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.
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GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED