From Plotting Action to Revealing Character

face of a prisoner

The shift from competition for acclaim in classical Athens to competition for attention in early-nineteenth-century England generated a more characterized Prometheus that contributes less to accountability for prisoners’ sufferings. The classical Athenian tragedy Prometheus Bound adapted a traditional account of origins to address Athenians’ communication with persons being punished. Imaginative works in the early-nineteenth century gave Prometheus a deeper, more consistent character. They represented Prometheus engaged in world-remaking. The new, heroic Prometheus demands heroic action. In the new representations of Prometheus, the mundane practices of punishing fade to weak imaginative significance.

Plotting action was the most important task for Greek tragic poets. Aristotle, writing roughly 120 years after the death of Aeschylus, declared:

tragedy is a mimesis not {simply} of men but of actions – that is, of life. That’s how it is that they certainly do not act in order to present their characters: they embrace their characters for the sake of the actions {that they are to do}. As so the {course of} events – the plot – is the end of tragedy, and the end is what matters most of all. … So it follows that the first principle of tragedy – the soul, in fact – is the plot, and second to that the characters: it is a mimesis of an action {praxis} and therefore particularly {a mimesis} of men-of-action in action.^

Playing out imaginatively created scripts of consequential actions supports rational choice of action. Action scripts can be coded in biological reproduction. Action scripts can be transmitted over time as intentional symbolic communication (stories). Action scripts can also be recognized through personal experience. Making poetry involves making action scripts for intentional evaluation:

Aristotle can combine an analysis of poetry with an analysis of action because in some sense the two are the same thing. That they are the same thing is what it means for human beings to be rational animals.^

Greek tragic poets typically altered ancient stories. The figures in ancient stories were typically heroes and gods not clearly separated in ancient Greek understanding from the reality of everyday life. Making tragedies by altering these stories imitated persons making choices to alter the course of their lives:

we ourselves are poets, who have to the best of our ability created a tragedy that is the most beautiful and the best; at any rate, our whole political regime is constructed as the imitation of the most beautiful and best way of life, which we at least assert to be really the truest tragedy.^

Striving for the most beautiful and best way of life, and recognizing the effect of past striving, plays as tragedy in every human life. That is the poetry of plotted action.

Revealing character is the most important concern in making imaginative texts that compete for attention. Robinson Crusoe (1719), Pamela (1740), and Julie (1761) were pioneering, best-selling novels in the eighteenth century. These texts present previously unknown characters. Of the three, Robinson Crusoe by far gives the most weight to story-telling. Nonetheless, unlike the Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe is not mainly about Crusoe’s struggle to return home. Robinson Crusoe is primarily about what sort of man Crusoe is. Pamela and Julie are long, epistolary novels in which interest overwhelming accrues to the inner person of the titular characters and their intimates. A literary critic observed that with Pamela:

readers start engaging in the sort of sympathetic identification with and critical judgment of fictional character that will lie at the centre of novel reading from Richardson, Fielding, and Burney through Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James. Pamela’s readers ‘read through’ the words and ideas of the novel’s eponymous heroine in order to assess her character with the view of discovering whether ‘Pamela’ is what the text’s subtitle declares – a personification of virtue – or its reverse, a mere sham. By conferring on a character in a novel some of the free-standing qualities of a real person, and insisting that judgments of literary character reflect as much on those who judge as on the judged, both sides in the Pamela wars {public arguments over whether Pamela personified virtue or was a sham} confer an unprecedented moral seriousness upon the evaluation of fictional characters.^

Julie stretched to six volumes “unrelieved by any episodes of violence, explicit sex, or anything much in the way of plot.”^ Julie imitated personal, emotional responses to written words and created such responses in its readers. Across contexts of natural-world realism, moral conduct, and sentiment, characters to whom readers respond sympathetically were key to the successes of Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, and Julie.

Shift in textual weight from action to character appears even across the history of textual accounts of personal development. About 1600 years ago, Augustine of Hippo began his autobiographical Confessions with action:

Great art thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is thy power, and infinite is thy wisdom. … I will seek thee, O Lord, and call upon thee. I call upon thee, O Lord, in my faith^

Actions oriented toward an externally defined trajectory of Christian realization frame Augustine’s account of inward spiritual conversion. Pre-modern Christian conversion narratives subsequently were less inwardly oriented.^ Nonetheless, Augustine’s Confessions, like the confession of St. Patrick (fifth century) and the conversion accounts of Clovis of the Franks (fifth century), Ethelbert of Kent (sixth century), and Edwin of Northumbria (seventh century), principally concern actions, not character.

Autobiography of realizing essential character developed from the mid-eighteenth century. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiographical Confessions, written in the late 1760s, begins with a declaration of self:

I have entered upon a performance which is without example, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I mean to present my fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature; and this man shall be myself.

I know my heart, and have studied mankind; I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality, and whether Nature did wisely in breaking the mold with which she formed me, can only be determined after having read this work.^

This autobiography eliminates an external trajectory for the self and emphasizes revealing natural character. It declares that the author’s natural character can be understood only through reading his book. Readers are figured as god-like judges of persons represented in written characters:

Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I. … Such as I was, I have declared myself; sometimes vile and despicable, at others, virtuous, generous and sublime; even as thou hast read my inmost soul: Power eternal! assemble round thy throne an innumerable throng of my fellow-mortals, let them listen to my confessions, let them blush at my depravity, let them tremble at my sufferings; let each in his turn expose with equal sincerity the failings, the wanderings of his heart, and, if he dare, aver, I was better than that man.^

Individuals who judge each other’s character through books signify modern consciousness. Such consciousness is associated with imaginative texts that emphasize unique, subjective character relative to universal, objective action.

Compared to competition for acclaim, competition for attention favors authors’ investment in character. Competition for acclaim implies judging one work relative to another among an institutionally presented set of works. Competition for attention doesn’t institutionalize the set of competing works. Competition for attention implies a broad scope of judgment. Judgment in competition for attention is akin to choice of personal association: do I want to spend time with this work? Do I want to know this author?

Compared to plot, character names better support both work abstraction and distinct identification. Identifying Sophocles’s tragedy as “Oedipus” rather than “Mistaken Parricide and Mother-Marrying” has obvious advantages. Despite the relatively high importance of plot in ancient Greek tragedies, almost all ancient Greek tragedies acquired names based on one of their major characters or the chorus. Of 300-400 titles of Greek tragedy identified in historical records, all but 20 were named after the chorus or a major character: “by far the most ordinary kind of title {for Greek tragedy} is that which consists merely of the name of the chief personage.”^ Character epithets, e.g. “tyrannus” in “Oedipus Tyrannus,” probably were added by early bibliographers.^ Naming tragedies apart from the poet’s name was unimportant in poetic competition for acclaim at festivals in fifth-century Athens. Naming tragedies became important when prolific poets’ tragedies circulated across time and space.

Character names have been favored for identifying and describing works in competition for attention. Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, and Julie all originally had long titles that included some indication of the novels’ plots. Over time these novels’ titles were shortened to simple personal names. Lack of institutional determination of competitors in competition for attention implies increased investment in branding and describing works. Investment in character serves those purposes. Interesting characters are more important in marketing works in competition for attention than are interesting plots. Persons today typically describe favored movies by actors and characters.

The shift from competition for acclaim to competition for attention is associated with a demographic shift that favors authors’ investment in character. Across a wide range of representational forms, men tend to prefer imaginative works with action-oriented plots that present pragmatic, objective problems and then solve them. Women tend to prefer the subjective development of characters within circumstances of social complexity. Contrast between male and female targeting in movies ( “action movies” vs. “chick flicks”), in online worlds (combat v. socializing), and in magazines (sports vs. relationships) are aspects of popular media obvious to all but the ideologically well-educated. Elite men historically have dominated competition for political authority. Elite men historically have determined success in symbolic competition for acclaim. Non-elites, who consist of roughly equal numbers of men and women, have much more influence on success in competition for attention. Women’s greater influence in determining the success of imaginative works competing for attention favors greater concern for character in those works.

Shift in investment from action to character shifts imaginative force away from ordinary personal agency. External, common circumstances of the one, physically understood world relate pragmatic possibilities for action across characters and persons. In contrast, every person can present a separate, infinite personality. Investment in character draws the audience’s imagination into the character rather than out among possible actions in the real world. Important generic predecessors to the novel were romances and conduct manuals. Romances concern heroes engaged in extraordinary, emotionally fraught actions of conventional types, e.g. extreme fighting and extreme loving. Conduct manuals prescribe ordinary actions for generic persons. Relative to both romances and conduct manuals, novels have greater investment in character. The more imaginative actions are character-mediated, the less they are immediate for the audience.

Imaginative works concerning Prometheus provide an index of investment in action relative to investment in character. Great investment in action supports greater public accountability through imaginative works. The shift from action to character in imagining Prometheus implies less public accountability for Prometheus’s punishment. It also implies less accountability for penal imprisonment in the present.

Prometheus Bound: a Tragedy of Communicative Action

face of a prisoner

The fifth-century Athenian tragedy Prometheus Bound can be divided into three segments. The binding of Prometheus, which is action represented on stage, defines the first segment. The second segment consists of characters approaching Prometheus and speaking with him. Zeus’s attack on Prometheus by means of thunder, wind, and storm makes up the third segment. The first and third segments together amount to only 9% of the lines of the play. Prometheus Bound scarcely represents action other than communication.

Describing Prometheus Bound as scarcely representing action would be anachronistic and misleading. Speaking at city-organized gatherings – legislative sessions, court sessions, festivals – were common, important acts for male Athenian citizens in fifth-century Athens. Education of young men sought to produce good speakers. With a good speech, a man could win friends and social status, or avoid a costly, adverse court judgment.

In historical context, Prometheus Bound is a tragedy of communicative action. Movement between different communicative standpoints and styles is the main plot in Prometheus Bound. A significant aspect of that plot is movement from silence to speech. In the first segment of the drama, Prometheus is silent as he is bound. Prometheus begins to speak in the second segment, and others come to speak with him. In the third segment, Prometheus is punished even more harshly. But Prometheus is not then silent. He speaks throughout his increased agony of punishment.

In Prometheus Bound, Prometheus speaks with sharp, rapid, and psychologically unmotivated changes in form, tone, and scope. Prometheus’s first words are high-heroic speech. They grandly address cosmic elements — Light, Ocean, Earth, Sun — and call on them to focus on him. Prometheus then behaves like an ordinary mortal. Chanting, he cries and groans in pain. Switching to speech, he speaks confusedly. He then sings of his specific sense impressions of the moment and chants, “I’m afraid!”

The plot of the Prometheus myth was already well-known to Athenian festival participants. While a matter of some scholarly controversy, festival participants plausibly expected the eagle to attack Prometheus in accordance with the known Promethean myth.^ ^ Instead, the Oceanides appear. These timid, young, female gods sing to Prometheus, “Don’t be afraid.” Heroes, especially tragic ones, usually aren’t offered such comfort immediately after their first words on stage. The idea of the “tragic hero” is mainly a modern critical invention with little relevance to the ancient Greek understanding of tragedy.^ In any case, Prometheus is not a conventional tragic hero.

Shortly after the Oceanides comfort Prometheus, Prometheus presents himself as one who will conquer Zeus. The Oceanides speak of Zeus’s tyrannical power and unbending will. Prometheus responds by asserting, with masculine bravado, that he is stronger than Zeus:

I’ll have my day.
It will come, that day.
when this Immortal King of the Blest
will come to me,
will call for me,
who suffer here in chains,
in agony,

He will not charm me with
honeyed words of sweet
Persuasion, nor will I bend to the
hammer-blows of his
threats, not till he
sets me free from these cruel chains and
pays me satisfaction for my

Prometheus, in agony, imagines Zeus attempting to charm him with “honeyed words of sweet Persuasion.” That image figures the Oceanides’ approach much more directly than Zeus’s. Under Zeus’s orders, hammer blows of Hephaestos have just put Prometheus into agony. Prometheus in turn threatens Zeus. Prometheus’s words don’t contribute to coherent characterization of Prometheus. They also don’t have a plausible context for action. Prometheus’s words put in play force, persuasion, right, and compensation as concepts for communicative concern.

Prometheus’s choices of allies, while also not well-motivated, effectively set out additional themes of friendship and justice. Prometheus, a Titan, initially offers his fellow Titans “good advice.” But the Titans “scorned my cunning strategy.” So Prometheus offers his services to Zeus. Zeus is an Olympian fighting with his fellow Olympians against the Titans. Zeus and the Olympians, with the help of the Titan Prometheus, defeat the Titans. Zeus then distributes victors’ privileges to the Olympian gods. Zeus offers nothing to humans and resolves to stamp them out. Prometheus, a god, acts in defense of humans. One might imagine that Prometheus felt a profound attraction to underdogs, or perhaps just humans. That’s mere speculation. Moreover, that sort of speculation didn’t much occupy the ancient Greeks. For the ancient Greeks, the key question was not Prometheus’s character. The key question was how one should act toward him in light of claims of friendship and right.

Prometheus presents multiple, non-psychological levels of self-perception. His self-perception spans from cosmic nature to ordinary human relations:

here I hang,
a toy for winds to
play with, a source of
joy to my

As “a toy for winds to play with,” Prometheus is an insignificant entity from a cosmic perspective. As “a source of joy to my enemies,” particular men are responding with pleasure at the sight of Prometheus’s agony. Juxtaposing these views doesn’t make for psychologically coherent speech. Prometheus sees himself from the outside. He doesn’t express the depths of his personal, psychological state.

Analyses of character in Prometheus Bound have yielded incoherent figures. One scholar notes in the language of the drama reciprocity:

the constant recurrence of key concepts and terms, now applied by Prometheus to Zeus or his supporters, now shown by the other characters, or acknowledged by Prometheus, to be equally applicable to himself.^

Another scholar states that Prometheus is “deliberately represented as an unstable compound of mortal sufferer and immortal prophet.”^ The presumption of coherent characterization makes Prometheus Bound into a nightmare:

we are at the nightmare stage of this universe, in which the true nature of any character, at any level, is hopelessly elusive.^

One might see a strain of Zeus in Prometheus, and perhaps also of Prometheus in Zeus.^ Yet that’s not how fifth-century Athenians would have seen Prometheus Bound. Characterization was only of secondary importance for Prometheus Bound in fifth-century Athens. That’s also true of ancient representations of Prometheus more generally.

Communicative action in Prometheus Bound moves between the communicative acts of Hephaistos and the Oceanides. Hephaestos describes himself as kin and friend to Prometheus. Hephaistos, in close bodily contact with Prometheus, presents conflicting second-personal claims:

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

Only this man himself could blame me.^

This conflict between second-personal claims ends after the Oceanides’ third-personal declaration of solidarity:

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

Zeus then strikes with a thunderbolt and sinks Prometheus into the earth, beyond the realm of ordinary second-personal communication. Between these communications of Hephaistos and the Oceanides are a variety of other standpoints and styles of communication with Prometheus.

Communicative action within Prometheus Bound is extraordinary. Athenians’ standpoints and styles in communication depended on whether they were at a city function or within the household, on the relative status of parties to the speech or conversation, and on the objectives of the speakers. Athenians spoke little about specific punishments. A person being punished is in a politically determined, degrading position. How to speak with such persons presented a poetic problem. Specific choices in communicative standpoints and styles in communicating with a prisoner necessarily were significant choices of action. Those communicative actions are the action of Prometheus Bound.

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.