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Goethe’s Prometheus

1,384 words

Gustave Moreau, Prometheus [1]

Gustave Moreau, Prometheus

Prometheus is, probably, one of the most enduring characters in universal mythology and, in addition, one of the most frequent subjects of artistic, literary, or philosophical interpretation. Aeschylus’ version, Prometheus Bound, has generated different symbolic interpretations across the centuries. Starting with the Renaissance, Prometheus has been seen as a symbol of consciousness struggling against arbitrary power.[1]

This was captured in essence by Goethe, circa 1771, who presented the image of the Promethean Man who, decades later, Friedrich Nietzsche would write about in his Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche, ideologically affiliated with Schopenhauer, understands the Apollonian as the principle of individuation and the Dionysian as the more primal state, analogous to the Schopenhauerian distinction of the world as Will and the same world as Representation.[3]

Using the ideas found in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, particularly those related to the gods Apollo and Dionysos, I wish to analyze the Dionysian and Apollonian elements in the evolution of the Promethean in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poetic works Prometheus, The Boundaries of Humanity, The Godlike, and One and All.

Alles Vorhandene ist gerecht und ungerecht und in beidem gleich berechtigt

All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both.

This passage from The Birth of Tragedy (1, 72) summarizes the very core of the complementary principles of Nature, a mystery that — following what Pascal had called the clash between the “spirit of geometry” and the “spirit of subtlety” (Pensées, 1) — Goethe had defended passionately and actively,[4] feeling that the Aufklärung itself needed to evolve and to recognize the integrity of man as a creature of both thought and feeling.

Nietzsche, rebelling against the established, against the small, against the humble, the ordinary, the vulgar, was the sworn enemy — as an Apostle of creation, apprentice of the secret natural laws — of everything that was a manifestation of slave morality, mere spiritual corpses for the advent of the Übermensch (the Overman).

Like Goethe, Nietzsche overcomes by far any limits placed on feeling and thinking in his time. Vitalism characterizes the morality of the man of Free Spirit, in contrast to those resigned to being part of a herd, bowing down before their Lord. Such a man – what Nietzsche would call the Overman – is a being full of vigor, full of attachment, but not attachment to mere life, but to the Will to Live and to the fight for the very dignity of life, destroying and invalidating the Christian linear conception which places all hope of a better world in the hereafter.

Goethe himself, plunging into his own private spiritual bacchanals, (while appearing, to the dogmatic conformism of his time, as just a docile bourgeois exponent of a new poetic school), embodies that defiant spirit, and ascribes to Prometheus brutal sentences that dare to defy the father of the Greek pantheon.

Bedecke deinen Himmel, Zeus,
Mit Wolkendunst

Shroud your heaven, Zeus,
With cloudy vapors

The Overman does not live subjugated to any religion: he is his own religion; he does not need to kneel because he is in communion with the universe, in solitude but in harmony with the manifestation of the infinite, the universal. Only the transvaluation of all values, the annihilation of the Christian morality, could unleash the beast imprisoned inside the container of self-pity and self-righteousness in which Man had fallen.

Hast du nicht alles selbst vollendet,
Heilig glühend Herz?
Und glühtest jung und gut,
Betrogen, Rettungsdank
Dem Schlafenden da droben?

Did you not accomplish it all yourself,
Holy glowing Heart?
And glowed, young and good,
Deceived, thanks for salvation
To the sleeping one up there?

The brand-new Man rebelled against the structures themselves, not against those who tied him down in a prison of material poverty and social injustice (like a Christian blaming the devil); he was rebelling against the ties that castrated his morality and prevented him from becoming a Lord himself.

In the framework of the western cultural tradition, Prometheus symbolizes rebellious action as the founding act of the human,[5] the rebellion against order and despotic power, the revolution of the Spirit against coercive rule, the self-assertion of Man against a tyrant God.[6]

Ich dich ehren? Wofür?
Hast du die Schmerzen gelindert
Je des Beladenen?
Hast du die Tränen gestillet
Je des Geängsteten?

I should honor you? For what?
Have you softened the sufferings,
Ever, of the burdened?
Have you stilled the tears,
Ever, of the anguished?

The Übermensch is who has achieved the destruction and overcoming all the structures that have been imposed upon him; he opposes them through his Will to Power — Wille zur Macht — which is the will that is not governed by the duality which has been universally accepted throughout the history of mankind; one which distinguishes a radically “good” and a radically “evil,” very close to a Platonic “dualism.”

Prometheus is, par excellence, a destroyer of the established, a de-constructor of all structures, both tangible and intangible, produced by the Apollonian need for structure. Is Prometheus, then, an agent of chaos, of rebellion against the sky, when, fatefully, as a result of endless moments of reflection on the macrocosm and microcosm, he decides to bring hope to an universe where man stands alone in the presence of an empty heaven or full of indifferent and indolent creative powers, confronting and challenging the omnipotence and knowledge of the gods, famously characterized by Fire?

Ich kenne nichts Ärmeres
Unter der Sonn als euch, Götter!
Ihr nähret kümmerlich
Von Opfersteuern
Und Gebetshauch
Eure Majestät
Und darbtet, wären
Nicht Kinder und Bettler
Hoffnungsvolle Toren.

I know of nothing poorer
Under the sun, than you, Gods!
You barely nourish
–By sacrificial offerings
And prayerful exhalations–
Your Majesty,
And would starve, were
Not children and beggars
Hopeful fools.

Here is unveiled one of the most striking anti-cosmic Gnostic traps: one cannot praise Prometheus’s Luciferian nature, superb, greedy for power, without praising his telluric, furious and wild nature. This idea of the challenge inherent in the warlike character, the dark side of human nature — repressed under the pretext of “morality” by those ideas that are part of the world of the good/evil dichotomy — is exhibited by the young Goethe in his schism with the Pietists: he speaks on behalf of the Architect, the Shaper of Humanity, the Deceiver, the thief of fire, equaling himself to the mightiest and most proud of the Titans, which also means that he speaks for himself.[7]

Goethe was not satisfied just paying tribute to Prometheus, he also identified himself with the character: Prometheus was Goethe’s own rebellion against authority so as to defend his artistic vocation and freedom, creating by his lively impulse a world of animated beings, just as Prometheus is the creator of a brave new humanity, instilling life to his creatures against the will of Zeus.

Prometheus, therefore, embodies the nexus of divine creation re-situated in the human condition and human creation endowed with divine aspirations.


1. Séchan, L. 1951. Le Mythe de Prométhée.

2. Laurence, M., 2010. “Análisis comparativo del mito de Prometeo según Esquilo y Hesíodo,” Espéculo: Revista de estudios literarios, no. 44, online: http://www.ucm.es/info/especulo/numero44/mitprome.html [2]

3. Dutra de Azeredo, V. 2009. “Conciliación de los opuestos: el nacimiento de la Tragedia en Nietzsche,” Utopìa y Praxis Latinoamericana, vol.14, no. 47, pp. 115-26.

4. Goethe was not a contemplative spirit, quite the opposite: deeply embedded in the cultural and political life of his time, he promoted all the progressive and innovative values of the German bourgeoisie (Rensoli, L. 1997. “Tres aristas de lo humano en la poesía de Goethe,” Anales del Seminario de Metafísica, no. 31, pp. 157-83.)

5. Anton, J. 1998. “Acerca de los mitos prometeico y fáustico en la tradición cultural de Occidente,” Scriptura, no.14, pp. 49-64.

6. García, C. 1984. “Goethe frente a Prometeo,” Estudios Clásicos, vol. 26, no. 88, pp. 453-58.

7. “A Trickster is a sly character, either a human being or an animal, who is able to change its appearance, a practical joker who is often tricked. This figure appears in myths created by peoples all over the world, at any stage of civilization. Sometimes he plays the part of a god or demigod, like Seth in the Egyptian religion, Prometheus in the Greek religion or Loki in the Scandinavian one. Most Tricksters are male characters, but there are also some typical myths, in many parts of the world, which have female Trickster characters.” (Mircea Eliade, Ioan Petru Couliano, Dictionary of Religions, Macmillan, 1990; §12.2).