Atlas Didn’t Shrug and Neither Should We

Near the end of The Prodigy, Amy Wallace’s engrossing biography of William James Sidis, “America’s Greatest Child Prodigy,” she gives some indirect advice to the parents of “gifted” children:

The other factor that damaged William, perhaps the most important one of all, was his parents’ inability to shield him from the merciless envy of the public and its vicious desire to resent and cripple greatness and reduce it to normalcy and mediocrity. While it is not easy to explain to a child, however brilliant he may be, that he will be hated for the very reason that he is brilliant—the job must be done, and it must be done well. The child must be taught, in no uncertain terms, that his own standards, carefully reasoned out, are the only standards he must live by, and that he must courageously disregard all public standards.1

I once would have applauded Wallace’s counsel. In my youth, a penchant for intellectualism, an actively fermenting misanthropy, and a radical interpretation of Luther’s inviolability of the conscience mixed rather toxically with an early and much-welcomed introduction to Ayn Rand to augment my already rather obstinate tenacity concerning my own opinions.

A Selfish Response to Selfishness

Rand recommended a similar approach for the gifted—“Don’t bow under the demands of the mediocre; shrug them off.” She stuffed the most exhaustive fictional elaboration of her philosophy rather awkwardly into the mouth of John Galt, a man whose commitment to silent withdrawal is matched only by his staunch refusal to stop talking once he has started:

All the men who have vanished, the men you hated, yet dreaded to lose, it is I who have taken them away from you. Do not attempt to find us. We do not choose to be found. Do not cry that it is our duty to serve you. We do not recognize such duty. Do not cry that you need us. We do not consider need a claim. Do not cry that you own us. You don’t. Do not beg us to return. We are on strike, we, the men of the mind.

Those who consider themselves the great ones in this world, as I once did, will likely rejoice, as I once did, in Galt’s overweening vituperations and his cold revenge on the mediocre world which refused to acknowledge its obvious need of his greatness. John Galt convinced the prodigies who lived in Rand’s fictional world—the “men of the mind”—to abandon all the envious and mediocre parasites who burdened them with presumptuous expectations and hypocritical codes. Galt convinced them to “disregard all public standards” for their own individual standards, “carefully reasoned out.”

In other words, Galt convinced the “elite” that their gifts, inventions, labors, and prowesses were theirs alone to use and enjoy as they alone saw fit. The world had lost all of its own marbles, but was too proud to admit it. So the few “great ones” should pick up their marbles (the only ones in the game, apparently) and go home. That’ll show the world. Stick it to those ingrates.

Who Can Blame John Galt?

We should note that even though Rand’s recommended response to the tyranny of mediocrity amounts to little more than petty selfishness, it nonetheless remains a response. The precipitant envy and selfishness of “the masses” cannot be set aside as the fantasy of egomaniacs. I don’t agree with Rand’s recommended response to envious mediocrity. I also differ with her on what makes a person superior and in what contexts. But I cannot deny that she quite accurately reported the world’s primary attitudes toward greatness—fear and loathing.

My heart sickened when I read the vicious attacks journalists and peers leveled against Sidis in his promising childhood years, and for no very good reason. Every prodigy in history has similar stories of spontaneous antagonies and unaccountable hatreds.

We envy greatness. I say we envy it, not covet it, because most of us don’t have the apparatus necessary to channel greatness in those areas where we most notice it, and we know it. So most of us don’t want greatness for ourselves. We would rather it not be available to anyone. We would rather see greatness destroyed, ideally after it has been thoroughly humbled. In our honest moments, we want a comfortable world without greatness. We don’t want anyone or anything in the world whose excellencies make us feel inadequate or inferior.

Who Can Blame Us?

This selfishness of the majority makes sense as well. We believe the “great ones” in our midst have been given “gifts.” In other words, we believe that they are not great of, from, or for themselves. Rather, they have been given much. So it follows that “to whom much is given, much is required.” And, naturally, we all think we have the right to designate those requirements.

For better or worse, most gifted people do not respond well to the pressures of societal expectation and the dictations of those they believe—in some ways accurately—to be inferior. Look at geniuses later in life and most of the successful ones are callous and cold and the failures are mostly emotionally shattered. Both results have the same cause. The unbelieving options are either to harden your heart to the pressure and scorn the world will heap on you or allow that pressure to break you. A third option doesn’t seem possible (though we’ll see it is).

William James Sidis fell into the latter category of abused geniuses—shattered by the world’s misunderstanding. A picture of the defeated and retreating genius, he spent much of his later life cataloguing and collecting streetcar transfer tickets. His last published book, Notes on the Collection of Transfers, is a rather exhaustive, almost maniacal, manual and catalogue on the obscure hobby. In the process of growing his collection, he memorized transit routes for public transportation systems all over the country:

William successfully memorized hundreds, if not thousands, of transit routes throughout the United States. . . . When a friend of Helena’s [William’s sister] wanted to go to Cleveland from Boston, she gave William the name of the street that was her destination. “He told her exactly what buses to take, and connecting buses and where to get them. She was just amazed. How he knew places all over the country, without having been to them, is really almost fantastic.”2

One can’t help but think that Sidis wasted his gifts on transfer tickets and transit routes when he could have been working on something more “useful” for everyone else. He could have been solving complex mathematical or philosophical conundrums or working out a way to feed or power the world.

The world resented him when he tried. The world resented him when he refused to try. The world resented him for not being the Messiah they had constructed from the fantasy fulfillment of his exceptional childhood. But they would have hated him, perhaps all the more, if he had fulfilled his promise.

The Greatest Child Prodigy of All

To illustrate this, consider the religious response to Jesus. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day did not firstly desire to be Jesus. They merely wanted to be treated like Jesus naturally deserved to be treated. They didn’t want to speak with true authority, heal thousands of sick people, feed the poor, raise the dead, or save the world. They merely wanted the fruits of those labors without the weighty responsibility and extraordinary sweat and blood equity attached to them. They wanted to retain their former places of honor and wealth with the same superficial appeals to their authority that had worked for so many years before Jesus entered the scene.

So even if Jesus had never spoken out directly against the prevalent clerical abuses of his day, his presence would have constituted a challenge. His presence incidentally exposed mediocrity by its marvelous brilliance—even from his youth. And the Pharisees hated Jesus for this.

They weren’t the only ones. When Jesus was born, the long-promised king, he carried within himself the seed of Israel’s redemption. Since he hadn’t yet started to work out that promised redemption, baby Jesus—the child prodigy—fit rather snugly into the expectations of all those around him. They believed firmly that his greatness would be for their benefit and under their control. At first.

They constructed a fantasy of the future—a politically ascendant Israel revenged on her enemies—from the illusory expectations they had drawn from God’s misinterpreted promises. The coming Messiah played a central role in those fantasies, and when Jesus didn’t play his part according to their plans, they rejected him as the Messiah instead of abandoning their expectations.

Ricky Bobby’s Eternal Christmas

We do the same thing. Perhaps this is the reason we emphasize Jesus’ humiliations (his advent being primary in these) above his current glorification. We feel better as humans thinking about the God-Man as a helpless baby. We were his human superiors for a short time, don’t forget, so we’re most comfortable commemorating his infancy. We’re all a little bit like Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights:

Ricky Bobby: Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, in your golden, fleece diapers, with your curled-up, fat, balled-up little fists pawin’ at the air…

Chip: He was a man! He had a beard!

Ricky Bobby: I like the baby version the best, do you hear me?!

Most of us do. Even before Jesus completely demolished religious expectations by dying on the cross, he had already implied by his actions that his ministry was not under anyone’s control but God’s. His visit to the temple (his Father’s house) at twelve years of age probably began sealing his reputation as both a prodigy and a loose cannon.

I’m sure a few teachers felt their authority challenged by the insightful questions he asked that they weren’t prepared to answer. I imagine Jesus’ friends and others gave him a few growing-up speeches about how he needed to be more humble, merely because his greatness, when they felt it, made them feel quite small. Surely someone who makes you feel small is proud, right?

Most of the meekest and most humble mere humans of the Bible received similar speeches about pride from (sometimes well-meaning) religious authorities and peers (Num. 12:1f; 1 Sam. 17:28; Job 15:7f; Acts 23:1f). These friends and enemies always couched their rebukes in terms like, “You need to submit to God’s authority. Has God revealed himself to you alone?” Most of the time they really meant, “You need to submit to my authority. I know a few things too. You could learn a lot from me.”

When Your Inferiors are Your “Superiors”

This is where things start to get complicated. We think gifted children are trying to make us look stupid or ugly or petty. They’re not. Not at first at least. Most people want to fulfill their potential. Gifted people are no different in this regard. They ask questions. They get some answers. But they’re not satisfied with them. So they start to probe further until they have exhausted the limitations of their parents, then their teachers, then their governments.

What began as a line of inquiry begins to feel like a challenge to authority. So, our pride hurt, we pull out the honor and respect card. We tell our natural superiors they need to be humble when it is our own pride that has been pricked.

We don’t hate the great for following their conscience and God. We hate the great because they cannot treat us as equals or superiors in any practical sense without exposing our natural inferiorities. We’re offended when they don’t treat us like superiors. We’re offended when they do treat us like superiors and accidentally prove us otherwise.

If I were to give any advice to parents about dealing with the superiorities of their children, it would be this: You have worked hard so that your children would grow up to be wiser and more righteous than you. Don’t resent them for it when you succeed.

Rethinking Condescension

A few hundred years ago, it was a compliment to call someone “condescending.” Back then, people formally recognized the reality of superiors and inferiors. When a superior condescended to submit to an inferior, this was considered a simulation of divine grace. We obviously have a much different view in our purportedly egalitarian society. Words like “condescending” and “patronizing” have nearly reversed their original connotations.

Superiority is a natural and biblical reality. Not all of us receive the same gifts (Matt. 25:14f; Rom. 12:4f) because not all of us have the same functions in the body or abilities according to the needs of our community and time.

To be superior in one particular area, context, or time is not to be absolutely superior, however. Though I do not consider myself an egalitarian, I also do not believe human relationships ever naturally sublimate into monolithic or absolute hierarchies. No one but God is absolutely superior. I believe all human superiorities are fundamentally numerous and relative, and therefore all hierarchies should be checker-boarded. The superiorities of humans are inter-dependent, therefore none of us, not even John Galt, is self-sufficient.

In other words, my natural human superior in empathy (my wife) is not also my natural human superior in math. I follow her in empathy. She follows me in math. Until my son surpasses both of us in math, and we follow him (probably before he’s out of middle school).  I am superior to those around me for their service in one area or time. I am inferior to them otherwise. I should submit to their gifts where I am naturally weak. I should submit to their service where I am naturally strong.

Ideally, we would all recognize the God-given superiority of others at the appropriate times and in the appropriate contexts. And others would recognize our gifts and callings as well. Ideally, those with superior gifting in a local area would also exercise leadership in that area for their communities. But I emphasize ideally and naturally because the sometimes painfully obvious realities of natural superiority rarely harmonize with the sometimes arbitrary divisions of power. And that’s really why things get complicated.

Honor Where Honor is Due, or Else!

The sad reality is this: the naturally superior rarely possess formal authority in their areas of strength. And the opposite is true: oftentimes people who have no exceptional gift in an area are called to exercise authority in that area over people who do. This often means that less-gifted people are called to exercise authority (in an area) over their natural superiors.

Imagine being Mary or Joseph. Or Caiaphas. Or Pontius Pilate. How would you respond to Jesus, the greatest of prodigies and the greatest of men? Parents, teachers, preachers, police officers, politicians, and even “We the People” regularly have to exercise authority over individuals who are superior to them, sometimes in the very areas where they have been granted authority. It’s a difficult task, and I don’t know exactly how, as a parent at least, to govern my sometimes superior children. But I know what not to do, and it is exactly what most authorities end up doing:

Unable to gain acquiescence from natural superiors through affection or reason, less-gifted authorities often resort to force to maintain the right of their position. They use mockery, exclusion, or outright violence to put the gifted “in their place.” This nearly universal abuse of the gifted is a historical commonplace, as I’ve already mentioned. How are the gifted to respond to such abuse? How would you respond?

At the risk of being redundant, here’s what John Galt, who had no qualms about being redundant, required of his “inferior superiors”:

In the name of all the producers who had kept you alive and received your death ultimatums in payment, I now answer you with a single ultimatum of our own: Our work or your guns. You can choose either; you can’t have both. We do not initiate the use of force against others or submit to force at their hands.

Do you recognize the temptation of this approach? A “less-gifted” person tries to steal honor and authority with a fraudulent gift, like a mugger threatening you with a butter knife. Most of you wants to respond, “You call that a knife? This is a knife.” But contra Rand, Jesus offers a different way. Jesus offers a third option for prodigies to respond to an abusive and mediocre world.

The Antitypical Atlas Didn’t Shrug

Imagine again Jesus crucified. This man, equal with God and superior to all other people, chose to honor his parents even from the cross, submit himself to patently corrupt earthly authorities, and even in the midst of the cruelest mockery and torture, pour out his power for the benefit of his inferior tormentors. When given the chance, Jesus—on whose shoulders rested universal government—did not shrug. Instead, he stooped.

Now imagine yourself in his position. If you had been on the cross and your peers surrounded you, the very peers who had said at first that you were a goody two-shoes, a teacher’s pet, or too big for your britches. Later they said you were not as great as people were saying, that they knew where you came from—your little town and your poor parents—and that you’d never amount to anything. Still later, they said you had wasted all of your potential, that you were a pathetic failure, and that they had you pegged all along.

These people now surround your disfigured and scantily clothed body, and you can see the smug satisfaction on their faces as they compare themselves favorably to your wasted promise, your final end. “You thought you were better than us? Look at you now.” “You saved others, but you can’t even save yourself!” “You’re the son of God, are you? Sure, you are. Come down from there then!”

What would you have done?


The terrible reality surrounding the cross is that Jesus chose to die on it. Which means that he could have, hypothetically, in the face of such aggravation and vicious ignorance, proven his natural superiority in a different way—one which would have meant our eternal doom. He could have taken the Galt route. He could have saved himself and proven all of us wrong. Even the “greatest” among us he could have exposed as the impoverished, ignorant, ugly inferiors we all truly are compared to him. He could have taken his marbles, all of them, and gone home.

That’s what every one of us would have done. Unlike us, Jesus would have been justified in giving us what we deserved. We needed him, though we claimed otherwise. He didn’t need us, though we claimed otherwise. But he loved us anyway and gave himself for our benefit. He didn’t care to get revenge on us for the abuses and scorn we had heaped on his misunderstood greatness. He didn’t want to prove us wrong. He wanted to make us right. And he was willing to become sin to do it.

Jesus did not seek his own interests. He did not press his rights. He sought God’s glory and our benefit. Certainly, in order to fulfill this calling, he had to set aside some of the standards of his community. He appeared proud to them, I’m sure. But he did not seek out his own vindication. He knew God would vindicate him in the end. He did not abandon our community in our helplessness.

And if he, the only human in all of history whose complete blamelessness is irreproachable, suffered fools and died for inferiors, how much more can we learn to pour out our strengths for the use of others—even our enemies? How much more should we honor others in their strengths and serve them in their weaknesses? If the ruler of the universe can submit himself to frail human parents and corrupt governments in order to elevate them, how much more should we swallow our pride and serve each other?


This began as a Christmas post. It clearly went off the rails. I hope you enjoyed it anyway. Thanks for reading!


“Statue of Atlas at Doges Palace, Venice, Italy” by Aaron Logan

  1. Amy Wallace, The Prodigy: A Biography of William James Sidis, America’s Greatest Child Prodigy (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984), 284.
  2. Wallace, The Prodigy, 182–183.

4 responses

  1. “I am superior to those around me for their service in one area or time. I am inferior to them otherwise. I should submit to their gifts where I am naturally weak. I should submit to their service where I am naturally strong.”

    The phrasing here is really important, showing that the focus in both superiority and inferiority is submission. Thank you for this post; it’s a crucial reminder for others (such as myself) who struggle to manage their misanthropy.

    • Definitely. It’s an awkward prospect. I wish I could tell people to just do well whatever comes natural and let the pieces fall where they may, since having to consider where you are strong in any particular area generates great temptation to pride. But I think humility enables you to accept both where you are inferior and where you are superior, so that you can be inferior without bitterness and superior without pride. It’s tough though. I’m glad the piece was helpful!

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