing intellectual self-sufficiency, diminishing dependence on religious belief structures and growing intolerance of political oppression. In a world that was becoming increasingly aware of the power of science and technology, the Titan functioned doubly as an encouragement for, and warning against, further scientific development. By harnessing the power of electricity, for example, it seemed for a period that humans could assume the role of quasi-divine creators, a possibility that Mary Shelley explored, to its most pessimistic limits, in Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818).17
As we will see in the next section, Nietzsche was aware of this burgeoning Promethean phenomenon. Another way in which Nietzsche engaged specifically with contemporary discourses on Prometheus was in his consultation of philological writings. For example, Karl Otfried Müller (1797–1840) could write, describing PB, that ‘[h]istorical allusions are not to be expected in this play[.] Prometheus … represents the provident, aspiring understanding of man, which ardently seeks to improve in all ways the condition of our being.’18 Müller will appear later in our story for his extensive writings on ethnic groups in ancient Greece that provided some of the main parameters for Nietzsche’s later appropriation of the Titan in BT. The Prometheus of the passage above is a universal figure who, even in his ancient Greek context, represents the development of all humankind rather than specifically ancient Greek historical events.
A more nuanced account was that of Jacob Burckhardt (1818–97). Burckhardt was a historian who was at Basle at the same time as Nietzsche and whose impact on the young academic has often been underestimated.19 Burckhardt objected strongly to Müller’s reading of PB.20 Rather, he offered an evocation of the Titan that combined historical particularity with universal relevance in his posthumously published lectures on Griechische Kulturgeschichte (given at Basle from 1872–85), lectures that Nietzsche had attended:
Burckhardt suggests that Prometheus is a symbol of the Athenian distrust of the divine and an antidote to the cheerful picture of ancient Greeks that could be drawn from the accounts of their festivals. This can be read, partly, as symptomatic of his project to demonstrate the dark side of antiquity and to undercut the humanist and classicist veneration of ancient Greece in favour of a more anthropological and violent account, a project that some scholars believe profoundly influenced, and was indeed carried on by, Nietzsche.22 However, although Burckhardt’s description might appear to locate the Titan's significance solely in what it explains about the ancient Greek religious attitude, these Greeks are in fact undergoing a realization about a universal theme: the relationship between man and god. These readings both demonstrate that Prometheus’ meaning was not solely located within his ancient context even in studies where one might expect such a focus.
Amidst the gleaming sacrifices and festivals the image of the bound one on the mountain [Prometheus] must have always intruded haphazardly into the thoughts of the Greeks; in it they would have recognized the true relationship between man and the gods.21
During the nineteenth century, Prometheus became affiliated to a wide variety of concerns that demonstrated his transhistorical appeal. In antiquity he had been a tragic hero who defended humankind in the face of divine antipathy and who instigated their cultural and intellectual development. Later men and women deployed the Titan and these characteristics according to their own various agendas. When Nietzsche invoked Prometheus in his first book he demonstrated sensitivity to the doubly ancient and modern resonances of Prometheus. This sensitivity generated striking results.
Prometheus in The Birth of Tragedy
Our first exposure to Prometheus in Nietzsche’s writings comes in The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872) [BT].23 This immediately alerts us to the possibility that it will be challenging to tie the Titan to just one historical context. BT is a work that is notoriously difficult to categorize as philology or philosophy since it displays facets of both disciplines: Nietzsche purposefully uses an exposition of the ancient world to facilitate a discussion about modernity. This is both what made the book unpalatable to Nietzsche’s academic contemporaries on its release, and also what makes it so fruitful for our analysis.24 First, however, some background on the work.
Throughout BT Nietzsche tries to establish continuity between the two contexts of Greece and Germany. He sets out one aspect of his programme at the start of the work:
The metaphysical concepts of the Apolline and the Dionysiac provide the means through which this continuity will be demonstrated. Nietzsche describes this opposition as continuous and thus still in force in his contemporary context. The Apolline stands for sculptural form and calm, as best evoked in sculpture, while the Dionysiac stands for formlessness and intoxication, as best evoked in music.26 These dual drives produce the best art, which Nietzsche sees as the main aim of all human culture, when they achieve perfect harmony. Nietzsche believes that this has happened only once before: in ancient Athens and in the Attic tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles.27 He sees the music dramas of the composer Richard Wagner (1813–83) to be the most likely source of a resurgence of similarly powerful art in his contemporary society.
We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics when we have come to realise, not just through logical insight but also with the certainty of something directly apprehended, that the continuous evolution of art is bound up with the duality of the Apolline and the Dionysiac[.] (BT §1: 14).25
Although Wagner’s influence on BT as a whole is ubiquitous, I argue that his influence on Nietzsche’s deployment of Prometheus is mainly superficial.28PB was Wagner’s favourite tragedy and Aeschylus his favourite tragedian. Accordingly, it has been argued that Nietzsche’s decision to use Aeschylus and PB prominently can be traced back to Wagner’s high estimation.29 This seems to be the case when Nietzsche chose to place an illustration of the Titan on the frontispiece of BT.30 In his preface, addressed to Wagner, Nietzsche affirms this connection:
However, beyond the fact that Prometheus was a privileged figure in Wagner’s own conception of ancient Greek tragedy I argue that there was no deeper intellectual connection between the two versions of the Titan. This is due to their different conceptions of the relationship between antiquity and modernity. In the same theoretical work in which Wagner describes Prometheus as ‘the most profound of all tragedies’ [die tiefsinnigste aller Tragödien] he also suggests that: ‘In truth, our modern art is only one link in the chain of artistic development of Europe as a whole [nur ein Glied in der Kette der Kunstentwickelung des gesammten Europa], which finds its origin amongst the Greeks.’32 Wagner subscribes to a teleological reading of history that suggests that ancient Greek tragedy, and thus Prometheus, is a prototypical version of what should be achieved in modernity. Nietzsche, by contrast, uses antiquity to demonstrate the state which modernity can return to in terms of its conception of art and its appropriation of the Dionysiac. Wagner’s Prometheus could never be Nietzsche’s, even if Wagner’s veneration of the figure encouraged Nietzsche’s deployment of the Titan at certain junctures.
I now imagine the moment when you, my revered friend, will receive this work. I see you … as you study Prometheus Unbound on the title page, read my name, and immediately feel convinced that, whatever the work may contain, its author has something serious and urgent to say, and also that, while conceiving these thoughts, he was conversing with you constantly, as if you had been present and as if he could only write down things which were appropriate in your presence. (BT Foreword to Richard Wagner: 13).31
Nietzsche’s most extensive discussion of Prometheus in BT comes in section nine. It is preceded and followed by references to Prometheus and PB which stress Nietzsche’s idea that the Greeks constructed their aesthetically pleasing tragedies out of dark and terrible myths.33 The Greeks mitigated some of the cruelty that lay at the heart of the stories by creating works of art: they sacrificed Dionysiac truth for Apolline form in order to maintain a balance of both. Nietzsche begins section nine with an analogy that clarifies this idea. Staring at the sun and then looking away, he says, causes dark spots to appear in our eyesight for protection. The relationship between tragedy and myth enacts the inverse process to this: the Greek myths were so dark and dreadful that tragic heroes became ‘radiant patches to heal a gaze seared by gruesome night’ (BT §9: 46).34 Nietzsche uses Oedipus and Prometheus to illustrate this.
Oedipus, according to Nietzsche, ‘was understood by Sophocles as the noble human being who is destined for error and misery despite his wisdom, but who in the end, through his enormous suffering, exerts on the world around him a magical, beneficent force which remains effective even after his death’ (BT §9: 47).35 Nietzsche thus conflates the two Sophoclean plays involving this particular character, Oedipus Tyrannos and Oedipus at Colonus. Nietzsche continues: ‘at this point it becomes clear that the poet’s whole interpretation of the story is nothing other than one of those images of light held out to us by healing nature after we have gazed into the abyss’ (BT §9: 47).36 In his attempt to demonstrate the truth of the opening analogy, Nietzsche reveals that the true content of the Oedipus myth is contained beyond the tragedy and even beyond Greece: ‘There is an ancient popular belief, particularly in Persia, that a wise magician can only be born out of incest’ (BT §9: 47).37 The suggestion seems to be that the Greek tragedies on the Oedipal theme are renderings of what is a darker, and originally Persian, myth.
Nietzsche proceeds to invoke Prometheus: ‘I shall now contrast the glory of passivity with the glory of activity which shines around the Prometheus of Aeschylus’ (BT §9: 48).38 While Nietzsche had previously sketched an initial reading of Oedipus garnered solely from the Sophoclean tragedies in which he featured, Prometheus is introduced in a strikingly different manner:
What the thinker Aeschylus had to tell us here, but what his symbolic poetic image only hints at, has been revealed to us by the young Goethe in the reckless words of his Prometheus:
This is a key moment in his interpretation of the Titan and it is here that we see the first hints that Prometheus may embody a connection between ancient Greece and modern Germany. By introducing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) Nietzsche suggests two things. The first is that a German author from under a century earlier has expressed the message of Prometheus more accurately than Aeschylus. The second is that the underlying Prometheus myth has appealed to both ancient Greek and modern German contexts and thus generated these twin connected artistic responses. It is this second idea, and the reasons that Nietzsche postulates for it, which will be the focus of my ensuing analysis.
Here I sit, forming men
In my own image,
A race to be like me,
To suffer and to weep,
To know delight and joy,
And heed you not,
Like me! (BT §9: 48).39
The Goethean poem that Nietzsche excerpts was written in 1773/4 (though first published anonymously in 1785) and speaks to many aspects of the post-Enlightenment interest in Prometheus.40 Nietzsche suggests that it is the ‘reckless words’ [verwegene Worte] of Goethe that mark his reading of Prometheus as superior to Aeschylus’s.41 Nietzsche is almost certainly referring to the particularly aggressive and hateful tone with which the narrator of Goethe’s ode attacks Zeus, the god who is the target of his entire poem.42 Another aspect of the poem that would have appealed to Nietzsche is that Goethe seems to have made the Titan into a human. The figure still displays certain Titanic qualities, and indeed slips back into that guise in the lines that Nietzsche quotes where he threatens Zeus with a race of men that he is creating who have no dependence on divinity. However, elsewhere he says to the god ‘Still you must leave / My earth intact/ My small hovel, which you did not build, / And this my hearth / Whose glowing heat/ You envy me’ (6–11).43 Goethe thus depicts Prometheus depending on fire, the very gift that he was reported to have provided to humans. The defiance of Goethe’s Prometheus is of a different tenor to that of the Aeschylean hero. It is no longer the chosen obduracy of a Titan who holds the key to his own release but is too principled to use it. Rather, it is the brave defiance of a human being who must make use of his technological skills in a universe that lacks a divine benefactor.
Nietzsche confirms that he has chosen to articulate Prometheus through Goethe’s poem because of its anti-divine invective when he describes the poem as ‘the true hymn of impiety’ (BT §9: 48).44 However, despite invoking the German context, Nietzsche continues to refer to the Athenian context of Prometheus. He declares:
At first, therefore, he seems to have only used the German poem in order to elucidate a reading of the Aeschylean tragedy from a particular anti-religious perspective. Nietzsche has introduced Prometheus in his German and Greek contexts ostensibly in order to represent a universal truth about humanity and its relationship with the gods in the style of the philological readings of the Titan by Burckhardt and Müller that we looked at earlier.
The Greek artist in particular had an obscure feeling that he and these gods were mutually dependent, a feeling symbolized precisely in Aeschylus’ Prometheus … The magnificent ‘ability’ of the great genius, for which even eternal suffering is too small a price to pay, the bitter pride of the artist: this is the content and soul of Aeschylus’ play[.] (BT §9: 49).45
Nevertheless, when Nietzsche turns to the myth that underpins these two artistic formulations he undercuts this universality by rooting his Prometheus in an unexpected identity. He declares, in a similar move to the one he used in his discussion of Oedipus, that the main significance of the figure lies beyond its ancient Greek formulation:
While Oedipus represented the wisdom of an ancient Persian folktale, Prometheus was a possession of the entire Aryan community. Nietzsche goes further and suggests that it is a fundamental myth of Aryan morality and identity, comparable in stature to the myth of the Fall in Semitic myth.47
But even Aeschylus’s interpretation of the myth does not plumb its astonishing, terrible depths … Originally, the legend of Prometheus belonged to the entire community of Aryan peoples and documented their talent for the profound and the tragic; indeed, it is not unlikely that this myth is as significant for the Aryan character as the myth of the Fall is for the Semitic character and that the relationship between the two myths is like that between brother and sister. (BT §9: 49).46
This passage has elicited much critical comment, mostly revolving around the idea of ancient and modern identities. Bruce Lincoln (1999: 64) locates the importance of this Aryan/Semitic dichotomy in antiquity when he suggests that ‘Nietzsche’s focus shifted from the opposition of [Apolline] and [Dionysiac] internal to (and constitutive of) Greek civilisation to the opposition of Greeks and their antithetical other’. Others have situated its significance in Nietzsche’s contemporary context by invoking this dichotomy in discussions of whether or not Nietzsche held anti-Semitic views and thus defined his own German identity by means of the Aryan/Semitic opposition.48 I wish to build on these approaches by suggesting that Nietzsche’s Prometheus is supposed to activate both these contexts simultaneously. It not only differentiates the ancient Greek and modern German communities from other cultures and belief-systems but also affirms a connection and similarity between these different historical epochs. Prometheus thus becomes one of the figures in which Nietzsche sees an overlap between antiquity and modernity, and the Aryan version of the Titan becomes a concrete example of the communion that Nietzsche postulates between Greece and Germany.
This theory is made more plausible by the significance that the Aryan category held during the period that Nietzsche was writing. After the proposition by Sir William Jones in 1786 that the Sanskrit, Greek and Latin languages had all developed from a common linguistic predecessor, named Indo-European or Indo-Germanic, there were various attempts to reconstruct the mythology and culture of the prototypical human beings who had spoken the language.49 A popular historical account regarding the heritage of this people emerged amongst German scholars that linked Germanic peoples with the Greeks and was famously enshrined in K. O. Müller’s Die Dorier (1824).50 Müller’s Dorians were a race from the north who ruthlessly conquered the indigenous peoples of Greece and thereby became the most powerful Hellenic people by the time of Athenian classical antiquity.51 Since the term ‘Aryan’ was interchangeable with the terms ‘Indo-European’, ‘Indo-Germanic’, ‘Doric’ and ‘Dorian' in this period, it is striking that Nietzsche introduces an Aryan Prometheus just after having juxtaposed an ancient Greek dramatist and a German poet: it seems clear that Nietzsche is asserting a connection between the different identities.52
But how does Nietzsche use Prometheus to do this? One clue can be found when Nietzsche continues his analysis:
The myth of Prometheus thus stands both for the discovery of fire and for the ensuing philosophical queries and dilemmas which attend this discovery. This chimes in with Nietzsche’s earlier comment that Prometheus demonstrated the Aryan ‘talent for the profound and the tragic’ [Begabung zum Tiefsinnig-Tragischen]: Nietzsche makes the Prometheus myth a foundational document of philosophical enquiry, as well as Aryan morality. Although he suggests that this is a moment that appears on ‘the threshold of every culture’, by describing the original Aryans as ‘contemplative’ [beschaulich] Nietzsche clearly characterizes them as having a particular sensitivity for these sorts of issues. Their propensity to contemplate, which will be emphasized further on in the passage, is what leads them to ponder their creation of fire and to conceptualize it as an act of hubris against divinity.
The myth of Prometheus presupposes the unbounded value which naïve humanity placed on fire as the true palladium of every rising culture; but it struck those contemplative original men as a crime, a theft perpetrated on divine nature, to believe that man commanded fire freely, rather than receiving it as a gift from heaven, as a bolt of lightning which could start a blaze, or as the warming fire of the sun. Thus the very first philosophical problem presents a painful, irresolvable conflict between god and man, and pushes it like a mighty block of rock up against the threshold of every culture. (BT §9: 49).53
Nietzsche confirms the Aryan philosophical disposition when he states:
Nietzsche again uses the word ‘beschaulich’, rendered here as ‘reflective', and thus emphasizes the Aryan tendency to interrogate and challenge the relationship between divine and human worlds. This particular stance is made sharper by the contrast that Nietzsche draws with the Semitic attitude to the gods, as encapsulated in the myth of Adam and Eve and the concept of sin. Nietzsche associates this latter concept with ‘curiosity, mendacious pretence, openness to seduction, lasciviousness, in short: in a whole series of predominantly feminine attributes’ (BT §9: 50).55 The transgressive message of the Prometheus myth thus vouchsafes a philosophical conception of human capabilities that is predicated on positive, and, in Nietzsche’s account, masculine qualities. This is in contradistinction to the negative, passive and feminine response to divinity that Nietzsche sees as a key aspect of Semitic sin.
The curse in the nature of things, which the reflective Aryan is not inclined simply to explain away, the contradiction at the heart of the world, presents itself to him as a mixture of different worlds, e.g. a divine and a human one[.] (BT §9: 50).54
Not only does the figure of the Aryan Prometheus point towards the origins of philosophy, but it also contains the origin of the tragic art-form that is the subject of Nietzsche's present enquiry. He makes this clear when he declares that ‘[w]hat distinguishes the Aryan conception is the sublime view that active sin is the true Promethean virtue; thereby we have also found the ethical foundation of pessimistic tragedy’ (BT §9: 50).56 Tragedy too has become an Aryan possession. It is denied to Semites in order to bolster the Aryan identity that Nietzsche has constructed to shore up his continuum of ancient Greece and modern Germany. The philosophical and tragic legacy of the primitive Aryans is thus shown to stretch right down to Aeschylus and Goethe, both of whom use Prometheus to explore how to challenge divinity rather than how to kowtow before it.
By designating Prometheus as Aryan in section nine of BT Nietzsche appeals simultaneously to his ancient Greek and modern German resonances. While Goethe and Aeschylus offer representations of the figure that speak to their anti-religious interests, their affinity with the Titan and with his impious resonances comes from the fact that they are descended from Aryans. Ancient Aryans had created the myth of Prometheus for two main reasons. The first is that it helped to explain the achievement of fire in an active philosophical manner as a theft from the gods. The second is that the myth was symptomatic of the Aryan propensity for tragedy. As we recall, it was precisely his hope for the rebirth of tragedy that encouraged Nietzsche to suggest the metaphysical continuity between ancient Greece and modern Germany. Therefore, we see that the Aryan Prometheus functions as a representation of an identity that not only exists in opposition to Semitism but that also confirms affinities between two different geographical and temporal situations. Though these themes will continue to revolve around Prometheus in his later appearances, certain changes will make this continuity more difficult to affirm.
Prometheus in The Gay Science
After BT Nietzsche’s life and thought would go through some profound transformations. We find them best summed up in the new preface that Nietzsche wrote in 1886 when he decided to republish BT with the subtitle ‘Hellenism and Pessimism’ [Hellenismus und Pessimismus] instead of ‘from the Spirit of Music’. Already we see that Nietzsche is retrospectively marking the subject matter of BT as a ‘Hellenic’ phenomenon rather than one that extends beyond this context and discusses a universal tragic phenomenon. As we explore the preface which he entitled ‘Attempt at Self-Criticism’ [Versuch einer Selbstkritik] we see that this historicization of Greek concerns was just one of the intellectual developments that had taken place in the intervening fourteen years.
Of Nietzsche’s judgements on his earlier work there are two that are particularly pertinent to the form that Prometheus could take after BT. The first is Nietzsche's claim that his first book had an ‘anti-moral tendency’ which was most clear in ‘its consistently cautious and hostile silence about Christianity – Christianity as the most excessive, elaborately figured development of the moral theme that humanity has ever had to listen to’ (BT Attempt at Self-Criticism §5: 9).57 It was in his discussion of Semitic sin and the opposition between Prometheus and Eve as two comparably important foundational myths of morality that Nietzsche came closest to raising the spectre of Christianity. With hindsight it appears strange that Nietzsche did not raise the Christian ramifications of this opposition, and Nietzsche’s current desire to break his silence might have implications for Prometheus. While it was useful for Prometheus to be Aryan in order to construct a strong opposition with Semitism, no such strong opposition exists between Christianity and Aryanism. And if he is not Aryan, then it is not clear how Prometheus can figure in any discussions of the relationship between ancient Greece and modern Germany.
These issues are revisited by Nietzsche’s second pertinent judgement on BT. This is that he had ‘ruined the grandiose Greek problem … by mixing it up with the most modern things!’ (BT Attempt at Self-Criticism §6: 10).58 He attributes this declaration to his mounting disappointment with the German nation in the aftermath of its unification in 1872, as well as with the inferior achievements of German music. Nietzsche’s great hope in BT, that Wagner’s music dramas would return his contemporary German culture to the same level as had existed in ancient Athens, had not come to pass. He describes current German music as ‘the most un-Greek of all possible forms of art’ (BT Attempt at Self-Criticism §6: 10).59 If Nietzsche truly believes that he mishandled his discussion of ancient Greece by bringing in modern concerns then it wouldn’t matter if Prometheus were Aryan or not any more. Prometheus could no longer stand for a convergence between what was Aryan, what was German and what was Greek because Nietzsche’s belief in any such connection between these categories had all but evaporated.
When we turn to the final appearances of Prometheus in Nietzsche’s published writings, we find that these issues were already at work in Nietzsche’s intellectual evolution four years before their diagnosis in the new preface to BT.60 In The Gay Science (1882) [GS], the main work in what is sometimes called Nietzsche’s middle period, Nietzsche uses Prometheus three times.61 Two of these are of particular importance.62 The first is in a section entitled ‘Origin of Sin’ [Herkunft der Sünde], which discusses how the notion of sin has come to govern modern conceptions of morality:
Nietzsche uses Prometheus to illustrate this lost Hellenic perspective: ‘[t]he Greeks … were closer to the thought that even sacrilege can have dignity – even theft, as in the case of Prometheus [.]’ (GS §135: 125).64 In this passage Christianity and Judaism are depicted as the main culprits for the growth of a morality based on sin that contrasts with an ancient Greek, and Promethean, morality of crime.
Sin, as it is now experienced wherever Christianity reigns or once reigned: sin is a Jewish feeling and a Jewish invention; and given that this is the background of all Christian morality, Christianity can be said to have aimed at ‘Judaizing’ the whole world. The extent to which this has succeeded in Europe is best brought out by how alien Greek antiquity – a world without feelings of sin – strikes our sensibility as being, despite all the good will expended by entire generations and many excellent individuals to approach and incorporate this world. (GS §135: 124).63
The first thing we notice is that Greek antiquity has become irremediably ‘alien’ to Nietzsche’s modernity due to the Christianization of his contemporary society. When Nietzsche confirms that this alienation has taken place despite the many attempts of German thinkers to assimilate a vision of the ancient world into their discussions of the modern, he seems to cast doubt even on the efficacy of his own attempts in BT to create continuity between antiquity and modernity. The appearance of Prometheus now draws attention to the inaccessibility of the ancient world where once it had symbolized its recoverability through its appeal to an Aryan heritage. The fact that Prometheus is not Aryan but specifically Greek responds both to this remoteness and also to the fact that his new opposition is Greek and Christian rather than Aryan and Semitic. The term Aryan had not dropped out of Nietzsche’s philosophical vocabulary entirely. It would return in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), where Nietzsche would utilize the concept to show the dissimilarity between contemporary Germans and ancient Aryans.65 An Aryan identity could no longer conjure the same consistencies between antiquity and modernity as it had done in BT, and Prometheus now stands at the end of a path to a specifically Greek antiquity that Nietzsche and his contemporaries cannot retread.66
Nietzsche confirms the failure of BT when he concludes that, ‘in [the Greeks’] need to incorporate into and devise some dignity for sacrilege, they invented tragedy – an art form and a pleasure that has remained utterly and profoundly foreign to the Jew, despite all his poetic talent and inclination towards the sublime’ (GS §135: 125).67 Nietzsche argues that tragedy is a Greek invention and as utterly alien to the Jewish sensibility as Jewish sin would be to an ancient Greek sensibility. Given that Nietzsche has just claimed that Christianity has ‘Judaized’ the modern world this statement suggests that tragedy will similarly not be possible in a world to which the spirit of Greek antiquity has become so alien.68 Whilst tragedy had previously been Aryan and had therefore been vouchsafed to both ancient Greece and modern Germany the fact that it, and Prometheus, have become solely ancient Greek means that they can have no impact on modernity as long as it remains so inflected by Judaeo-Christian morality.
The Titan appears once after this, and this appearance reveals different reasons for Prometheus dropping out of Nietzsche’s thought. The section is entitled ‘Preludes to Science’ [Vorspiele der Wissenschaft]: Nietzsche first proposes that the attempts of previous generations to harness occult powers were in fact necessary to the development of modern science. He continues:
… Similarly perhaps to a distant age the whole of religion will appear as an exercise and a prelude. Perhaps religion could have been the strange means of making it possible one day for a few individuals to enjoy the whole self-sufficiency of a god and all his power of self-redemption. (GS §300: 170).69
Nietzsche suggests that religion was a necessary forerunner to his philosophy because it created the conditions for such a philosophy to flourish. The key phrase is when Nietzsche suggests that religion allowed some people ‘to enjoy the whole self-sufficiency of a god and all his powers of self-redemption’. According to this passage, philosophy allows man to redeem himself during his life without having to depend upon a god. Nietzsche recognizes that to seize this self-redemption will be difficult since he only allots it to ‘a few individuals’ [einzelne Menschen]; nevertheless, it is possible for these few to assume the qualities of the gods that human beings have created throughout the ages, whether ancient Greek or Christian.
Prometheus appears in the conclusion to his passage and Nietzsche’s rhetoric demonstrates the importance that the figure retains for him to the last:
The word Nietzsche uses for ‘to imagine’ is ‘wähnen’, which has connotations of incorrectly imagining something to be the case, and which is then picked up by the ‘delusion’ [Wahn] of the final sentence. Nietzsche not only casts the events of the canonical Prometheus myth as a ‘delusion’, but he suggests that it was Prometheus’ own delusion: Prometheus had to invent his own theft of fire and subsequent punishment. But why? Nietzsche asserts that this delusion prevented Prometheus’ realization that he had created light and not stolen it. We might therefore think of the delusion as something constraining Prometheus and stopping him from taking full credit for his achievements and recognising that all the other parties involved in his mythical cycle were constructs resulting from his own conceptualization of his act. Here, Nietzsche is using Prometheus in order to argue that humankind must cast off the mythical documents that tie it to belief in the gods. Only then can it assume responsibility and glory for its own achievements outside the realm of divine sanction.
Did Prometheus first have to imagine having stolen light and pay for it before he could finally discover that he had created light by desiring light, and that not only man but also god was the work of his own hands and clay in his hands? All mere images of the sculptor – no less than delusion, theft, the Caucasus, the vulture, and the whole tragic Prometheia of all those who know. (GS §300: 170).70
In the broader context of GS this final deployment of Prometheus speaks to Nietzsche’s current as well as to his future concerns. This is the work in which Nietzsche first introduces his idea of the ‘death of God’, an event which Nietzsche feared as well as lauded since it promised to liberate mankind from divine constraints but also threatened to usher in a new period of nihilism.71 Since part of Prometheus’ mythical delusion was his punishment by Zeus, the way that he comes to his senses demonstrates that divine power was not involved at all in his discovery of fire. Nietzsche’s depiction of Prometheus thus shows a positive response to this absence of god. However, Prometheus must drop out of Nietzsche’s philosophy after this point because it has become clear that his mythical stories are documents of an outlook that Nietzsche wants to eradicate from modernity. Although Nietzsche’s Prometheus is no longer under any illusions, his myths still depict him at the mercy of a divine power and it is these myths that Nietzsche’s contemporaries associate most closely with the Titan. If Nietzsche wants his readers to recognize that god is a constraining product of their own imagination then Prometheus and all his deeds must be suppressed.
Beyond some sparse mentions in his unpublished writings this was the final time the Titan appeared in Nietzsche’s philosophy.72 We might see this silence as confirmation that Nietzsche has given up on using antiquity as a way of discussing modernity but for the fact that other ancient figures, such as Dionysus and Plato, continue to appear in Nietzsche’s final works. So why does Nietzsche continue to deploy these figures and not Prometheus? This comparison is instructive since it shows the very specific role that Prometheus had played in Nietzsche’s thought. The importance of Plato’s philosophy to Nietzsche at this later point was that, in Nietzsche’s account, the Greek philosopher had laid the groundwork for the slave-morality of modern Christianity.73 In a similar way, as Walter Kaufmann has argued, the Dionysus of Nietzsche’s later work is profoundly different to the one who appears in BT. His importance and power now derive from his opposition to Christianity rather than from his ancient Greek identity or his promise of a resurgence in modernity of an ‘ancient’ potentiality.74 Neither figure speaks to any particular resonance between ancient Greece and modern Germany. Since Prometheus had embodied a connection between the two contexts and represented Nietzsche’s hope that a connection between these contexts could be effectively nurtured, he lost his symbolic power when Nietzsche decided that the Titan’s delusional myths were harmful to his philosophy.
I will end this article by suggesting that we might profitably read Prometheus’ disappearance from Nietzsche’s work alongside the almost contemporaneous emergence of one of the philosopher’s most famous figures: the Übermensch.75 Both exist in the gap between humanity and divinity, both are superhuman figures with connotations of great strength and power, and both oversee, or attempt to oversee, the downfall of a divine power (whether that be Zeus or the Judaeo-Christian God). In his philosophical autobiography Ecce Homo (1888), Nietzsche responded to what he saw as a misrepresentation of the Übermensch in contemporary thought with the following description of the figure’s significance:
What else was Prometheus? In BT Nietzsche deployed the Titan to show modernity how to improve itself and its culture by constructing a connection with antiquity, while in GS his appearance demonstrated an opposite sort of morality to contemporary Christianity, as well as a positive response to the ‘death of God’, an event that Nietzsche feared could instigate mass nihilism. However, Nietzsche had by now decided that continuity between antiquity and modernity was impossible and that Prometheus’ myths themselves could have a negative effect on his readers. Prometheus had weaved in and out of Nietzsche’s writing ever since childhood and his changing identity had spoken eloquently to Nietzsche’s changing attitude towards antiquity. When the Titan went silent, so did Nietzsche’s hopes of reconnecting antiquity and modernity.
[It is] a designation for a type that has the highest constitutional excellence in contrast to ‘modern’ people, to ‘good’ people, Christians and other nihilists.76
The author would like to thank Miriam Leonard, Jim Porter, Martin Ruehl, Malcolm Schofield, Damian Valdez, and Maria Wyke for their comments and advice during the long gestation of this article. He would also like to acknowledge the extremely stimulating suggestions of Josh Billings and the anonymous reader.
Hier sitz ich, forme Menschen,
Nach meinem Bilde,
Ein Geschlecht, das mir gleich sei,
Zu leiden, zu weinen,
Zu geniessen und zu freuen sich,
Und dein nicht zu achten,