The Ring of Gyges

In Plato’s monumental work, The Republic, after dispensing with the loudmouth Thracymachus who insisted that “justice is the interest of the stronger,” Socrates is confronted by a stronger opponent. Glaucon, one of Plato’s brothers, has been listening to Socrates dismantle Thracymachus’ argument when he confronts Socrates with the possibility that justice really is the interest of the stronger and that Socrates has not fully addressed that possibility.

Glaucon places in front of Socrates the myth of the shepherd boy, Gyges, who while sitting around a fire with his chums playing with a ring he found that day he turns the ring inwards and disappears. While he is “gone” his chums start talking about him and he learned how they truly feel about him; but he also sees the possibilities of such a ring. In brief, he later seduces the queen, kills the king, and finds himself the most powerful man on earth. All because of the ring. Glaucon insists that no one could resist such a temptation: all men and women would do what they want to do rather than what they should do — if they could get away with it.

This is a powerful argument and it takes Socrates nine long chapters to create his Republic in which, he insists, good men and women  would rise to the top and they would, in fact, be able to resist the temptations of the ring of Gyges. Aristotle will later call this “character” and insist that it is instilled in young men and women in their youth and later determines the choices they make when it comes to justice and injustice.

It is difficult for the modern reader to agree to the logic of Socrates’ argument, to allow that ordinary men and women would not succumb to the temptations of such a ring — if it allowed them to get away with anything. Some might say that “conscience” would prohibit unjust actions among many — or at least some — but even this argument is weakened these days when we seem to have lost sight of such a thing as “character” and tend to let people pretty much do what they want. Most, I suspect, would insist that it is naive to suppose that anyone today would resist the ring of Gyges. The only thing that keeps us on the straight and narrow is the fear of getting caught.

I’m not sure if we can settle the disagreement one way or the other, since we know so little about why people do what they do and even those who seem to do the right thing most of the time may be driven by self-interest and the fear of getting caught. It’s never quite clear in our own cases why we do the things we do! But if we recall that Plato imagines a perfect society (as he sees it) in which from birth children are raised to do the right thing, to place the welfare of others before that of themselves, to form what will later be called “good character,” then perhaps we can allow that such a thing is possible — at least in theory.

The difficulty is, of course, that ours is not a perfect society — supposing that there is such a thing — and we have turned our attention away from character to such things as “self-esteem, “honesty,” and “getting in touch with our feelings.” In a word, we don’t stress the importance of caring about others so much as we stress making sure we take care of #1. I have blogged about this before and I will not go there again. But it is interesting to think that both Plato and Aristotle were convinced that the main thing that brings political bodies down is the turning attention away from what was later called “the common good” toward self-interest. When rulers and those who make the rules care more about themselves than they do about the voters who put them into office it is the beginning of a process that can only result in the dissolution of the political body.

Morality is not simply about Jimmy doing the right thing when he finds a wallet on the sidewalk. It is also about the people in power, who make decisions that effect so many others, caring more about themselves than they do about those who matter most — to wit, their constituents. The Other has been lost in the preoccupation we seem to have with ourselves, rights are all the rage while correlative responsibilities are seldom mentioned. The moral high ground disappears in the mist of looking our for #1.

How many could resist the temptations of therein of Gyges? Very few, I fear. And those who lust after money and power are least likely of all.

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Cheating?

Back in the day when I was assigning readings for my classes the thing I hated most were the dreaded “Cliff’s Notes” that were readily available not only in the college bookstore but in many a box store and even in some of the Mom and Pop stores down the block. They were everywhere and they professed to give the student an encapsulated view of the assigned reading — which many students read instead of the original material assigned. From my perspective, the assigning of original material was central to my purpose. I wanted my students to walk with a great mind for at least a few steps before returning to the hum-drum of text books and parties. I realized they were just a few steps, but the material was chosen in order to give them a sense of what it was like to actually accompany a great mind at least for a bit. So I hated the “Cliff’s Notes.”

Recently a new beast has appeared on the horizon and it is called Open Textbook Library, an on-line aid to students that offers them a free look at great books without asking them to make the effort themselves to ferret out what the author has to say. That in itself is a problem, because it is precisely the ferreting-out that is most likely to start the thinking process and help the student along the way toward intellectual curiosity and enlightenment. Short-cuts always have seemed to me to be the path of least resistance and designed to cater to the lazy students who didn’t want to make the effort.

One of these Open Texts, Plato’s Republic, was recently reviewed on-line and an attempt was made by the reviewer to save the Idiot’s Guide to Plato from infamy. As the reviewer said:

The Intelligent Troglodyte’s Guide to Plato’s Republic takes the reader on an enjoyable tour of this classic work of Ancient Greek philosophy. Although reading Plato’s text can be quite difficult, this Guide is very helpful both in summarizing the important ideas Plato expressed and also in helping a reader to navigate the order in which they are presented and remember the overall narrative arc of the story. This Guide is not intended as a replacement of Plato’s text, nor as a “Cliff’s Notes” summary, nor again as a detailed commentary, but rather as a simple and accessible guide. The reader is advised to first get through sections of Plato’s text and only afterwards attend to the relevant sections of Drabkin’s text, which fills the role of a humble interpreter who turns complex foreign pronouncements into understandable statements.

Now Drabkin is the author of the Guide and he is said to be an expert in classical works such as the Republic. I will not quarrel with that, but the claim that this Guide is not a digital form of “Cliffs Notes” is highly doubtful. I have a number of problems with this endeavor and even with this review. To begin with, Plato’s Republic is one of the most accessible of Plato’s works. It is not a terribly difficult text and rewards energetic reading and the needed attempt to dig into a text and find the jewels of insight that made the work a classic to begin with. It’s one thing to have the student read a translation of the original — which is simply a matter of necessity for most of us. It is quite another to take the students by the hand and lead them to the main ideas and point so they will not have to find them for themselves. This may not be Cliff’s Notes, exactly, but the intent is the same: make things as easy for the student as possible so they will not be turned off by what they regard as a difficult task. Isn’t it just possible that it is precisely the difficulty of the task that is most valuable to the student’s intellectual development? The Greeks used to say “Nothing easy is worthwhile.” These Guides seem to be another attempt to make things easy. We can predict that it will make the endeavor worthless as well.

The problem is that Guides such as these, including Cliff’s Notes, while not designed to replace the original (as the reviewer correctly points out) do precisely that for the majority of those who use them. This strikes me as a form of cheating. Not on the student’s part, because they simply don’t know any better. But on the part of the instructor who is cheating the student by pointing out how he or she can avoid the task that is designed to help the student grow and mature as a reader and a thinker. The easy way is not the best way — though increasingly it appears to be the only way.

Blind Spots

I have had occasion to refer to Arthur Schopenhauer in a couple of my earlier posts. His is one of the best minds to think with and I have discovered a number of important insights in his writings. In addition to his major work, The World As Will and Idea he wrote a number of essays, one of which was about women. It is full of examples of the observation I would make that no matter how good a mind is, it has its blind spots. Schopenhauer was a man of his time, the late nineteenth century, and his essay shows a deep-seated bias that I dare say he was unaware of. In addition, it shows the kind of prejudice women have had to deal with through the centuries. For example in that essay he tells us that women have diminished reasoning capacity. Worse yet:

“You need only look at the way in which [a woman] is formed to see that woman is not meant to undergo great labor, whether of the body or the mind. She pays the debt of life not by what she does, but by what she suffers; by the pains of childbearing and care for the child, and submission to her husband, to whom she should be a patient and cheering companion. The keenest sorrows and joys are not for her, nor is she called upon to display a great deal of strength. The current of her life should be more gentle, peaceful, and trivial than man’s, without being essentially happier or unhappier. . . . The only business that really claims [her] earnest attention is love, making conquests, and everything connected with this — dress, dancing, and so on. . . . she should be either a housewife or a girl who hopes to become one; and she should he brought up, not to be arrogant, but to be thrifty and submissive.”

Enough of that! If we remain calm as we read these words we can see that the times in which Schopenhauer lived had a deep impact upon the man and led him to conclusions that are based on casual observations of the women he has come across in his lifetime (and read about in his books); he wasn’t able too see past the surface to the important fact that beneath that surface there was a person who was in important respects the equal of, if not superior in many ways to, any man he might also have encountered — though he does admit that there are exceptions to his generalizations. And I might note that his important conclusions about men in his major opus apply equally to women; he simply failed to draw those conclusions.

In any event, it is puzzling that a man of his intelligence was so blind to truths that we today take for granted (well, some of us do). And this is especially strange in light of the fact that one of the two philosophers he thought the greatest minds to have ever lived, Plato, regarded women as the equal of men. In fact, in his Republic, Plato has Socrates tell his audience that the person who rises to the pinnacle of his political state, whom he refers to as the “philosopher king,” might well be a woman! In his words:

“And the women too, Glaucon, said I, for you must not suppose my words apply to men more than to women who arise among them endowed with the requisite qualities.

“That is right, he said, if they are to share equally in all things with men as we laid down.”

So, what are we to make of this? It would appear that no matter how bright and well trained the intellect of a man or woman who sets pen to paper we, as thoughtful readers, ought to scrutinize what they say carefully and not be taken in by the seeming authority they muster as “great minds” (or especially as journalists or pseudo-journalists). Nothing a person say is true simply because it is written down — or shouted in a loud voice on the television. It is true, or false, because it stands up, or fails to stand up, to criticism and evidence.

Schopenhauer was a brilliant man. But he was blind when it came to women. Plato saw more deeply, but what he said was largely ignored — not only by Schopenhauer who held him and Immanuel Kant above all other thinkers, but also by Plato’s pupil Aristotle who never said a word about the equality of the sexes, but who fell back into his cultural trap and perpetuated the fiction that women are inferior to men. A fiction that many still mistake for the truth.

On the other hand, an equally tempting tendency is to reject out of hand everything a writer or speaker says simply because we know they have said something silly or downright false at some point. Even the great writers and speakers have their blind spots. The rule is, simply:  Be careful what you read and listen to and the conclusions you draw from those words. We all make mistakes!

Protecting The Young

I recall that in Plato’s Republic Socrates recommends that in the ideal society precocious young boys and girls be taken from their parents at a very early age and raised by the state until they reach their mid-thirties at which point they will enter public service and eventually be qualified to rule. The idea is that the state will raise the children into middle age, educate them and prepare them for kingship. The notion is radical, not only because it involves taking children from their parents at an early age, but also because it involves both boys and girls. Though he may have taken his lead from Pythagoras who welcomed women into his school in Italy, Plato was probably the first feminist: he thought women should be allowed to rule the Republic along with the men.

Whenever I taught this book, however, at least one student could be counted on to raise the following objection: by taking the children from their parents and raising them apart, when the time comes to rule they will be naive and unprepared for the “real world” where there is strife and struggle. The philosopher kings, as Plato liked to call them, would be unprepared for the hurly-burly of the real world. Aristotle agreed with my students; he was relentless in his criticism of Plato’s notion of philosopher kings and this is a large part of the reason: they need real-world experience and what Aristotle called “practical wisdom.” Philosophers who have been raised apart from the people in the political state would not be able to function effectively.

This is a telling criticism and accords with common sense. And yet isn’t this precisely what we are doing in our schools when we continually stroke the kids and tell therm they are wonderful? Granted, the state hasn’t taken the children from their parents, though one might want to argue that electronic toys have in effect done precisely that. In any event, even though the public schools are not set apart and the kids who attend those schools are not selected for their precociousness, they still are made to feel as though they are potential philosopher kings — without the philosophy.

I have blogged about this absurd situation previously, but it remains the case that parents and teachers need to keep fixed in their minds that they are preparing kids for the real world where there is failure and disappointment and things don’t always work out the way we had hoped. The fundamental flaw in the “self-esteem” movement that has gripped this country is that it turns out young adults who have a deep-seated sense of entitlement and who are not prepared for the shock that the real world of marriage and work have in store for them. It is ironic that in the interest of doing the right thing by our kids in trying to raise  their self-esteem we may well be robbing them of the equipment they require to be successful in the work-a-day world.