Pavel Florensky and the Recovery of Christian Prometheanism

In 1931, a Marxist intellectual by the name of Anatoly Lunacharsky wrote a foreword for the Russian translation of Friedrich Holderlin’s unfinished tragedy The Death of Empedocles. Luncharsky praises both the work and the person of Holderlin as demonstrating tremendous courage. Holderlin’s madness is not, for Lunacharsky, a symptom of bourgeois escapism. Instead, it is a testament of Holderlin’s refusal to compromise with supposedly necessary limits imposed by his social conditions. His madness is a kind of revolutionary success whereas Hegel, whom Lunarcharsky also admired, was a failure with respect to his personal and intellectual compromises in the face of his social conditions. It is in this context that he discusses the figure of Prometheus (who appears in the play):

Holderlin portrayed his fate in the most tragic way in the surviving unfinished drama Empedocles. It is dark in many ways, but in general, however, its main line is defined: Empedocles is a man of pride, a man of Greek hubris, against which the Greek tragedians fought. This pride is kind and fertile in Empedocles, as it is in Prometheus in the surviving part of Aeschylus’ famous trilogy. After all, Aeschylus conceived his Prometheus to make him the ultimate measure of rebellion, with the best arguments for it, to force him to bow before the world of power, before the principle of universal order: Zeus. But time has incinerated those places where the song of peace is sung and left the place where the song of rebellion is heard. And in this, Aeschylus collected such a mass of arguments for his opposition, for his rebellion, that Prometheus became for centuries the great representative of the revolutionary principle.[1]

Lunacharsky correctly notes that Aeschylus’s Prometheia cycle originally included a reconciliation between Prometheus and Zeus (at least as far as classicists can guess from the fragments and historical testimonies). For him, it is a happy accident that we only ever received the first play into our cultural imagination so that Prometheus can be the revolutionary principle made flesh.

Lunacharsky would go on to work for the Soviet regime within the Ministry of Education and become the originator of a philosophy called God-Building. The philosophy of God-Building was an attempt to produce an immanent religion centering around the potential of humanity. If religion was, according to Feuerbachian analysis, a misplaced abstraction of human attributes, why not correct the abstraction and relocate worship to where it truly belonged? The future collective divinity of the human species could form a new basis for myth, cult, ritual, and all the other intimate material expression of religion that Lunacharsky felt were still needed. Though some Marxists, like Maxim Gorky who adopted the image of Prometheus emerging from a book as an emblem for his personal library, adopted this approach, Lenin was openly contemptuous of this pseudo-religion and it never gained official support.

At exactly the same time and in the same country that Lunacharsky was championing Prometheus as the ultimate image of divine humanity, another Russian was doing exactly the same and yet different. Pavel Florensky (1882–1937) was a gifted scientist, linguist, and philosopher who also happened to be an Orthodox Russian priest. Throughout his life, he always managed to be a part of the most creative and socially revolutionary circles, even if they were not primarily composed of orthodox Christians. During the Soviet years, he was handpicked (by Leon Trotsky) to assist with the project of bringing electrification to Russia on a mass scale. He did in fact assist with this massive project working alongside government apparatchiks while in full priestly garb. Eventually, he was exiled on fabricated political charges and died in a Siberian work camp. Despite his tumultuous circumstances, he managed to leave behind many brilliant essays and some larger works.

Central to Florenksy’s creative project was the biblical and patristic idea of deification (divinization, theosis), which he referred to as the “fixed polar guiding star in the spiritual sky” for the Christian life. While the theology and spirituality of deification is arguably as old as Christianity, Florensky emphasizes its often underdeveloped Promethean aspects. While Prometheus is often now associated with pseudo-Romantic self-assertion and rebellion, Florensky reminds the reader of the titan’s self-sacrificial love for humanity. Refusing to acknowledge sheer power as divine, Florensky discerns in Prometheus a tropological model for the Christian veneration of holiness for its own sake.

Then, Prometheus, the Titans and all the other heroes who rebelled against God in the name of Truth and Goodness—these heroes become infinitely dear to all those illuminated with the ‘Light of Christ’ and blessed by the “Good News.” This apparent rebellion against God is revealed before healed eyes to be the bearing of God in oneself; and the transformative Prometheus, who suffered out of love for humanity, a crucified god with lanced side, turns out to be—in his rebellion against God—a precursor of Christianity.[2]

Not only does this valorization of Prometheus recenter human dignity as properly resistant to all forms of human oppression, but it also legitimizes what Florensky calls our “Jacobian relationship to God.”[3] When we wrestle with God, like Jacob did in the Genesis narrative, then we receive our true name. The peculiar intensity and frenzied contradictions of modernity are rooted in the depths of human consciousness suddenly laid bare by Christ’s words: “No longer do I call you slaves for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”[4]

Florenksy’s retrieval of Promethean elements for Christian spirituality is made even more plausible by examples from its premodern treatment. In the ancient Greek context, this titan was not simply a cipher for atheistic or demonic self-assertion and rebellion. As already mentioned, Prometheus Bound was only the first play of the three Prometheia by Aeschylus and though they are lost, fragments from Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer suggest that the drama concludes with a reconciliation between Prometheus and Zeus. Prometheus’s theft has received more modern attention, but this is not the only story with this quasi-divine figure; he is also the loving creator of the first humans out of clay. In light of that relationship, the theft of fire for the sake of his creation—the creation for whom he is willing to suffer eternally—is nothing other than an agapeic sacrifice.

It is literally for the “sin” of philanthropia that Power and Force condemn Prometheus in the very opening of the play. Unless modern Christians are prepared to read Zeus as absolutely identical with a Christian transcendent conception of God the Father, it is difficult to see Prometheus as anything other than sympathetic. The ancient Greeks certainly did not see Prometheus as a figure of evil or fruitless hubris. In Athens, he was even worshiped and seems to have been associated with Athena, possibly on the basis of their mutual aptitude for creative teknai. The mentions of Prometheus in the Platonic corpus seem to be mostly positive.[5]

Nor was the positive association with Prometheus confined to ancient Greece. Christian iconography appropriated the figure of Prometheus to depict the creation of Adam and Eve. Several Christian sarcophagi and reliefs of late antiquity display this leitmotif.[6] As early as the writings of Tertullian this link had already been formed in the Christian theological imagination when he calls God as Creator “the true Prometheus.”[7] Before he was turned into Satan, it seems that Prometheus was a symbol of the agapeic ground of Creation. Cardinal Giles of Viterbo, head of the Augustinian order, related Paul’s ascent to the third heaven recorded in 1 Corinthian 12 to the myth of Prometheus. St. Paul “got the fire of Prometheus and did not steal it, but was filled with the Spirit who descends in the shape of fire.”[8] Florensky’s emphasis on the Promethean is not an illegitimate invention, it is the retrieval of a mythopoetic instinct that can be traced through the Renaissance to the earliest reaches of the Christian imagination.

What makes Florensky’s version of Christian Prometheanism unique? As a scientist, engineer, and artist, he sees the vita activa as a creative task with an eschatological aim. His Christian Prometheanism is a creaturely imitation of divine creativity for the sake of the world. The formulation of Sergei Bulgakov, his friend and fellow theologian, is helpful here. While technically only the work of God is properly called theurgy, we can (and must) dynamically and creatively participate by working what Bulgakov calls hierurgy or sophiurgy, especially associated with economics and art.

This is a helpful correction to overly discursive and idealist accounts of contemplation as the highest goal of theology, philosophy, and spirituality. It could even be construed as a validation of the view held by medieval Franciscans and others that theology is a practical and not only a speculative science. If theology is considered a practical science in this sense of active and creative participation, it would even be appropriate to consider it as a mode of labor. Christian Prometheanism is a fitting name for this kind of labor, which seeks to renovate the world, build the kingdom of Heaven, and invoke the rest of the Sabbath as well as the festive eschatological promise of the mystical eighth day.

This should not be mistaken for a cheap veneer over what philosopher William Desmond rightly identifies as Prometheanism of self-enclosed autonomy in Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche. These figures do sometimes fall into a grasping Mangodhood, to use Bulgakov’s term for the demonic inversion of the Godmanhood achieved by the grace of the Incarnation. However, we need to recover a more plurivocal sense of the Promethean, and not combat devilish temptations by denying the existence of our desires or the self-transcending potential we have been given. As the Epistle to the Galatians testifies, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.

[1] Lunacharsky, Foreword to the Russian translation of The Death of Empedocles, 1931.

[2] Florensky, Early Religious Writings 1903–1909, 121.

[3] Ibid., 122.

[4] John 15:15.

[5] Protagoras 320d–322d, Gorgias 523d–e, Statesman 274c. In Philebus, Plato says that some sort of Prometheus will have to bring a divine, fiery, and dazzling gift for men to partake in the knowledge of the one and the many. Even leaving a generous amount of space for Socratic irony, it would be impossible to dismiss Prometheus as an obviously negative figure in Plato’s writings. From other sources, we also know that Plato’s Academy housed multiple altars, to the Muses, to Eros, and to Prometheus. These last two were the starting point of cultic-athletic participation in the Panathenaia, where races would be held that ended at the altar to Athena in the Acropolis. See Pausanius’ Description of Greece 1.30.1–2; for additional reflections see Athletics, Gymnastics, and Agon in Plato ed. Reid, Ralkowski, and Zoller.

[6] Raggio, “The Myth of Prometheus.”

[7] Tertullian, Apologia, 18.

[8] Stein and Kokin “Christian Kabbalah in Papal Rome.”

Featured Image: Thomas Cole, Prometheus Bound, 1847; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Andrew Kuiper

Andrew Kuiper usually writes about Christian theological appropriation of esoteric discourses and lives in Michigan with his wife and three children. His essays and poetry have been published in various magazines.

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