Bringer of Fire: Prometheus in Myth and Philosophy
Jun 01, 2013
In this lecture, I begin by noting the simple but remarkable fact (which has gone overlooked) that in all three of the works of fiction that Rand wrote after beginning The Fountainhead: i.e. Anthem, Think Twice, and Atlas Shrugged, the hero of the story is a scientist who discovers a new form of energy but withdraws his achievement from mankind rather than allowing it or himself to be sacrificed on the altar of their altruistic moral code. Although the three works tell different stories and dramatize different themes (individualism / the sacredness of the ego, the evil of sacrificial “charity”, and the role of the mind in human life), each is centered around Rand’s reworking of the Prometheus myth, and thus each expresses the theme common to her late fiction: the declaration of man’s moral independence from the sacrifice of reason and self.
The myth of Prometheus has always been both immensely popular and powerfully resonant; the philanthropic titan has served as a symbol for countless different causes and ideologies. I argue that this is because the core of the fire-bearing myth is profoundly dramatic: a divine figure offers the greatest possible good (knowledge/civilization) and then suffers the worst possible fate. I briefly survey the history of the ancient Prometheus myths and then a selection of their most significant adaptations. In Hesiod he is a trouble-maker, who brings suffering to mankind as punishment for his temerity in challenging the authority of Zeus. To Aeschylus he was a symbol of Athenian democracy and anti-tyranny, to the enlightenment he represented the advancement of humanity through reason, and to the Romantics he was a Christ-like figure who sacrificed himself to save mankind. To Rand, the traditionalPrometheus myth, like so many other myths of its type (e.g. the expulsion from Paradise, the fall of Icarus, etal.) symbolizes hatred of the mind and the men who embodied it by the very societies that they had made possible and bequeathed with their gifts. In other words, Prometheus’ beneficiaries and his persecutors were one and the same. (See, for instance, Roark’s speech at his second trial in The Fountainhead and “The Age of Envy”).
The heroes of Rand’s fiction from The Fountainhead on are men whose independent minds are the fires that make human advancement possible. Yet Rand was not content to leave her heroes to the eternal torment of altruism’s sacrificial code. She wished to give the myth a new moral, but to do so she needed to change its ending. Thus she developed the “New Prometheus” who, “after centuries of being torn by vultures in payment for having brought the fire of the gods,…broke his chains and…withdrew his fire — until the day when men withdraw their vultures.” Yet John Galt is not the only “Prometheus who changed his mind” in Rand’s later fiction. Although the mythical figure of Atlas is the better-known of her mythical allusions because of his prominent place in the title of her magnum opus, Prometheus is used in a much more extensive, programmatic fashion, as he is evoked directly by the fire or light bearing inventors, Steve Ingalls and Equality 7-2521 as well Galt himself.
Identifying this programmatic allusion which runs through Rand’s late fiction is invaluable for understanding the place of Atlas Shrugged in her corpus. Men of the mind going on strike and the presence of new inventions that play the same symbolic role as Galt’s motor are to be found in the plots of her other late works. Therefore, we can appreciate Atlas Shrugged not as the development of her work in a new direction but as the culmination and crystallization of a theme and plot-theme she had already been reaching for, but finally realized and vastly augmented in her magnum opus.