Atlas Mugged

The following is an extract from the book ‘Breaking Together: a freedom-loving response to collapse’, where I discuss the potential meanings of the ‘Kintsugi Atlas’ image on the book’s cover.

The matter of the collapse of industrial consumer societies is not only extremely inconvenient for those of us who are enjoying its conveniences, but also deeply challenging philosophical and spiritually. After a few years of soul searching about aspects of our culture that are implicated in this tragic situation, I arrived at the paradox of our desire to ‘be someone’ and help each other. One way of describing this paradox is with Greek Myth. The image on the cover of this book is an adaptation of the oldest surviving statue of Atlas, a character from Greek mythology. From the 2nd Century before the Christian Era, it depicts him straining to hold up an orb, which in the contemporary era has been widely misunderstood to represent planet Earth. That misunderstanding may have begun in the year 1585 with the use of the word Atlas by Flemish cartographer Gerhardus Mercator, to describe his collection of maps of the world. On the inside cover of his book, there was a drawing of Atlas having removed the orb from his shoulders and mapping it in his hands.[1] With her famous book ‘Atlas Shrugged’ Ayn Rand may have misconstrued the orb as representing our world, and therefore used it to symbolise the weight of the world’s problems (such as parasitic bureaucrats) on otherwise strong and free people.[2]

The Farnese Atlas statue dates from around 200 BC. All versions of the myth from that time include how Atlas was cursed by Zeus to hold up the heavens above the Earth. Rand’s use of the Atlas myth has therefore been criticised as symbolically confused.[3] Whether or not she was, the classicist Charles Segal explored the many interpretations of the Atlas myth that start by clearly recognising it depicts the heavens being held aloft, not Earth or humanity. He explained how Atlas has been widely discussed as representing how we humans strive to achieve goals, feel responsible for situations, and worry about the inevitability of loss and death.[4]

It can be revealing to reflect a little further on the potential meaning of this – apparently widely misunderstood – myth. We can start with recognising that some Greek Gods, like Zeus, represented forces beyond humans, whereas other Gods reflected ‘ideal types’ or aspects of human nature. Zeus is the Sun god, representing a key source for all life. Therefore, whatever happens in the world must emanate from Zeus. That means whatever is important in the human condition could be understood as coming from a ‘choice’ of Zeus. Like us, the Greeks knew that the heavens were already existing above the Earth before they ‘needed’ to be held up by the human qualities that Atlas represented – strength and responsibility. So Zeus was really ‘cursing’ Atlas with the ‘idea’ that the heavens needed holding aloft to avoid them crashing and killing his family and all of creation.

Could this myth convey how ancient Greeks recognised that at some point we humans shifted our awareness from everything existing without any effort from us, into the idea that we must strive, or that some God must strive on our behalf, in order for life to continue? Could it be that long ago they recognised this shift towards thinking that humans are central to the destiny of the universe was like a curse? Could it be that this myth was intended as a reminder that so much of nature exists without us or our efforts?

I choose to view the Greek myth of Atlas is such a way. Which means I see it as a reminder of both the benefits and drawbacks of human ego, capability and care. We can suffer due to our assumption of centrality in the story of the universe. Today, we are dealing with some of the consequences of that story. Therefore, some people consider the concept of human centrality and power to be fracturing in the face of the ecological crisis. They perceive the ideological structures of modernity, which shape who we are as individuals and societies, to be breaking down. As you know from Chapter 7, I share such a view, but consider the problem is the form of modernity that has been driven by monetary power – an extractive, dominating and expanding form of Imperial Modernity (Chapter 10), and its contemporary confused manifestation as ‘overmodernity’ (Chapter 13). Human’s sense of our own centrality, power and care for others is not something that can, or should, be totally denied, and instead we can recognise how through the centuries this impulse was coerced and directed to serving the selfish interests of the money-power. As these fundamental forces of human nature were appropriated by the money-power, the history of modernity is the story of ‘Atlas mugged’.

Not everyone who observes the current global situation considers such critiques to be useful. Instead, they determine that without our sense of global care and more urgent striving, then the heavens will indeed fall, and humanity will suffer greatly along with the rest of life on Earth. I share the concern that such a perspective might promote approaches to our problems that are high risk, such as some forms of geoengineering, and others that are abusive, such as eco-authoritarianism. Therefore, some of us might wish to see the whole story of human centrality, power and care to crumble away in this era of societal collapse. However, I believe the Atlas myth is helpful for suggesting that these aspects to human nature can’t disappear. Instead, they comprise an intractable paradox in human nature: the challenge is to better moderate and channel such aspects of who we are.    

These aspects of human nature that are pointed to by the Atlas myth are now fracturing, and due to the influence of the money-power, they are now pulling the heavens down upon humanity and the Earth. Unless we free ourselves from the money-power, this fracturing will continue, with terrible consequences. Instead, we can seek to repair the paradoxical aspect of human nature that is comprised of the mix of human centrality, capability and care. As I reflected on the image of the statue of the Farnese Atlas from 200BC, I sensed it crumbling under the weight of its stories. Should it just crumble to dust? Or might it be saved in a new form? My mind drifted to the Japanese practice of Kintsugi. That is where items that break, such as a ceramic bowl, are stuck back together because they were loved so much before, often due to ‘sentimental value.’ The items would not be able to be used again for their previous purpose, but become objects for admiration, remembrance, and reflection. That is why they use gold to stick the objects back together in a beautiful manner. Only by recognising that human centrality, capability and care are all fracturing, due to the distorting pressures of the money-power, can we bring those aspects of humanity back into balance with the natural world. The Kintsugi Atlas on the cover of this book is an imagined and mythical object. It reminds us of how we can appreciate notions human capabilities, compassion and courage, as important aspects of the human condition, but accept how they have been manipulated to now break both ourselves and the nature world. By ‘repairing’ these aspects of the human condition so that they are not compulsions that drive us, we can also repair our relationship to the rest of reality, including our societies, the natural world and the divine.

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There ends an excerpt from Breaking Together. I created the cover image with artist and author Darinka Montico. We adapted a rights-free image of the Farnese Atlas statue using ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI) to create a basic Kintsugi effect, before making some further edits. The full image is above, and the way we use it on the cover is shown here. The current enthusiasm and concern about AI is the latest example of how technology is always used with both good and bad intent, and with good and bad side effects. A key factor in that process is capitalism and the profit motive. That both drives innovation and distorts it. That means that when capitalist enterprises become unrestrained by counter-veiling forces, such as organised labour working together through national governments, or when they capture the institutions of the state, there is a huge problem for humanity. The extent of that problem is a recurring theme in the Breaking Together book – as well as what to do about it.

Some of the debates about AI have been revealing of what people consider consciousness to be or not to be. It has always seemed odd to me that many people have found it easy to add ‘aliveness’ to their cuddly toys, boats and cars, while subtracting actual aliveness from the living creatures around us. The latter process is a ‘desacralisation’ of nature that has enabled the torture, killing, poisoning and destruction of the living world around us. It has also numbed us to that pain. Although Western culture traces its roots back to Greek culture, it lost the panpsychism that was in Greek culture, which also exists in indigenous cultures today. That panpsychism describes the understanding (or experience) of consciousness existing within and across everything, rather than being a mere epiphenomenon of complex biological matter.[5] Some ancient Christian theologians, including St Augustine, held a place for panpsychism, and some contemporary theologians who focus on the relationship between faith and the new sciences are also open to it. However, it remains marginal in contemporary Christianity and Western societies. Despite ancient Eastern wisdom traditions also containing panpsychism, that perspective has also been stripped from contemporary cultures across much of Asia. That is partly the result of the attitudes and behaviours that are what I term ‘Imperial Modernity’ in the book – an expansionist and controlling form of modernity that is forced upon us by the logic of contemporary monetary systems.

Some people believe there is ‘aliveness’ in a software programme because of their experience of interacting with it. They are reading the outputs of its calculations of how to string words together that have been previously expressed by humans when discussing matters of consciousness and personal feelings. I wonder whether this adding of ‘aliveness’ to a machine and software programme is a reflection on the yearning for aliveness that results from centuries of denying the fully alive, conscious, and wonderous world around us. I was given a rude reminder of how dumb AI is, when I tested if it could reformat the endnotes of academic references in my book, and fill in small bits of missing information like the name of a publisher of a book. Initially, the results looked perfect! I thought I would be saving lots of time and money. But then I noticed that it had made up a publisher’s name. Then I noticed that a chapter I had referenced had been listed as appearing in a book that I knew it had not appeared in. I asked the AI about this. It apologised, and then produced new and perfectly formatted incorrect, fictional, references. I asked it to stop inserting any information that was absent in my references, such as a missing issue number for a journal. But it kept doing it. Was that due to my inadequate prompting? Perhaps. But what this experience showed me is how the AI was simply stringing together words that often appear together – nothing more. 

Rather than fall for the ‘AI is alive’ myth, we should be more interested in who will be legally culpable for the destruction wrought in society if such software programmes disrupt various aspects of our digital lives, or even our physical ones. Those programmers and companies that provide Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) programmes with scope to randomly select their aims should already be regarded as dangerous extremists – and likely criminals. Even if they make public proclamations about being responsible or calling a halt to the roll out of AGI, reckless greedy actions speak louder than subsequent words of caution. If they become aware of that legal threat, then they will likely increase the funding to thinktanks, universities and popular youtubers to promote the idea of AGI sentience, where software can then be regarded as responsible for “their own choices.” They might hire public relations agencies to use the dark arts of orchestrating news events like “suspended” or “whistleblower” engineers claiming AGI sentience, and fake grassroots campaigns for the (non-)human ‘rights’ and alleviation of ‘suffering’ of AGIs. They can also rely on bigtech platforms hiding (‘visibility filtering’) any content like this blog that claims otherwise. Those rather peculiar ‘longtermist’ philosophers who imagine the goal of infinite artificial sentience as their moral compass might be thrilled at such a trend. But the result will be a public dialogue further corrupted by the stupid agendas of factions of capital, which I describe in Chapter 7 of my book as both an aspect and accelerator of societal collapse. The implication is that we need to help each other cultivate our ‘critical wisdom’, which I explore in Chapter 8.

As Breaking Together focuses on the breakdowns in world systems that already began prior to 2016 and are continuing at pace, I do not give much attention to the benefits and threats from AGIs in my book. But I am happy I was able to use AI tech with Darinka for the book cover. It was far cheaper than smashing a statue and sticking it back together again with gold. But I might do that if I get commissioned… there’s probably more money for that than spending two years researching and writing about our civilisation’s demise!

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In my previously more hopeful deluded days, I wrote about the need for an approach I described as ‘integral technology.’ But it is something which appears impossible within a capitalist system of incentives for innovation: Initiative for Leadership and Sustainability: Integral Technology in Blockchain, Cryptocurrency and Beyond – a concept note for discussion (

[1] You can see this image contained in the original “Atlas, sive cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mundi” from the 16th Century in the Library of Congress online archive here:

[2] Younkins, Edward W., ed. (2007). Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing.

[3] Nussbaum, M. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[4] Segal, C. (1989). The Myth of Atlas: Symbolic Reflections in Greek Mythology. Princeton University Press.

[5] Panpsychism | philosophy | Britannica