by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveler 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 shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked 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.
The poem has struck me every time I read it. I am filled with senses of longing, wonder, and terror. Longing, because I want to see the legs of Ozymandias, to know of his Empire, to know how he got to the point of writing the infamous words “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Wonder, because he surely must have known his works would pass, as do all things. But maybe he didn’t think they would, maybe he thought he could preserve himself through all time by making a statue… but all that remains is a placard and part of his legs. His works may have been great enough to despair the Mighty, but they’ve passed, and they are nothing but a memory. Terror, because I realize that without God, this is the plight of mankind. We build ourselves up, but we shall pass. In the fullness of time, the world will fade away, the sun will burn out, and our works–which we may think mighty or great–shall pass away.
The poem of Ozymandias describes atheism. Without God, we are each our own Ozymandias–building futile works for a futile purpose. Our writings, our words, our lives all pass away. The best we can hope for is a saying written in rock which may be discovered somewhere by someone, but even then our futility will only be felt with the sting having passed. No matter how great we become, we die, and we pass into nothing. Each one of us is futile, living a meaningless life in a universe without purpose, without a plan. Travelers may come by Earth one day and see the abandoned wreckage of our cities, and make their own poem about the futility of the human race, who thought it had achieved something, but aspired for greatness in a universe without meaning.
So what are we to do? I’m not suggesting that just because the universe is meaningless, we should become adherents to a religion. I’m suggesting two things: first, atheists should think long and hard about their lives. If atheists are living as though there is meaning, they have imported something from a rival worldview. On atheism, the best we can hope for is a poem dedicated to our memory, which will have long since passed away. And that poem will itself have no meaning, for it to shall pass. And it’s not the passage which makes the universe meaningless–it’s the utter meaninglessness of time now, then, and forever. For what does it matter if I am a Mother Theresa or a Hitler? What does it matter if I am a sinner or a saint? If the world remembers me as a tyrant or a benevolent ruler? Here and now, the only meaning we can construct is our own–and that is a facade, an illusion. For our meaning is contradicted by others, and our meaning is self-created. How can one make meaning? Only by believing it is meaning. So it is a fideism, an atheistic faith in meaning.
Second, I’m suggesting people should be open to examining other worldviews. Suppose atheists are wrong, and there is meaning. To continue living life as an Ozymandias is then the greatest tragedy which could befall one’s life. If one is worth something, then to live as though one is worthless is the worst thing that could happen. So I’m suggesting atheists should examine views which don’t imply a universe void of meaning. Why? Not out of fear–but out of hope. It seems as though the entirety of the human experience is based upon the idea that there is meaning. To deny this is to deny part of what it means to be human. Therefore, it seems intuitively possible that there actually is meaning in the universe. Our experience leads us to believe there is. But that meaning cannot be found on atheism, so atheism has intuitive implausibility. Perhaps we should abandon the (un)belief.
Related post: Atheism’s Universe is Meaningless and Valueless.
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