Peace and Tech: Part 5
The Solar Fire of Helios -
A Metaphor for Nuclear Weapons
Humanity has unlocked five technological powers that people in the ancient world seemed to think only gods could possess.
For humanity to make sustainable progress toward peace, justice, survival, and prosperity in the twenty-first century, our five god-like technological powers must be recognized as critically important peace issues.
Metaphors from Greek Mythology show how the ongoing escalation of these technological powers requires an even greater escalation of our Peace Literacy.
As far as we know, before the 20th century, no human on the planet could explain how the sun burns. People could not figure out how the sun could burn at such an incredibly high temperature, for such a long period of time, and not run out of fuel.
Image of the Sun from NASA
Which scientist unlocked the equation that revealed how the sun burns?
The key to understanding this mystery was Albert Einstein's equation E=mc^2, which showed how a small amount of mass could be converted into a large amount of energy.
Later developments in quantum mechanics and nuclear physics further explained how the sun burns, in a process known as nuclear fusion.
Einstein in Vienna in 1921
Einstein’s equation allowed humans to possess the godlike power of solar fire. The same equation that unlocked the mystery of how the sun burns also made nuclear fission bombs and far more destructive nuclear fusion bombs possible.
This image is from the Castle Bravo nuclear test in 1954.
Why is solar fire a god-like power? In religions and mythologies around the world, god creates the sun, god controls the sun, or god is the sun.
Painting of Ra, the Sun God in Egyptian mythology.
The ability to control the fire of the sun was viewed as a god-like power, which people in the ancient world did not seem to believe humans would ever possess.
Trundholm Sun Chariot, a Nordic artifact from the Bronze Age, which depicts a sun chariot being pulled by a divine horse.
But E=mc^2 gave humans possession of the kind of fire that makes the sun burn.
The Greek mythological story of Helios and Phaethon helps us understand the devastation that can occur when human beings possess the god-like power of solar fire.
In Greek mythology, Helios is the sun god who drives the sun chariot across the sky. Helios and Clymene, a mortal, had a son, Phaethon. According to Greek mythology, having one divine parent and one mortal parent made a person mortal. Although this person might have some exceptional abilities, they had all of our human mortality, vulnerability, and fallibility.
Phaethon asked his father Helios if he could drive the sun chariot across the sky. Helios said that his son could not do this, because Phaethon was mortal and fallible. He was not a god.
Helios said that Phaethon’s condition—his lot in life—was that of a mortal. But his desires were not that of a mortal. According to the Roman poet Ovid, Helios told Phaethon, “Mortal your lot, but not mortal your desire.”
Phaethon refused to accept no for an answer. Reluctantly, Helios let his son drive the sun chariot across the sky.
Helios was infallible in his godly domain of driving the sun chariot. He could drive the sun chariot day after day and never make a mistake. But Phaethon, as a fallible mortal, was unable to control the reins of his father’s sun chariot.
Losing control, Phaethon fell and crashed the sun chariot into the Earth. Plato wrote that Phaethon's fall "burnt up all that was upon the earth.”
Engraving depicting Phaethon's fall, by Hendrick Goltzius (1588)
Ovid also described Phaethon crashing the sun chariot into the earth. Ovid’s description bears an uncanny resemblance to the terrifying effects of a nuclear holocaust: “The earth now burst into flames on all of the hills and the mountains, split into huge wide cracks, and dried as it lost its moisture. The corn turned white and the trees were charred into leafless skeletons . . . Destruction fell upon great walled cities; mighty nations with all their peoples the conflagration turned into ashes.” – Ovid, Metamophoses
The allegory of Helios, Phaethon, and the sun chariot can give us insight into the dangers of nuclear weapons in relation to our mortality, fallibility, and vulnerability. President John F. Kennedy used another ancient metaphor—the sword of Damocles—providing further insight into the dangers of nuclear weapons.
“Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.” – John F. Kennedy, 1961
Our potential for accident, miscalculation, and “madness” (or what we can more precisely describe as rage or terror), are aspects of the human condition that function as swirling blades, threatening to sever the thread holding the Nuclear Sword of Damocles.
The potential for accident, miscalculation, and rage represented by these three blades will always exist, because we are fallible. And although Peace Literacy can effectively confront and reduce the root causes of rage and terror, the potential for humans to sink into rage and terror, especially when they are unable to navigate the turbulent storms of trauma, means that we must remain vigilant, continuing to put forth the effort necessary to create and sustain a Peace Literate world. If we surrender to complacency, our human potentiality for rage and terror will become a more common actuality. If we cannot remove the aspects of the human condition that these three blades represent, the only reasonable option is to remove the Nuclear Sword of Damocles.
Peace Literacy reminds us that the most dangerous weapons in the twenty-first century are not bombs and bullets, but the weaponization of mistrust, alienation, rage, disillusionment, nihilism, cynicism, and other tangles of trauma. The digital technologies symbolized by Zeus and Hypnos give humans the ability to weaponize and magnify these tangles of trauma in new and unprecedented ways, creating metaphorical bullets and bombs that can crumble the human psyche, social relations, and civil society. The weaponization of our tangles of trauma makes societies more unstable, and all forms of violence, including nuclear war, more likely.
Removing the Nuclear Sword of Damocles will be a great struggle, requiring global education in Peace Literacy to help humanity confront the root causes of our mistrust, alienation, rage, disillusionment, nihilism, cynicism, and other tangles of trauma that make nuclear weapons compelling. This great struggle requires us to escalate the power of our Peace Literacy beyond the god-like power of our technology.
© 2021 Paul K. Chappell
The Garden of Strong Community: An Allegory and Pictorial
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