Prometheus Revisited: The Quest for Global Justice in the Twenty-First Century

Prometheus Revisited: The Quest for Global Justice in the Twenty-First Century

Prometheus Revisited: The Quest for Global Justice in the Twenty-First Century

Prometheus Revisited: The Quest for Global Justice in the Twenty-First Century


Understood as a metaphor for the human mastery of nature, the myth of Prometheus has long served as a symbol of the modern world. Industrialization, individualism, the triumph of instrumental rationality and technological prowess in every aspect of life, all can be seen as expressions of the Promethean ethic. Yet as Arthur Mitzman demonstrates in this thought-provoking book, there is an alternative conception of Promethean modernity at odds with the reigning view. Elaborated in the writings of some European romantics, particularly the English poet Shelley, it emphasizes creativity over productivity, and a harmonious union with nature rather than its technocratic conquest.

According to Mitzman, the ideologies of nationalism, socialism, and consumer capitalism all purported to be agencies of liberation and social justice. But they were traps. The mentalities of growth and power they encouraged and their institutional embodiments suffocated the original impulses of Promethean creativity while combining to construct the "double wall" of ecological unsustainability and increasing social inequality that threatens the very existence of humankind.

Although the forces of globalization and neoliberalism dominate contemporary society and may seem irreversible, Mitzman believes in the possibility of a different kind of world. Integrating the insights of critical theory, intellectual history, and psychoanalysis, he offers a reasoned plea for a radical new vision of the future, one grounded in a politics of genuinely self-governing communities, a culture of liberated creativity, and an economics committed to the transcendence of scarcity and insecurity.


In April 1819 a young expatriate Englishman in Rome put the finishing touches to a long poetic drama, eloquent on the questions of freedom and resistance to tyranny but full of abstruse allegorical figures derived from the classical world. The poet was Percy Bysshe Shelley, friend of Lord Byron and a leading light, with Byron and John Keats, of the second generation of English romanticism. The drama, which seemed to be an adaptation of a 2,300-year-old tragedy by a Greek playwright, was Prometheus Unbound, a clear wink at Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound.

Shelley's poem illustrates the extreme complexity of the modern myth of Prometheus. In context, it offers a fascinating literary perspective on the potentialities of the modern world as it emerged from the age of the French Revolution and as it still stands before us. Shelley's generation of young idealists had already experienced the hardening of the revolutionary spirit into Napoleonic nationalism and the crushing of both by the victorious counterrevolution of the European old regime. Many were disillusioned, but some, like Shelley and his friends, retained a visionary hope for a rebirth, under more favorable conditions, of the revolution of 1789, a revolution that would transcend not only feudal monarchy and nationalism but also the crude middle-class utilitarianism which, in England and elsewhere in Europe, was rapidly substituting unbridled individual avarice for the collective restraints of traditional authority. Shelley, and the European romantics generally, wrote at the beginning of the triumph of the modern capitalism that embodied this avarice, a triumph whose latter-day epiphanies we observe around us today.

To understand the importance of Shelley's poem, for his age and for ours, we need to look at it in several contexts. The first is the prevailing meaning attributed in the twentieth century to Prometheanism, a meaning that links social, cultural, and philosophical progress, both of the individual and the collectivity, to technological prowess. On the one hand, idealistic collective ideologies—nationalism, socialism, and their rather disagreeable twentieth-century offspring—increasingly used the myth of Prometheus to justify cults of power. On the other, the contemporary manifestation of that . . .

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