Talking Points

Jeff Bezos' Promethean impulse

Americans have always had a thing for Prometheus — the Titan god in Greek mythology credited with (or blamed for) stealing fire and giving it to humanity, an act that supposedly jump-started civilization. To be a Promethean is to strive for world-historic greatness and glory, embrace economic dynamism, and contribute to the technological progress of the human race.

There was something Promethean about the American revolution and the willingness to attempt to found a self-governing republic in the New World. Promethean striving definitely fueled the settlement of the western territories and American imperialism abroad. And of course the government set (and achieved) promethean aims during the Cold War in putting men on the moon and returning them safely to Earth.

Today, those ambitions have moved to the private sector, with Promethean billionaire entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos working to make space travel far more commonplace. On Tuesday, Bezos' Blue Origin company lifted himself and three other passengers 66 miles above the surface of the Earth, four miles beyond the threshold of space. Bolder space shots are sure to follow from Blue Origin and Musk's SpaceX.  

Is Promethean dynamism a good thing for human beings? Many think so. Author Brink Lindsey sketched their case in a recent tweet that spoke of humanity's destiny being "upward, outward, onward" instead of static and inward. But which end is more compatible with happiness understood as human flourishing? I don't think the answer is obvious. Striving is next of kin to restlessness and anxiety, as we know from observing the most ambitious among us from afar. Somehow their quest for achievement never gets satisfied. Each triumph brings another goal, and then another, endlessly pursued. (What could be more American than viewing the goal of life not as the attainment of happiness but as a never-fulfilled pursuit of it?)

One way to understand the growing popularity of Yoga and other Eastern forms of spirituality in our time is as a reaction to the unhappiness of living in a constant state of agitation, always moving forward, seeking a state of solace or sense of accomplishment that never seems to arrive. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk reach for the stars for that reason as much as any other. The question for the rest of us is whether it makes more sense to cheer on their Promethean striving or to lament and seek to release ourselves from the spiritual discontents that drive it.