For those of you who missed last week, Essential Intellectual References Weekly (or EIRW) is a column where I attempt to inform the general public about things that may come up in a conversation with intellectual types, like me. If this seems pretentious, that's because it is. But pretentious and useful aren't mutually exclusive. I mean, you can still get coffee at Starbucks.
While the first column was interesting in it's own right, it didn't broach the subject of the header image for the article, which I'm sure you guessed is ridiculously pretentious, but you probably don't know why. So let's get this trickle down theory of academics started!
'Cause it works so great with the economy.
That right there is a picture of Prometheus, who was a hero of Greek legend (yeah, I know, it's a lot of stuff from Ancient Greece, but that will change next week and for a few weeks after). He was a Titan, and while modern movies have made you think the Titans were 20 story tall monsters, that's not really the case. The Titans were just the predecessors of the Greek Gods.
The story goes that Zeus wanted to keep fire all to himself, because he was a giant lightning bolt throwing selfish jackass. Prometheus saw this, and dubbed it to be unfair. The people of Earth were cold, blind at night, and their food wasn't cooked. So, he did what any self respecting hero of legend would do and stole that shit right from under Zeus' nose and gave it to the humans. What was this great hero's reward? Zeus used Prometheus' immortality against him, because like I said, Zeus was a jackass. He chained Prometheus to a rock and ordered a great eagle to eat his liver (which grew back during the night) every day, forever. Ouch.
Something I find interesting about this story is how the moral and the resolution conflict. The moral seems to be that no good deed goes unpunished. But it seems to be saying that despite the punishment, Prometheus unquestionably did the right thing. You will suffer for being in the right, but while you're being disemboweled daily, at least you keep the ethical high ground. So that's what I'm doing with this article. I haven't been chained to a rock yet, but despite being one of the intellectuals up on Mount Olympus, I bring this flame — that is all the stuff we talk about to keep you out of the conversation — to you.
Well, I did say it was pretty pretentious in the first place.
I think I made it pretty clear that Prometheus was a good guy and really didn't deserve his punishment. Sisyphus, however, deserved every last minute of it. He was the King of Corinth (a Greek territory in between Athens and Sparta) and he was a massive bastard. He was a greedy, murderous liar of a king, and everyone knew it. On top of it all, he was smart, and he knew it. Unfortunately, he pulled a John Lennon and claimed he was smarter than the Gods.
Zeus was not happy. After a number of attempts at punishment that Sisyphus got out of using only his wits (apparently, he was right about being their equal), Zeus brought out the ultimate punishment. In Greek legend, the afterlife was something you could kinda walk into and out of, like another room. You may remember that idea from Orpheus, or Disney's Hercules. Well, since Sisyphus still had a corporeal body, and needed something to do, Zeus gave him a task. All he had to do was push a large boulder up a steep hill. Once it was at the top, he was free to do whatever he liked.
Thinking this punishment wasn't all that bad, Sisyphus began. Just as he neared the top, his hands slipped, and the boulder rolled all the way down. So he tried again. I think you know where this is going. For eternity, he was compelled by his pride to keep pushing the rock and prove that he could once again beat Zeus. And for eternity, Zeus made sure the rock would never reach the top. It is from this that we get the term "Sisyphean Task", which means something you are compelled to do but is likely impossible to accomplish.
This is a fantastic parable to keep in the back of your mind, because I think it keeps humanity's pride in check. There are some things that you will never be able to do, no matter how hard you try. You can push and push, but that boulder is just going to fall right back down. These are the situations that drive a man mad. It's why Zeus chose that punishment. It's really easy to become overwhelmed by the drive to accomplish an impossible task. When you do, just remember that somewhere out there, in the vast darkness of the Underworld, Sisyphus is literally doing that forever. Because he was a giant dick. So when something seems futile…
…it might actually be futile.
Stay tuned for next week, EIRW #3: Man's Capacity for Evil.