I recently started thinking differently about the iconic statue of Atlas holding up the earth. I have a private version of this statue as the centerpiece of my home - the idea that it represents is rather important to me, as I expect it would be to some of you.
My latest thoughts are these: If the philosophy is that I will not allow myself to be expected/forced to provide and do for others - to hold up the world - then isn't this symbol inappropriate?
In this classic rendition of Atlas, he is still supporting the world, whereas I have decided that I will not ever do that very thing. This makes the statue not something that I stand for, but something that I steadfastly stand against.
Why doesn't this statue make me - or Objectivists - cringe as much as I do whenever Obama comes on TV, or someone holds up a "Healthcare is a Right" sign in a crowd?
I have been thinking on this for awhile and the best that I can come up with is that this icon represents that evil which I am inspired each day to repel. I look upon this statue and I try harder not to allow anything I do or produce to be taken for granted or used free of charge. Is it not inappropriate to credit this evil with my inspiration???
Value for Value - so as not to become the Atlas kneeling under the weight of the Earth, but to become the Atlas that stands tall on his own merit, though he has let the Earth fall, and is proudly walking away on his own. Shouldn't this last be the actual icon of Objectivist beliefs???
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 the effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders -- what would you tell him to do?
The symbology here is that the producers do in fact hold the world on their shoulders. There is nothing demeaning or servile in this. The fact that productive people make this world possible is something that Rand celebrates. It is not the fact that Atlas holds the world on his shoulders that is the problem. It is his tortured condition while holding up the Earth and who and what inflicted that torture that Rand addresses with Francisco's suggestion that he "Shrug."
In the run-up to this scene (and later, in their conversation in Rearden's mill office), Francisco details the abuse and lack of recognition that is the lot of the producer in the mixed economy. It is from this that the tortured conditions of Atlas arise - the blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, the world pressing ever-heavier as he struggles to maintain it aloft - from the parasites and moochers and looters that populate the mixed-economy world. And the thing that keeps Atlas persisting in his bloody struggle is his acceptance of the Sanction of the Victim. This is the point of D'Anconia's metaphor - he's addressing one of the Telamones directly, trying to help Rearden to understand that this burden (of wounds and fatigue and added weight - not the world as such) is neither just nor necessary.
So, the icon of Atlas holding the world aloft is not an endorsement of suffering and obligation akin to "Christ raised upon a tree" but a celebration of a fact of reality; producers really do hold the world on their shoulders. In a proper society - one based upon individual rights - this would be a joyful exercise of one's capacity.
Now, a note on the classical Atlas. His punishment for siding with the Titans against the Olympians was to stand in the West of the Earth (Gaia) and hold the Sky (Uranus) on his shoulders to prevent the embrace of Heaven and Earth that spawned the Titans in the first place. Trust Rand to subvert the myth, in much the same way that Richard Halley did with his opera Phaethon, to turn what was a punishment - holding the Sky from the Earth - to an honorable achievement; upholding the Real World through action based on his rational judgement. And if there are certain things implicit in trading a heavenly burden for an earthly strength, I see no problem with extending the metaphor.