Is It An Atlas Statue?
When first unveiled, in 1937, Lewis and Chambellan's Atlas statue was met with protests. People thought it looked like Mussolini , or at least what Mussolini thought he looked like. It was lambasted as fascist, and the protesters might have had a point.
Fascist imagery was not hard to come by in 1930s New York. In fact the nearby Italian building's relief was so overtly fascist as to be boarded over a week after WW2 broke out. Even now remnants of fascist sympathies can be found on old NYC buildings, such as the scratched out date beneath the relief on 626 Fifth Avenue. 'AXII,' it once read, a nod to Mussolini's triumphal march of August 12th 1922.
Today, however, the Atlas Statue is controversial not for fascism but for another philosophy, objectivism.
The Atlas Statue Is Appropriated
"If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders—what would you tell him to do?”
“I . . . don’t know. What . . . could he do? What would you tell him?”
— Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 1957
In her fiction and essays Ayn Rand makes a case against selfless action. She argues that, if given the choice between suffering and saving a million lives or relaxing and enjoying your own there is only one thing morally you should do. Enjoy yourself.
And her novel, Atlas Shrugged, turned the Atlas Statue into the inadvertent figurehead of this philosophy. 'He should let it crush us and go and enjoy himself,' she said of the Greek God sentenced to hold up the sky for the rest of eternity.
Rand's philosophy, objectivism, puts the individual first. The only responsibility we have is to ourselves, it states, to preserve our own lives and bolster our own happiness.
Her worldview has been influential amongst American conservatives and libertarians but is largely rejected or ignored by academic philosophers. It is often used to defend laissez-faire capitalism, which aims to minimize government interference into the free market.
The question is, did she have a point?
Should The Atlas Statue Shrug?
Were Atlas to be tempted to put down the sky it would be hard to criticise him. I for one have never had to deal with such a burden. Similarly, it would be hard to criticise someone who saves lives for a living for wanting to take a week off. But is this what Rand's talking about?
The quote above invokes notions of huge sacrifice without any hope of reward but her views do not seem to appeal to those making this type of sacrifice, at least on first glance. The popular image of an objectivist is a free-market capitalist, possibly a stockbroker, frustrated by government mandated caps on their bonuses. Rand's own protagonist in Atlas Shrugged is a railway manager restricted by bureaucracy. There is something cringe-inducing in the idea that either of these could compare themselves to Atlas when the biggest obstacle between them and their own happiness is likely an exorbitant amount of self-pity. They certainly do not in any way have the weight of the world on their backs.
Objectivisms greatest appeal is that it allows privileged people to feel hard done by. 'You don't deserve this pain,' it tells them, 'shrug'. Its greatest flaw is that any pain that can be got rid of simply by shrugging was never much of a pain to begin with. Weight of the world? Atlas couldn't have shrugged even if he wanted to. He was actually carrying something.
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