Prometheus is a Titan of Greek mythology who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to mankind, defying the decree of Zeus. As punishment, Zeus ordered Prometheus to be chained to a rock where an eagle daily tore at his entrails. In this video, we will discuss the myth of Prometheus and its relevance to Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman.
In Aeschylus’ version of the myth, Prometheus knows the identity of the person who will overthrow Zeus as King of the Gods. Zeus desperately tries to extract the information from Prometheus, but the Titan remains defiant. Zeus might possess more physical power than Prometheus, but Prometheus’ intellectual power renders him much stronger than Zeus.
Nietzsche draws a comparison between Zeus and the God of the Bible. Just as Zeus became frightened by the knowledge of Prometheus, the God of Genesis became frightened by the knowledge of mankind after it ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge. “It was through woman that man learned to taste of the tree of knowledge. The old God was seized by mortal terror. Man himself had been his greatest blunder; he had created a rival to himself; science makes men godlike—it is all up with priests and gods when man becomes scientific! So the old God comes to his final resolution: “Man has become scientific—there is no help for it: he must be drowned!”
But mankind proved to be as resilient as Prometheus. It survived the flood and the expulsion from Eden into the world of suffering. As Prometheus overcomes Zeus with knowledge, so too does mankind overcome the belief in God with the developments of modern science. However, Nietzsche warns of the nihilism looming over us after the death of God. “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
God bestowed value and meaning upon life. Something must replace God – otherwise humanity will sink into an undesirable state of nihilism. Thus, Nietzsche introduces his concept of the Ubermensch or Superman. Nietzsche’s Superman is entirely free from external influence. He is the creator of new values that replace the old values given by God. “I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All beings so far have created something beyond themselves. Do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock and a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the Superman: a laughingstock and a painful embarrassment.”
The Superman finds value and happiness in activities that most would least expect – in suffering and in overcoming resistance. “The most intelligent men, like the strongest, find their happiness where others would find only disaster: in the labyrinth, in being hard with themselves and with others, in effort; their delight is in self-mastery; in them asceticism becomes second nature, a necessity, an instinct. They regard a difficult task as a privilege; it is to them a recreation to play with burdens that would crush all others.”
To conclude, the myth of Prometheus is similar to the story of mankind. Prometheus overcomes Zeus with the power of knowledge, and mankind overcomes the belief in God with the power of modern science. But Nietzsche recognizes that science cannot replace the void left by God. Science cannot bestow value and meaning upon life. The rise of the Superman – the creator of new values – is required to rescue mankind from the abyss of nihilism. And the Superman finds our lost meaning after the death of God in suffering and in overcoming resistance.