Socrates 1.1 – Prometheus and Philosophy

"Socrates," by Mitch Francis

"Ordo philosophorum," or "Order of the Philosophers"; "causarum cognitio," or "knowledge of causes" - an echo of Aristotle
Ordo philosophorum,” or “Order of the Philosophers”; “causarum cognitio,” or “knowledge of causes” – an echo of Aristotle: philosophers understand the “why” of things.

Prometheus and philosophy

morph‘ comes from the Greek for ‘shape’ and generally implies a change of form. Check out the entry on

“What is philosophy?” Rather than starting with a formal definition, I propose we pay attention to what philosophers do and how they do it. This will sooner lead us to deeper insight into what they’re up to. So that’s the plan. We’ll start by getting to know someone doing philosophy — and that someone is Socrates. Then we’ll trace his influence through a couple more philosophers — his disciple Plato; and, in turn, Plato’s student, Aristotle. Tracing this line will provide a sense of how philosophic themes morph or change over generations, even while remaining recognizably similar. But some would argue that much of Socrates’ influence is hardly even noticed anymore because it has been so thoroughly absorbed into Western culture — in strands of ethical reasoning, educational theory, scientific method, and “religious” beliefs about the soul. We hardly notice it not only because of the changes it has undergone, but also because it’s ubiquitous – omnipresent; thus, what we are doing requires extra attention and subtlety.

"Socrates," by Mitch Francis
“Socrates,” by Mitch Francis
Socrates walked this planet 25 centuries ago, from about 469 BCE until tensions led to his execution in Athens in 399 BCE. His crime was essentially philosophizing. The next leg of our journey will bring us to the record of his trial, written by his younger disciple, Plato, in a work called The Apology. As we begin,

  • What better to mention than this heightened tension?
  • Where better to start than with this wise heart?
  • When better to attend than as he faces his end?

Well after Socrates’ death, Plato remarked that the capacities and aims to which Socrates introduced humanity carry importance of mythic proportions: Plato invoked the memory of the scandalous Prometheus —

There is a gift of the gods to humans, as it seems to me anyway, thrown down from the gods by some Prometheus together with the most dazzling fire. (Philebus 16c5)

Perhaps the myth of Prometheus’ punishment is a projection of human anxiety about creativity and other human powers. There’s a reason Mary Shelley subtitled her 1818 classic as she did: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

Frankenstein: Modern Prometheus; Shelley's 1818 novel
Title page, Shelley’s 1818 novel
And anyone who has seen the Ridley Scott film, Prometheus (2012), has beheld this anxiety literally projected onto the screen with all of the horror contemporary computer-generated imagery can offer.
Prometheus Plays With Fire (from the Ridley Scott film, Prometheus (2012)
from the Ridley Scott film, Prometheus (2012)

What underlies these ties to the Prometheus myth?

Most variants of his myth remain close in spirit to Prometheus the Titan-god who created humanity under charge from Zeus; who introduced to humanity words, technology, and medicine, and, against the will of an angry Zeus, fire; and who was consequently strapped into an “eternal-punishment machine” where Zeus’ eagle visited daily to peck out our champion’s ever-regenerated liver. Prometheus represents a hope — the unleashing and fulfilment of human potential — and a danger inherently tied to that unleashing (whether or not we think about it as involving literal punishment).

The word ‘synthesis‘ originates from the Greek for “composition” — derived from syn- (for together) and ‘tithenai‘ (for put). Hence, “synthetic” does not always imply “fake,” so much as it does a power to make! It is more deeply tied to the concept of creation than to illusion.

Plato sees Socrates as an intimate part of an analogous process, of a Promethean bequeathing to humanity of the powers of understanding and creation, or synthesis, as they operate in philosophy. The myth shows us the significance of this through the eyes of the Olympian gods: they are deeply concerned, even enraged. And while they enjoy some catharsis through Titan-torture, their cause for concern remains at large — it is us, “on the loose,” exercising divine prerogatives.

We’ll see Plato develop Socrates’ more vague notion of what is highest or best into a theory of The Highest Good — which Plato calls the “Form of the Good” — in The Republic.

Plato takes a more optimistic view than those of Ridley Scott or Mary Shelley; our powers of understanding and creation open the possibility of a cosmos into which we integrate harmoniously, by means of “grasping,” appreciating, and pursuing what is highest or best. For Plato, the prophet of this unification or harmony is Socrates, a highly developed, self-styled, provocateur, always on the way toward wisdom, always attentive to unusual voices.