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A Dozen Quotes from Prometheus Bound: A Play about Spiritual Disease

Prometheus' proud defiance of the divine order made him into a raving maniac. He lost his connection to the Tao: the transcendental router.

Photo by Christian Paul Stobbe / Unsplash

Brains beat brawn. The Titan Prometheus knew that. He joined Zeus in his battle against the Titans.

Prometheus later befriended the race of men. He saved them when Zeus thought about extinguishing them. He taught them arts and science. He gave them tools. Zeus increasingly found Prometheus’ promotion of the human race tiresome and troublesome.

And then Prometheus gave humans the gift of fire, in direct violation of Zeus’ orders.

Zeus was livid. He ordered Prometheus bound: Kratos (Power) and Bia (Force) held him while Hephaestus fettered him to a chain on a crag hanging over the Black Sea. An eagle came every day and ate his liver, which regenerated every night.

It’s animated stuff.

But the real action in the Greek playwright Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound is in the dialogue and Prometheus’ attitude.

You’d think Prometheus would have been dejected, but he isn’t. He’s defiant, loud, and proud. Even threatening.

Oceanus’ daughters, the sea nymphs, come to figure out what’s going on. Prometheus tells them the story.

He admits that he disobeyed Zeus on purpose:[1]

Of my own free will, I erred and freely do I here acknowledge it.

When the nymphs ask if there’s any chance the punishment will end, Prometheus acknowledges that it’s possible:

It can only end if Zeus makes it end.

Oceanus then arrives to comfort Prometheus. Oceanus is also a Titan but had long ago made peace with Zeus. He was the wise old man of the sea and Prometheus’ friend. He tells Prometheus to stop screaming at Zeus or things will get worse. Oceanus acknowledges that Prometheus is smart, but tells him his heart is whacked and out of tune with the divine order (the new divine order ushered in by Zeus):

Thy brain is subtle. Learn to know thy heart and, as the times, so let thy manners change, for by the law of change a new God rules.

Prometheus said he was being punished for helping men. Oceanus disagrees:

You’re being punished because of your haughty tongue.

It wasn’t the gift of fire that got him punished, said Oceanus. He was being punished because he behaved like an ass.

Oceanus then says he’ll talk with Zeus on Prometheus’ behalf, but he first needs to calm down, mellow his words, and think clearly with that brilliant mind of his:

Keep a quiet mind and use not over-vehemence of speech. You’re smart enough to know that a wanton, idle tongue brings chastisement.

Oceanus assures Prometheus that, if he’ll cooperate, he can get Zeus to change his mind. Prometheus says he appreciates the effort but declines. The passage is too long to quote, but basically, Prometheus says:

I was right. I am right. I will continue to be right. Zeus (the new divine order) is wrong. I won’t submit.

Oceanus leaves.

Hermes arrives later for the final scene. Prometheus drips with disgust:

Oh! Here Zeus’s runner comes! The upstart tyrant’s lacquey!

After exchanging sharp words, Hermes tells Prometheus not to blame him for his predicament. Prometheus cries back,

I hate all the Gods because, having received good from my hands, they have rewarded me with evil.

Hermes responds:

This proves thee stark mad!

After Prometheus rants and raves some more, Hermes marvels at his defiance and says:

These are the workings of a brain more than a little touched . . . His reason lost, who thus can pray. A mouthing madman he!

Hermes concludes his observations:

Ye labor for your fall with your own hands. Not by surprise nor yet by stealth, but with clear eyes, knowing the thing ye do, ye walk into the yawning net that for the feet of fools is set and Ruin spreads for you.

The play ends with Prometheus cursing and refusing to acknowledge he screwed up. The divine order is wrong. He’s right. He’s a victim of injustice.

“What bitter wrongs I bear!”

A Good Transcendental Router Can Get Knocked Offline. If that Happens, We Need to Get it Back Online

What was the playwright Aeschylus getting at with this story? Here was Prometheus, previously an ally of Zeus and of the new divine order, disobeying Zeus and violating that new divine order.

Aeschylus’ main points boil down to two lessons:

Lesson One

Don’t get cocky. If the connection to your transcendental router works well, it might not always work well. Prometheus had a fiber optic connection to the divine order, but then the connection started to fail. Eric Voegelin, writing about Prometheus Bound, said the play shows that the “order of the soul is nothing on which one can sit down and be happy ever after. “[2]

Lesson Two

If your connection to the transcendental router fails, you need to reconnect . . . and fast. Fix the bad connector, check for excessive bending, check and see if you have too many splices, make sure your transmitting power is adequate. If you insist on moving forward with a broken connection, things will go bad for you.

Prometheus lost his connection to the divine order in his quest to improve the humans’ existence even though he knew Zeus didn’t approve. Instead of curbing his humanitarian efforts, he kept going, further detaching his router from Zeus’ divine order. He finally got to the point where he concluded he was better off without a router connection at all. He had, in Hermes’ words, reached the point of stark madness.

Symptoms that a Transcendental Router is Offline

That “stark madness” is known as “nosos”: spiritual disease.

Plato referred to it as a morbidity of critical self-awareness that, if not caught early enough, becomes a cancer of the soul.

A few hundred years later, Cicero would call it morbus animi, “disease of the mind” and aspernatio rationis, “rejection of reason,”[3] and listed the symptoms:

Restless moneymaking




Addition to delicacies




Desire for fame and public recognition

Rigidity of attitude



Eric Voegelin said Cicero’s list obviously parallels symptoms in the late modern age, but added these symptoms: [4]

Drug addiction


Addiction to false narratives


Cult of violence


The stupor of television watching

Psychedelic drugs.[5]

Individual Spiritual Disease to Societal Spiritual Disease

When enough men and women succumb to nosos, society tilts in a very bad direction.

I’d submit that we’ve been tilted in a bad direction for a long time. Modernity, as I’ve explored repeatedly, is The Great Rejection: Rejection of the Tao.

Modernity doesn’t even want a transcendental router, much less care if its connection is flawed.

Modernity was Prometheus unbound.[6] It was the attempt to show we could live without the Tao. We just needed our rational systems and empirical studies in place, then everything would be great without the Tao.

It didn’t happen.

Instead, the Titan Prometheus sat on one end of the seesaw, leaving civilization dangling on the other end, smug in its control of all things through science and rationalist systems.

And then postmodernism came along and ridiculed Prometheus. Postmodernism pointed out that modernism had failed, both empirically and according to its own rational systems. Prometheus succumbed and got off the seesaw.

The problem is, he rolled off the seesaw so suddenly that western civilization merely crashed to the ground.

And now postmodernism has no tools—nothing, zero, zilch—to rebuild it with.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. More on all that in later essays.

Note: No column next Monday (after Thanksgiving)

[1]The quotes come from G.M. Cookson’s translation, but I’ve tweaked them to make them more accessible than Cookson’s prose, which is about 100 years old at this point.

[2] The World of the Polis (LSU Press, 1991), p. 255.

[3] A thousand years later, the historian and social philosopher, R. H. Tawney, would refer to The Bloomsbury Group’s rejection of conventional morality as a “mental disease” and say that modern society was “sick through the absence of a moral ideal.” Dan Hitchens, “A Twenieth-Century Prophet,” First Things, December 2022, p. 41.

[4]Eric Voegelin, In Search of Order (LSU Press, 1987), p. 46 and Eric Voegelin, “The Eclipse of Reality” (found in “What is History and Other Late Unpublished Essays, p. 156).

[5]The modern man “may take to drugs in order to ‘turn on’ an existence that has been turned off beyond hope” . . . much more on this later, but in the meantime, check out Netflix’s new mini-series, How to Change Your Mind.

[6]Percy Bysshe Shelly wrote Prometheus Unbound in 1820. Shelley was William Godwin’s son-in-law and highly devoted disciple. Godwin is “Exhibit A” of the “unconstrained vision” in Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions. More on all that later.