Challenging the Limitations of Physical Nature

There is a story stemming from the Greek tradition which illustrates the role of man in physical nature–The story of Prometheus. The name itself stems from Greek roots that mean “forethinker”. The story goes that the Gods were withholding the power of fire from humanity. The allusion however widens to represent powers of understanding, progress and mastery over the forces of physical nature that enter into the world with the advent of human-embodied powers of creativity and originality and the corresponding application of the powers of mind and will to manifest what was formerly latent in Nature, in most cases against intense opposition (in the original story Zeus, king of the Gods opposed the action of Prometheus and penalized him with constant and ever-recurring pain and anguish). Zeus also created Pandora and gave her the famous “Pandora’s box” in retribution for the action of Prometheus. The symbolism of Pandora’s box represents all the “unintended consequences” that arise from the forward seeking mind of humanity attempting to understand, master and develop beyond the limits of physical nature.

This story illustrates the struggle of man to escape the control of the forces of Nature. Sri Aurobindo describes this process: “He defies her powers, transgresses her limitations, sins constantly against her first prohibitions, takes her punishments and overcomes them, becomes by wrestling of his mind and will with her acquainted with her greater possibilities which she herself has left unused while she waited for his coming. She meets his effort with physical obstruction and opposition, with a No that constantly recedes, with the mask of his own ignorance, with the menace of her danger.”

The seeking for a moral law in the world is an attempt to understand a higher order or organization than the purely non-moral physical forces clashing and building. The manifestation of life, and later of mind, upsets the established order of action of the purely physical forces of Nature, and seeks to bring about a new and higher order based on the increased complexity of this new, higher expression of consciousness in the world.

The story of Prometheus is an allusion that has gripped the mind of man for ages, from the time of Aeschylus and his play “Prometheus Bound”, to the time of Shelley and his poem “Prometheus Unbound”. We see around us the tremendous development of new powers as we explore every aspect of physical Nature, and we see at the same time the enormous unintended consequences and both individual and collective suffering entailed in exceeding the original limitations placed upon us. We see here that Prometheus, the forethinker, represents the evolutionary process to bring about the expansion of consciousness in the world.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 14, The Terrestrial Law, pp. 121-122,