Saturday, June 23, 2012

What is the meaning of the naked corpse in Plato’s story of Gyges?

In teaching at Metro, I ask students to consider the tales in Plato’s dialogues and to some extent the arguments (depending on the question that is asked, the context in which it is asked) as inviting further questions rather than being settled conclusions (that one reads a dialogue and supposedly knows, in the form of theses, what "Plato" means). This is true especially of the stories in the Republic (and, of course, related images – for instance, that one who could know and teach virtue would be like Tiresias, the blind seer in Hades who alone among the dead can see (see here and the end of the Menohere and here).* The analogy with Socrates is striking.

Plato's stories are multifaceted, glittering, like dreams and poems about which it is often hard to name, let alone exhaust the significance.

Sometimes, students come up with startling insights from which I learn. For instance, Zachary Young wrote a short paper for me on the ring of Gyges, Glaucon’s tale of successful injustice, loudly praised as justice, in book 2 of the Republic. Many students conclude, cynically but with a lot of truth, that the story just expresses what mainstream politicians are (the corporate press providing the ring, ordinary politics the cave).

One can say Socrates or King is a counterexample – and perhaps nearly all the people in the civil rights movement – but the story has always, as in the Lord of the Rings or The Portrait of Dorian Gray, exerted a fascination. This post is a third part of a sequence on the ring: see here and here.

I often say about the story that the chasm that opens in the earth during a storm and a sudden earthquake and into which Gyges descends repeats the movement of going down of the first line: “yesterday I went down to the Piraeus with Glaucon, son of Ariston…,” and of the cave and of the myth of Er.**

On the surface, Glaucon tells the tale to suggest that everyone who had a ring of invisibility would be unjust. And one can then live, he says, "like a god."(360c and Adeimantus, 365b)

But the hollow wooden horse with metal doors that the shepherd Gyges finds in the dark is a Trojan Horse, something that deceives Troy and causes its fall. Does it perhaps deceive Gyges as well?

Gyges, intrepidly, crawls in and finds a large naked corpse with a golden ring on his finger, takes the ring, returns to the surface, sits among shepherds, discovers that turned a certain way, the ring makes him invisible (just like Bilbo Baggins in the first scene of the movie of Lord of the Rings), gets sent to the capital to report on the numbers of sheep, sneaks into the queen’s room and jumps on her – “seduces,” Plato says (360a-b), but this is a patriarchal description of rape. Compare Herodotus’s story in which the queen, who has been shamed by her foolish husband who sneaks his advisor Gyges into a corner behind a door to view his wife, whom he says is the most beautiful women in the world and thus, again, reminiscent of Helen of Troy - is the main actor here and here. In both Plato's and Herodotus's version, however, Gyges and the queen plot to kill the king and Gyges becomes king.

Zachary, however, focused on the naked corpse. Isn’t this a hint, he suggests, that those who do such crimes do not end up happy? That to be like a god, as the ruler-"father" often assuming a quasi-divinity, is not to be a god (gods are, after all, immortal...).

That those who listen deeply to the story might not heed the course vividly recommended on the surface by Glaucon? That the corpse is, in fact, an inner mirror of Gyges, what his soul, too, will become, a prisoner of the ring?***

In the most obvious sense, the body is dead; we humans are all mortal. And so, the greatest pretensions and appearances accomplish little.

There is a Sumerian tale of Inanna in which the goddess unrobes to go down for her judgment in the underworld…See here.

Second, Glaucon's tale focuses on appearance, not soul or inner reality. One can trick oneself up, ascend to the highest and most seemingly protected places (Adeimantus’s worry at lines 365a-b****), and still end up naked and dead. All the striving of pretence and doing evil while appearing good ends up – a waste of one’s life – in this buried place.

And third, as I noted, the occupants of the horse tricked Troy and destroyed it. But warriors on all sides, as Homer tells us in the Iliad, end up dead. Some die an admirable death, a death which fits who they are. Thus, Achilles accepts his fate in going down to avenge Patroclus and kill Hector. His scene with Priam – see here – is one of the most striking in Homer, one in which the bereft father, whose city is ravaged, and is now, on the "threshold of old age," near death, kisses the murderous hands of Achilles who will never again see his own father. And they achieve some compassion, some understanding, not yet dead…

Socrates resembles Achilles in going down…

How many returned home? And at what price, as we see, in the case of Odysseus? (see Jonathan Shays, Odysseus in America on how difficult the shock of war, ptsd and so forth, described so vividly in Homer, is).

What Plato does in the symbol of the naked corpse in the Trojan Horse is to suggest, within the story and counter to Glaucon's obvious meaning, how Gyges’ search for power and domination avails him little.***** To be such a person, as opposed for example, to doing philosophy or living a quiet life or going down as Socrates – or Achilles - does for asking questions and seeking truth and honor (obviously, a parallel, but not the same), ends up sprawled naked in the coffin horse of one’s own (self-) deceptions.


* At the beginning of book 3 of the Republic, this line is supposedly to be excised along with others about the scariness of Hades in Homer. But this line differs from the others. See here. Particularly as a demonstration that a question wrongly posed leads to a mistaken argument (Socrates wants to pursue the question: what is virtue? but in coquetting with the beautiful Meno, ends up pursuing the question: can virtue be taught?), the Meno would have less power without this final image.

** I also ask the question in the course: who is in the cave? It is in obvious that Socrates is not in the cave, that that is where he goes, descends to be rended or put to death. But as I pointed out, the very first line of the Republic: I went down to the Piraeus signals this theme of which the various meanings – the cave of politics, the quarries, as another student Rich Rockwell has pointed out, in Syracuse in which the Athenians die in Thucydides' History, the cave of the trial of Socrates, see here - are a realization.

***What the ring does to Smeagol/Gollum and to Frodo in Lord of the Rings captures the underlying spirit of this story and a theme of the Republic.

****At 365c-d, Adeimantus offers an explicit tyrannical (in modern terms, police state) description:

"After all, the philosophers have proved that appearance is mightier than reality [sic - not Socrates!] and hence the true lord of happiness. To appearance then, one must turn one's efforts without stint. A man must deceive. He must don costumes andcontrive stage-effects that impart the illusion of virtue even as he heeds the wise Archilochus and trails behind him the wily and subtle fox. If another objects that it is not always easy to conceal wickedness, the answer can only be that nothing great is easy. In any case, if one wants happiness, this is the way to go. One can cover one's tracks by organizing political clubs and secret brotherhoods and by relying on professors of rhetoric [such as Thrasymachus] who teach the art of persuading courts and assemblies. And so, partly by persuasion and partly by force, one can make illicit gains and yet go unpunished."

On Thrasymachus from book 1, see here, here, here and here.

*****Plato transforms the resonances of Troy compared to Herodotus - he does this with all earlier stories he takes up; both, however, suggest a fatal self-deception. For Candaules, the king in Herodotus's story, boasts that his wife is the most beautiful woman, reminiscent of Helen of Troy, to his aide Gyges. Puffed up with hubris, Candaules does not have to have her stolen. Instead, needing to brag to others, he does himself in without any foreign plot or taking his people to war. He is self-deceived.

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