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Tragic Self-forgetting as True Culture: On Nietzsche and Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound

Leon Wash

           Nietzsche's youthful lucubration on Greek tragedy is one of the most familiar of all the moments of the modern reception of the Classics.  But lost under the Dionysiac frenzy are the details of a very particular obsession with Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound.  Nietzsche's esteem of it seems to have been limitless: his juvenilia and later notebooks above all reveal the most intense attachment to that tragedy, which he described in 1877 (five years after The Birth of Tragedy) as "floating like a rainbow-bridge over the last millenia, the highest culture-poem"(NF-1877, 22[88]: Gef<esselter> Prom<etheus> als Regenbogenbrücke über den letzten Jahrtausenden schwebend, das höchste Cultur-Gedicht). While his fascination with the figure of Prometheus, documented well enough after all in The Birth of Tragedy, has not gone unnoticed, little has been said about the influence of Aeschylus' peculiar version.  Instead, Nietzsche's Prometheus is almost always taken to be simply the post-Romantic's predictable symbol for the artiste par excellence and an obvious precursor to the Übermensch, in both regards requiring little comment.  Hans Blumenberg, however, in his rich account of the transformations of Prometheus in his Work on Myth, suggests something more significant, remarking, "Nietzsche rediscovers in Prometheus the central figure of ancient tragedy, and finds in that figure the absolute antithesis of the Socratic type"(Blumenberg (1985) 561).  This judgment, too, has its basis in The Birth of Tragedy, but it inspires an analysis which even Blumenberg neglected.  For there is a theme uniquely prominent in the Prometheus Bound, and still more in Nietzsche's corpus: the theme of tragic self-forgetting, of resistance to self-knowledge, of abandonment of self-consciousness by whatever means, and thereby the opening to self-realization and cultural renewal.  To note only the most obvious: in the Aeschylean Prometheus' open resistance to the Delphic maxim γνῶθι σαυτόν ("Know thyself"; cf. γίγνωσκε σαυτὸν, PV 311), one finds an unnoted basis for Nietzsche's polarization in The Birth of Tragedy of Prometheus and Socrates, that unsurpassed proponent of γνῶθι σαυτόν.  Moreover, the Prometheus Bound is the only extant Greek tragedy which contains some form of the maxim, and it is pervaded—more so perhaps than any other surviving tragedy—by the theme of the avoidance of self-knowledge, although this avoidance is, to be sure, still limited by the self-consciousness of an individual will, rebellious, suffering, and superbly prescient. Such compromised forgetfulness, such willfully neglected self-knowledge, is also central to the characterization, in The Birth of Tragedy, of the tragic artist, and indeed central to Nietzsche's entire oeuvre.  Accordingly, along with an examination of Nietzsche's remarks about Prometheus and the Prometheus Bound, a consideration of the theme of self-forgetting in his work and his own repeated, explicit resistance to γνῶθι σαυτόν will help to reveal the extent to which his thought always revolved around the image formed in his reading of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound.

Session/Panel Title:

Recovering the Monstrous and the Sublime

Session/Paper Number

63.5

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