Plato’s Dialogues Parody and Replot Prometheus Bound

face of a prisoner

While sharing Prometheus Bound’s concern for communicative action, Plato’s dialogues parody and replot the tragedy. Foresight is at the Greek root of Prometheus. Prometheus in Prometheus Bound acts in defiance of Zeus to remove humans’ foresight and fear of death. Prometheus gives humans “blind hope.”^ In Plato’s Gorgias, Prometheus also removes humans’ foresight of death. But in Plato, Prometheus does so in accordance with Zeus’s order.^ Plato declares that taking from humans foresight of their death lessens humans’ ability to exploit their worldly status and family connections so as to avoid post-death punishment for injustices. Prometheus’s removal of humans’ opportunity to evade justice in Plato’s Gorgias is quite unlike Prometheus’s gift of blind hope to humanity in Prometheus Bound.

Plato explicitly and significantly limits Prometheus’s gifts to humans. In Prometheus Bound, Prometheus gives humans fire. Prometheus describes fire as the basis for all skills and as a resource for meeting all needs. Prometheus also declares, “Humans have all technical skills from Prometheus.”^ Plato’s Protagoras, in contrast, has Prometheus give humans all skills except political wisdom and civic arts.^ Daily life in democratic Athens depended on practical political skills and shared ideals of virtue and justice. Without these skills and ideals, according to Plato, wild beasts easily killed humans. Moreover, when humans gathered in cities for protection, humans killed each other. Fearing that humans would not survive, Zeus gave to humans political wisdom. Plato thus subordinates Prometheus’s gifts to those of Zeus.

Plato also depreciates Prometheus’s gifts in other stories. In Plato’s The Statesman, Prometheus’s gifts come after the gods withdraw from the world and end a blissful era of human life. Plato’s Philebus describes “a gift of the gods to men, or so it seems to me, hurled down from heaven by some Prometheus along with a most dazzling fire.”^ “Some Prometheus” is much different from a reference to a politically significant Prometheus. Moreover, in Plato, Prometheus doesn’t steal the gift away from gods; rather, the gods give the gift via Prometheus. Most importantly, the primary gift of the gods isn’t fire. The primary gift is an aspect of Socratic dialectic method. Plato uses Prometheus as a prop in an extravagant, self-serving claim of public importance. Plato’s philosophy trivializes Prometheus Bound’s mythic power in relation to punishment.

Plato deplores tragic poets imitating distraught, lamenting characters like Prometheus in Prometheus Bound. Plato notes that an irritable character is more easily imitated than a prudent and quiet one. Moreover, the irritable character is also more easily understood “especially by a festive assembly where all sorts of human beings are gathered in a theatre”:

When even the best of us hear Homer or any other of the tragic poets imitating one of the heroes in mourning and making quite an extended speech with lamentation, or, if you like, singing and beating his breast, you know that we enjoy it and that we give ourselves over to following the imitation; suffering along with the hero in all seriousness, we praise as a good poet the man who most puts us in this state.^

Plato declares that a “decent man” will bear more easily than other men misfortunes such as losing a son:

it is finest to keep as quiet as possible in misfortunes and not be irritated, since the good and the bad in such things aren’t plain, nor does taking it hard get one anywhere, nor are any of the human things worthy of great seriousness; and being in pain is an impediment to the coming of that thing the support of which we need as quickly as possible in these cases.^

The most needed thing, according to Plato, is deliberation about how to cure the cause of the pain. Plato thus echoes the advice of Oceanus to Prometheus:

Give it up, my friend,
give up this attitude, this
anger of yours.
You’re in pain,
so learn control and find a way
free of your misery.^

Prometheus ridiculed and rejected Oceanus’s advice. Prometheus Bound, more than any other ancient Greek tragedy, is filled with painful, phatic, un-reasoned cries.

According to Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates while bound in prison made music, but not tragic song. Socrates had received in dreams instructions to make music. The dreams didn’t specify what type of music to make. Socrates diversified his music-making in order to insure that he satisfied the dreamed instruction. He made “popular music” in addition to “philosophy … the greatest music.” Socrates’s “popular music” was not tragic or comic verse. It was Aesop’s fables and hymns to Apollo.^ That poetry, unlike Prometheus Bound, is directly ethical and religious. Moreover, Aesop’s fables include Prometheus acting much differently than in Prometheus Bound. Plato’s Phaedo doesn’t recognize tragic song as music.

In depicting Socrates’s penal imprisonment and execution, Plato’s Phaedo rejects pity. Pity is the supreme tragic emotion:

Words based on {roots of the Greek words, eleos and oiktos, usually translated as pity} appear in every extant tragedy; Aeschylus averages six such words per play; Euripides, eight (excluding Alcestis, Rhesus, and Cyclops); and Sophocles, ten.^ ^ ^

Prometheus Bound, a relatively short Greek tragedy, uses these Greek words for pity seven times.^ Prometheus insistently demands attention to his suffering in Prometheus Bound. In contrast, Plato presents Phaedo recounting:

no pity overcame me, even though I was present at the death of a man {Socrates} who was my companion. For the man appeared to me to be happy, Echecrates, both in his manner and his words, so fearlessly and nobly did he meet his end; … For these reasons no pity at all overcome me, as would have seemed likely for one in the presence of sorrow.^

Socrates sends off his wife Xanthippe. She had behaved like a tragic figure. Socrates then combines a mundane gesture with abstract speculation:

Now when Xanthippe saw us, she cried out and then said just the sort of thing women usually say: “Socrates, now’s the last time your companions will talk to you and you to them! And Socrates gave Crito a look and said: “Crito, have somebody take her home.”

So some of Crito’s people took that woman away, wailing and beating her breast, while Socrates sat up on the bed, bent his leg and gave it a good rub with his hand. And as he was rubbing it, he said: “How absurd a thing this seems to be, gentlemen, which human beings call ‘pleasant!’^

Playing with Xanthippe’s response and his earlier declaration of not having been overcome with pity, Phaedo describes his and his companions’ behavior immediately after Socrates drank the poison:

Now up to that point, most of us had been fairly able to keep ourselves from weeping. But when we saw that he was drinking – indeed, that he had drunk {the poison} – we could do so no longer. In spite of myself, my own tears poured forth in torrents, so that I hid my face and bewailed my loss – for it was not him I bewailed, oh no, but my own misfortune … to be robbed of such a man for a companion!

In this parody of tragedy, Phaedo isn’t overcome with pity for Socrates; he is overcome with self-pity. Then Socrates’s male companions imitate the behavior of Socrates’s wife Xanthippe:

Crito got up and left even before I did, since he couldn’t keep back his tears. But Apollodorus, who hadn’t stopped weeping even during the whole time before, at that moment really let loose with such a storm of wailing and fussing that there wasn’t a single one of those present whom he didn’t break up – except, of course, Socrates himself.

Emphasizing the sexual typing and the tragic parody, Socrates responds:

What are you doing, you wonders! Surely this wasn’t the least of my reasons for sending the women away – so they wouldn’t strike such false notes! For I’ve heard too that one should meet one’s end in propitious silence. So be still and control yourselves!

According to Plato, imitations are false, stillness is better than dancing, and forces beyond the soul’s control cannot crush it. While Prometheus Bound ends with Prometheus chanting wildly amid cosmic chaos, the last words of Socrates concern a conventional religious obligation:

“Crito,” he said, “we owe a cock to Asclepius. So pay the debt and don’t be careless.”
“Very well, it shall be done,” said Crito. “but see if you have anything else to say.”
When he asked him this, he no longer answered.

Scholars have long debated what Socrates sacrificing a cock to Asclepius means. But a shadow of what Plato seems to mean with that statement appears in Socrates’s earlier remark:

‘But my destiny calls anon,’ as a man in a tragedy might declaim, and the hour for me to turn to the bath is nearly come. For surely it seems better to drink the potion {poison} after bathing and not to give the women the trouble of bathing a corpse.^

The call of destiny becomes a call to take a bath before being executed. Plato is ridiculing tragedy’s seriousness with mundane, unemotional details of bodily life.

Release from bondage is a major theme interpreted much differently in Prometheus Bound than in Plato’s representation of Socrates’s last day. In Prometheus Bound, Prometheus is painfully bound to a rock with physical chains. Prometheus repeatedly cries out for release from bonds:

Phrases of the type “release from sorrows,” “freedom from agony,” “end of toils” recur like a leitmotiv in the extant Prometheus Bound; we count twenty-one instances of them in the Greek text, which is only 1093 lines long. Such verbal recurrences on such a scale are unique in Greek tragedy, and we can only account for them as being subliminal preparations of the audience for vast changes that were to take place later in the trilogy.^

Following Prometheus Bound’s performance was another tragedy entitled Prometheus Unbound. In it, Heracles shot the eagle tormenting Prometheus and unbound Prometheus from the rock. Release from bondage for Prometheus means bodily release from physical chains.

In Phaedo, Socrates was physically bound and unbound in ways that directly relate textually to Prometheus Bound and Prometheus Unbound. Socrates is bound in a leg chain (δεσμού) and unbound (λυμένον).^ These words have the same Greek roots as bound and unbound in Prometheus Bound and Prometheus Unbound. Plato’s description of Socrates being held for execution suggests a relatively mild form of imprisonment like that of custodia libera in Roman law.^ Another contemporary historical source describes Socrates imprisoned without binding: “he was seen openly during this time by all his companions living in no way differently from what he had done in the time before.”^ Plato’s description of Socrates being bound may have been a literary device working within Phaedo’s intertextuality with the Prometheus tragedies.

In any case, Socrates’s primary concern in Phaedo is release of the soul from the shackles of the body. Bodily desire makes figurative chains and a craftily constructed cage: “the dreadful cleverness of the cage comes from desire – so that the bound man would be himself the chief accomplice of his bondage.”^ True philosophers “devote themselves to nothing else but dying and being dead.”^ Phaedo primarily consists of discussions examining whether death releases an immortal soul from being bound to the body. Release from bondage for Socrates primarily means death releasing the immortal soul from the earthly weight of the body.

Plato more generally reverses the meaning of punishment. In Prometheus Bound, Prometheus declares:

But I knew what I was doing.
I knew I was doing wrong.

I willed it.
I did it. Of my own free will I did it.^

Plato, in contrast, asserts that wrong-doing comes from ignorance, disorder, and moral disease within the wrong-doer. In Prometheus Bound, punishment causes intense pain for the person being punished Punishment prompts emotional outbursts, stimulates resolute defiance, and leads to further intensification of punishment. Plato, in contrast, describes punishment as reformative. For Plato, punishment educates and cures the wrong-doer.^ Emphasizing this conceptual reversal, Plato ends Socrates’s Apology with Socrates asking his condemners to punish his sons in the same way as Socrates has punished Athenians. Socrates re-figures punitive retribution as educational effort.

While revising, reversing, and ridiculing major aspects of Prometheus Bound, Plato fundamentally embraces and extends Prometheus Bound’s concern for communicative action. The action in Prometheus Bound consists mostly of different characters coming to speak in different ways with Prometheus. Most fifth-century Athenian tragedies give less weight to communicative action and more to acts such as traveling, giving and returning objects, engaging in sexual relations, fighting, and killing. Plato insists on the importance of informal, open-ended, friendly conversation organized around shared concern for truth and justice. Such conversation Plato calls philosophy. In Plato’s dialogues, friends of Socrates frequently visit him in his imprisonment.^ Plato’s philosophy represents action like most of the action in Prometheus Bound.

Scholars have recognized Plato’s relation to tragedy, but not in the context of Prometheus Bound and imprisonment. One scholar has observed:

the trace of tragedy is visible in many of Plato’s dialogues. … Plato’s interactions with the tragedians, in sum, was more complex and extensive than is generally believed.^

Another scholar noted “Plato’s fascination with tragic myth, as well as his rejection of it”; “Plato the tragedian has not been wholly suppressed by Plato the metaphysician.”^ In Gorgias, Plato parodied Euripides’s Antiope.^ Yet Plato’s parody of Prometheus Bound apparently hasn’t been recognized. That’s a poetic failure of philosophy in the circumstances of mass incarceration in the present-day U.S.

Prometheus Bound and Plato’s dialogues represent action within the form of ordinary life in democratic Athens. In Prometheus Bound, Prometheus gives to humans in specific detail what Athenians value in ordinary life – the power to form thoughts, to build houses, to work wood, and to tell the weather; numbers, letters, tame beasts, and ships; the way to good health and accurate prophesy; bronze, iron, silver, and gold, and how to make clever, proper sacrifices to the gods. Prometheus thus creates the ordinary circumstances of Athenian life. The communicative action in Prometheus Bound similarly belongs within these circumstances. Prometheus Bound represents communicative action that Athenians could readily imagine themselves doing.

Plato’s dialogues, especially Phaedo, also evoke ordinary possibilities of Athenian life. Plato’s Socrates uses “ordinary, even common language.”^ Plato’s dialogues include many colloquialisms, semi-proverbs, witty word-play, and quotations.^ Plato, who harshly criticizes poets, quotes primarily poets, most of all Homer. He quotes the poets in a “playful and casual manner,” as many Athenians probably did in Plato’s time.^ Plato’s dialogues are set in or near Athens, on a walk along a road, in the wrestling room or gymnasium, out on a porch, or in a host’s house.^ Phaedo includes common, specific, conversational gestures: “when he heard this, he gave a gentle laugh and said….”; “Socrates had turned his head toward him and listened and now said….”; “Socrates, as he glanced up at him, said….”^ To calm Cebes’s inner child, terrified of death, Socrates advises “sing him incantations every day until you sing away his fears.” His friend Cebes responds:

“Then where, Socrates,” he said, are we to get hold of a good singer of such incantations, since you,” he said, “are abandoning us?”

Not challenging Cebes’s figuring him as a poet, Socrates responds:

There’s a lot of Greece, Cebes,” he said. “I suppose there are good men in it – and there are many races of foreigners too. You must ransack them all in search of such a singer, sparing neither money nor toil, since there isn’t anything more necessary on which you might spend your money. And you must search for him in company with one another, too, for perhaps you wouldn’t easily find anyone more able to do this than yourselves.”^

For Plato, informal conversation among friends, stylized as philosophy, is a better alternative to poetry. It’s singing of incantations, but of a different form than poetry.

Communicative action forms a story in a broad account of life. For example, the story of what you did today might be an account of having conversations of various types with various persons. Plato associated poets with stories: “a poet, if he’s to be a poet, has to make stories, not arguments.”^ Because fifth-century Athenians were keenly attuned to speaking style, that was an important aspect of communicative action. A scholar has observed that lyric and rhetoric:

present to the Greek tragedian not an emotional spectrum with which he can control the rise and fall in the {psychological} intensity of his plays, but two different ways of exploring the action and of drawing his audience into a relationship with it.^

Both Prometheus Bound and Plato’s dialogues involve highly distinctive choices of communicative action.

Prometheus Bound imaginatively extends common acts of communication to circumstances of punishment. Prometheus in Prometheus Bound, like Socrates in Plato’s works, doesn’t have a character — a coherent, stable, recognizable pattern of thoughts, emotions, and motivations. Prometheus, like Socrates, engages in types of communicative action. Socrates’s form of questions and inquires were described as ridiculous in fifth-century Athens.^ Athenians typically didn’t speak about the execution of punishment or with persons being punished. Nonetheless, surviving archaic and classical visual representations of Prometheus commonly show Prometheus bound and suffering.^ Ancient Greek representations of Prometheus giving fire to humanity are rare.^ In democratic Athens, Prometheus primarily concerned imagination of punishment, not imagination of benefits to humanity. Prometheus Bound created imaginative communication with prisoners where little existed in practice. Prometheus Bound did so primarily through representations of communicative action.

Both Prometheus Bound and Plato’s dialogues were oriented toward competition for acclaim. Prometheus Bound was created for a festival competition in fifth-century Athens. Plato’s dialogues didn’t enter into such institutionally structured public competition. Nonetheless, Plato’s dialogues vigorously claim their own preeminent merit under the brand of philosophy. Among Plato’s tactics was to construct an “ancient quarrel” between poetry, which was highly regarded and widely known in Athens, and philosophy, which was not:

To people in the fourth century BCE {and in earlier times as well}, the notion of a quarrel between philosophy and poetry would probably have appeared rather ludicrous – an unknown stripling brashly measuring himself against a venerable giant.^

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates denies that he wrote verses to show that he was a better poet than a fellow poet:

I didn’t make these verses because I wanted to rival that fellow, or his poems, in artistry – I knew that wouldn’t be easy^

Yet Socrates figures music-makers as runners in a race and asserts his view that philosophy is the “greatest music.”^ Socrates didn’t compete for acclaim like poets did. His quarrel with poets makes most sense if he already has access to considerable attention. Similarly, highlighting confusion and doubt, as Plato’s dialogues do, has value mainly if one already has others’ attention. Plato’s dialogues present Socrates as having intimate access to important Athenian figures such as Alcibiades. Plato himself had close family connections to important Athenian figures such as Charmides, Critias, and Pyrilampes. Plato competed for acclaim, but outside of the poets’ festival competitions.

Competition for attention has depreciated Prometheus Bound more than Plato’s dialogues. Plato’s dialogues were incorporated into the developing institution of the academy. The Socratic Method remains a topic and occasional practice within particular academic disciplines today. Prometheus Bound more closely concerns circumstances of actual administration of justice. Hence Prometheus Bound provides less propitious material for academic institutionalization. The communicative significance of Prometheus Bound has been lost; its practice, vastly depreciated; and its imaginative form, ignored. Neither within academia nor amid competition for attention does the Promethean Method, ordinary communication with prisoners, even have a name.

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