Rather than gush about the tremendously popular novel described on Ayn Rand’s website as “the death and rebirth of man’s spirits,” I figured I would take the classical route. Atlas’ story has been written and rewritten for centuries, crafting him as someone that stood up to the gods and was damned to hold the world on his shoulders in return. His story is now also retold in many forms, even used in daily conversation through expressions such as, “carrying the world on their shoulders.” Of course he is also the base on which Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged stands.
Who is Atlas?
Atlas was not a god, but a Titan–the immortals that came before the gods. In one version of the story, he was the leader of the Titans in the war against Zeus. They lost to the pantheon of Greek gods, otherwise known as the twelve Olympians. So, as punishment, Atlas was condemned to be the “Bearer of the Heavens.” He later became known as a god of astronomy, helping many sailers and farmers in their navigation. Albeit, he was not a god.
During his time as the “Heaven-Bearer” he had many interactions with epic heroes, like Heracles during his quest for the Golden Apples. He bore the weight of the world whilst Atlas retrieved the apples. In return, the hero slew the Hesperian Drakon, the Titan’s tormentor. As thanks to the Titan, Heracles built two pillars in an effort to relieve the Titan of his burden. Atlas later became known as the Guardian of the Pillars.
The Personification of Endurance
The name “Atlas” originated from the Greek word for endurance. But what, exactly, does endurance mean, and why is Atlas the direct translation for it? Atlas could have given up at any point. Whilst he was cursed with the burden of the sky, he was not cursed to stay there forever. At any point in time, Atlas could have passed his burden on to another (as he did with Heracles) or just let it fall. But he did not. He upheld his duty to the gods that cursed him and the mortals below him. He upheld his duty to the world.
So, what does this story mean for us mortals? I mean, it’s impossible to compare our own actions to those of a Titan. Or is it?
Humans do acts of endurance every day; we overcome and adapt and continue to grow. We may not feel as though we can compare ourselves to the myths, but they are told for a reason. They are meant to inspire us to be better. We all have an Atlas in us–that is the beauty of being human. We are bits and pieces of every story we ever read and create, of the people we meet and the things we experience.
And we endure because of it.
So, What About Atlas Shrugged?
What about it? It is a story of endurance. It is a story of the realities of humanity, and the hardships we overcome to remain tethered to that humanity. Why do you think it is named after the Titan who held the world (other than because it gives an immortal being mortal tendencies)? The novel humanizes a myth, bringing it back down to Earth. And as described by Ayn Rand herself, it is a “dramatization of her unique vision of existence and of man’s highest potential.”
Keep moving forward, even if you stand on your own. You can endure anything as long as you have a vision, a little bit of hope, and maybe a curse from the gods.
Happy publishing day, Ayn Rand!
Want to read more about Atlas Shrugged? Check out this article about an attempted film adaptation!