In the classical story of Prometheus, the Titan is punished by the ruler of the Greek Gods, Zeus, for giving humanity the gift of fire. By giving humans fire Prometheus gives mankind the ability to survive in the wilderness and to make use of the tools of his environment. Fire in the story thus symbolizes knowledge and civilization, while the fact that Prometheus is punished for his gift to mankind has traditionally suggested that providing humans with knowledge is an act of transgression. There are thus clear parallels between Prometheus’s story and the Book of Genesis, in which Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, against God’s wishes, and, as a result, bring sin into the world. In his version of Prometheus Unbound, however, Shelley draws on both classical and Christian imagery to challenge the idea that knowledge is sinful or transgressive. Instead, his Prometheus Unbound suggests that knowledge is something that helps humanity because it gives them the capacity to fully understand their own behavior and, in turn, allows them to freely make wise and moral choices.
Shelley’s poem opens on the image of Prometheus chained to the mountain, suffering under the punishment administered by Jupiter (the Roman counterpart of Zeus). This image immediately establishes Prometheus’s action of providing humans with knowledge as an affront to the Gods. In fact, the entire first act of Prometheus Unbound focuses on Prometheus’s torture at the hands of Jupiter, who has ruled supreme over Heaven, the Earth, and mankind since Prometheus’s capture. By focusing on Prometheus’s punishment rather than his transgression, Shelley highlights Jupiter’s cruelty. This helps Shelley to frame Jupiter as the villain of Prometheus Unbound and center the rebellious and defiant Prometheus as the hero. This, in turn, positions the gift of knowledge as something worth any cost.
Jupiter’s cruelty is further highlighted in Act 2, when Asia, a sea nymph who is Prometheus’s wife, explains that Prometheus originally gave knowledge to Jupiter on the condition that the god “let man be free.” Jupiter however, enslaved mankind, and as such Prometheus gave human beings knowledge so that they could tame the hostile environment that Jupiter had provided for them. At first, man used this knowledge for good, inventing language, science, and the arts, until Jupiter captured Prometheus and spread his own negative example—of greed, fear and power-lust—among mankind. Asia’s description of Prometheus’s transgression, and Jupiter’s response to it, highlights the fact that what is considered by Jupiter to be a sin actually had a positive effect on humanity and that, although Prometheus is punished like a criminal, he has really acted in humanity’s best interests by trying to provide them with knowledge.
However, because Jupiter has bound Prometheus (who symbolizes knowledge and free will) humanity has become misguided and used its knowledge for evil instead of good. By binding Prometheus, Jupiter has placed restrictions on knowledge: though humanity makes use of the tools that knowledge has allowed them to create, they cannot use them effectively for good because they lack the self-knowledge and the free-will to fully comprehend their own behavior. This is in keeping with the fact that, although Shelley was a radical thinker who felt that education was a gift, he was also wary of the effects of unchecked scientific exploration, which was an ever-growing concern in the nineteenth century. Shelley felt that empirical science, with no sense of morals or ethics to underpin it, could lead humanity to disaster. (This is also the theme of Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley, Shelley’s wife, which had the subtitle The Modern Prometheus.) Shelley’s Prometheus suggests that, in the wrong hands, knowledge can be a destructive force as well as a tool of freedom.
Prometheus is the only being in the world whom Jupiter cannot conceal knowledge from, and therefore cannot subdue. Jupiter is thus afraid of Prometheus and the influence that the Titan’s guidance would have on humanity, as this would allow humankind to think for themselves and question Jupiter’s authority. Ironically, then, although Prometheus is bound, he is truly free from Jupiter’s evil influence as he fully understands both the potential evil and the potential good of his actions. As a result, Prometheus is able to choose wisely, with good, rather than evil, in mind.
After Jupiter has fallen, Prometheus is freed by Hercules and a new age of wisdom and freedom is established on earth. Jupiter’s fall signifies the liberation of knowledge among mankind. The Furies previous description of a confused world in which the wise have no love, and the loving have no wisdom, has been defeated and, instead, knowledge mixed with love and compassion is available to all. Celebrating his freedom, Prometheus states that man is also “now free,” explicitly linking his own fate with the whole of humankind’s.
Prometheus anticipates that this liberation of knowledge will lead to the discovery of “arts unimagined” and notes that “man grows wise and kind, and veil by veil, evil and error fall.” This suggests that the result of Prometheus toppling Jupiter has been an increase in knowledge among human beings. Shelley therefore suggests that knowledge, when used with noble aims in mind, is a positive force for mankind and will advance the progress of civilization, potentially alleviating suffering in the world. According to Shelley, it is only by making knowledge fully available to all, and by allowing people the freedom to explore and question beliefs, that humanity can advance as a species—because only then will people have the tools available to choose the wisest course for the greatest good.
Knowledge and Freedom ThemeTracker
Knowledge and Freedom Quotes in Prometheus Unbound
The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgement, a more poetical character than Satan because, in addition to courage and majesty and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which in the Hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest. The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure. In the minds of those who consider that magnificent fiction with a religious feeling, it engenders something worse. But Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.
We owe the great writers of the golden age of our literature to that fervid awakening of the public mind which shook to dust the oldest and most oppressive form of the Christian Religion. We owe Milton to the progress and development of the same spirit; the sacred Milton was, let it ever be remembered, a Republican and a bold enquirer into morals and religion. The great writers of our own age are, we have reason to suppose, the companions and forerunners of some unimagined change in our social condition or the opinions which cement it. The cloud of mind is discharging its collected lightning, and the equilibrium between institutions and opinions is now restoring, or is about to be restored.
Monarch of Gods and Daemons, and all Spirits
But One, who throng those bright and rolling Worlds.
Which Thou and I alone of living things
Behold with sleepless eyes! regard this Earth
Made multitudinous with thy slaves […]
Three thousand years of sleep-unsheltered hours
And moments—aye divided thy keen pangs
Till they seemed years, torture and solitude,
Scorn and despair,—these are mine empire:—
More glorious far than that which thou surveyest
From thine unenvied throne […]
When thou didst from her bosom, like a cloud
Of glory, arise, a spirit of keen joy!
And at thy voice her pining sons uplifted
Their prostrate brows from the polluting dust
And our almighty Tyrant with fierce dread
Grew pale—until his thunder chained thee here.—
Then—see those million worlds which burn and roll
Around us: their inhabitants beheld
My sphered light wane in wide Heaven; the sea
Was lifted by strange tempest, and new fire
From earthquake-rifted mountains of bright snow
Shook its portentous hair beneath Heaven’s frown;
Lightning and Inundation vexed the plains;
Blue thistles bloomed in cities; foodless toads
Within voluptuous chambers panting crawled;
When Plague had fallen on man and beast and worm,
And Famine,—and black blight on herb and tree,
And in the corn and vines and meadow-grass
Teemed ineradicable poisonous weeds
Draining their growth, for my wan breast was dry
With grief,—and the thin air, my breath, was stained
With the contagion of a mother’s hate
Breathed on her child’s destroyer […]
Dost thou boast the clear knowledge thou waken’dst for man?
Then was kindled within him a thirst which outran
Those perishing waters: a thirst of fierce fever,
Hope, love, doubt, desire—which consume him forever.
One came forth, of gentle worth,
Smiling on the sanguine earth;
His words outlived him, like swift poison
Withering up truth, peace and pity.
[…] Nature’s sacred watchwords—they
Were borne aloft in bright emblazonry.
The nations thronged around, and cried aloud
As with one voice, “Truth, liberty and love!”
Suddenly fierce confusion fell from Heaven
Among them—there was strife, deceit and fear;
Tyrants rushed in, and did divide the spoil.
This was the shadow of the truth I saw.
If such live thus, have others other lives
Under pink blossoms or within the bells
Of meadow flowers, or folded violets deep,
Or on their dying odors, when they die,
Or in the sunlight of the sphered dew?
Aye, many more, which we may well divine.
But should we stay to speak, noontide would come,
And thwart Silenus find his goats undrawn
And grudge to sing those wise and lovely songs
Of fate and chance and God, and Chaos old.
And love, and the chained Titan's woeful doom
And how he shall be loosed, and make the Earth
One brotherhood—delightful strains which cheer
Our solitary twilights, and which charm
To silence the unenvying nightingales.
[…] Hark! the rushing snow!
The sun-awakened avalanche! whose mass,
Thrice sifted by the storm, had gathered there
Flake after flake, in Heaven-defying minds
As thought by thought is piled, till some great truth
Is loosened, and the nations echo round
Shaken to their roots: as do the mountains now.
Resist not the weakness—
Such strength is in meekness—
That the Eternal, the Immortal,
Must unloose through life’s portal
The snake-like Doom coiled underneath his throne
By that alone!
Who reigns? There was the Heaven and Earth at first
And Light and Love;—then Saturn, from whose throne
Time fell, an envious shadow; such the state
Of the earth’s primal spirits beneath his sway
As the calm joy of flowers and living leaves
Before the wind or sun has withered them
And semivital worms; but he refused
The birthright of their being, knowledge, power,
The skill which wields the elements, the thought
Which pierces this dim Universe like light,
Self-empire and the majesty of love,
For thirst of which they fainted. Then Prometheus
Gave wisdom, which is strength, to Jupiter
And with this Law alone: “Let man be free,”
Clothed him with the dominion of wide Heaven.
First famine and then toil and then disease,
Strife, wounds, and ghastly death unseen before,
Fell; and the unseasonable seasons drove,
With alternating shafts of frost and fire,
Their shelterless, pale tribes to mountain caves;
And in their desert hearts fierce wants he sent
And mad disquietudes, and shadows idle
Of unreal good, which levied mutual war,
So ruining the lair w herein they raged.
Prometheus saw, and waked the legioned hopes
Which sleep within folded Elysian flowers,
Nepenthe, Moly, Amaranth, fadeless bloom
That they might hide with thin and rainbow wings
The shape of Death; and Love he sent to bind
The disunited tendrils of that vine
Which bears the wine of life, the hum an heart;
And he tamed fire, which like some beast of prey
Most terrible, but lovely, played beneath
The frown of man […]
He gave man speech, and speech created thought,
Which is the measure of the Universe;
And Science struck the thrones of Earth and Heaven,
Which shook but fell not; and the harmonious mind
Poured itself forth in all-prophetic song,
And music lifted up the listening spirit
Until it walked, exempt from mortal care,
Godlike, o'er the clear billows of sweet sound;
And human hands first mimicked and then mocked
With moulded limbs more lovely than its own
The human form , till marble grew divine,
And others, gazing, drank the love men see
Reflected in their race—behold, and perish.—
He told the hidden power of herbs and springs,
And Disease drank and slept—Death grew like sleep.—
Such the alleviations of his state
Prometheus gave to man—for which he hangs
Withering in destined pain—but who rains down
Evil, the immedicable plague, which while
Man looks on his creation like a God
And sees that it is glorious, drives him on,
The wreck of his own will, the scorn of Earth,
The outcast, the abandoned, the alone?—
Not Jove: while yet his frown shook Heaven, aye when
His adversary' from adamantine' chains
Cursed him, he trembled like a slave. Declare
Who is his master? Is he too a slave?
Rejoice! henceforth I am omnipotent.
All else has been subdued to me—alone
The soul of man, like unextinguished fire,
Yet burns towards Heaven with fierce reproach and doubt
And lamentation and reluctant prayer,
Hurling up insurrection, which might make
Our antique empire insecure, though built
On eldest faith, and Hell's coeval, fear.
And though my curses through the pendulous air
Like snow on herbless peaks, fall flake by flake
And cling to it—though under my wrath’s night
It climb the crags of life, step after step,
Which wound it, as ice wounds unsandalled feet,
It yet remains supreme o'er misery,
Aspiring . . . unrepressed; yet soon to fall:
Thrones, altars, judgement-seats and prisons; wherein
And beside which, by wretched men were borne
Sceptres, tiaras, swords and chains, and tomes
Of reasoned wrong glozed on by ignorance,
Were like those monstrous and barbaric shapes,
The ghosts of a no more remembered fame,
Which from their unworn obelisks look forth
In triumph o’er the palaces and tombs
Of those who were their conquerors, mouldering round.
Those imaged to the pride of Kings and Priests
A dark yet mighty faith, a power as wide
As is the world it wasted, and are now
But an astonishment; even so the tools
And emblems of its last captivity
Amid the dwellings of the peopled Earth,
Stand, not o’erthrown, but unregarded now.
We come from the mind
Of human kind
Which was late so dusk and obscene and blind;
Now tis an Ocean
Of clear emotion,
A Heaven of serene and mighty motion.
From that deep Abyss
Of wonder and bliss
Whose caverns are chrystal palaces;
From those skiey towers
Where Thought’s crowned Powers
Sit watching your dance, ye happy Hours!
Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom and Endurance,—
These are the seals of that most firm assurance
Which bars the pit over Destruction’s strength;
And if, with infirm hand, Eternity,
Mother of many acts and hours, should free
The serpent that would clasp her with his length,—
These are the spells by which to reassume
An empire o’er the disentangled Doom.
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than Death or Night
To defy Power which seems Omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope, till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change nor falter nor repent:
This, like thy glory, Titan! is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.