Second-Personal Standpoint in Prometheus Bound

face of a prisoner

In fifth-century Athens, tragic plays presented at civic festivals provided an alternate means for public experience of justice. Tragic plots generated questions of right and wrong action:

Punishment involves not only the punisher and the punished – each of whom is likely to define what the wrongdoer suffers in a contradictory way – but also the audience of citizen onlookers who must inevitably take one side or the other.^

Formally selected citizens judged tragedies presented at the Athenian civic festivals. Tragic speech, however, played across public formality and personal intimacy.^ Taking sides is neither necessary nor most important in second-personal communication with a person suffering punishment. Within the dominant civic silence about punishment in fifth-century Athens, tragic plays, especially Prometheus Bound, provided important second-personal communication of suffering in punishment.

Punishment in fifth-century Athens was associated with silence in practice. A claim for justice authorized and organized speaking to fellow citizens. A lawsuit ended with silence that marked legitimate punishment:

The typical Athenian response to punishment was to look at the body of the condemned but to say nothing about it. Details about the execution of punishment are generally sparse and can be gleaned only here and there in the historical texts.^

Plato’s Crito associates submission to the laws of the city with silence:

you should suffer in silence if it orders you to suffer something, whether it’s to be beaten or to be imprisoned^

A “variety of euphemisms and circumlocutions” substituted for direct references to punishment. A first-century-CE Greek historian described one such euphemism as being used by the Athenians “to cover up the ugliness of things.”^ When a wrong-doer’s punishment was loss of his right to speak, or when the punishment was memorialized through an inscription on a stela, political authority directly controlled sentences. Fines, a more common punishment in Athens, ended a lawsuit but did not silence the wrong-doer. In any case, punishment in democratic Athens did not make enemies into friends. It clarified who were friends and who were enemies. Punishing enemies meant bringing a new lawsuit. Contesting past punishments, and perhaps even merely speaking about experience of them, undermined legitimacy necessary for punishing enemies in the future.^

Tragic poets spoke to their fellow Athenians about punishment. One tragic poet described the communicative isolation of a wrong-doer within the community:

Some had respect and pity, and set a table for me as their guest: a separate table, alone, under the same roof as them. By their silence they built up the feeling that I couldn’t be spoken to (or that I might not speak) so I was apart from them in food and drink. Each enjoyed the pleasure of Bacchus, pouring an equal amount for all, but into private cups. … I was my mother’s killer. I hurt in silence, pretending not to notice. I cried. I hear my sufferings became a festival for the Athenians.^

The indirection “I hear my sufferings became a festival” points to what the gathered city knew: such a festival existed, and they were at a similar one.^ The suffering they saw and heard in the tragedies was also similar to existing suffering. Another tragedy linked ostracizing a wrong-doer to sanctified tradition passed down from ancient generations:

If the wife who shares his bed kills a man and the son of this one kills the mother in turn, and afterward the one born of this one does away with murder by means of murder, where will a limit of these evils be reached? The ancient fathers handled these matters nobly; whoever was stained with blood, they did not allow to come near to the sight of their eyes nor to encounter them – but rather required such a person to make matters holy by exile and not to exchange blood for blood.^

Persons “stained with blood” were a common sight in classical Greek tragedies. Performed at religious festivals, tragedies made these matters holy in an imaginative exile at the center of the city.

In Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus metatheatrically addresses festival participants with his suffering in self-punishment. The language of knowledge in Oedipus Tyrannus is seeing and hearing. Oedipus seeks to “bring truth to light.” Characters speaking of seeing and hearing trace the arc of developing knowledge. That arc nears its peak as a messenger warns, “prepare to hear / And see such horrors whose weight will pull you down / With grief!” The messenger then describes Oedipus repeatedly striking his eyes as his chanting soars. The messenger concludes:

He’s shouting to open the gates so all of Thebes
Can see him as he is, his father’s murderer,
His mother’s – no, I can’t, I can’t say it,
The unholy word!

But look! The gates! Now you will see a sight
To make his enemies weep.^

The doors of the theatre’s skênê then open and the blinded Oedipus is wheeled out for all to see. The chorus provides a common response, “Terrible to / say or / see!” The chaotic, agonized songs from the chorus and from Oedipus include Oedipus’s multi-voiced question:

Why then should I
wish, why wish to
see, why hear,
what could
never bring me
joy, my friends? ^

Attending the tragic festivals in fifth-century Athens was a civic responsibility. Oedipus’s question underscores the force of that responsibility.

Oedipus Tyrannus acknowledges and breaks silence concerning punishment. After his self-punishment, Oedipus cuts off questioning of it and declares his desire to be isolated:

No more counsel! No more! The punishment
I laid on myself was just: it could not be better!

Concerns about seeing and speaking, even after death, figure centrally in Oedipus’s subsequent explanation of why his punishment was best. Oedipus declares:

If I could have stifled the source of my hearing,
Confined this pitiable body
To a prison beyond the reach of hearing and sight,
I would have done so!

Oedipus’s speech ends with his disintegration:

No evil more vile!
I’ll say no more!

He then says more:

By all gods, take me away from Thebes,
Far from Thebes, hide me, kill me, throw me
Into the deep where you will never see me again.

These images of penal execution and disposal of the body contrast jarringly with the immediately ensuing personal appeal:

Come –
Come –
You mustn’t fear to touch me.
Don’t let my misery frighten you. I alone,
Of all men, can bear the weight of my evil.^

A touch could help guide the blinded Oedipus. A hand could help him stand. But he senses none. Clinging to the form of a great man, he declares that he alone can bear the weight of his evil. At the same time, the performance of Oedipus Tyrannus within the city festival necessarily required the whole city to bear that weight.

Communicating with persons suffering in punishment even more centrally structures Prometheus Bound. In fifth-century Athens, the setting for Prometheus’s punishment was one of social isolation at the metatheatrical center of the polis:

This is it.
The world’s edge.
No man sets foot here.

So I nail you to this man-deserted crag
where no human voice will reach you,
or your eyes see human form.^

Prometheus remained bound to the crag on the stage, at the center of the crowd attending the festival, throughout the whole play.

Prometheus’s punishment was familiar to Athenians, but imaginatively enhanced. The most common means of executing persons in classical Athens was to bind them to a wooden plank to die from exposure. This punishment, called apotumpanismos, bound the condemned, probably with leather straps, in a way that did not draw blood.^ In Prometheus Bound, Hephaestos, an iron-working god, binds Prometheus to rock with iron hoops, shackles, and chains. The hardness of these components heightens the hardness of a punishment quite similar to apotumpanismos. So too did an additional, extraordinary component of the binding: under the order of the god Power, Hephaestos drives a wedge through Prometheus’s chest to rivet him to the rock. This action could not kill the immortal Prometheus. It serves to increase the imaginative force of his sufferings.

Prometheus’s punishment doesn’t produce silence. His punishment generates continual sounds and sights of suffering. Hephaestos tells Prometheus:

Your burden of torture will never leave.
Every minute of every day and every
night it will bear upon you.

You will cry and scream out your pain.
You will curse and groan.

Prometheus speaks to the cosmic elements in his impersonal isolation:

Here is my agony,
here is my torment,

I groan in pain present,
and groan for pain to be!
When will it end?

Reason does not explain his speech:

To speak, not to speak,
both are hard, for both I am

To tell it is painful,
and painful not to tell.
There’s misery every way.^

Like Oedipus, Prometheus at one point wishes that he were dead in a place of death where no one could see him. His suffering, Hephaestos declares, is a sight that cannot be seen.^ But in fifth-century Athens, Prometheus’s suffering was seen and heard. Prometheus suffers and speaks in the midst of the festival participants throughout Prometheus Bound.

Disturbing punishment points to large political questions. In the course of Plato’s comprehensive verbal reforming of Athenian politics, Socrates recounts:

Leontios son of Aglaion when he was on his way up from the Piraeus along the outside of the north wall perceived corpses lying besides the executioner. At one and the same time he desired to look at them and was disgusted and repulsed at himself. He struggled over this and covered his head, but was nonetheless overcome by desire and, opening his eyes, he ran to the corpses, as he said, “Look then, you evil-spirits, and fill yourselves with the noble spectacle.”^

For Plato, Leontios’s response provided insights into the human soul. Those insights in turn shaped Plato’s design for the republic. Seeing Prometheus’s suffering also leads to large political questions. Prometheus tells a friend:

Look and take your fill of my
I, the friend of Zeus,
I, who set him on his
throne and put
power in his grip,
and this is my reward.^

Prometheus’s story calls into question friendship, a central idea of Athenian politics. Even more significantly, Prometheus’s story calls into question friendship among gods. In his first speech in the play, Prometheus summons the elements of the world, “I call on you to see what a god may suffer at the hands of gods!” With his last words in the play, Prometheus calls again to the world’s elements:

behold me now
see how unjust

Tragedy usually involves violence among human family and friends.^ The question in Prometheus Bound is not merely whether the god Zeus or the god Prometheus will prevail. Has the divine order perished? The divine order supports the festival and the performance. Should the chorus stop dancing and the festival participant go home?^ What then?

Prometheus Bound subordinates these weighty third-personal questions to practical matters of standpoint and style in personal communication among gods. The play’s action consists almost totally of different characters speaking to or about the suffering god Prometheus. Zeus’s agent Power in the prologue and the messenger god Hermes in the final scene do not acknowledge reciprocal personal claims in communication with Prometheus. Power and Hermes communicate as agents of their offices. The god Oceanus and the heifer Io communicate personally with Prometheus, but they do so outside of substantial second-personal moral claims. The chorus of Oceanides, the daughters of Oceanus, communicate emotionally from a second-personal standpoint, but reason from third-personal and first-personal standpoints. Only the god Hephaistos embraces second-personal moral claims in communication with Prometheus.

Standpoint and style in communication were important matters to fifth-century Athenians. Socrates in Plato’s Meno describes different styles of communication depending on persons and relations:

if he were a philosopher of the eristic and antagonistic sort, I should say to him: You have my answer, and if I am wrong, your business is to take up the argument and refute me. But if we were friends, and were talking as you and I are now, I should reply in a milder strain and more in the dialectician’s vein.^

Gods were an ever-present reality to Athenians. Communication among gods closely paralleled in Athenians’ understanding communication among humans. In Aristophanes’s Birds, Prometheus, himself a god, borrows a line from Prometheus Bound to declare that he hates all the gods.^ An Athenian responds that Prometheus is just like Timon, a well-known (mortal) misanthrope. The way gods address each other in Prometheus Bound was in fifth-century Athens imaginatively close to the way Athenians addressed each other.

In his speaking, Zeus’s agent Power validates Prometheus’s silence. In the prologue, Power and Hephaistos speak in the presence of the silent Prometheus. The prologue ends with Power addressing Prometheus peremptorily:

Let’s see your defiance now!

Power’s ensuing rhetorical questions heighten the implicit assumption of Prometheus’s silence:

What can mortals do for you!
Ease your pain, your

Power’s speech to Prometheus ends with Power mocking Prometheus’s name and then departing. These actions further emphasizes that Prometheus, suffering in punishment, lacks the status of a person with the right to speak.

Hermes, Zeus’s messenger god, engages Prometheus in a second-personal verbal battle such as were common in the civic life of Athens. Hermes comes to Prometheus with Zeus’s order that Prometheus tell what he knows of Zeus’s disastrous future marriage. Hermes begins addressing Prometheus with an emphatic, second-personal deictic, “You! You there!” and then another, “I’m talking to you!”^ Hermes mocks Prometheus, describes the form of what Prometheus must say, and warns him to speak promptly. Prometheus counters by mocking Hermes, warning him of Zeus’s precarious position, and telling Hermes to leave. Hermes and Prometheus then engage in verbal combat: rapid, closely matched exchanges of sentences.^ Their communication isn’t the spontaneous, phatic, empathetic, and obliged communication common among friends and family.

The god Oceanus ego-centrically communicates with Prometheus. Oceanus plausibly approaches Prometheus in the orchestra as his daughters the Oceanides, who have been silently and sympathetically dancing closely around Prometheus, withdraw to the edges of the orchestra to give their father a larger speaking space. In his first words to the bound Prometheus, Oceanus focuses on himself — his long journey to see Prometheus and his control of the beast on which he has traveled. Oceanus then tells Prometheus, “I see your pain, Prometheus, / and I feel sorrow for your / misfortune.” Oceanus then mentions third-personally his kinship with Prometheus, evaluates third-personally that relationship, and discusses his own ethos from Prometheus’s standpoint. Oceanus concludes his opening address to Prometheus:

Just indicate what I must do to assist you;
For you will never say that you have
A firmer friend than Oceanus.^

Prometheus responds with a speech that focuses on just one point: look at me. Oceanus acknowledges this request and then, quickly, verbally passes by.

Oceanus and Prometheus do not engage each other in second-personal moral claims. Oceanus’s specific response to Prometheus’s suffering is to offer Prometheus wisdom. With words that might trigger for many persons painful memories of adolescence, Oceanus says to the suffering Prometheus, “I want you to hear some good advice I have for you.” Oceanus then offers commonly known Greek wisdom: “know yourself,” “control yourself,” “the braggart gets more than he bargained for,” and “foolish words never escape punishment.”^ ^ Oceanus acknowledges the nature of his words:

O I know what you’re thinking.
You’ve heard it all before.
Old advice.
Old, maybe, but none

Prometheus, in response, urges Oceanus to distance himself even more:

My advice is to do nothing.
Stay clear of it all, for your
own sake. Steer clear of
harm. Keep your silence.^

Oceanus often doesn’t understand what Prometheus says. Oceanus also explicitly depreciates what Prometheus does say:

I’ll take my cue not from what you say,
but what you do.

Yes, I learn quickly. From the sight of you.^

Prometheus insists that Oceanus leave. Oceanus leaves. He explains his departure outside of their interpersonal circumstances: the beast he arrived on is eager to go home. While Oceanus and Prometheus are relatives and friends, substantial bonds of second-personal obligation hardly engage them.

Attending to the style of communication with Prometheus is important. A highly respected classical scholar describes Oceanus as “having shown courage.” He states that Oceanus “behaved with perfect dignity.” He asserts, “The scene has admirably achieved its purpose of bringing out the pride, courage, and obstinacy of Prometheus.”^ A much different communicative interpretation seems more sensible.

The heifer Io and Prometheus communicate in the form of exchanging stories. In Greek mythology, Io was the daughter of a river god. Zeus fell in love with Io and transformed her into a heifer. Immediately after an idyllic vision of Prometheus and his goddess-bride coming to their wedding bed, the heifer Io enters abruptly, seeking a story:

What land is this?
What people?
What creature
beaten by storms
is yoked to this
What have you done
to suffer so terrible
a punishment?
Tell me.

This chant has an inconsistent communicative standpoint. The first three questions seem first-personal (to herself) or third personal (“What creature is this {Prometheus}”). Io then breaks to second-personal address: “what have you done.” Io moves on to sing of her suffering, describing the gadfly Argos hounding her on. She settles into speaking to herself, but then abruptly shifts addressees:

Where have I wandered?
Where am I wandering? {apparently addressed to Prometheus}
What did I do,
son of Kronos, what,
to be yoked with such

Lord, do you hear this
cow-horned girl? {addressed to Zeus}

Prometheus responds with a similarly weakly directed address:

The voice of Io,
daughter of Inachos!
How could I not know it?
You fired the heart of
Zeus with passion, and now,
you run through the world^

Here Prometheus’s references shift from a third-personal “it” to “you” within a description of her. These lines sound like an internal vocalization, not an address to Io. “You fired the heart of Zeus with passion” in internal address resonates with Prometheus’s own circumstances.

The disjointedness of the transitions between Io and Prometheus and peculiar interjections from the Oceanides are best understood as sensational story-seeking. Io asks Prometheus to tell her his name. Before he answers, she asks him to tell her of what fate lies ahead of her and of any possible cure. Prometheus responds with only his name. Io then shifts her narrative request:

But what was your crime?
Why are you suffering?
Tell me.

The ensuing dialogue mocks interest in hearing emotionally charged stories:

{Prometheus:} I’ve only now told my tale of tears.
{Io:} But not to me. Won’t you give me this gift?
{Prometheus:} Ask whatever you wish.
{Io:} Who nailed you to this ravine?
{Prometheus:} The will of Zeus, the hands of Hephaistos.
{Io:} What crime could earn such punishment?
{Prometheus:} No, it’s enough I’ve said what I’ve said.
{Io:} Then tell me the end of my wandering.
{Prometheus:} It’s better not to know.

After more dialogue of the gossip-seeking form “please, please tell me that sensational story,” Prometheus agrees to tell Io the horrors she will suffer. At that very point, an Oceanid interjects:

Not yet.
Let me, too, have a share of this
Let her tell us first what caused her
disease, her great misfortune,
and then she can learn from you
the suffering still to come.

Similarly, an Oceanid subsequently declares:

give one {story} to her and one to me.
Don’t begrudge me my share.
Tell her first about her wanderings,
and then me about your rescuer.
It’s what I want.^

Story-seeking is common human behavior. It was commercialized in the ancient world. A fifth-century Greek philosopher, who spent time in Athens, wrote a moralistic fable and then “he toured the cities and gave recitations of the story in public, for hire.”^ In first-century Rome, a writer began a public letter with a playful reference to story-mongers:

Get ready your penny and I will tell you a golden story, nay, more than one, for the new one has reminded me of some old tales, and it does not matter with which I begin.^

Story-seeking is effectively third-personal communication. In Prometheus Bound, lofty poetry ranging across the known world is embedded within criticism of sensational story-seeking. The effect would be comic if it weren’t for the terrible sufferings of Io and Prometheus. The effect is implicit, biting criticism of story-seeking.

The Oceanides communicate with Prometheus using several styles and standpoints. Like Io, they engage in some story-seeking in dialog with Prometheus. They also declare their immediate sense of Prometheus’s presence in second-personal address:

I see,
I see,
I see in fear and with tears in my eyes,
I see you, see you
withering on this rock,
your body in pain,
shamefully bound by unbreakable bonds.

We hear you,
and we answer you

I weep for you,
I mourn for you

The Oceanides, however, also engage Prometheus in third-personal reasoning. Early in the play, the Oceanides say to Prometheus:

Don’t you see how you went wrong?
What else can I call it but wrong?
Believe me, this is no pleasure for me,
and for you it can only be pain^

“What else can I call it” implies socially valid naming from a third-personal standpoint. Prometheus recognizes that third-personal standpoint. He responds:

It’s easy for an outsider to
advise and criticize when he’s
free of the sufferer’s

The Oceanides are not socially outsiders. They are kin and friends of Prometheus. Other claims that the Oceanides make to Prometheus depend on third-personal ideas of right and good:

Yes, but you gave more than you should,
more than was right

His advice is good, Prometheus.^

Most significantly, the Oceanides’ abrupt decision to suffer with Prometheus depends not on a claim that Prometheus makes on them second-personally, but on their assertion of their own ethos in response to the speech of Zeus’s messenger Hermes:

How dare you tell me to be a coward?
I’ll suffer with him,
I’ll be at this side,
no matter what comes.^

“I’ll suffer with him” differs subtly but significantly from “I’ll suffer with you.” The former concerns third-personal sympathy; the latter, second-personal accountability. Similarly, Prometheus emotionally calls to the Oceanides second-personally:

step down,

Do as I beg you.
Please. Do as I beg you.

His speech, however, then shifts to a third-person standpoint:

for all of us suffer, each in
Sorrow wanders the world
settling first here, then there.^

The Oceanides declare that they came to Prometheus because they were his friends. The Oceanides’ dramatic action, however, comes as a response to the prospect of being socially characterized as cowards. Third-personal sympathy and social status, not second-personal obligation to Prometheus, governs the Oceanides’ action.^ Earlier, the Oceanides questioned third-personally:

Who could be so hard-hearted,
what god, what enemy,
as to take joy in your misery?

The Oceanides meta-theatrically challenge festival participants to be human:

The heart must be made of
stone, Prometheus, that
feels no pity for your suffering.^

Prometheus, who gave many gifts to man, is a friend of man. But just as in their own response to Prometheus, the Oceanides do not describe second-personal obligations in festival participants’ responses to Prometheus. The Oceanides refer only to the general nature of festival participants’ hearts.

Only the god Hephaistos recognizes second-personal moral claims in communication with Prometheus. In Hephaistos’s first speech, he addresses Prometheus second-personally. Hephaistos recognizes his kinship and friendship with Prometheus. Hephaistos describes Power as “hard-hearted” and lacking in pity because Power does not recognize the claims that kinship and friendship imply. Hephaistos is not merely concerned with the punishment of Prometheus as a state of the world. Hephaistos is acutely concerned about his own agency:

If only I weren’t the one who has to –

In visual and tactile communication with Prometheus, Hephaistos insists second-personally that Prometheus recognize Hephaistos’s lack of agency:

I’m not the one doing this, I want you to know.
This is no more my will than it is yours.

At the same time, Hephaistos recognizes the distinctiveness of his second-personal accountability:

Only this man himself could blame me.^

Politically authorized punishment depends on third-personal justice. Hephaistos recognizes that such justice doesn’t exclude second-personal moral claims in communication with persons suffering in punishment.

Athenians could not regard the bound Prometheus as merely imaginary. Tragedy connected to daily reality in fifth-century Athens:

the boundaries between the realm of the imagination and the realm of the polis were more fluid than we might think. The Athenian audience was better equipped than we are to move easily without qualms between the two realms. Much of the polis of the here and now was a construct of the imagination, composed of fictional fragments of the past, and conversely, the mythical past was perceived as a primordial image of the polis. Tragedy functioned as one of the most effective mediators between the realms, at least in Athens.^

The communicative standpoints of the gods in Prometheus Bound are like those of humans in Athens. By displaying different communicative standpoints and by leaving open the human dimension of the play, Prometheus Bound asks festival participants to consider how they communicate with persons suffering in punishment. The Athenian norm for punishment was civic silence. Athenians could not ignore the demand of Prometheus Bound for second-personal communication with persons suffering in punishment. The need for that second-personal demand remains today.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *