I saw Prometheus recently (that would be “Ridley Scott’s Prometheus”), and was duly impressed by the plethora of visual effects. Many a reviewer has mentioned the plot holes (see Cleolinda’s typically brilliant “Prometheus in Fifteen Minutes”, for example: http://m15m.livejournal.com/23209.html), so I won’t. Instead I thought I’d examine some of the questions/concepts addressed in the film. Such as the whole idea of immortality, and that a whole scientific space exploration would be privately financed by an old man who didn’t want to die, on the basis that a team of scientists had discovered what appeared to be an important clue as to the origin of the species. I’m not sure what kind of god he was expecting (other than one that would grant him his wish), but Dr. Shaw, the scientist who actually made the discovery, was a Christian with a different agenda. Having lost first her mother, then her father, to an untimely death, she still maintained a degree of religious faith, evidenced by the cross she wore. Both desired to “meet their maker” without having to undergo the usual process.
When it comes to gods, we humans have great powers of invention. Throughout history, in our attempts to understand our origins, we have come up with a god to explain virtually every aspect of existence. The Book of Genesis notwithstanding, we have created them in our own image. (How else to explain their frequent bad behavior?) Our lore is rich with cautionary tales and fables that can be interpreted in many ways, as well as various mythologies that both compete with and complement each other.
Consider the Greeks and their Titans and Olympians…specifically, Atlas, Prometheus, Zeus, and Athena. Brothers Atlas and Prometheus were Titans, who predated the Olympians; Zeus was the head Olympian, and when the Olympians defeated the Titans, Zeus condemned Atlas to stand on the Earth and hold up the Sky, keeping them separated and thus lessening their power. Prometheus had secretly allied with the Olympians, though in light of his future punishment, that didn’t work out as well as he expected. And then we have Zeus, who consorted with Metis, the goddess of crafty thought and wisdom; upon hearing of a prophesy that she would bear children more powerful than their sire, decided to eat her just in case. But she was already pregnant with Athena, who subsequently burst forth from his head, fully grown and loaded for bear (understandably so!). Later she became known as the goddess of wisdom, courage, and other positive attributes.
Or so the stories say…at least some of them. Different cultures had different versions, but we all know people who embody certain aspects of these gods…or in some cases, only think they do. Atlas is the strong, silent type; he shares the epithet applied to Buddha as “one who endures”. Athena is that righteously talented and intelligent woman with anger management issues…don’t ever forget how smart she is. If you don’t agree with her, you must be an idiot. Zeus? What a nasty piece of work he is. Predatory, abusive, power-mad, vengeful, everything you don’t want in a god. And while you may not know anyone who actually ingests his sex partner and/or children, you’ve probably met a few that managed to dominate their unfortunate spouses and family to the extent that they might as well have been engulfed.
That leaves us Prometheus…as in, Greek god, not movie. Smart guy, creative, a little bit of a troublemaker. Created humans, then gave them fire, which made civilization possible. As a Titan, he must’ve seen which way the wind was blowing, so (as previously noted) he sided with Zeus’ gang, the Olympians. But after the fire incident, Zeus punished him by tying him to a rock, whereupon an eagle would eat his liver every day…the liver would grow back, the eagle would return to dine again, etc. etc., until (according to some versions), he was finally freed by Hercules.
So…cautionary tale, would you say? If you must create humans, whatever you do, don’t give them anything to their advantage. Such things belong only to the gods. Let them live and die according to your whim, ignore them for ages; occasionally throw down a thunderbolt or a plague of some kind to thin them out, but do not help them. They do not deserve your protection; they are merely your toys. When you get tired of them, you destroy them, because there are always other toys. You are a god. You don’t need them.
But if you accept the idea that we created these gods in our image, not the other way around, what does the myth of Prometheus tell us? That it’s dangerous to be intelligent, to innovate? That we should not do anything to advance civilization, lest we put our livers at risk? Are we more godlike when we are selfish, only looking out for ourselves, and to hell with everyone else?
That would certainly seem to be the position of one Ayn Rand, who invented her own philosophy to justify such behavior and wrote several books about it and/or based on it. Her magnum opus was Atlas Shrugged, in which she likens the most productive members of society to the Titan Atlas, who bears the ever-increasing weight of the world upon his shoulders. The unappreciative “world”, or the supposedly non-productive members of society, do nothing but “mooch” off of these beleaguered heroes. The remedy she posits is that “Atlas” should “shrug”; “stop the motor of the world” by going “on strike” and disappearing. No more ideas, no more inventions, leaving the idiots behind to see how far they can (not) get along without them.
Okay, it’s a dystopian fantasy, so perhaps it’s a bit much to expect much in the way of realism, but she didn’t even pick the right god! Prometheus was the smart inventive guy; Atlas was the strongman who never had anything to say, but was good at enduring…hardly what you’d consider an intellect or an innovator. But I suppose she couldn’t identify with Prometheus, who evidently felt compelled to risk the wrath of the hardly trustworthy Zeus by helping out his creation…altruistic of him, wouldn’t you say? Rand abhorred altruism, which she defined as “self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.” This definition is typical of her tendency to overreach; it is absolutely possible to be altruistic without immolating, abnegating, denying, and/or destroying the self. It is also not possible for the “self” to exist in isolation; although Rand seems to think that it can, her belief is not borne out in her stories. She conveniently ignores the reality that even though one brilliant person may have an idea, it takes the combined efforts of many to bring that idea to fruition. And without others to make use of the idea, what purpose does it have? Her heroine’s occupation as a railroad executive is indicative of her inability to grasp this reality. The inventors of the first railroads would hardly have gone far without the cooperation of numerous others: the engineers that helped construct the first engines, the laborers who built the rails, the government’s use of eminent domain to provide the lands on which those rails were built, the customers of the goods for which the transportation system was needed. Hardly the work of one “Titan”!
Rand’s argument was that forms of government such as fascism, socialism, and communism were evil, in that they suppressed the human spirit. Unfortunately, her story does not do a particularly good job at illustrating this theory, and her lusty embrace of unfettered capitalism (an “ism” that she found much more to her liking) blinded her to the flaws inherent in such a system. In Rand’s world, all capitalists are good, and all governments are bad, and despite history’s evidence to the contrary, there are still a shockingly large number of people who seem to agree with her. When it comes to the old gods, it’s not Atlas or Prometheus whose behavior she admires…it’s Zeus.
It certainly wouldn’t have been Buddha, since the essence of Buddhism is altruism (though not, of course, as she defined it). The historic Buddha was born a prince, but renounced his heritage to travel throughout India in search of a remedy for the four sufferings of human existence. Then, enlightened, he devoted the rest of his life to sharing his knowledge with as many people as he could. One of the figures in the Lotus Sutra, his highest teaching, is the Bodhisattva known as “Never Disparaging”, who saw the Buddha in everyone, and told them so. Even though there were many people who didn’t want to hear it…so much so they attacked him with sticks, stones, staves, curses, etc., he kept at it. He did take the precaution of moving out of range! Likewise, Nichiren Daishonin risked his life many times by remonstrating with an oppressive government, challenging the religious establishment that perpetuated the notion that laypersons were inherently inferior to the clergy, and spreading his teachings despite being exiled, beaten, and almost beheaded. Were these cases of self-abnegation? Self-immolation? Self-destruction? Self-denial? Hardly. Ultimately they themselves benefited from their efforts to lessen the sufferings of others, even as we have benefited. This is a version of immortality that Rand was evidently completely incapable of understanding. In her world, those who give are only taken advantage of; in other words, altruism is for suckers.
Speaking of suckers…getting back to Prometheus the movie, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. Along with most cautionary tales, it seemed to be mixing its messages. Is it bad to be Promethean, if the risks seem to outweigh the potential benefits? (“ARGHHH! That’s my liver you’re chewing on!”) Is some knowledge better not acquired? And if so, if you don’t know beforehand what such knowledge might be, is it better not to seek knowledge at all? The non-humans of the story cannot be considered “good” by our human standards. Is the “engineer”, the sole remaining example of a being that at least somewhat resembles us and shares our DNA, really our “creator”? Or is there really no creator as such, but simply crude life, as exemplified by the “alien” (that nevertheless seems to require a human host to proliferate)?
Regardless of whether or not we humans were created, whether or not we will someday “meet our maker”, we have within our grasp the ability to control our own destiny because we live. We have the ability to create; we have the ability to destroy, and we cannot, must not, hold anyone else responsible. In Prometheus, the most selfish and least cooperative of the crew are among the first to die. You could, I suppose, take the Randian view that the “self-sacrifice” of the captain and his remaining crew in order to save the humans still on earth was a sucker move, and that the moral act would’ve been to let the clearly more powerful and godlike being carry out its mission of destruction. I suspect, however, that it was intended to be viewed as a noble act, one that proved who the truly superior beings were.
Perhaps the cautionary message of Prometheus is that if we choose destruction, all that evolution and acquisition of knowledge will be for naught. We will have ceded our glorious existence to a lot of big, nasty, slimy, mindless spaceworms that don’t even know how to shrug,