Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, July 11, 2015

PLATO: The Republic (Lord of the Ring)

Once there was a fellow who was happy just staying home and minding his own business.  Then one day he found a gold ring and put it on his finger.  It was a special kind of ring.  When he turned it inward, he became invisible, when outward, visible.  This ring changed his whole life.  Does the story sound familiar?  It should.  But it’s not Bilbo Baggins from the recent Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It’s a story told by Plato 2500 years ago about a man named Gyges.  Socrates’ pupil Glaucon brings up this magic ring to help clarify the enduring appeal of both justice and injustice.  Having such a magic ring would give a man immense power.  Glaucon believes anyone who wore the ring would become “as an equal to a god among humans.”  He could do pretty much whatever he wanted.  Then Glaucon poses this dilemma.  “Now if there were two such rings, and the just man would put one on, and the unjust man the other, no one, as it would seem, would be so adamant as to stick by justice…”  Glaucon’s point is this.  “No one is willingly just but only when compelled to be so.  Men do not take justice to be a good for them in private, since wherever each supposes he can do injustice, he does it.  Indeed, all men suppose injustice is far more to their private profit than justice.  And what they suppose is true.”

This sounds like a pessimistic view of human nature.  Is it?  America’s response to Plato’s Republic was The Federalist Papers.  In Federalist Paper #1 (GB4) John Jay says “we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society.”  Even men devoted to justice sometimes go wrong.  And in Federalist Paper #15 Alexander Hamilton asks “Why has government been instituted at all?  Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.”  These passages from our own Founding Fathers confirm Glaucon’s point.  Most of us are good only because of the benefits we get from being good.  If we could cut corners without getting caught many of us would do it.  A magic ring would give us ample opportunity to cut corners and get away with it.  How many of us could resist the temptation?  Bilbo Baggins couldn’t.  Glaucon thinks most of us couldn’t.  But Glaucon wants to push his theory further.  He wants to set up a situation where “We shall take away nothing from the injustice of the unjust man nor from the justice of the just man, but we shall take each as perfect in his own pursuit.” 

How can we set up such a situation?  Glaucon says “the extreme of injustice is to seem to be just when one is not… put beside him in the argument the just man in his turn, a man simple and noble, who, according to Aeschylus, does not wish to seem, but rather to be, good.  The seeming must be taken away.  For if he should seem just, there would be honors and gifts for him for seeming to be such.  Then it wouldn’t be plain whether he is such for the sake of the just or for the sake of the gifts and honors.  So he must be stripped of everything except justice.”  Here’s a test.  Let’s say I’m arrested, tried and convicted of a crime I did not commit.  Now I’m sitting in prison but I have a magic ring.  All I have to do is twist the ring and I can make my escape.  Remember I was wrongfully convicted.  And think of all the good I could do on the outside using the power of my magic ring.  Would I be justified using the ring to make my escape?  This isn’t exactly the situation Glaucon is driving at but it’s a good way to approach the question what is justice?  Who gets to define justice?  Is it the courts or is it me?  Socrates was in fact in a somewhat similar situation later in his life.  He was accused of a “crime” and (most readers believe) unjustly convicted and sentenced to death in the Apology (GB1).  In Crito (GB2) he could have escaped but chose to stay.  Why?  Socrates is one of the few truly just men in history who actually walked the walk.  He said: I don’t want that magic ring.  Take it away.


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