The World on Our Shoulders

What Does Atlas Hold On His Shoulders? In Rockefeller Center of New York City, a two-tonne statue of the Titan god Atlas is depicted with the globe on his shoulders as he struggles beneath its weight. After leading the Titans in their war against Zeus and the Olympians, Atlas faces a unique punishment. While the other Titans were cast into the Tartarus, similar to hell for the Ancient Greeks, Zeus chose a fitting punishment for Atlas — one he would endure for eternity. Atlas was imprisoned where the heavens met the earth and was condemned to hold up the sky. To without the overwhelming might of the Heavens from crashing down on earth. In other words, Atlas was punished by the gods to hold up the world.

Other versions of the story depict Atlas holding up a globe or carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Whether Atlas carries the heavens or the earth on his shoulders, the effect is the same. Dropping his burden would be the collapse of the heavens and cause the sky to come crashing down onto the earth. Whether Atlas carries the sky or the globe, he carries the fate of the world on his shoulders.

But why is Atlas punished with carrying the fate of the world? Perhaps this punishment wasn’t for just opposing the gods in the Titanomachy, the ten-year war between the Titans and the Olympians, but perhaps his punishment was for taking the initiative to lead the Titans in battle. Perhaps this tale from Ancient Greece is to suggest that leaders carry the fate of the world on their shoulders.

It’s interesting to consider our effects on the world around us. It’s not just leaders who have influence over the world, but each of us does. Each individual has the capacity to affect their families, friends, and communities. Human beings exist in networks. We are embedded in an interconnected system of relationships between one another.

A sociological idea claims at least 6 social connections separate every person in the world. For example, your co-worker’s, friend’s, cousin’s, roommate is separated from you by only four degrees. The idea is that every human being on earth is separated from you by no more than six degrees. There’s a website called “The Oracle of Bacan” or the “The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” which demonstrates this sociological phenomenon in action by showing how every person in the film industry is separated by no more than six degrees from the actor Kevin Bacon. The same rule holds true for every person around the world and seems to confirm the old adage that “no man is an island entire to itself.”

Individuals have tremendous power to influence the world. If we try to visualize the social web of human beings, we soon discover we are closer to one another than previously thought. Our interactions with one another influence the social world around us, causing ripple effects far beyond what our eyes can see. What we put out into the world through our actions, attitudes, and effects on others can reach thousands of people. And those thousands of people will go on to influence millions of people, allowing your influence to spread throughout the globe.

It’s not just leaders like Atlas who are condemned to hold the world on their shoulders. Each individual person has the capacity to influence the world around them — holding the world on their shoulders as well.

Whereas some regard this condemnation of shouldering the world as a punishment from the gods, it’s more accurately a metaphor for the inevitable influence we hold over our community. Atlas is us. We are condemned by the gods to hold up the world. The responsibility for your community rests on your shoulders. Whether you like it or not, your actions will have an inevitable ripple effect on everyone you encounter. Your actions matter.

Some have said that Atlas should simply shrug. Ayn Rand her Objectivist philosophy proposes that rather than bearing the weight of the world on our shoulders, we should shrug and let the world fall. After all, cynics may argue that we are under no obligation to hold up the world. The fate of Atlas is that of a slave, condemned to suffer a punishment against his voluntary will. We are not slaves and should throw off a burden of this tyrannical nature, some might say.

While our liberation sounds appealing, it is wishful thinking. For Atlas to refuse his fate and shrug the world from his shoulders, the sky would come crashing down upon him, bringing chaos and destruction. As human beings, we face the same punishment as Atlas — and the same consequence for shrugging the world from our shoulders.

When we say one holds up the world, what does this mean? What is the world being held up from? Whether we recognize it or not, every individual has the ability to uphold goodness in the world. Each individual has the capacity to hold up the world towards the highest ideal, and to strive against all hardships to prevent the world from falling. We all play a role in preventing the flame of Goodness from being extinguished.

But what’s the harm in the world falling? What happens when someone drops their responsibility to the world’s wellbeing from their shoulders? What would happen if Atlas were to drop the world? What is the world being held up from?

From dark times. From trouble and suffering. From chaos and conflict. From oppression and injustice. From the fall of humanity from the garden of paradise. And the world falls when enough people refuse to carry the success of the world. The success of the world is dependent on our participation in the pursuit of goodness.

Of course, Atlas can shrug and reject his responsibility to uphold the well-being of the world. But to shrug and give up would be foolish since the world on his shoulders is the same world on which he stands. If Atlas lets the world fall, then he will fall as well. One is not forcefully obligated to care for their neighbor or pursue the common good. We aren’t legally required to carry the world on our shoulders, but our refusal to take personal responsibility for the well-being of the world is akin to letting it fall. If you won’t hold up the world, then who will?

Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Man is condemned to be free.” And man is condemned to live with the consequences of our actions. Not just the consequences for ourselves, but for the communities in which we live.

We can either view this condemnation as a punishment from the gods to suffer the horrors of this world, or as an opportunity for each of us to do our part to tilt our communities toward the light of the Transcendent.

And thus, the fate of the world rests on your shoulders. Now go and hold it high, as a beacon for all to see.

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Matthew McKenna

Matthew McKenna

When facing hardship and burned by flame / We look to myth for where to aim / As stories of old were understood / Extract the gold and make it good.