Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Number, the most excellent of all inventions, I for them devised

From Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus. I think of Prometheus as the giver of fire but had forgotten that he gave men numbers and writing (in order to remember).

In Plato's Dialogues, there is a passage between Phaedrus and Socrates where Socrates discusses the invention of writing as an aid to memory that will actually be an aid to forgetting. I am not a classicist but this is the first time I think I have come across an ancient Greek passage which articulates numbers and writing as the transformational gift (along with, presumably, fire). Fascinating because being able to measure (numbers) and describe (writing) are the core of our modern digital economy. With a direct line back to Prometheus.
No more of that: I should but weary you
With things ye know; but listen to the tale
Of human sufferings, and how at first
Senseless as beasts I gave men sense, possessed them
Of mind. I speak not in contempt of man;
I do but tell of good gifts I conferred.
In the beginning, seeing they saw amiss,
And hearing heard not, but, like phantoms huddled
In dreams, the perplexed story of their days
Confounded; knowing neither timber-work
Nor brick-built dwellings basking in the light,
But dug for themselves holes, wherein like ants,
That hardly may contend against a breath,
They dwelt in burrows of their unsunned caves.
Neither of winter's cold had they fixed sign,
Nor of the spring when she comes decked with flowers,
Nor yet of summer's heat with melting fruits
Sure token: but utterly without knowledge
Moiled, until I the rising of the stars
Showed them, and when they set, though much obscure.
Moreover, number, the most excellent
Of all inventions, I for them devised,
And gave them writing that retaineth all,
The serviceable mother of the Muse.

I was the first that yoked unmanaged beasts,
To serve as slaves with collar and with pack,
And take upon themselves, to man's relief,
The heaviest labour of his hands: and
Tamed to the rein and drove in wheeled cars
The horse, of sumptuous pride the ornament.
And those sea-wanderers with the wings of cloth,
The shipman's waggons, none but I contrived.
These manifold inventions for mankind
I perfected, who, out upon't, have none-
No, not one shift-to rid me of this shame.

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