Guilt and Shame in the Colossus of Rhodes

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was the Colossus of Rhodes, an iron-framed and brass-covered statue of the titan and sun god Helios, which stood in the harbour of Rhodes, Greece. Built in 280 BCE, it was the tallest statue of its time at 70 cubits high (about 33 metres or 108 feet). Contrary to popular depiction, it likely did not straddle the mouth of the harbour. Nonetheless, it would have been an impressive sight to any sailors approaching the city. Greek myth animated another bronze colossus in Crete named Talos: either Hephaestus or Daedalus made the automaton on Zeus’s behalf in order to defend Europa, queen mother of Crete. He had one vein in his metal body, which ran from his neck to his ankle; it was fastened shut with a single nail. When the Argo approached, with Jason at the helm, Talos tried to repel it and Medea used her sorcery to dislodge the nail. His ichor ran out of him like molten lead and he died. The Cretan word talôs is equivalent to the Greek hêlios, meaning the Sun, which is the subject of the Colossus of Rhodes. Much later the Romans made further bronze colossi: the Colossus of Barletta, the Colossus of Constantine, and the Colossus of Nero.



I feel like I live inside a colossus of this type: a brazen image of myself, physically idealized, well-proportioned and gargantuan. It is hollow, and I stand inside it with the clear understanding that I am supposed to grow into it. I am supposed, somehow, to fill this statue so that it is merely my own skin. But I have no sense that this thing is possible, nor how to achieve it if it is. Instead I try to operate the colossus and speak from it like a puppeteer. Relying on the full extent of my scant ingenuity I try to create the illusion that I have done what I am supposed to do, or at least that I am in the process of growing into it. But I know better. I have made no gains in that direction. From within, the colossus rings as empty as it ever has.

The colossus, in this metaphor, is a certain set of expectations I have of myself: emotional equilibrium, professionalism, intelligence, precision, multicompetence. That is, the colossus is the perfect expression of the various roles I inhabit by choice or not, an instrumentalization and mechanization of self that seems the inevitable result of collective enterprise. Or, more accurately and precisely, the colossus is the perfect expression of what I take to be the requirements of the roles I inhabit. I am not sure who made it. I must have assembled it, but I don’t think its pieces are entirely of my own construction; the glowing expectations of many elementary and high school teachers, of childhood friends, of those friends’ parents, all appear as part of this magnificent effigy. But I don’t know who else would have put it all together if not me.

My obligation toward this colossus is, or feels like, an intrinsic one. It’s not that I will be punished for failing to live into it; perhaps I will be, perhaps I won’t be, but punishment is irrelevant. If I do a convincing enough job in my puppetry, no one will punish me because no one will know that I have failed; I will still have failed. Exposure is embarrassing, of course, but that’s not (or not only) because I fear my witnesses’ judgement. No, exposure is embarrassing because the condition itself is embarrassing. I am supposed to live into the colossus. There is and can be no further explanation given; this is a categorical imperative. Because of who I am, I am supposed to become Talos.

I must emphasis the difference between guilt and shame here. I am not usually consumed by guilt, and even when I feel guilty it does not torment me so much as does the shame which follows. What agonizes me is the sense that I am not as competent or skilled as I ought to be; this is as true of moral competence or skill as of any other kind. On those occasions when I feel as though my sins are not a consequence of my inadequacies but rather a consequence of selfishness or something else, my guilt does not produce a corresponding sense of shame. Of course I still feel that guilt as a kind of pain, but it is one I find relatively easy to deal with. Real wrong-doing does not threaten my sense of self the same way that an honest but serious mistake would do. If I can keep guilt from becoming shame, and I used to be able to do this, I can stay relatively sane.

In the language of W. Paul Jones’s Theological Worlds, mine is a World 3 way of seeing things, sitting very close to the obsessio and correspondingly far from the epiphania.[1] Perhaps it also takes a lot from his World 5 as well; it seems to me that adding World 5, with its signature hopelessness, makes it incredibly difficult to approach the epiphania of any of the other Worlds, which often rely on some kind of hope. It looks in some respects awfully like World 4, which also focuses on personal failures, but I strongly suspect this similarity is mostly an illusion. I think it is important to distinguish between World 3 and World 4 in these cases because the prognosis and the prescription will differ. For example, seeing morality in terms more of skillfulness than of will–whether from a Buddhist or from a Western virtue ethical outlook–might help alleviate some of the worst World 4 neuroses, but I worry that it is having as many harmful effects as helpful effects on my World 3 neuroses. After all, much of my wrong-doing then becomes a kind of incompetence rather than a deliberate akrasia, and it is incompetence that condemns me more than anything else; of course, the promise that a person can develop such skills does help somewhat (as is typical of inhabitants of World 3, I find the idea of personal growth appealing), but I think it does no more than balance out the damage. Overall such a perspective does not help me, but I can imagine it would be quite helpful for someone plagued by guilt more than or as much as by shame.

In the popular language of mental health and self-care, mine is also a highly dysfunctional way of seeing things. It is unsustainable; it is inevitable that I swing from, on the one hand, low-grade misery accompanied by self-distraction to, on the other hand, crisis and utter dejection. Despite its hollow volume, there is no space in the colossus for any genuine humanity: need, myopia, clumsiness, folly, confusion, hurt, laziness, failure. I know all this. It does not matter that I know all this. I don’t care if the enterprise is stupid and harmful and anti-human; I care about filling the colossus.


An origami mask of Talos by Joel Cooper. Source: Joel Cooper at

Very lately I have begun to wonder if my experiences of living in a colossus are influencing my attitudes toward various philosophical positions and ideas. In one example, Nietzsche’s ubermensch, that strong willful man, is both attractive and ludicrous to me; is it ludicrous because I am congenitally a moralist and (in Neitzsche’s charming metaphor) a cameloid, or is this because I unconsciously perceive the ubermensch ideal as an impossible burden rather than as a possible liberation? But I spend relatively little time railing against Nietzsche; I spend rather more attacking teleology, the idea that each object has some ideal state which it is supposed to match. Now, in “From Allegories to Novels” Jorge Luis Borges has quoted Coleridge as saying that “all men are born Aristotelians or Platonists”; Borges also suggests that “the two hypotheses correspond, in all likelihood, to two ways of intuiting the universe.” Perhaps the reason I find teleology obviously and necessarily absurd is that I was born an Aristotelian in a world where a nuanced nominalism[2] is possible. But the other possibility, which just occured to me in the last few months, is that I am hostile to teleology because I already am a teleologist and I find it intolerable. As I experience it my telos is Talos, and I find the colossus a terrible jail.

It might make sense that I turn on an unconscious level to nominalism because the consequences of realism would lend credence to a delusion which already oppresses me. In some dim way I recognize the horrible consequences of teleology by analogy with my own illness and therefore I find all its weaknesses with precision and suspicious enthusiasm. That might mean that I’m wrong to dismiss teleology; perhaps the error is not with teleology but with my attitude towards my particular telos. In that case, my neurosis comes not from my inherent teleology but from an error in how I understand my relationship with my telos or in what I identify as my telos in the first place.

Of course, it is still also possible that I turn to nominalism because it is obviously and necessarily true and teleology is obviously and necessarily wrong. Living inside the colossus would in that case just mean that I can more easily see where the ichor drains out.

Part of this reflection, however, might threaten my nascent moral error theism. I say that I care, intrinsically, about growing into the colossus, about becoming Talos. That ambition is clearly detrimental to me, but can I say that I shouldn’t care about this thing? Obviously I cannot say that honestly if I am a moral error theorist of any stripe. More accurately, I cannot say that while understanding both “should” and “care” the way I currently understand them–which, I realize, I haven’t made explicit here or anywhere. But on some level I feel like (rather than “think that”) I ought to be able to say that I shouldn’t care about that colossus, that I should just ignore it. Is it possible to explain that some moral impulses are better than others under moral error theory? I want to explore this further at a later date.


1. A reminder: Jones argues that all people inhabit some combination of five basic theological worlds; a theological world is defined by a tension between an obsessio (the problem or absence which keeps you up at night and underlies all other fears and hatreds) and an epiphania (an experience of some external force or situation which will absorb and make tolerable the obsessio). People tend to live closer to one pole than the other. For World 1, the obsessio of meaninglessness and contingency is (or, in the case of someone trapped by the obsessio, is not) met with the epiphania is a glimpse of a hidden order; for World 2, violent structural conflict is (or is not) met with future this-world vindication of the persecuted innocent; for World 3, personal impotency is (or is not) met with the possibility of growth; for World 4, guilt/sin is (or is not) met with forgiveness; for World 5, the inescapable suffering of life is (or is not) met with personal or communal integrity.

2. Strictly speaking, the position I hold is a realist-nominalist compromise. I would say that the objects of fundamental physics (quarks? strings?) are realist, and it pains me to admit that so might be other entities (numbers? logical operations?) down at the resolution size of the universe. I would also say, however, that all or nearly all objects at human levels of perception are nominalist. The building-blocks of the universe exist merely as instances of their categories, but they must do so in contingent relationships to one another; everything else that exists is made up of those things in various combinations, and as contingency and complexity work together at increasing scales, various categories and patterns emerge which are necessarily imperfect and are not at all explicable in realist terms. Everything I can perceive is of this latter type. Or is it? Various things I’ve been reading have revived my reservations with this position.


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