Feed on
Posts
Comments

The first major myth of the Republic is the Myth of Gyges, presented not by Socrates but Glaucon. Within it, he evokes a vision of mankind as unjust by nature, incapable of controlling their greed if given the opportunity. The Myth of Gyges, however, does more than just present a portrait of humanity as self-interested and unjust. It further illuminates the relationship between man and society through details that focus on the limits imposed on man by laws and customs. The invisibility seems to be both a removal of physical appearance as well as personal accountability. As these ideas are Glaucon’s, however, the myth becomes revelatory on two levels, both of an image of humanity and as a confession of  Glaucon’s cynicism towards man’s corrupt nature.

To begin, the myth must be read in light of its teller, Glaucon. Before presenting the myth, he reveals a rather dismal opinion of justice. Instead of an enriching virtue to strive toward, Glaucon views justice as burdensome, only useful for reputation. It is a means, not a good in and of itself. Moreover, those who practice justice do so “unwillingly” from a lack of power to do injustice”, and, with enough “freedom to do whatever he wants”, each man would fall victim to his own “greed for more” (359b, 359c). In light of this, the myth serves two purposes for Glaucon. On one hand it shows that justice is merely affected by humans, an onerous necessity for the acquisition of reputation or a custom “forcibly” maintained “by law” (359c). On the other, it also reveals the extent to which Glaucon believes that humanity is inherently depraved, and that with any opportunity they would immediately reveal their lack of justice and inability to control their own appetites.

The myth he tells contains many strange details and incidentals that are not necessary to the tale, but offer additional layers of symbolism instead. The namesake of the myth, Gyges, is introduced as “a shepherd working as a hired servant” (359d). Symbolically, the shepherd may be seen as one who is in tune with the seasons and nature, maintaining a kind of justice by living in harmony with the Earth and practicing a craft without excess. Moreover, the shepherd is close to nature, and with it the unknown, as well as on the edge of human affairs. This perhaps allows the shepherd greater potential to partake in or witness unusual or godly events. The following “big storm” and ‘earthquake” that he experiences as a shepherd would confirm that idea (359d). On one level these disturbances indicate the presence of the gods, Zeus and Poseidon respectively, and the two elements also seem to evoke an intersection of heaven and earth. Additionally the thunder and earthquake conditions suggest a break with natural order and harmony; extreme weather may be the closest nature comes to injustice, since it is excessive and irregular.

Due to this weather, a chasm in the earth opens up, but Gyges  has an unusual response to this. Rather than being afraid, he looks on in wonder and decides to descend. His entrance into the chasm is like Socrates’ initial descent into Piraeus. This descent, unlike Socrates’, seems to implicate a disruption of nature. It is disruptive in the sense of a chasm that “broke open the earth” in an area of previously harmonious land, and also from the desecration of what was apparently a tomb (359d). Furthermore, the subterranean imagery and general atmosphere of secrecy suggest the revelation of what was meant to be kept hidden. Gyges finds a “bronze horse” in which there are many “windows”, which render visible “the body inside… bigger than a human being” (359d). The animalism of the horse is further heightened by its construction from bronze, a material often used in warfare. Furthermore, the the ring’s previous owner seems to have been twice concealed – under the earth and within a beast of war, images which further add to the appearance of the ring as out of harmony with nature. The body, too, with its unconventional size suggests that this same unnaturalness. In effect, the introduction of the ring is characterized primarily by disruption of nature and harmony, ideas previously associated with justice and goodness, all ominous indicators of the rings potential.

The rest of the tale relates the actions Gyges takes with his new power. These actions, however, could have been completed without the aid of invisibility. As such, the inclusion of this detail must suggest something other than that invisibility allows Gyges to commit injustice because it increases his capabilities. Instead, the power of the ring seems to be a kind of release or escape.  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” (359e). Gyges’ job as a shepherd is in service of another, and accordingly he is accountable to the other for his actions. He is subject to another man, under the rule of laws, society and innumerable other responsibilities, and the meeting place represents these. Even more suggestive is the method by which the invisibility is activated. It is by turning “the stone setting… around toward himself” he activates the power of the ring and becomes invisible (359e). Twisting the “stone setting outward”, toward gods and his community, he becomes visible (360a). It is not so much physical invisibility that gives him power, as the ability to escape responsibility to an external judge or having give an honest accounting of his own failings or injustices.

The power of the ring seems to be the ability to remove the power of law and custom as Gyges removes his visibility. It becomes a version of invisibility in which personal accountability in addition to physical identity vanishes and Gyges may act with impunity. However, the power the ring represents is not necessarily evil. It is not a power that necessarily corrupts, but a neutral power that allows the wearer to slip the bonds of human societal norms and thus allows him to do immense good or immense evil. The shepherd, regardless, is “immediately” drawn to injustice, his first actions being to “[seduce] the king’s wife” and with her “[kill] the king” (360b). This immediate and total change in behavior of the shepherd argues Glaucon’s perspective that it is humans themselves that are corrupt and that “no one is just willingly”; this is merely the first opportunity that has been presented to Gyges to commit injustice (360c). Symbolically speaking, the message of the myth is that appearance is what is most important, and, if one can control that, one has license to do as one pleases. In a sense then, as much as the ring is meant to conceal, it is ultimately revelatory of humans’ true nature, or at least Glaucon’s opinion of such.

Glaucon views justice not as harmony, or as happiness, or as beauty but as something onerous to escape. It is a compromise between suffering the worst evil and doing the greatest evil. Gyges exists only as a shepherd in thrall to another man and then an adulterous murder; there is no inbetween (360b). Moreover, just as the statue that Glaucon posits to Socrates of the man that “while doing the greatest injustices” still maintains “the greatest reputation”, Gyges too avoids punishment by manipulating appearance (361a-b). Essentially, Glaucon is infected with a total of hopelessness about anything good or just in man beyond appearances. Perhaps more than anything, the myth serves to reveal the horror of Glaucon’s worldview. To believe such a perspective, the myth suggests, is to see man as trapped beneath a materialistic world and within their own bestial greed. No wonder, then, that ring of Gyges was found on a lifeless, disharmonious creature stripped of all but the ring and consumed within a beast and submerged under dirt.

The myth and his following proposal reveal that Glaucon is near to despair about the truth and reality of the metaphysical world; justice, hope, the soul, god – these are all illusions, bedtime stories, pleasant constructions of philosophers. Within such a vision of human life there can be no hope for beauty, love, truth, or happiness. It is fitting, then, that Socrates is with Glaucon when he is stopped in his attempt to return to the heights of Athens, and it is Glaucon who insists upon their descent (327b, 328b). As such, it is to Socrates that Glaucon presents the myth of Gyges and with it his own plea to be “truly” persuaded that justice is a good of “the most beautiful kind” (357b, 358a). For Socrates, the goal is more than to to discover and prove the existence of justice in the human soul; he must also bring Glaucon’s soul back back into the light and convince him that is better to be than to seem.

19 Responses to “Under the Earth and Within the Beast: The Myth of Gyges”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Anna,

    I think you make some very thoughtful points in this essay. You correctly pick up on the image of descent, but more importantly you examine the imagery of the bronze horse. This is something often overlooked, and your interpretation of it–that it is associated with war (being bronze) and that it stands for a double concealment–is original and intriguing.

    I particularly like the point about the storm and the earthquake; I hadn’t considered whether this might signify Zeus and Poseidon, but I think you are onto something here. I am not sure that Zeus and Poseidon, if present, would signify a “break from natural order”; in some sense, the gods are the standard of what nature means (especially Zeus). But I think you are right if you mean that this episode is a departure from what is normal human experience.

    I think you are right that invisibility is not the key (or sole) power of the ring, and I think you are attentive to its details (the way it turns, etc.). I am not sure about its neutrality as you are. Especially if the ring is somehow connected to the divine, one wonders whether it could be neutral. If the Homeric gods are anything, they seem to be always associated with some person or end; neutral does not become them.

    I am also not sure that Glaucon believes that human nature is intrinsically depraved. It might be, however, intrinsically flawed. This may seem like semantics but I think it is an important distinction.

    Whether Glaucon is in despair about justice is an interesting question. I hadn’t read those passages quite so starkly but perhaps you are right.

    It is worth comparing the Republic version of Gyges to that of Herodotus.

    KH

  2. Sources

    […]check below, are some totally unrelated websites to ours, however, they are most trustworthy sources that we use[…]…

  3. POLANDFE.PL says:

    Sites we Like…

    […] Every once in a while we choose blogs that we read. Listed below are the latest sites that we choose […]…

  4. Recent Blogroll Additions…

    […]usually posts some very interesting stuff like this. If you’re new to this site[…]…

  5. Websites you should visit

    […]below you’ll find the link to some sites that we think you should visit[…]…

  6. Related…

    […]just beneath, are numerous totally not related sites to ours, however, they are surely worth going over[…]…

  7. Great website

    […]we like to honor many other internet sites on the web, even if they aren’t linked to us, by linking to them. Under are some webpages worth checking out[…]…

  8. Websites we think you should visit

    […]although websites we backlink to below are considerably not related to ours, we feel they are actually worth a go through, so have a look[…]…

  9. Read was interesting, stay in touch…

    […]please visit the sites we follow, including this one, as it represents our picks from the web[…]…

  10. Websites you should visit

    […]below you’ll find the link to some sites that we think you should visit[…]…

  11. Superb website

    […]always a big fan of linking to bloggers that I love but don’t get a lot of link love from[…]…

  12. Related…

    […]just beneath, are numerous totally not related sites to ours, however, they are surely worth going over[…]…

  13. padfolios says:

    Sites we Like…

    […] Every once in a while we choose blogs that we read. Listed below are the latest sites that we choose […]…

  14. Websites worth visiting

    […]here are some links to sites that we link to because we think they are worth visiting[…]…

  15. Sources

    […]check below, are some totally unrelated websites to ours, however, they are most trustworthy sources that we use[…]…

  16. Awesome website

    […]the time to read or visit the content or sites we have linked to below the[…]…

  17. Great website

    […]we like to honor many other internet sites on the web, even if they aren’t linked to us, by linking to them. Under are some webpages worth checking out[…]…

  18. Superb website

    […]always a big fan of linking to bloggers that I love but don’t get a lot of link love from[…]…

  19. i loved this says:

    Read was interesting, stay in touch…

    […]please visit the sites we follow, including this one, as it represents our picks from the web[…]…