Pandora’s Box

Lawrence Alma-Tadema‘s water-color of an ambivalent Pandora, 1881

In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first human woman created by the gods. Zeus ordered her to be molded out of the earth as part of humanity’s punishment for Prometheus’ theft of the secret of fire. According to the myth, the gods gave her a jar that contained all the evils of the World and ordered her not to open it.

Nonetheless, Pandora opened the jar (in modern accounts often mistranslated as “Pandora’s box“) releasing all the evils that visit humanity like pain and suffering, leaving only hope (expectation) inside once she had closed it again. (Most scholars translate the Greek word elpis as “expectation.”) The Pandora myth is a theodicy—an attempt to explain why evil exists in the world. (The idiom “to open a Pandora’s box”, means to do or start something that will cause many unforeseen problems.)

The key question is how to interpret the myth. Is the imprisonment of hope inside the jar a benefit for humanity, or a further bane? If hope is another evil, then we should be thankful that hope was withheld. The idea is that by hoping for or expecting a good life that we can never have, we prolong our torment. Thus it is better to live without hope, and it is good that hope remained in the jar. But if hope is good, then its imprisonment makes life even more dreary and insufferable. In this case, all the evils were scattered from the jar, while the one potentially mitigating force, hope, remains locked inside. However, this latter interpretation causes us to wonder why this good hope was in the jar of evils in the first place. To this question, I have no answer.

But I do have another interpretation. Perhaps hope is good, and it is good that it remained in the jar. Perhaps hope was originally another evil but after being opened hope was transformed into good hope. It’s as if hope, separated from evil, takes on a new character. So its preservation in the jar preserves this good hope which can then (somehow) be accessed when needed. I grant this is a strained interpretation.

Still, my interpretation depends on understanding hope, not as an expectation, but as an attitude that leads us to act rather than despair. This is the good kind of hope preserved in the jar. To better understand this, remember the words of Aeschylus from his tragedy,
Prometheus Bound. Prometheus’ two great gifts to humanity are hope and fire. Hope aids our struggle for a better future while fire, the source of technology, makes success in that struggle possible. Hope, in fact, is the first gift that Aeschylus mentions.

Chorus: Did you perhaps go further than you have told us?
Prometheus – I stopped mortals from foreseeing their fate.
Chorus – What kind of cure did you discover for this sickness?
Prometheus – I established in them blind hopes.
Chorus – This is a great benefit you gave to men.

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(Note. This essay was originally published on this blog on March 11 2017.)

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