It’s been three months since I wrote about Book I. At this rate I’ll be through the Republic some time during the Kanye presidency.
Here’s what I think is the central image of Book II (if it reminds you of the Ring of Power from Tolkien, don’t be surprised):
[Glaucon:] “That even those who practice [justice] do so unwillingly, from an incapacity to do injustice, we would best perceive if we should in thought do something like this: give each, the just man and the unjust, license to do whatever he wants, while we follow and watch where his desire will lead each. We would catch the just man red-handed going the same way as the unjust man out of a desire to get the better; this is what any nature naturally pursues as good, while it is law which by force perverts it to honor equality.
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 to 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.”
Glaucon, a guy who spends the rest of the Republic agreeing with everything Socrates says, decides to take up the argument given (and quickly given up) by Thrasymachus, a guy who introduced his remarks by cussing at Socrates for 45 minutes.
The basic idea is this: there’s really no such thing as “justice,” and everyone should just do whatever they want. This is the truth that everyone believes deep down, and anyone who acts or says otherwise is just lying. And they’re lying because they’re too weak to do what they want, so they make up rules to at least protect themselves from people who are stronger, and (if you want to go full Nietzsche) make them feel guilty for being stronger at all.
Therefore, the argument goes, “justice” as described by the weak is only a tool to prevent the truly strong from getting everyone else’s stuff. Real justice is for everyone to do and take whatever and whomever they want. If you want your neighbor’s jigsaw or Nintendo Switch or wife, and you’re able to beat him up, you should go for it. Only then can civilization make you content. And anyone who could do this and get away with it would.
A critical reader might here ask some questions. For one thing, is it true that our deepest desires are entirely so selfish and dependent on the destruction of others? Some of them might be, but don’t we also take pleasure in caring about others and seeing them happy? Or is that just the fake “justice” that we’ve been brainwashed with our whole lives? Even more to the point: is the weakness described by Glaucon (in the name of Thrasymachus) an accidental thing that only some people have, or is it built into all human beings by nature? If it’s the latter – if there is always some limitation to anyone’s strength – then maybe this account of things is wrong, or incomplete.
Rings of Power
Now we get to the image itself. This dude (an “ancestor” of Gyges, so maybe it’s inaccurate to call this story “The Ring of Gyges”) finds a ring that can make him invisible, so he goes on a screwing-and-killing spree till he’s the king, and as Mel Brooks taught us all, it’s good to be the king.
Why invisibility? Why not telekinesis or super strength, which would be just as efficient in getting you what you want? The same could be asked about the ring in Tolkien’s books, though that one has a couple other extra powers, like extending the wearer’s life and giving him the ability to affect the will of others. So let’s stick with Plato.
The guiding concept here seems to be community. Being visible means being visible to others around us, which is a kind of connection to them. Being invisible means severing this connection. We can still walk and pick things up, but without consequences. We have power but no responsibility. The ring means getting what we want without having to earn it, and doing what we please without anybody knowing or being able to stop us. The rules of “justice” no longer apply. So Glaucon’s image is just about perfect for what he’s trying to explain.
Again, the force of the argument is that not only this one dude, but everyone, would use this kind of power to get whatever they wanted, even if it meant sleeping with the queen and killing the king (maybe especially if it meant that). And if that is true, then maybe there are no “just” people, only people who pretend to care about “justice” but who don’t have the power or the jewelry to do what they really want.
Homework: What would you do if you had a ring of power? Me, I’d sit in my room and read and play Breath of the Wild and mandola. Which I already do. Am I perfectly virtuous or just weird? Only God can judge.
Let’s look at the details of the story. It’s not just about a guy who finds a ring. Where and how he finds it are important.
First, he finds it underground in a “chasm” or “cave” if you will, and if you’ve ever heard of Plato you might have an idea where this is going. He has to go downward in order to see what’s in there in the first place, which also evokes the up/down symbolism I talked about when I wrote on the opening image in Book I. So wherever rings of power are, they are in dark, low places, and the desire to have one is a dark and low place in your soul.
Having descended, he finds a “hollow, bronze horse.” We met horses already in Book I, and we’ll meet bronze soon enough in Book III, but (spoiler) both of them indicate the lower, animal passions in the soul – the desires for food and sex especially.
Inside this (Trojan?) horse is a large corpse wearing the ring. Putting symbols to the side for a moment, let’s soak in the unwritten part of the story. Whoever had the ring before, all we know about him now is that he died naked, trapped inside a metal horse underground. This isn’t just the end of the previous owner of the ring, but the future of the ancestor of Gyges who finds it, and of anyone who would use its power.
Getting everything you want, especially if “want” means the indulgence of your animal passions, isn’t “real justice” but total loneliness and self-destruction. Your story might begin with parties and orgies and even ruling the world, but the story of the tyrant, the one who lives without law, ends in misery. Most importantly, the misery that ends the story isn’t one arbitrarily cooked up by some external conventional authority. The corpse wearing the ring wasn’t found in any prison besides the one he made for himself, surrounded by the worthless treasures he had gathered. So maybe there’s more to justice than just stopping strong people from being happy.