Prometheus in Chains: The Roots of Totalitarianism in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound
Keywords:Totalitarianism, punishment, knowledge, benevolence, opposition
The twentieth century witnessed the rise of a socio political system known as totalitarianism. Totalitarianism can be defined as a form of a government that is dictatorial and demands complete subservience to the state. Totalitarianism prohibits opposition to the state and the ruler. It is also marked by the high degree of control exercised by the state over public and private life. More often than not, the totalitarian state is subject to the will of a single rule, in possession of absolute power. State machinery and force was used to eliminate opposition. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy are examples of totalitarian states, governed by the personal charisma of leaders like Mussolini and Hitler. Their regimes were not entirely without opposition. The likes of Willy Brandt, Albert Einstein were vocal in their criticism of the state and the leadership. A similar parallel can be noticed in Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound. The play begins with the binding of Prometheus for his crimes. His crimes include the theft of fire, and his wilful defiance of Zeus. Prometheus emerges as the benefactor of mankind, who works for the preservation of the human race in the face of terrible punishment. On the other hand Zeus’ actions highlight his tyrannical nature.
Prometheus stole the fire from heaven for a noble cause. He gave it to Man so that civilization may progress. But at the same time, Zeus had been contemplating on destroying the human race. Hence, it is a collision of two conflicting wills, one keen to preserve and the other eager to destroy. Furthermore, Prometheus mentions that Zeus has punished him even when the Titan had helped him previously. As a tyrant, Zeus exercises his arbitrary will and power, and it is imperative that others must bow down to his authority. His rule is largely based on inspiring fear and compelling others to obey him. Prometheus, whose name signifies fore knowledge, defies Zeus and his totalitarian rule. He is in possession of a secret that will lead to Zeus’ fall from power. It is this knowledge that gives him the strength to face the ordeal. He is aware about the fact that Zeus gained the throne in a violent manner, opposing the tyrannical ways of his father Cronus. Hence the day is not far off when his hypothetical son will dethrone him.
The actions of Zeus are that of a ruler, insecure about his position. He is keen to weed out all forms of opposition to his rule. But this can only add to the growing dissent among the immortals. As Prometheus predicts, his cruel and authoritarian ways will lead to his fall. But by gaining maturity and knowledge, he can avoid the disastrous consequences. As the benevolent patron of the human race, Prometheus links his fate to the humans. He will be liberated by a man, a descendant of Io, another victim of Zeus will. Prometheus remains defiant even in his suffering. He is certain about the fact that Zeus will have to mend his ways or face the prospect of being dethroned. In this manner he is assured about the end of the totalitarian regime.