Ring of Gyges by Mad Tungsten
Plato, one of the world’s greatest philosophers was born in Greece. One of his greatest and most influential works was ‘The Republic – Book 1’. In the sequel, ‘Book 2’, (2.359a–2.360d), Plato makes a reference to ‘The Ring of Gyges’ which is an enchanting legend – where the wearing of the Gyges ring gives its owner the power to become invisible whenever he so desires. The underlying story of the ring revolves interestingly around a debatable thought of an intellectual abiding by ethics under conditions of never having to fear of being punished for his wrongdoing. The founder of the Mermnad dynasty of Lydian kings was Gyges. He was a renowned individual having risen to power under not so conducive circumstances. History has different versions of his coming to power, though the version everyone firmly affirms is Gyges serving the King of Lydia – His Majesty, King Candaules. As the story goes, Gyges surreptitiously first entices the wife of the King and kills King Candaules. He occupies the throne and of course, marries the wife of Candaules.
Glaucon was the son of Ariston who was the philosopher, Plato’s older brother. It was Glaucon, who was in dialogue with Socrates in Plato’s book – ‘Republic’.
According to Glaucon and the myth he referred to, Gage was a shepherd who used to serve the ruler of Lydia. Once, while tending his flock, he experienced an earthquake. Surprisingly, very close to where he was, a cave appeared out of the blue. He entered the cave and was surprised to see a tomb which included a bronze horse and a corpse. The corpse was bigger than the regular size of a man. The shepherd discovered a golden ring on one of the fingers of the corpse. He took the ring for himself and soon realized that it had given him powers to turn invisible at will with a slight adjustment.
According to custom, the shepherds met often to send their respective monthly reports regarding their flocks to the king. Gigs attended this meeting wearing the ring he had found. During the course of the meeting, he happened to turn the collet of the rings and realized he had become invisible. The other shepherds continued their discussion totally oblivious to his absence. Gyges now turned the collet outwards and he was visible to all. He experimented with this on a few occasions and somehow managed to become one of the messengers to the king, who were reporting on the status of the flocks. With the new job and the new powers he seduced the queen and with her assistance, he deviously killed the king and ascended the throne.
Glaucon was very doubtful and wondered if any man endowed with powers, could fight the temptation of committing an unjust act without anyone knowing about it. Glaucon surmises that any man would protect his reputation because of the society he lives in. If the fear of not being punished or ridiculed by society did not exist, a man would commit acts to his benefit at the cost of harming others.
He gives the example of two magic rings where the righteous would wear one and the wicked would wear the other. Glaucon states that given an opportunity, a man would take what he chose to, compromise on his morals and even indulge in causing the gravest danger to others because of the power of the ring. All this led to the fact that a man would probably indulge in this out of sheer necessity trying to prove his superiority. This story holds a place of great importance even in the modern world. Humans who are in in very powerful positions are considered dangerous especially if you draw a parallel with Gyges ring. A person who acquires power without accountability is definitely going to use it in an unjust manner. When a person realizes the strength of what he can do because of his position, he is bound to exert his authority in a manner he considers is right though he may be totally wrong.
According to Glaucon, a person who could turn invisible would definitely misuse his power and use it negatively which proved that he would entertain injustice more than justice or else be ridiculed as a loser. It is here that Glaucon is not in agreement with Socrates. Glaucon believed that people behaved in a moral fashion because they do not have the requisite power to behave otherwise. If you destroy the fear which shadows them, both, the ‘just’ and the ‘unjust’ person would behave in an immoral fashion.
Socrates however, differed in opinion and was of the opinion that once a man misuses the gift of the ring it is an indication of his entrapment. The man, who does not use the power to abuse, proves that he can keep the powers without being trapped by them and hence remain in a state of calm and happiness. How many people, after being blessed with special powers not misuse them? Powerful people had always done what they think is right. Human history is replete of numerous examples – Politicians, Scientists, Professionals, Celebrities – they all have indulged to benefit themselves using their position and authority to acquire what is not rightfully theirs. It is happening even today!
This parable clearly reveals the possibility that people will exercise the right actions only because of the situation they may find themselves in. If a person can avoid doing something, he will. Perhaps Plato was clarifying human errors through this parable. But there could be more to it than what lies in the written word.
One has to understand the hidden meaning and the message of this parable. Gyges is portrayed as a very simple man – a shepherd living a peaceful life, which relates to some type of justice. Perhaps, many dictators in human history would have lived different lives if they hadn’t experienced a wrong turn of events. In Gyges’s case, the earthquake was a turning point – symbolizing injustice. This incident led to his character changing to one of cunning.
The parable clearly states the change in shepherd, who experiences an opportunity and changes for the worst – a losing of morals.
According to Glaucon, goods at large are classified into three categories. The first category includes things which we desire because of what joy they may bring for us e.g. physical exercises or even medical treatment. The second includes things which we desire just because they are good e.g. joys and the last category include things we desire for what they are and what we derive from them e.g. sight, knowledge and health.
Glaucon and others wanted Socrates to affirm that while justice is desirable, it belonged to the uppermost rung of the ladder of desirable things hence justice belonged to the third category – of wanting things for the sake of wanting and the results born out of wanting them.
The Republic was written during a time when Plato himself was going through some important changes in his life. It was a time when Plato had just founded the Academy. This was his school where individuals who were interested in learning could withdraw from material and public life and dedicate themselves to studying philosophy. Socrates had always expressed doubt on every man he came across. Plato slowly moved away from following this pathway of Socrates and was drawn towards conversational partners who more were wisely chosen and prepared. From what is written in the books, it is clear that such individuals were none other than the students of Socrates.
Plato firmly believed that philosophy could be further developed and implemented as a way of life only if it could become an accommodating and practical effort. Though this was conflicting with the words and teachings of his teacher, Plato felt that if one would face obstacles on a continuous confrontation of his / her enemies. He believed that a person would never really make positive progress if his viewpoint drastically differed from that of his conversational partner. Views can be challenged but nothing constructive and realistic would ever result out of confrontations. In other words, if a person followed a path doing things which he has innate skills to do, and does it at the right time, he is free from having to perform other tasks and by concentrating his skills he could produce qualitative goods and of a desirable quantity.
Socrates always was opposed to believing justice is desirable but the others coerced him to believe in the same. According to Socrates, political justice is of two kinds –One which belonged to a state or a city and the other to an individual i.e. the justice of a specific individual. It is common sense that an entire city is bigger when compared to a single individual. Based on this premise, the individual will first move ahead to seek justice at a political level and later question the existence of a comparable virtue in the individual. The tracing of political justice will lead to his building an ideal city from the foundations and understand at what point justice makes its presence felt.
Here, Socrates presents the initial principle of human society which he termed as the ‘principle of specialization’. This principle stated that every individual should work on achieving that for, which he has the requisite skills and not involve himself in the work of others. A shepherd should flock his sheep and not attempt carpentry.
He firmly believed that all human beings had natural leaning towards occupations, which suited their skills and they would do justice by following their path. According to Socrates, specialization was a clear indication of division of labour but one which would yield the best results. Thus, Socrates strongly believed that everything could be done and achieved at the highest level.
Based on the principle of the city, Socrates stated that the construction of the city from its roots would first begin with those individuals capable of providing the bare essentials of life like, shelter, clothing food and health. A ‘just’ city would ideally include farmers who would provide food, doctors who would offer medicinal cures and health improving services and craftsmen who would be dedicated towards the process of building. Each would be focused on his skills and perfecting his role to the hilt without interfering in that of others. Socrates termed such individuals as the ‘producing class’ because according to him with specialised skills, each person would produce utilitarian objects.
He further defined such a city as a perfectly ‘healthy city’ as it would be governed by the fulfilment of basic wants. A healthy city, he stated, would include only those produces which would produce the essentials required for a decent living. Contrary to this, Glaucon defined such a city as a ‘city of pigs’ as every city would consist of people with varying desires, wanting more than the basic necessities of life. Constructing a city which would cater to such needs would be the next step and would involve creation of other occupations – a beautician, businessman, poet, merchant, actor, academicians and more. Development and increased production of wealth would pave the path for competition and battle and this would create a need of warriors to protect the city from warring neighbours and outside elements.
According to Socrates the opinion that these warriors or guardians as he called them would help bring create the requisite amount of order. These individuals would be chosen with great care. They would have to be philosophical, lovers of knowledge, protectors and physically, very strong. He felt that Nature would not suffice to rear such individuals. They had to be nurtured to perfection both, in physical skills and the rich world of arts as well.
Plato stated that the soul like the body is controlled by what it is made to experience. He believed that the environment in which a person grows up could influence his characteristics to an extreme end. Plato was against the art of poetry though he consented to devotional odes to the gods and tributes to the intellect and renowned people. Education formed the basis of a just society.
One may very well ask about the education of the remaining residents of a city or society though, according to what Plato stated, the good of a city rested upon the perfect education of only the guardians. Education is a pre-requisite for all as it leads to everyone honing their skills and thereby, leading to specialized segments of people. Irrespective of what knowledge and advancement may bring with them, Socrates stressed on and firmly believed that the education of all individuals was crucial to the overall development of a city.
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