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A Rise in Humanity

Felwine Sarr

Re-Enchanting Humanity – A Categorical Imperative

Marie-Laure Salles

Texte intégral

1In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan, the race of gods that preceded the Olympians. Prometheus in Greek means “forethought” and Prometheus had a brother, Epimetheus, whose name translates as “afterthought”… Prometheus, in other words, was the “smart and cunning” one and Epimetheus, well, the other one… The two brothers were charged by the Olympians to share attributes between living creatures. Epimetheus, with his characteristic impulsivity and limited foresight, bestowed strength and swiftness on some, dangerous claws and fur on others… but when the time came to provide humans with attributes, nothing was left! Prometheus had to intervene. He stole fire from Zeus to bring it to humanity as a means to ensure its survival, but also, as it turned out, its control over nature and other species.

2The symbol is clear. Prometheus is the agent through which we, human beings, are endowed with some degree of godlikeness. Fire is a symbol for reason; our divine spark – the attribute that connects us to the gods – makes us an-thropos in the etymological sense of the term, those who turn and look upwards (hence to the gods). The step from “being connected to”, “looking towards god”, to feeling like god is not a major one. Fire is also a symbol for the derivatives of this divine spark – technology, knowledge and science as tools that allow us to improve our lot – to tread a path to “Progress”.

Figure 1. Jean Delville, Prométhée (1907), oil on canvas, 500x250 cm.

Figure 1. Jean Delville, Prométhée (1907), oil on canvas, 500x250 cm.

Source : Université libre de Bruxelles

3A striking painting by Jean Delville from 1907 (fig. 1) shows Prometheus in action, one should even say in majesty and potency. Prometheus, triumphant, carries the torch of Progress on behalf of humanity, away from obscurity and towards the promise of a better, more luminous future. One has to note the muscularity, the hypertrophied masculinity of this Prometheus triumphant… Symbolically, Delville’s painting represents a god-org – a god-like (human) organism – to draw a parallel with the notion of a cyborg. This version of Prometheus, unsurprisingly, is regularly used by the transhumanist community to affirm the overcoming of humanity and the advent of an Übermensch:

No more Gods, no more faith, no more timid holding back. Let us blast out of our old forms, our ignorance, our weakness and our mortality. The future belongs to posthumanity (Max More, 2009).

Figure 2. Peter Paul Rubens, Prometheus Bound (1618).

Figure 2. Peter Paul Rubens, Prometheus Bound (1618).

Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

4But there is another side to the story of Prometheus. For what he has done, stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity, Prometheus gets punished. Zeus is outraged by this act of defiance, by this arrogance or hubris, to use the Greek word. As a consequence, Prometheus is chained to a rock in eternal punishment (fig. 2). Every day, an eagle eats his liver and, because Prometheus is eternal, his liver gets regenerated every night, to be eaten up again the next day. Every day the sun scorches him, every night the cold freezes him.

5Prometheus bound and chained is a warning – there is a price to pay for hubris, for man pretending to be what he is not and cannot be: God and all-controlling. Where triumphant Prometheus walks fast and confidently, Prometheus bound is condemned to complete immobility. Where triumphant Prometheus projects himself towards an infinite, linear Progress, Prometheus bound is condemned to the circularity of eternal suffering. Where triumphant Prometheus is muscular, strong, masculine, Prometheus bound is weak, moaning, emasculated. Where triumphant Prometheus affirms himself as being in total control – over nature and over other species in particular – Prometheus bound is subjected to the complete control of nature (the sun, the cold, the barren rock) and of other species (symbolically represented by the eagle).

6It is interesting to push that image further, closer to our contemporary predicament. A Promethean humanity will end up being scorched by a violent sun – and that is indeed more or less what we are promised by climate change. We will be chained and doomed on a barren rock – here again an apt image for Earth being depleted at a fast rate of its biodiversity. We can use the last public words of philosopher Hans Jonas, just before his death in 1993, to say the same thing:

It was once religion which threatened us with a last judgment at the end of days. It is now our tortured planet which predicts the arrival of such a day without any heavenly intervention.

7Prometheus triumphant goes so far as to affirm the ultimate control – a craving for immortality. Prometheus bound, though, suffers precisely because of and through this immortality. In one of his beautiful science fiction books, Le Grand Secret, published in 1973 and translated in English as The Immortals, the French author René Barjavel brilliantly captured the dramatic predicament of immortality – or when immortality turns from individual fantasy into collective nightmare. “Life without death makes life impossible”, Barjavel tells us. Because life without death “will multiply, blossom, explode… and will invade and devastate everything”… “The virus of immortality increases without any measure the time of all lives but reduces space to an hollowed rock”… The rock of eternal punishment for a modern Prometheus!

8So the scenario of a humanity-god (god-org) would seem to end, in a dialectical and quasi-necessary kind of manner, in a scenario of doom… And the two would not appear to be in contradiction but in a dialectical relationship. The myth of Prometheus, at least as told by Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound, even suggests a synthesis to this dialectical relationship. After a very long period of time, Prometheus will be delivered by Hercules, another demigod. We don’t really know what happens then to Prometheus except that he will have to carry forever the shackles reminding him of his hubris and of the price he had to pay for it.

9Can we extend this optimism to our own fate, the fate of Humanity? Arguably, the idea that we will at some point come back from the Mars Colony promised by Elon Musk (or from wherever) to reinvest Earth and reinject the seeds of human civilization is a parallel scenario – into which certain transhumanist businessmen are currently pouring a significant part of their wealth. Is this dialectical scenario and its synthetic resolution completely predetermined, necessary? Is there no alternative? Do we necessarily have to run the full course of our Promethean hubris – which dialectically will bring about a scenario of doom and imply, at best, a long period of confinement to the rock of our punishment before, who knows, we may rise again from the ashes? Or can we still branch off into a radically different direction? Can we expect a Rise in Humanity, to use the words of Felwine Sarr?

10Maybe the idea is not to expect it but rather to affirm it, and collectively work towards the re-enchanting of our humanity. Arguably this could be the categorical imperative of our times!

11At this stage, it becomes useful to mobilize the symbolic imagery of another Greek god – Dionysus. In contrast to the linearity associated with Prometheus, Dionysus stands for circularity and eternal return. Against immortality as a Promethean promise, Dionysus epitomizes the necessary cycle of life and death – he dies every year to be reborn. The dream of immortality is just that, a dream… Against an-thropos, who is looking upwards to the gods, Dionysus reminds us that we are also humans – coming from and returning to Earth (humus). In an ineluctable, essential way. There is no planet B… Against the rational projection of a Promethean world, Dionysus values the creative energy of irrationality, of emotions, of intoxication and exhilaration – understood here in their symbolic sense. Against the Promethean sense of a “chosen species”, of Anthropos being superior to other species and hence legitimately in control, Dionysus imposes our inclusion within and tight interdependence with what we call today a complex biotope. Against the male element, Dionysus brings forward the female. Against order and the stability of social structures and inequalities, Dionysus imposes regular episodes of disorder and carnival-like social inversion. Against culture and civilization, Dionysus claims the vital role of our savage nature – the raw against the cooked, sex against marriage. Against prediction, planning and homogeneity, Dionysus offers curiosity, difference, the unexpected, the unplanned – which are in fact conditions of our freedom. Against the dimension of time, Dionysus is the god of space, the god who bridges multiples spaces – life and death are in this sense spaces that Dionysus connects. Against the individual, Dionysus affirms the collective, the social, a collective that is inseparable from nature and a broad ecological system.

12What is important to understand and remember is that Dionysus had his full place and role in the Greek pantheon and in Greek culture. The historian and philosopher Maria Daraki tells us in her 1985 book, Dionysos, that this god “owns the ancient, the savage soul of Greece”. Between the “logic of the Logos”, she goes on, and the logic of Dionysus there have been confrontations but then also negotiation and hybridization; these two worldviews, civilizations or “forms of intelligence”, as she calls them, came to converse with each other and to affirm themselves by and through their radical difference:

The “Greek Logos” has not only fought against the old cyclical worldview. It has also allowed it a space for its own contradiction… It is precisely because of this hybridization that the Greek culture was what it was. If Greece had only allowed for a Logos mindset, it would have been a horrendous, Manichean universe… If it was otherwise, this was precisely thanks to the fusion between two modes of logic – one linear and exclusive that conforms to the needs of the polity and one revealing a savage Greece that was thinking of the world in circles and had developed another logic, circular and inclusive… It is thanks to this combination of line and circle that Greece has affirmed its specific culture – with its constant refusal of closure. Dionysus imposes alterity at the heart of Greek culture (Daraki, 1985: 230).

13In a very different context, characterized by the Promethean dynamics of 19th century America, confrontation then left no place for combination or hybridization. In 1852, the US federal government inquired from Chief Seattle, a Suquamish Chief, about buying tribal lands for all those immigrants arriving in the United States. Chief Seattle’s answer was very simple, but the worldview it revealed was by then fading away fast in North America:

The President of the United States sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water how can we buy them? ... Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? This we know: the earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth.

14A Dionysian logic, undoubtedly – with the implicit acknowledgment that this logic was on its way out!

15Maybe this is where the narrow path for re-enchanting our humanity lies – in our capacity to draw the contours of a new dynamic equilibrium between these two modes of logic. When we seriously consider the symbolic projection associated with Dionysus in ancient Greece, we realize that he is not the crazy and drunk disrupter we generally associate with Bacchus. Or if he is, he is in a positive and necessary way – in a manner that ensures balance and resilience, that sets limits to the hubris of Logos and its dramatic consequences, that ridicules it in a healthy way. We learn that Humanity has known the importance of this balance for its own resilience and survival for a very long time. And that we, “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart, this nullity that imagines it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved”, to use the words of Max Weber, have forgotten it or have been pretending that we could exempt ourselves from it…

16Let us go back to basics indeed! Re-enchanting humanity is about reframing our notion of Progress. Progress should be about a better life for Humanity, as the Greek Prometheus wanted it. But this necessarily implies, from within a Dionysian logic, a profound respect for Humus, the Earth, the planet to which we “belong” and on which our welfare as well as that of other species entirely depends. Hence, there is no Progress – or rather there should not be any Progress – that is not at the same time social, human and environmental. If we mobilize our Logos under the tight control of this Dionysian principle, we can have this kind of ambition. Our Logos allows us indeed to develop and deploy amazing tools, which, if framed in a proper way, could serve this sustainable and inclusive objective. Time, though, is of the essence. Or as Martin Luther King put it in 1967, in words that strongly resonate today in a very different context, “we are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now”!

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Jean Delville, Prométhée (1907), oil on canvas, 500x250 cm.
Crédits Source : Université libre de Bruxelles
Fichier image/jpeg, 39k
Titre Figure 2. Peter Paul Rubens, Prometheus Bound (1618).
Crédits Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Fichier image/jpeg, 91k


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