There be dragons!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Plato's "Myth of Gyges' Ring"

I've already written about Gyges' Ring in Plato's "Republic" (redacted since someone hijacked my blog). But once again I'm intrigued by the imagery of the work so here is another series of ideas.

Glaucon is to Socrates as Eurydice is to Orpheus. Both men go down, katabein, into the underworld represented by Peiraeus in order to see the festival of light, Bendis or Demeter, but only Socrates is ready to return to the high lighted Olympus of the Acropolis. Glaucon has a much graver problem with the issue of "Justice" (dikaion) - which has been initiated by Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus. And though Socrates has handily defeated the Minotaur attack of Thrasymachus he finds that his companion, Glaucon, has been too severely affected by the sorrow and hopelessness of that sophist's worldview. Indeed, Glaucon sees little point in living the good life of Justice and proposes instead that "seeming" to be just is better than truly "being" just; shadow puppets (thaumatapoioi) are better than real figures.

He illustrates this world view and challenge to Socrates in the famous "Gyges Ring" myth as put forth in Book 2 of "The Republic":

The license of which I speak would best be realized if they should come into possession of the sort of power that it is said the ancestor of Gyges, the Lydian, once got. They say he was a shepherd toiling in the service of the man who was then ruling Lydia. There came to pass a great thunderstorm and an earthquake; the earth cracked and a chasm opened at the place where he was pasturing. He saw it, wondered at it, and went down. He saw, along with other quite wonderful things about which they tell tales, a hollow bronze horse. It had windows; peeping in, he saw there was a corpse inside that looked larger than human size. It had nothing on except a gold ring on its hand; he slipped it off and went out. When there was the usual gathering of the shepherds to make the monthly report to the king about the flocks, he too came, wearing the ring. Now, while he was sitting with the others, he chanced to turn the collet of the ring to himself, toward the inside of his hand; when he did this, he became invisible to those sitting by him, and they discussed him as though he were away. He wondered at this, and, fingering the ring again, he twisted the collet toward the outside; when he had twisted it, he became visible. Thinking this over, he tested whether the ring had this power, and that was exactly his result: when he turned the collet inward, he became invisible, when outward, visible. Aware of this, he immediately contrived to be one of the messengers of the king. When he arrived, he committed adultery with the king’s wife and, along with her, set upon the king and killed him. And so he took over the rule. Now if there were two such rings, and the just man would put one on, and the unjust man the other, no one, as it would seem, would be so adamant as to stick by justice and bring himself to keep away from what belongs to others and not lay hold of it, although he had license to take what he wanted from the market without fear, and to go into houses and have intercourse with whomever he wanted, and to slay or release from bonds whomever he wanted, and to do other things as equal to a god among humans. And in so doing, one would act no differently from the other, but both would go the same way.
(Allan Bloom translation)

Glaucon is proposing that justice is foolish for the just man will "be whipped; he'll be racked; he'll be bound; he'll have both his eyes burned out; and, at the end, when he has undergone every wsort of evil, he'll be crucified and know that one shouldn't wish to be, but to seem to be, just" (362a). Essentially the spiritual disease which infects Glaucon is a hopelessness about anything glorious in man; anything beautiful beyond the physical world. The myth and the proposal reveal that Glaucon is near to despair about the reality of the metaphysical world; justice, hope, goodness, the soul, heaven, god - these are all lies, hogwash, pleasant bedtime stories we tell ourselves in order to not face the reality that we are nothing more than highly evolved monkeys. We are dirt and to dirt we will return. Consequently, why not go the route of Thrasymachus, overpower the weak, fleece the sheep, become the dragon. Life is "solitaire, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" and all men at heart are corrupt; given the opportunity we all would be cannibals. With such a vision there can be no hope for beauty, love, truth, or happiness. All is darkness and despair and we are forever trapped in a mental labyrinth of our own devising.

Since quick, pat answers would not prove successful in healing so deep a wound, Socrates spends the rest of "Republic" slowly drawing out the disease from Glaucon (and the others, including the reader) not just replacing it with the counter vision embodied in the final myth at the end of the work but transforming Glaucon slowly from Gyges to Er. The whole of the dialogue is then a form of healing.

This healing is already embedded in some of the imagery of the initial myth of Gyges.

First, The name of Gyges is derived from a reduplication of the Greek word, Ge (Γῆ), meaning earth and from which are derived our current words of Gaia, geography, geology & geode. Thus Gyges is "dirt man" - a pun on words similar to the Biblical pun on the Hebrew Adamah, or earth, becoming Adam. But unlike Adam, there is no fire in Gyges. An earlier myth of Plato suggests that man is a composition of Fire and Earth - Spirit and Flesh. Yet as Adam has the ruah, the breath or fire, of YHWH blown into his lungs, Gyges does not seem to have this at all. He is earth alone, material existence alone, flesh only without the divine spark (the Er, or ether).

Additionally the name of Gyges is derived from the same root as Ogygia in the Odyssey, island of Calypso, whereupon Odysseus is held prisoner in a darkness of anonymity. Imprisoned on earth-earth island Odysseus is in the womb/tomb of oblivion. Similarly Gyges, as dirt-dirt man, is imprisoned in the womb/tomb of materialist oblivion.

Gyges' job is shepherd in service of another. He longs for something greater, to no longer be a thrall to another man. Yet his job is to tend sheep; harmless, innocent, white, fluffy, stupid sheep. The very creatures whom Thrasymachus earlier referred to when he pointed out that people need to be "fleeced" by the strong man. Most people are sheep - they mean well, they are rather innocent and rather stupid. Consequently the polytropic thinker, the man who thinks outside the box or "sees behind the curtain" has far more power than they do. This polytropic man has, then, the choice either to lead and protect the innocent or to fleece and cannibalize them. The image of sheep also resonates with Odyssean imagery again since Odysseus escapes the cave of the Cyclops clinging to the underbelly of the sheep. The whiteness also reminds us of the cattle of the sun, the eating of which is like an act of cannibalism and precipitates the demise of all Odysseus' men. Gyges either can do his priestly job and guide/protect the flock, or abandon them for the sake of a greater wonder (thaumatos) - a wonder which might give him power better to fleece even his own fellows.

The theophanic imagery of the thunder and earthquake represent Zeus (the god of lightning shaking his aegis) and Poseidon (the earth shaker); who also represent the intersection of the two realms of heaven and earth respectively. This hearkens back to the intersection of the two circles in the golden ration in the midst of which is the vesica piscis, or vessel of the fish; the representation of the birth canal; the entrance into the other world and the passage back out into this world. It is the chasm in the earth which Gyges sees after the thaumatoi of the thunder and earthquake.

More to the point the earth is groaning in travail and opens up as though to give birth. Bernard Suzanne points out, then, that Gyges' entrance into this chasm is backwards birth. He does it wrongly. Instead of receiving the innocent newborn he goes into that place of darkness from whence all life emerges seeking to rest from the earth some wonder. Most people hearing thunder on a clear day and feeling the earth shake might have a reaction of awe and fear ("Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom"). They might, like Ezekiel, set down their experience in a visionary piece of literature or go out into the world to convert others to the vision.

But Gyges, the text tells us, has an odd reaction to this marvel; he sees it, wonders at it, and goes down. All philosophy begins in wonder so in that sense Gyges is acting philosophically. His entrance into the chasm is like Socrates' initial katabein into Peiraeus. Gyges is entering into that chasm from whence the world initially emerged and there he sees wonders (thaumata). Included among those wonders is a bronze (not silver, nor gold) horse (the symbol of power and masculinity) with windows in it (like the windows of the human body but also resonant with the Odyssean horse that brought the ruin of Troy). Within that horse is a giant (swollen, bloated, or godlike) naked (defenseless and stripped of worldly "clothing" as in the myth of The Judgment of Souls) corpse (the image of death). And there it is that Gyges finds the ring.

What is the ring?

Contrary to our initial reaction (and Tolkien's parallel imagery) the ring in Plato is not an object for good or for evil even though Gyges uses it for evil.

Most telling is that Gyges first discovers the properties of the ring while sitting at the monthly meeting of accounts before the king of Lydia; "to make the monthly report to the king about the flocks." He is a thrall to another man, under the rule of laws and society and a thousand other chains that weigh him down. The ring allows him to be free of all of that - a "blank canvas", as one student put it, on which he now has the freedom to create good or evil. The ring seems to be the power to throw off societal chains (modes, mannerisms, beliefs, expectations) and thus be seemingly free. It is polytropic thought, seeing "outside the box", seeing "behind the curtain."

Yet mythologically speaking, the monthly report to the king is like the judgment day itself. Here he must make an account, an Apology to the king of the world and to his fellow men, of how he has kept the innocents. His escaping into invisibility here is, then, an escape of his own judgment for in leaving the flocks behind to enter into the chasm of the earth he has risked their demise and devourment by the wolves that plague them daily. The ring allows him to escape such judgment, to fool both gods and men, to seem just rather than be just. Turning the focus of the ring outward toward God and community he must reckon with his mistakes and make an honest accounting of his own failings. Turning the collet inward, toward himself, he (seems) to be able to escape the responsibility of being alive.

The power of the ring seems to put us, then, like a stage hand in the creation of life's myth; once we throw off the power of law & custom wouldn't we have the ability to construct myth, influence the decisions of others, craft movies, music, stories, lies, identities? Wouldn't we be like Leonardo di Caprio in "Catch me if you Can"? Running from the straight laced law, perhaps, but enjoying every minute of our escape. In such a state we could be a tremendous force for goodness. The Ainur, for instance, were not of Middle Earth and could travel great distances very swiftly. But in such a state we would, perhaps, also be far more tempted to really destructive evil (vs. the small petty evils that the normal, law-bound man indulges in). After all, Saruman, as well as Gandalf, was an Ainur. After all Heinrich Himmler was an ubermensch.

Ultimately, it seems the ring represents, not a power that corrupts (as Tolkien's ring seems to inevitably do, thus suggesting a slightly different philosophy than Plato), but a neutral power that allows the wearer to slip the bonds of human societal norms and thus allows him to do tremendous good or tremendous evil.

But the horror of the myth is that our "invisibility" is mere illusion itself. Trying to escape from responsibility and pain makes us, as Tolkien noted, like shadows. Glaucon views justice not as harmony, or as joy, or as beauty but as something onerous to escape. It is a compromise between suffering the worst evil and doing the greatest evil. To adopt such an attitude, Plato's myth suggests, boxes one into a diseased vision of the world as monotonous, unending, and bound to the prison house of a materialistic earth.

Glaucon/Eurydice, who has accosted Socrates/Orpheus in his return to the light, suggests that most people live in that limbo realm of the long grey day - justice is a compromise, and the best that we can hope for, in this life and the next, although not too thrilling or inspiring is at least not too painful.

The Acropolis/Olympus of doing injustice w/o penalty, is like the Playboy mansion, the bling of the gangsta, the pimp with the money and the babes and the convertible. Most of us will not achieve that, but if we were able to with impunity we would jump at that chance. Who, after all, wants to be a millionaire?

The Peiraeus/Hades of suffering injustice is a horrible prospect; malaka; utter degradation and despair coupled with eternal pain. No one wants that and the fear of its prospect keeps most people, as Nietzsche pointed out, from "aspiring to greatness". We are like Macbeth,

To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would,'
Like the poor cat i' the adage?

Thus, according to Glaucon, the very best we can hope to look forward to is this long grey day of the afterlife, hating job, hating family, hating life, looking forward to weekend football and maybe a vacation to somewhere warm. Sad. Lethal. And deadening of all inspiration, aspiration, and happiness in life. Such an attitude makes dead men. How to revive them? How to raise the dead and lead them up from the underworld? Socrates not only has to raise one dead soul (like Orpheus) but ten! A multiplication connoting extreme difficulty.

The proposal of the philosopher king seems to offer the correction for Glaucon's "Gyges" (Geges, or dirt guy) image. If one is to see the good philosophers must become kings and kings philosophers. Philosophers, those who tell the truth and give back what is owed and thus are put upon, living in Peiraeus, hated but producing good, suffering injustice w/o revenge - these sorts of men must become kings and kings, those who impose their rule and advantage through strength, living on the Acropolis, enjoying the good for its own sake, doing what they will without penalty, must become philosophers. The high and the low must be united. Only the philosopher king can be truly ton dikaion, righteous, enjoying the good for itself and producing good themselves, doing good to friends (all humanity) and harm to enemies (untruth and evil). Socrates proposes a "marriage of heaven and hell" as Blake put it. Thus uniting the two spheres in the vesica piscis into one, unbroken, golden ring of continuous strength - one Socrates (whose name means "unbroken power").

A great article online by "Mr. Renaissance" can be found here: What is Justice?

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