5 – Aeschylus

Aeschylus already reveals the original power of tragedy at its height. His work perfectly stresses the heroic expenditure or sacrifice exacted by the “crime” of tragic wisdom. Nietzsche concentrates on Aeschylus’ Prometheus and on the poet’s treatment of the myth of this demigod who defies Zeus to offer fire to mankind, who was willing to suffer eternal torment, and who urged that there must be another “justice” beyond Zeus’ Olympic tyranny, which also reflects the rise (and rebellion) of tragedy itself. For his “crime”, we remind ourselves, Zeus had the reluctant Hephaestus fasten Prometheus to a cliff in the Caucasus, attended by Might and Violence. Nietzsche writes:

Man, rising to Titanic stature, gains culture by his own efforts and forces the gods to enter into an alliance with him because in his very own wisdom he holds their existence and their limitations in his hands. But what is most wonderful in this Prometheus poem, which in its basic idea is the veritable hymn of impiety, is the profoundly Aeschylean demand for justice. The immeasurable suffering of the bold “individual” on the one hand and the divine predicament and intimation of a twilight of the gods on the other, the way the power of these two worlds of suffering compels a reconciliation, a metaphysical union — all this recalls in the strongest possible manner the center and main axiom of the Aeschylean view of the world which envisages Moira enthroned above the gods and men as eternal justice. 40

The old saw that Aeschylus, the first known tragedian, is a conservative upholder of the gods and the virtue of piety is refuted by Prometheus. This may be why Nietzsche chose this play and not the Orestia or just Agamemnon. That we have fragments of the second play, Prometheus Unbound and nothing of Prometheus, The Firebearer can only be lamented. But what fascinates Nietzsche is the genius of Prometheus’ defiance of the Olympic order, the “secret” which Prometheus withholds threatening Zeus himself, the lofty yet fundamental defiance of suffering, pain and exhaltation consummated by the “sacrilege” of stealing fire from the heavens and empowering man. The naive concept of justice as mere control is thereby refuted and from its ashes rises a new independence of the soul which transforms the world.
There is no complaint here that the play is “static” because there is so much chorus nor is there an emphasis on the “good” Prometheus does for humanity by feeling pity for our uncivilized lives without craft or fire. Prometheus, or Foreknowledge, challenges the Apollinian dream-world, just as the Dionysiac ground of becoming needs to dream of it in order to redeem itself from suffering. Prometheus takes the pain, squanders and sacrifices his well by refusing to accept an Olympus without a reciprocal recognition of the creativity of man. This is the justice which both the Olympian gods and the “children of a day” must reckon:

In view of the astonishing audacity with which Aeschylus places the Olympian world on the scales of his justice, we must call to mind that the profound Greek possessed an immovably firm foundation for metaphysical thought in his mysteries, and all his skeptical moods could be vented against the Olympians. The Greek artist in particular had an obscure feeling of mutual dependence when it came to the gods; and precisely in the Prometheus of Aeschylus this feeling is symbolized. In himself the Titanic artist found the defiant faith that he had the ability to create men and at least destroy Olympian gods, by means of his superior wisdom which, to be sure, he had to atone for with eternal suffering. 41

In Nietzsche’s account it is not social solidarity which binds Prometheus to Man. It is the Dionysiac “ground” which unites the artist, the maker, with his own creation, as “poeisis”. The struggle between Zeus and Prometheus far exceeds the brute threats of Might and Violence — but engages the “poetry” of the will — which wrings beauty from terror and individuality from the cruel machinations of a tyrant. It is not man’s weakness but its overcoming which compels Prometheus to sacrifice himself and to offer us a means by which to bury our inertia with Zeus’ blind hegemony. When the reconciliation comes at the projected end of the Promethean trilogy, Gilbert Murry observes that: “It is Zeus who repents more than Prometheus”. 42 The suffering which Prometheus undergoes for humanity and his “crime” against the gods, are triumphant, and it is Zeus who must atone.
Moira, or fate, then, maintains all of our lives in the balance. But moira is clearly not predestination. It explains the creative impact of each choice in relation to death and to the suffering which finally gives way to wisdom. For the illusion that we do not create the world or that our creations can lord it over us and crush our independence as hapless slaves to fate or destiny Aeschylus reveals the demigod’s crime. While Oceanus tries to persuade Prometheus to strike a deal and while the young Hermes delivers sullen reproaches as messenger (“lackey”) of Zeus, Prometheus revolts against this alienated creation, against the gods and Zeus himself. Prometheus’ limitless capacity to withstand and affirm his suffering and pain is equaled only by his resolve to endure until the structure of the Apollinian Olympus realigns with Moira (re: the will). He foresees this, engaged in the process of becoming, by reading the “flame” of existence which sends light through the smoke of suffering and appears as prophecy created by those illumined by it, initiates to the mystery, which constitutes man’s making of the world:

Whomever understands this innermost kernel of the Prometheus story — namely, the necessity of sacrilege imposed upon the titanically striving individual — must also immediately feel how un-Apollinian this pessimistic notion is. For Apollo wants to grant repose to individual beings precisely by drawing boundaries between them and by again and again calling these to mind as the most sacred laws of the world, with his demands for self-knowledge and measure. 43

Prometheus brings fire, a Heraclitean metaphor for change, rebellion and war, yet his plight reflects the same artistic wisdom which promotes and accounts for the audacity behind the “obscure feeling of mutual dependence” between the poet and god himself. In choosing Prometheus from among the plays, Nietzsche discloses the essence of “tragic pessimism”: Prometheus affirms his suffering as the necessary cost, grounded in the recognition of the absurdity of life and the nausea (symbolized by the birds of prey which appear in the fragmentary Prometheus Unbound) which Dionysiac wisdom inspires. Nietzsche discloses the creative hardness exacted by this poetic advocacy of sacrilege which offers a trial-by-fire wherein a new balance is struck, a new world made:

Lest this Apollinian tendency congeal the form to Egyptian rigidity and coldness, lest the effort to prescribe to the individual wave its path and realm might annul the motion of the whole lake, the high tide of the Dionysian destroyed from time to time all those little circles in which the one-sidedly Apollinian “will” had sought to confine the Hellenic spirit. The suddenly swelling Dionysian tide then takes the separate little wave-mountains of individuals on its back, even as Prometheus’ brother, the Titan Atlas, does with the earth. This Titanic impulse to become, as it were, the Atlas for all individuals, carrying them on a broad back, higher and higher, farther and farther is what the Promethean and the Dionysian have in common.
In this respect, the Prometheus of Aeschylus is a Dionysian mask, while in the aforementioned profound demand for justice Aeschylus reveals to the thoughtful his paternal descent from Apollo, the god of individuation and of just boundaries. So the duel nature of Aeschylus’ Prometheus, his nature which is at the same time Dionysian and Apollinian, might be expressed thus in a conceptual formula: “All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both.”
That is your world! A world indeed! — 44

The phoenix at the end of the trial, the pure flame which incinerates the past can be envisioned only by those immersed in it, as they illusined by the making of the world and its origin in the true maker, or man. At the origin of this making, the rebel is strapped to the Caucasus and birds of prey devour his liver, yet he knows that he is at the origin of s future only he can see, where the spray of possibilities beautifully striate out in flame. In his blind illusion, Zeus glimpses nothing of this, searching as he does for the “cause” and belligerently (hamhandedly) trying to force time back, even as he himself is created by that flame and can be destroyed by it. Yet tragedy reconciles illusion and truth. That is Prometheus’ and Aeschylus’ “redemption”. So, though Prometheus shouts in defiance:

Zeus, for all his pride of heart
be humble yet: such is the match he plans,
a marriage that shall drive him from his power
and from his throne, out of the sight of all.
So shall at last the final consummation
be brought about of Father Kronos’ curse
which he, driven from his ancient throne,
invoked against the son deposing him: no one
of the Gods save I alone can tell
a way to escape this mischief: I alone
know it and how. So let him confidently
sit on his throne and trust his heavenly thunder
and brandish in his hand his fiery bolt
Nothing shall of this avail against
a fall intolerable, a dishonored end.
So strong a wrestler Zeus is now equipping
against himself, a monster hard to fight.
This enemy shall find a plan to best the
thunderclaps of Zeus: and he shall shiver
Poseidon’s trident, curse of sea and land.
So, in his crashing fall shall Zeus discover
how different are rule and slavery. 45

– We know Prometheus is the son of Themis, Earth. And at the end of the Promethean cycle Prometheus, the Firebearer, the suffering mortal world and the besieged Olympic dream will be reconciled by the vision of a future ready for mutual fertilization. In that now lost play, the festival of the Promethia was celebrated by the festival of the torch-race, a relay of fire handed off to each runner in honor of the Olympia, the torch passing from a now empowered, free human race, to the independence of the poetry of creation.