Sunday, October 30, 2011

The ring of Gyges and the murderousness of politics


This discussion takes up from the essays about Polemarchus as a philosophical democrat and four paths thrugh the Republic’s woods here and here. It also relies on an earlier account of previous (Herodotus) and subsequent stories of the ring of power here.

In a graduate seminar on the Republic, Justin Williams, a new student to the book, pointed out as we read the first two pages aloud, that Polemarchus’s image of a horse race, in which the participants pass a torch from horse to horse, foreshadows the several, deepening visions of injustice, named as justice, in the dialogue as a whole, and in the context of which Socrates’s question: what is justice? stands out.

The story begins with a mock arrest of Socrates by "the many" led by Polemarchus. But the race, the long dialogue of the night, the really good talk, will race into difficult places, take on fiercer and more fearsone arguments...

Dying and trying to bribe the gods, Cephalus suggests justice is paying debts. He is a well-to-do arms manufacturer; his money and his ability to pay come parasitically from violence. He cannot deal with Socrates’s questions (he has to go die), and hands the argument over to his heir – Polemarchus. The passing of the torch, as Justin rightly suggests, is vivid here.

Polemarchus defends the view of Simonides, that justice is benefiting friends and harming enemies. This is a standard view in politics, what the Republicans and Democrats as well as any tyrant does, as Socrates shows. In the Concept of the Political, it is the today much talked about view of politics of the Nazi, Carl Schmitt and his student and refiner of the time, Leo Strauss.

Strauss began his career in America with a commentary on Simonides in Xenophon’s dialogue Hiero [the tyrant of Syracuse] or on Tyranny. This is vital to his neocon students as William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, reveals in "What was Leo Strauss up to?," The Public Interest, fall, 2003. See here ).* Simonides says to a Hiero complaining about the isolation and but seeming pleasures of being a tyrant and yet who cannot give it up because others would kill him for his crimes: skip morality. Hiero, I will tell you how to become a popular tyrant. The problem in the Hiero is the one the interlocutors come to address in the fiery exchanges of the first and second books of the Republic: how to appear good while consuming others…

In Plato's two metaphors,Thraysmachus takes the torch from Polemarchos, springing like a beast into the gymnastics or wrestling ring with the thought: justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger. This is the view of – and an insight into the corruption of - the democracy which put Socrates to death, an intolerant or lynch mob view, today the view that the top 1/10 of 1% should steal everything from others (roughly being a Republican, but with much aid from Democrats), protested admirably by the Occupy movement. See here.

But in the conversation, Thrasymachus ends up blushing like a charmed snake, as Glaucon says. For Glaucon and Adeimantus, brothers of Plato, sons of Ariston (the best), military leaders of Athens and potential tyrants, take up the view and give it a memorable turn, one that has led to Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. See here.

In the persona of Glaucon, Plato recasts the story of Gyges from Herodotus, and creates the ring of invisibility, the ring of power.

Gyges, for Glaucon, is a shepherd. Lightning strikes the earth one night and opens up a chasm. Intrepid, Gyges goes down (this is the motion of the first line and all the underworlds and caves that open in the Republic). He finds deep under the earth a wooden horse – here Troy, war and victory through deception, i.e. Simonides’s advice to Hiero, come to mind. In it is a large naked corpse with a ring on its finger. Gyges takes the ring.

When he is again among the shepherds, he turns the ring’s head toward himself and people no longer see him (this is where Tolkien gets the idea about Bilbo Baggins early in Lord of the Rings). He turns it out, and suddenly, he is there.

Gyges gets himself appointed to go to the Tyrant’s representative in Lydia to report the count of sheep, journeys to the capital, becomes invisible and jumps on the queen (she has no say in the matter apparently). Passive (implausibly since she was raped, a profound sexism on Plato's part), she helps him murder the king and become the new tyrant in Lydia.

In the Herodotus story, by contrast, the queen is the dominant figure whom the stupid king enables his minister Gyges to see naked (she is a Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, so he tells Gyges….). Gyges protests against this, but does it under orders…

But the queen sees him out of the corner of her eye. She is shamed. Next morning, she summons Gyges and says: you have seen what you should not. Either hide in the same place, kill the king and marry me or I will have you put to death. "No, no," Gyges protests. But he again follows orders and becomes – apparently she has great power in Lydia – the new tyrant and husband…

In Herodotus, Gyges protests to maintain his appearance as a faithful (seemingly just but only through fear) servant, is passive, and follows the King’s and Queen’s orders. Yet he comes to a "happy" end – becomes king, possesses the queen (perhaps), so it seems…

In the magic of Plato’s retelling, Gyges’s hidden or unconscious wishes come to the fore.** The ring of invisibility enables him to be active. He is everyman, a shepherd, not a high official. Shepherds, in most cities, Glaucon the aristocrat suggests, are not good but dangerous. They will seek out and murder whom they can, take what they can, if they possess a cloak of invisibility…

And the murder of Socrates is of course an implication both of Thrasymachus' view and the Gyges story...

In fact, this is a more brilliant version of the advice of Simonides offered in Xenophon's Hiero.

Glaucon and Adeimantus take the torch and make it more formidable (perhaps for Heidegger and Strauss...). They paint the picture that the charmed snake, Thrasymachus, was insufficiently lethal to imagine. Give to the unjust man every honor – the appearance of the beautiful and ageless Dorian Gray as the inner portrait betrays each new ugliness. (Dorian eventually stabs the portrait, dies himself, and his servants can identify the corpse only from the rings on his fingers…)

In contrast, give Socrates the hemlock; the just man must appear unjust, be poisoned or crucified (the later Christian resonances of the story, particularly in Greece where Greek Orthodoxy was neo-Platonist, are clear). Praise, if you can Socrates, justice here for its own sake, the reward being death, injustice acquiring, as in ordinary politics, the emperor’s new clothes and for a long time (consider the 29 years’ praise of Mohammed Hosni Mubarak in Egypt). The ornamentation of words (the definition of "punditry)", the ring of Gyges, conceals the rot...

Not just Xenophon’s Simonides as Strauss suggests, but the ring of Gyges in the Republic is the great forerunner of Machiavelli. Ancient and modern advice to princes – authoritarians though perhaps sometimes revolutionary republicans- is neither peripheral in the Greeks nor so different…

In fact, the Peloponnesian War, as described by Thucydides, became a civil war in which Athenian and Spartan factions slaughter innocents. In the gleaming of the ring, justice became, as in Corcyra, unmoored from its meaning, a garb of criminality (think of what the American elite, the Bush administration, abetted by the Democrats, has done with the Convention against Torture and the wanton torture and murder which it veils as "harsh interrogation" - and the point about Corcyra will open before your eyes...).

As I argued in chapter 4 of Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, the murderousness of every political view of justice (in Weber's misguided terms, merely legitimacy) is a compelling reason for Socrates to ask questions, not to espouse a view of justice. In this context, it is very doubtful that Socrates or Plato advocated the beautiful city, the city in speech.*** Socrates was, in this respect, as much as Thucydides, at the base of what we call great power realism. States garb themselves in legitimacy - the ring - while defaming and murdering enemies.

Socrates knows what unjust acts are. He will not participate in them by providing a ring (note the difference with his reactionary followers, Heidegger in the 1930s and 1940s and, for instance, in espousing in his May 1933 letter to Karl Loewith, the "principles of the Right, fascist, authoritarian, imperial," Strauss).

If one thinks about the the ring simply, many politicians and leaders become “legitimate” monsters, but the argument of the Republic – that one is poisoned to become such a monster, doomed to do and suffer all sorts of horrible things, as Hiero in Xenophon or many tyrants in Aristotle’s book 5 of the Politics seem to suffer – is actually decisive for Plato. Note: Aristotle’s profound account of friendship in book 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics - a mirror of the account of the just and the unjust man in book 4 of the Republic - provides a psychological key to this.*** The leader is insecure, always needs the applause of others, cannot be by or with himself, because his soul is a psychic civil war, his appetites always preying upon him. But Aristotle, of course, did not think this with Alexander…The question, as in his teacher Plato, is whether anyone can use the ring of Gyges and survive.

And that is the hidden message of the Republic that a tyrant of a certain kind become a philosopher-king (it would be perfect and a circle in the regimes, as Aristotle reveals in Politics,, book 5). Doing philosophy and coming into politics is the escape from the mere cycle of murder and ultimate self-destruction (Dorian Gray) into being a wise murderer, a seeker of a kind of common good.****

But of course, this stance reveals extreme hubris in Simonides or the "Platonic" philosopher who follows this path. It is the opposite of Socrates, who has but a "merely human wisdom" in the Apology: unlike others and in particular, politicians he does not know nor does he think he knows. The Republic is profoundly tied back into the Apology. Thus, as we shall see, the whole farce about censorship (books two and three and part of 10) is a mocking effort to clean up the gods so one may honestly speak well of them as the charge in the Apology demands of Socrates.

Though tempted in Syracuse, Plato, as I have suggested, chose a different way through the woods, with Socrates...

Having and more deeply, making enemies, becoming a wise (in seeming to oneself) tyrant is a dangerous path. As with much of the sentiment of Occupy Wall Street, one needs not to hate but to stop the top 1% and then as it were compel (some of) them to change. That is the idea of Gandhi, King and Tutu: even those who do evil have souls and if stopped, can be transformed rather than murdered; it is rooted in Socrates. That is the way out of the cycle of murderous politics, one particularly needed now where war and climate change threaten the earth as a habitat for humans...

That something is a simple and straightforward argument – amidst the grand architecture of the Republic, the greatest indictment of tyranny ever written, and the drama of the Apology – does not mean it is wrong.

*As the leading propagandist for the Iraq War starting in the Clinton years, Kristol's praise of Strauss and "regime-change" in this article was meant, for those who have eyes, to give his "philosophical" inspiration away.

**The book has a profound and articulate psychology. The unjust man is a civil war, the appetites dominating and compelling reason to do their bidding, the just man has all parts of his soul in a musical order (see the end of book 4). Greek psychology profoundly influenced Freud (i.e. Sophocles' Oedipus cycle) and has resonances which go in a different direction from Freud's discoveries.

***That Plato entertained aspects of it, for instance, participation of women or at times as in Syracuse, the philosopher-king is true. That the men and women wrestle naked together is sexual humor (and partly chauvinist disparaging of ancient Cretan rituals of young men and women vaulting over the bulls' horns). What arguments here are to be taken seriously and why is something Plato's students needed to think about, argue over, find a path...

****In book 3 of the Politics, Aristotle distinguishes between justice and a tyrannical kind of political justice as when a tyrant cuts down the outstanding men in the city to "prevent civil disorder." That this is, ultimately, a defensible view or desirable state of affairs is doubtful.

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