Prometheus : valor or vanity?

Is valor masked vanity? Valor has always been valued while vanity has been synonymous with useless emptiness. Valor has always been glorified. Is valor valid enough in mind’s context of survival and growth? Would you rather not win with least pain? What indeed is valor? Mettle, resolution, spirit, tenacity, indomitableness, invincibility, fortitude and guts are some of the words that are associated with valor. Natyasastra lists valor as one of the primary sustained emotive responses to situations. It has been described as courage in defense of a noble cause. Conviction and courage constitute this emotive response.

Sometimes it so happens that someone has to do many things for everyone’s sake. It is generally convenient for the world to have a messiah who is also a willing martyr. It works well in the equation of comfortable existence to feel sorry for someone suffering for the sake of others and go on with the business of life. It is a nice feeling to describe with admiration (genuine or in tune with current fads), when someone is courageously convinced that sufferings are worthy of his self-ordained task. But to act with valor is not the primary choice of humans. That is precisely why the `valorous’ few remain very few.

The myth of Prometheus, the ephemeral Greek hero, being the focal point of the current discussion, even if redundant needs to be recounted. In those days uncounted in history recorded by man, the Gods (of Greece) were rather human! They had anger, jealousy, hatred, spite, love, lust, suspicion and even arrogance. The chief of those Gods, Zeus wanted an unquestioned supremacy. Prometheus though belonging to the elite pantheon, was rather different ( by the time we are finished with the story, we may wonder whether there was really any difference). Prometheus wanted to give humans, considered mortals and therefore lesser, the fire! This fire was not just something to light up a cigarette but to ignite the minds. Zeus was peeved. Our hero, known for his power of foresight, was therefore chained up on a rock with a curse- to be pecked at and eaten by vultures during the day and to rejuvenate during the night in order to be eaten the next day. This torture went on for ages. Another myth designed for another hero describes how good old Prometheus was unchained (actually called Prometheus unbound). Now let us just give a cursory glance at the sub-text.

A person, however divine or human, if having foresight still wishes to pursue his avowed mission and know that he will be forsaken or punished is generally called a masochist. Masochism, though generally employed in a derogatory sense, is one of the mind’s pursuits of joy. To get hurt may perhaps be not avoidable, but to continue the path is definitely avoidable. Those who trudge along despite the difficulties are honored as heroes. Those who bestow this title of heroism are the general many who invariably watch the drama with an occasional pang of empathy. We invariably cry for the plight of the hero because we have learnt that it is noble to appreciate valor. What are we crying for or about? Are we sad that we are not heroes of the same calibre or are we feeling uncomfortable that we may have ended up with the same amount of misery? Are the tears then with sympathy or relief? Are we glorifying masochism just because our pain threshold is less? Is valor masochism?

If Prometheus did indeed know in advance ( as Aeschylus and Shelley would have us believe) that he would end up in suffering, pain and eons of agony, why indeed did he choose to do what he did? This behavior is considered as valor, the courage of conviction in support of a noble cause. There are many instances recorded in history of valiant women and men who fought even a losing battle. Indian tradition glorifies those who die fighting as much as it sings about the victorious. Can valor be stupidity? Is it not a fool’s wisdom to fight a losing battle?

Here we have to keep in mind the `art of war’. It is the fight that is more important than the final conquest. But, coming to contemporary logic, which defines our life ethos, would performance alone satisfy us when we are aware of the futility of the work? This again depends on what is considered in general and believed by the individual as worthy. Of course, by any standards and any stretches of imagination, a worthy engagement is always pleasing and joyful. To do is always more important than what will be the profit of doing. However a sound philosophy this may be, in actual practice, no act is done with absolute dispassion. The results are definitely the aim if not the absolute focus while performing. A dancer may really feel ecstatic while performing but she also needs the applause. In case of glorified valor, the applause need not come immediately after the performance. Even if there is no audience response, the valiant would believe that posterity will honor their greatness. It is easy for the poets of posterity to sing about Prometheus, but was Prometheus valiant, knowing fully well that he will go through the pains of punishment? Perhaps he was waiting for a miracle mock his adjudicator. Perhaps he even dreamt of the chains falling off themselves. Perhaps he was hoping that Zeus will come and ask for forgivance. Or perhaps he was too wise or too stupid. Too wise to know that the messiahs are meant to be misunderstood and ill treated at the least. Too stupid to believe that the order of the world will change its course to accommodate one who believes he is right. Stupidity, as well as and as much as wisdom, brings about vanity. Vanity is always a vain and empty activity of the mind that is so full of itself it has no space for even an iota of reality. If reality alone is the key factor to success, why do messiahs go on and on with their losing battles?

We are all taught that whatever the hurdles one should stick to the path of truth. The messiahs take it literally. The realists know that it is sometimes necessary to take a small deviation before returning to the main road. Some invite pain so that posterity might release an unusable postage in their honour. Many decide to move on the middle path. To those with ordinary obsessions, the messiahs are vain. The valiant heroes however would consider most of us vain. What is the truth?

Worthy epics to be composed in future are as attractive and valuable as the wonderful achievements however small but frequent in the present. It is just those who understand to compromise who are valiant and worthy. Compromising with complete awareness is the art of war. Heroes are to be emulated, perhaps more in thought than in deed!

this was written in 2006 for Ritz magazine, chennai

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