April 24, 2009

The first ring

Plato got there first. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero has been musing this week about Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and its practical applications for people interested in social justice (short version: there are some). It occurred to me, though, that part of the inspiration for Tolkien's epic came from an ancient work of Greek philosophy.

I'm referring to Plato's Republic, a long dialogue about the nature of justice that moves from the individual to the state. It's full of memorable images and stories or myths and one of these is the myth of Gyges.

In the discussion, Glaucon, Plato's brother, imagines a situation in which it would be hard for anyone to be just--a situation in which he or she has absolute power thanks to finding a magical ring. He tells the story of Gyges, a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia in what is now Turkey:

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended.

Gyges found that the ring gave him the power of invisibility whenever he turned it on his finger. (There are times when I wouldn't mind having one of those.) Anyhow, Gyges arranges to visit the palace and with the help of the ring he seduces the queen, kills the king and becomes the ruler and ancestor of the fabulously wealthy King Croesus (search this blog for his story).

In Glaucon's view, such a ring of power would corrupt anyone:

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point.

Sound familiar? He further argues that anyone who thinks otherwise is hopelessly naive:

If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another's, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another's faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice. Enough of this.

In the Republic, Socrates argues, unconvincingly in my book, that a truly virtuous person would not be tempted. I'm with Glaucon--and Tolkien--on this one.

But there are definitely times when a little gizmo like that could come in handy.

CLUTTER AND MORE. Here's the latest edition of my friend the Rev. Jim Lewis' Notes from Under the Fig Tree. For some reason, this one reminds me of William Blake's poem London.

HEALTH CARE REFORM, if it's going to get things done, needs a public insurance component, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Goat Rope concurs.

IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT. Here's more on the ruling class hissy fit over the Employee Free Choice Act.

FOOD FIGHT. Here's Michael Pollan again on the movement for local and sustainable food.

A TORTURED CONVERSATION is well summarized here.


1 comment:

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

I came across and collected the following poem by Max Reif a while back. Now seems to be a good time and place to share it.

Should we feel surprise
when the public-spirited
words of our leaders belie
their smudged fingerprints,
seemingly left

in some shadowy game
as though there are two governments,
one affirming ideals,
the other cutting deals?

It all seem to show one thing —
someone's put on the ring of power
and it has a life of its own.

Remember the Nixon tapes?
Did you feel a kind of thrill
to learn the President
had feet of clay —
peppering his talk
with 'Jew this' and 'Jew that'
and a whole soup of obscenities?

Now Karl Rove
seems to be running
a cabal to try to turn
our government's machine
to partisan ends.

The same pattern
appeared, at least,
through the filters
of many Republican eyes,
with only the names different,
during the Clinton years.

Something in us longs
to see our so-called leaders
as fallible as those of us
whose innocent personae
hide every kind of secret.

But behind the stage
of the public drama
eternal values wait like gods,
not so much
desiring to ensnare us,
but simply Present
in the grid of existence.

Aristotle told us long ago
the message of the downfall
of a Hamlet, or a Nixon, or,
should it be, a Bush — look to yourself!