This blog will feature reflections on the philosophy, politics and poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a radical thinker who has receded into the shadows. Shelley has the power to enthrall, thrill and inspire. His poetry changed the world and can do so again.
When Shelley famously declared that he was a "lover of humanity, a democrat and an atheist," he deliberately, intentionally and provocatively nailed his colours to the mast knowing full well his words would be widely read and would inflame passions. The words, "lover of humanity", however, deserve particular attention. Shelley did not write these words in English, he wrote them in Greek: 'philanthropos tropos". This was deliberate. The first use of this term appears in Aeschylus’ play “Prometheus Bound”. This was the ancient Greek play which Shelley was “answering” with his own masterpiece, Prometheus Unbound.
Aeschylus used his newly coined word “philanthropos tropos” (humanity loving) to describe Prometheus, the titan who rebelled against the gods of Olympus. The word was picked up by Plato and came to be much commented upon, including by Bacon, one of Shelley’s favourite authors. Bacon considered "philanthropy" to be synonymous with "goodness", which he connected with Aristotle’s idea of “virtue”. Shelley must have known this and I believe this tells us that Shelley identified closely with his own poetic creation, Prometheus. In using the term, Shelley is telling us he is a humanist - a radical concept in his priest-ridden times.
When he wrote these words he was declaring war against the hegemonic power structure of his time. Shelley was in effect saying,
I am against god. I am against the king. I am the modern Prometheus.
And I will steal the fire of the gods and I will bring down thrones and I will empower the people.
Not only did he say these things, he developed a system to deliver on this promise.
As Paul Foot so ably summed it up in his wonderful book, "Red Shelley":
"Shelley was not dull. His poems reverberate with energy and excitement. He decked the grand ideas which inspired him in language which enriches them and sharpen communication with the people who can put them into effect."
It is time to bring him back – we need him; tyrannies, be they of the mind or the world, are phoenix-like and continually threaten to undermine our liberties. Shelley's ideas constitute a tool kit of sorts which have direct applicability to our own times. As did Shelley, we too live in a time when tyrants, theocrats and demagogues are surging into the mainstream.