Monuments to Hubris – Atlas and Ozymandias

Posted: February 12, 2009 in atlas, ayn rand, capitalism, depression, hubris
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As I mentioned in a previous column, I am currently in the middle of attempting to read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.  It’s every bit as bad as I expected.  Heavy-handed, turgid, meandering, and about as subtle as a brick to the head.  But, it’s a “classic” and so I will continue my desperate sojourn through this literary wasteland.  Perhaps after I am finished I will reward myself with a re-reading of “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Reading this book naturally got me thinking about the myth of Atlas.  While the image of a grand figure carrying the world on his shoulders (and thus being the “prime mover” in Rand’s philosophy) is doubtless appealing to the wealthy and powerful, it is also a misapprehension of the original story.
You see, in the ancient myths of Greece, Atlas was one of the Titans who, along with his brothers Prometheus and Epimetheus, rebelled against the Olympians.  In punishment for his hubris, Zeus condemned Atlas to stand at the corner of the world and keep the sky and the earth separate for all eternity.
In other words, unlike our modern-day Titans, Atlas did not choose his fate – it was imposed upon him.  It was punishment for his hubris, an entirely too appropriate word meaning “aspiring to godhood”.  And he doesn’t “move the earth”, he holds up the sky.
Our modern-day Titans would do well to learn the definition of “hubris” and its costs.
They might also, in light of their recent spectacular failures, do well to study works by other authors.  I recommend one especially, one which should have particular meaning in light of the “too big to fail” attitude of some of our less competent captains of industry.  It’s a quick read, so I shall present it in its entirety:
Ozymandius
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
-Percy Shelley
And a second version, by one of Shelley’s contemporaries:
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.” The City’s gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
—Horace Smith
Read these words, you Titans, you modern-day Atlases, and ponder the punishment for hubris.  And also consider the true meaning of the concept “too big to fail.”
Atlas aspired to godhood, and was laid low for his arrogance.  Ozymandius built great cities of stone, and reveled in his power and creation.  In his arrogance he thought none could rival him.  Nothing remains of his works.
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