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The story of Gyges the Lydian is part of Glaucon's initial speech in book II of the Republic. Glaucon steps in when Thrasymachus has been silenced by Socrates to defend the opinion that people don't practice justice for itself, but only for fear of what would befall them if they don't. Here goes the story.
"That those who practice it [justice], practice it constrained by want of power to act unjustly, we might better perceive if we do the following in thought : granting each one of them both, the just and the unjust, license to do as he wishes, let us then follow them closely to observe whither his desire (è epithumia) will lead each. We should then catch the just man in the act of following the same path as the unjust man on account of the advantage that every nature is led by its very nature to pursue as good, being diverted only by force of law toward the esteem of the equal. The license I am talking about would be supremely such if they were given the very same power as is said to have been given in the past to the ancestor of Gyges the Lydian. (1)
For he was a shepherd laboring for the then ruler of Lydia and some part of the earth was shattered by a violent thunderstorm developing along with an earthquake and a chasm appeared at the place where he was pasturing. Seeing this and wondering, he went down and the fable says that he saw, among other wonders, a hollow bronze horse having openings, through which, peeping in, he saw that there was a corpse inside, as it seemed, greater than is usual for men, and wearing nothing else but a golden ring at his hand, that he took off before leaving. When time came for the shepherds to hold their customary assembly in order to prepare their monthly report to the king about the state of the flocks, he came too, wearing this ring. While he was sitting with the others, it chanced that he moved the collet of the ring around toward himself into the inside of his hand ; having done this, he disappeared from the sight of those who were sitting beside him, and they discussed of him as of someone who had left. And he wondered and once again feeling for the ring, he turned the collet outwards and, by turning it, reappeared. Reflecting upon this, he put the ring to the test to see if it indeed had such power, and he came to this conclusion that, by turning the collet inwards, he became invisible, outwards, visible. Having perceived this, he at once managed for himself to become one of the envoys to the king ; upon arrival, having seduced his wife, with her help, he laid a hand on the king, murdered him and took hold of the leadership." (Republic, II, 359b-360b)
In the plans of the Republic I propose, I suggest that there is a relationship between this story, the allegory of the cave at the beginning of book VII and the myth of Er the Pamphylian at the end of book X. This page is intended to explore this relationship and to "decipher" the meaning of the story of Gyges in that perspective. More specifically, I'd like to show that the story of Gyges (or of whomever is the hero of the above tale) is the exact antithesis of the ascending movement depicted in the allegory of the cave, in that it describes the downward movement of a man seeking in the laws of nature an excuse to escape responsibility in social life. Then, I'll explore the relationship of these two stories with the myth of Er that concludes the Republic.
The hero of the first story is a shepherd, a man who spends most of his time in the midst of nature, with very little social organization. He starts where the ascent of the prisoner from the cave ends, that is, in the open air and in the sunlight. And it is not under the leadership of some human teacher, as is the case with the prisoner of the cave, or as a result of a thought out act of his will, that he starts his investigation, but by mere chance. It is nature itself which plays the role of a teacher to lead him downward inside a chasm in the earth opened by cosmic forces "at the place where he was pasturing". And once his curiosity is aroused by the forces of nature, not by the lasting order of the kosmos that he may enjoy every day, but by some exceptional event of momentous proportion, he goes down alone inside "matter".
Inside the cave, sure enough, he sees and at last "wonders (thaumasanta)" (2). But this wonderment, as we'll find out, is not of the kind that, according to Socrates in the Theætetus, is the beginning of philosophy (Theætetus, 155d). What he sees is a horse : not a puppet held by a man and casting shadows on the wall of the cave, but a horse large enough to hold the body of a man inside his hollow belly, the body of a man himself larger than usual. To understand what this horse stands for, we should remember the image of the winged chariot in the Phædrus, with its two horses depicting the two lower parts of the soul. Here, there is only one horse, the symbol of a monolithic materialistic soul unable to move and as dead as the body that is inside it. This horse that plays the role of a soul around the body of man may also remind us of the Trojan horse, that instrument of deceit and war that gave the Greeks victory over the Trojan in the legendary war that was at the root of Greek pseudo-unity and at the heart of their culture and education. It stands for the purely external "soul" that defines man in a society which cares only for social behavior and external appearance, which finds pride only in its wars and victories and is not ashamed of the evil means it uses to reach its goals. "Inside" that empty soul opened at all winds, which is not the product of nature, but the work of human "art" and yet doesn't look like a man, inside that lifeless monster deprived of logos, there lies a dead body, naked and larger than nature, symbol of what science may find under its scalpel and show of man. Man may indeed look great when science explains to us the wonders of its complex organism, but science will never explain what the "spirit" is, the spirit that makes man capable of "knowing" purely intelligible beings and sharing in "eternal" truths, the soul that holds together a material body and an immaterial logos and brings life to the whole ; most important, science will never tell us what this sophisticated machine should become, what his true good is. There is no sun inside the cave.
The only thing that may be seen on the dead body, naked as on the day of his birth, is a golden ring (daktulion) at his hand. This ring, unlike the chain the prisoners of the cave have to get rid of, which is a consequence of their very nature, is a man-made sign of external wealth, but a wealth that amounts to almost nothing in the face of death. It is the ring of culture that binds together men of succeeding generations, one of the many rings (3) of a chain which, according to Socrates in the Ion (see Ion, 533d, ssq and 535e-536a), brings the inspiration of the poets, those founding fathers of Greek civilization, like the magnetic force that stems from the Heracleian stone, down to the spectator of the reciter's show, in what was one of the staples of Greek education in Plato's time and that he fought so hard because, to him, that chain of inspiration doesn't lead us all the way up to "Zeus, the god of gods, who reigns by laws" (Critias, 121b), but stops at the Muses, who could only inspire the first part of Socrates' first speech in the Phædrus, a speech which speaks to our feelings rather than to our reason. It is the ring that Hippias had manufactured for himself, as everything he was wearing at Olympia (see Hippias minor, 368b-e), the first item in the long list of his works detailed by Socrates, the first proof of his supposedly universal knowledge, a scientific and technical knowledge that doesn't make him capable of telling good from evil, or even of explaining what beauty is. It is the signet whose mark (sèmeion) in the wax of the soul might stand for the bearer, Theodorus or Theætetus (or Gyges or one of his ancestors), if only our soul were a wax tablet (see Theætetus, 191d and 193b-c). It is the ring which, in Socrates' discussion with young Alcibiades, should not be confused with the hand and even less with the true self (4) when deciding how we should go about taking care of ourselves (Alcibiades, 128a and 128e).
And the ring that Gyges or his ancestor, turned into a tomb looter, steals from the dead body and deliberately puts on his finger, like a newly found truth about himself unearthed in physics and history, will turn him, when he returns where he came from, into a leader enslaving his fellow men, not into a teacher freeing them from their natural chains. Yet, to reach this point, some more testing is needed to find the true "power" of the ring, the newly found truth about man, in social life. But here again, the test will come, not from a deliberate attempt to use reason, but as a result of mere chance. And what the holder of the ring will find, and what will lead him to a new level of wonderment, is that, by looking at himself with this new tool, he becomes invisible, in other words, he can escape responsibility ! If man is only what science shows of him, nothing but a highly sophisticated bunch of cells whose behavior is the result of chemical processes resulting from impressions of the senses, then he is not responsible for his acts. If the soul is no more than some sort of Freudian unconscious conditioned by his environment and past history, where is his free will ?... Back from the depth of the earth and in full light, wearing his new find, the shepherd is not even a shadow on the wall in the midst of the assembly of men. His fellow shepherds won't even ridicule him, as do the prisoners in the cave with the returning freed man blinded by the light of the sun outside (Republic, VII, 516e-517a), they simply don't see him as soon as he becomes the focus of inquiry (by turning the collet of the ring toward himself) : he no longer "exists" as a man, a responsible man, that is. And yet, he has no trouble convincing them to let him represent them to the king, whereas the man returning to the cave after having "seen" the truth outside is in high risk of getting killed by his fellow prisoners if he tries to compete with them. Most people prefer the illusions they themselves build around them to the hard seen truth from a far away "place".
It is only at this stage of the story, at the very end of a quest that was from beginning to end the work of chance, that eros, love, comes into the picture : physical love and hunger for power have now free rein in the "invisible" man, and they lead him to the top. This is certainly not the kind of love Socrates is advocating in the Symposium, and it looks much more like the disguised love of Lysias trying to seduce Phædrus, if it is love at all : we are only told that the shepherd "seduced" the queen (5) and, if it implies at least physical intercourse, it may well be no more than cunning on the part of the shepherd to reach his end. More ! the end result of such "love" is adultery and crime, death for the king and usurpation of power by one of his subjects. Sure ! the knowledge that you get from the depth of matter makes you better armed to (temporarily) win in the struggle for life on earth than the light you receive from outside the cave, from seeing the good itself. But then, you too end up like anybody else, a dead corpse beneath the earth, naked as on the day of your birth, and someone else steals the ring...
And if we remember that not long ago, in the midst of his discussion with Socrates, Thrasymachus used shepherds as an image of rulers, when claiming that rulers seek their own interest, not that of their "flock" (Republic, I, 343b), we may want to see in the shepherds of Gyges' story an image of selfish rulers, and then, in the king, an image of the demiourgos, the god who created the kosmos, and in the queen an image of "matter" he "espoused" for such a creation (6). Then, the final usurpation is that of a ruler who embraces materialistic views to kill the gods and make himself god in front of men. It reminds us of Critias, Plato's cousin, both sophist and tyrant, who, in one of the few extant fragments of his works, talks of the gods as the invention of some shrewd man to hold his fellow-men in check through fear and the sentiment of guilt (DK, fr. B, XXV).
Even the name of Gyges shows that he is bound to the earth : it is built around the word gè, which means "earth" (7). Thus, in a sense, Gyges is something like Mr. Earthling or Mr. Roundearth !... And his origin doesn't plead in his favor : he is a Lydian, as are some musical modes of which the least we can say is that they were not Plato's favorite, if we are to judge by what he has Socrates say about them at Republic, III, 398e. They are modes not even fit for women, let alone for guardians of the city, leading to drunkenness, softness and laziness.
Indeed, the names of Gyges and Lydia, a country once renowned for its abundance of gold and life of luxury, might ring another bell : at the beginning of his Histories, written sometime during the second half of the Vth century BCE, Herodotus seeks the origin of the Medean wars in the story of Croesus, the wealthy king of Lydia whose dynasty started with the usurpation of no other than Gyges. The story of Gyges as told by Herodotus (Histories, I,7,1-I,12,2) widely differs from that of Plato. In it, Gyges is no longer a shepherd, but the favorite bodyguard of the king. It is the king himself, so proud of his beloved wife's beauty, who arranges for Gyges to see her naked in their bedroom so that he may judge by his own eyes that she is the most beautiful woman in the world. Unfortunately, the queen, unnoticed to Gyges, catches sight of him when he tries to surreptitiously leave the room, but says nothing at the time. The following day, she summons him and offers him the choice either to kill the king, marry her and take his place, or to get killed for having seen her naked. In order to save his own life, Gyges accepts to kill the kind, and, once again, this time with the help of the queen, becomes invisible in the royal bedroom to take advantage of the king's sleep to dispose of him.
Though, from a literal standpoint, these are two quite different stories, it might be possible to see how Plato reworked Herodotus' tale of a singular event to give it a more universal meaning (8). The king of Lydia of Herodotus' story gives way, in the first part of Plato's story, to the king of the universe and his most beautiful wife becomes his created world, that Gyges is induced to admire by the power of the king's might leading him to a naked body. The ring that he steals is the bond that ties him to the queen as soon as she catches sight of him fleeing. Once you have started investigating the laws of matter, you are faced with two choices from mother nature : either you accept your mortal condition and death when it pleases her, or else you try to get rid of the gods and enjoy life so long as it lasts. But whether he submits to the king's will (who tempts him into watching his naked wife) or to the queen's (who induces him to kill the king to save his life), so long as he renounces his own free will, Gyges soon finds himself "invisible" in the royal bedroom...
Yet if Plato starts his inquiry into justice by the story of a man who tries to escape responsibility for his acts, then, after showing us, in the body of the discussion, how, far from plunging into deeper chasms inside the earth, we should ascend on the path of education from the chasm we live in (9) up the hill toward the only truth that can free us from the invisible chains binding us to our cave and make us responsible leaders of others, he concludes his inquiry by putting us in front of the existential choice that awaits us. The myth of Er (Republic, X, 614b-621b) is meant to show us that whatever we become in life is our free choice ; the only obligation we are subjected to by necessity is to choose.
Indeed, the myth of Er may be viewed as another reversal of the story of Gyges in more than one way, not only because it depicts many bodiless souls facing their own responsibility with regard to their whole earthly and heavenly life in opposition to one soulless body evading his own responsibility to better his material earthly life. One starts with the many deaths in battle of brave warriors that induce a flock of souls to walk toward a marvelous (daimonion) meadow where preexist four everlasting chasms (chasmata) leading toward and coming from both the heaven above and the depth of the earth below to end with an earthquake (seismon) that sends souls back to life like shooting stars, whereas the other starts with an earthquake (seismou) that opens a single new chasm (chasma) at the feet of a shepherd in the very meadow where he is pasturing his flock of sheep and induces him to go down into an underground tomb full of wonders (thaumasta) to end with the single death of a king that sits the shepherd turned murderer in his throne. But, at first glance, the myth of Er might also seem to reverse the allegory of the cave : men living under the sun are supposed to learn from someone coming back from the kingdom of the shades (10).
The fact is, the whole story of Er needs to be read with care and turned upside down in more than one way. Spatially, it nowhere says that it takes place in the "underworld", and only implies it by talking about the dead. In fact, it takes great care to avoid naming the place (11) and to describe a location which, for all practical purposes, seems to be on the surface of the earth, halfway between heaven and the underworld : this is quite obvious in the description at the beginning of the four chasms, of which two open in heaven and two in the earth (Republic, X, 614c) and nowhere else in the ensuing story does it become more specific. The location is not even described as a high mountain (close to heaven) or a deep valley (near under the earth), but as a huge meadow (ton leimôna, 614e ; tô leimôni, 616b) and then as a plain (pedion, 621a). If anything, we might even feel closer to heaven as the story spends quite some time describing what looks like the whole universe under the form of the spindle of Necessity. The only description of what may properly be called the underworld comes as a story inside the story, with the answer to the question about Ardiæus the tyrant (615d-616a). Thus, we should not have to make a great effort to see this world as our world and all these souls as more living than dead.
Another indication that the story might not be about the underworld after all comes at the very beginning. Before starting the myth, Socrates warns us, with a play on words, that he is not about to tell "a tale to Alcinous (Alkinou apologon), but that of a brave man (alkimou andros)" (Republic, X, 614b). The pun may be read at several levels : on the surface, the expression "tale to Alcinous", referring to books IX-XII of the Odyssey, had become proverbial for a lengthy tale, and there is some irony on the part of Plato, at the end of the ten dense books of discussion that make up the Republic, to warn the reader that what is to come should not be too long ! But, if we dig a little deeper and remember what is in the original "tale to Alcinous" in the Odyssey, we'll find that a good deal of it tells the story of Odysseus' trip into Hades and evocation of the souls of the dead, a story Plato refers to to criticize it and its likes at the start of book III (see note 10). Thus, after more criticism of Homer in the first part of book X, Plato subtly warns us that he is not writing another such tale. Somehow, he is not talking about the dead, but about the living, and for the living, and he expects us to do a bit of "decoding" homework : it is not before our birth that we choose once and for all the sort of life we will live but during it, otherwise education would be of no avail... One way of seeing this is to start at the end, that is at birth and read the myth backward toward death. And that's not all yet ! It is only if we look at the meaning of the name Alcinous that we can get the full import of the pun and realize how "serious" Plato may be even when joking : Alki-nous indeed means "strong mind" and, by opposing the strong mind (alki-nou) to the brave man (alkimou andros), Plato is warning us that this story of dead souls is not about disembodied minds floating in the air, strong as they may be, or about some Anaxagorean nous (12) ruling the whole cosmos, but about whole men, body and soul, mind and matter, brave guardians ready to fight for their lives and defend their cities, be it in war or in everyday's life.
Another hint that, from a temporal standpoint, we should read the story backwards comes in the middle of it. As usual with Plato, the center of the story holds the key to it. In the myth of Er, the center (Republic, X, 617b-e) introduces the three daughters of Necessity (Anagkè), the Fates (Moiras, whose name also means "shares") about to distribute "models of lives (biôn paradeigmata)" (shares to choose from, not fates to be imposed upon us). The central section splits in two parts : first, the presentation of the three Fates and their place in the overall structure of the universe as a conclusion of the description that preceded ; second, the proclamation of a prophet initiating the choice of lives that is to follow. Both parts are meant to show that men alone, not gods or laws of nature, are responsible for their own fate. This is said in plain words at the end of the prophet's proclamation : "the responsibility is in he who chooses, god is not responsible (aitia elomenou, theos anaitois)" (Republic, X, 617e), but the purpose of the description of the structure of the universe that ends with the introduction of the Fates is to show that the laws of necessity are only meant to maintain order and harmony into the created world (13), not to deny man's freedom. And as if to prove it, the first act of the prophet at the service of the Fates is to "arrange the souls in orderly intervals (en taxei diastèsai)" (Republic, X, 617d, which is almost the exact middle of the myth). In all that order, there is only one slight problem : the role of each of the three Fates doesn't fit with the meaning of each one's name in respect with all that is said everywhere else in the myth ! Lachesis, whose name means "destiny" is telling the past ("ta gegonota, the things that have become") while Atropos, whose name means "unchangeable", is telling the future ("ta mellonta, the things that must happen"). Clotho alone, whose name means "spinster", seems to be at her place, standing in the middle and telling the present ("ta onta, the things that are"). To give each Fate her due role, we only have to reverse the order so that Lachesis, Destiny, who in effect presides over the choices of lives, will tell the future while Atropos seals the past to make it unchangeable. Or we may decide that, in this tale where the dead are living and the living dead, the future is the past and vice-versa, which amounts to reading the story backwards !
Read this way, the story starts at dawn (eôthen, 621b) with birth, that is, with the embodiment of souls that come with a heavenly dimension in them (they look like shooting stars, asteras, 621b, that is, they have something godly in their look, and we know this to be their logos). The messenger that is supposed to give them hope goes by the name of Spring (14) and in fact, as seen by the name of his kin, Pamphylia, is any one of us (15). All our efforts in life should tend to "remember" the things from "above", with the help of the daimôn assigned to us (617e, 620d), that divine "share" (moira) within our soul, in order to help us make the right choices in life, the right choice of life ; to "remember" the things from above or, in fact, as the allegory of the cave shows us, to move toward them, not to dig the earth for a truth about ourselves that we won't find there, as the story of Gyges shows. Destiny only decides when we live (the casting of the lots in front of Lachesis), not how we live. Then, as we grow older, we may come to realize that the laws of nature are not a "ring" that "frees" us from any responsibility in our acts, but a model of order and harmony that we should strive to imitate, and this is the first step in getting rid of the chains that bind us in the "cave". The man-made horse than surrounds a dead body in the story of Gyges gives way to the celestial spheres that surround our world and Gyges' ring gives way to the lot that sets the time each one has to face his responsibility in choosing his "model" of life. Eventually, when comes the time of death and judgment, we will raise or fall according to our own behavior in life.
Now, if we look at the structure of each of these three stories, the story of Gyges, the allegory of the cave and the myth of Er, we'll find more grounds for wanting to read the myth of Er both ways :
Unearthing the ring
State of the prisoners in the cave
Origin and judgment of the souls
Uncovering the power of the ring
Structure of the universe
The journey toward the sun
Principles of choice of life
Using the power of the ring
Judgment and trip back
Choices of lives and birth of the souls
Note : the numbers in parenthesis after the references give the number of lines in the Greek text of the Budé edition for comparison of sizes.
All three stories may be divided in three parts : one deals with phusis, nature, some sort of "inital state" ; another one deals with logos, the rationale, the explaining power, of what is to happen ; and a third one deals with krisis, judgment, action, choice, that is, the change in state that results from applying the power found in the logos section.
In the story of Gyges, the three sections follow in that order, but they are unbalanced. First comes the description of Gyges initial state, of the nature he lives in and of the trip he is led to make in the depths of it. Then, we see him uncovering the power of his find brought back from the cave/tomb, the ring that makes him invisible at will. This section is the longest of the three and, in it, we find, at the exact center of the whole story, the keyword of Gyges' "logos" : tukein, the verb meaning "to happen by chance", used to describe how he came about finding the power of the ring ! Everything that happens to Gyges to improve his condition happens by chance until he becomes invisible ! The third part of the story is quite short : having found the power to seemingly evade responsibility, Gyges decides to become king and soon reaches his goal.
In the allegory of the cave, the three sections follow in the same order but, in this story, they are in perfect balance. The first part describes the "natural" state of the prisoners, that is, us, in the cave before the educative process. The second part describes the educative process that leads us all the way up to the "sun", that is, to the idea of the good that provides the true rationale for all our acts. The middle of the story falls at the point where the prisoner is "forced" to leave the cave and starts climbing the hill outside. In comparison with the story of Gyges, the keyword of this process is no longer "chance" but "force (bia, 515e)", constraint, pain ; the verb anagkazein, to force, built on the word anagkè, necessity, which is the name of the mother of the Fates we see at length in the myth of Er, occurs three times in this section (515c6, d5 and e1) which opens and closes on replies by Glaucon reinforcing this feeling of necessity ("pollè anagkè, quite necessarily", 515c3 ; "anagkaion, necessarily", 516b8). But this necessity has very little to do with fate and a lot to do with the rational requirement that we get the proper education and come to see the truth. And the force that has to be used to compel the prisoner to turn toward the light and climb is as much moral strength as it is bodily constraint ; it is as much the act of the teacher as it is the effort of the will under the leadership of the logos to tame the passions and desires that satisfy themselves with the cave. Once the prisoner has seen the sun itself, the third part describes the effects of this sight, the judgment that the educated freed man lays on his fellow prisoners, and the judgment that they lay on him when he gets back to the cave.
With the story of Er, things are not so simple. The central section on logos occupies almost half of the whole story and splits in two parts of equal length to present two orders of explanation : the order of the laws of the cosmic nature, the laws of the universe, the laws of Anagkè and her three daughters the Moirai, on the one hand ; the order of the laws of humankind, the laws that preside over man's choice of his way of life, on the other hand. The first order is an answer to what Gyges was looking for : not a phusis that deprives man of responsibility and makes him invisible, but a cosmic harmony that provides man with a world to live in and a model to imitate. The second order details the practical implications of the educative process depicted in the central section of the allegory of the cave, in terms of ways of choosing a lifestyle. And the central subsection (that is, the concluding lines of section 2 and the opening lines of section 3 that make up the center of the myth), already analyzed above, makes it clear that these two orders of reasons don't interfere with one another, that the laws of nature don't deprive man of his freedom of choice and of his responsibility in his choices. Gyges may think he has become invisible once he puts himself under the scalpel of science, and he may be for his fellow prisoners who don't care for the light of the sun, but he is not for the judges above, who will some day seal his fate and turn his "chance" around.
On either side of this dual section on logos, we may read the two surrounding sections two ways, depending on which way we read the whole story, and which order of explanation we give precedence to. Reading the story forward, we will see in the first section another myth about the nature of the soul, reminiscent of the myth of the Phædrus in Socrates' second speech : what will become of the souls depends in large part upon what they have seen in their travel before birth, either in the heaven or under the earth. Then the last section depicts the judgment that results from this in the choice of life. But, taken literally, this way of looking at things amounts to another sort of fatality : for us down on earth, we are only playing a movie whose script has been written already, maybe by our own soul, but it was before she drank the water of carelessness in the plain of oblivion (Republic, X, 621a). The end result is that there is little if anything we can do to change the script, education in this life is of no use and we may be technically responsible of our fate but it takes some believing, and fate it remains for all practical purposes ! Such a reading lay the stress on the first order of reasons, ill understood.
But if, once again, we read the story backwards, then the various "models" of life men choose from in the last section become first depict the different "natures" they may be born with, and the initial section become last describes the judgment of the souls at the end of their lives, not by themselves, but by the judges up above. In the reading, the order of reasons given in section 3 (the principles of choice of life) become prevalent and the educative process called for by the allegory of the cave is paramount. In this reading alone does man's freedom find its due place.
Or rather, it is only if we accept both readings, both orders of explanations, if we understand that it is not because there is something in us that binds us to the "earth" that it prevents the other part in us that comes from "above" to play its role, if we realize that the laws of nature don't deprive us from our freedom of choice, that we may properly play the part that is expected from us. All what's required is that we find the glitch in between the two parts that must be fixed to turn a destiny around from a past already sealed into a future to be built. But, with the Republic, we are only halfway through the journey of the dialogues, the climb depicted in the allegory of the cave. The two orders of explanations shortly alluded to here will eventually be developed at length in the last trilogy, which opens with a reminder of the Republic : the Timæus develops the understanding of the laws of the universe in what still gives itself for a myth, and details the respective role of anagkè and rational thinking in the order of the kosmos, while the Laws provide a comprehensive description of the organization of a well behaved city of men, a city in which men can live worthy lives, no matter what their lot was to begin with. But to move from one to the other, we must find the glitch which leads to the Critias' interruption, we must use our judgment, raised by the long journey with Socrates and the dialogues, to come to see that Critias is not about to build a future along the lines of Socrates' ideal from the Republic, but that he is rewriting a mythical past in a new Iliad to better defuse Socrates' revolutionary proposals : he is turning time around the wrong way !...
(1) The Greek text in the manuscripts reads : "tô Gugou tou Ludou progonô", which translates "to the ancestor of Gyges the Lydian". Yet, at Republic, X, 612b, Plato mentions "the ring of Gyges". I won't try to reconcile these two texts for the time being, but I feel authorized by Plato's later reference to call the holder of the ring Gyges. (back)
(2) The verb thaumazein, to wonder, and the word thaumasta, wonders, are found three times in a few lines in this story : thaumasanta (359d5), thaumasta (359d6), thaumazein (360a2). (back)
(3) In all of the instances mentioned in this paragraph, it is the same word, "daktulios", which is used by Plato to designate whatever I call "ring". The only other place where he uses this word is toward the end of the Republic (Republic, X, 612b4 et b5), just before telling the story of Er, to refer the reader, in the conclusion of the discussion on true justice that got started by Glaucon's speech, to "the ring of Gyges". (back)
(4) The confusion between the ring and the hand is easier in Greek where the word for ring, daktulios, differs from the word for finger, daktulos, by only one letter. And the hand might easily be viewed as an apt "summary" of man from a "naturalistic" standpoint, in that it is the nature-provided tool that enables man to "manufacture" (from a Latin word that etymologically means "to build with hands") a world of his own, to turn the concepts of his mind into visible artifacts. Indeed, according to Aristotle (Parts of Animals, 687a7), "Anaxagoras says that it is by virtue of having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals" ; and he himself says elsewhere (On the Soul, 432a1) that "the soul is like a hand ; for the hand is a tool (organon) for tools, and the mind a form (eidos) for forms, and sensation a form for sensations." Thus, the ring is the product of the hand for the hand, that may turn into a symbol of absolute power when it becomes a signet at the hand of a king. (back)
(5) The verb that is used, moicheuein, means "to commit adultery" and is found nowhere else in the dialogues. (back)
(6) This would be in keeping with the common view at the time, still advocated by Aristotle, that, in the process of generation, man provides the "formal" element and woman the "matter". (back)
(7) The first part of his name might even give a shape to this earth, if we are willing to see in gu- the same root as in guros, circle, and guès, a name that designates the curved piece of wood in a plough. (back)
(8) And this might help explain why, if the text of our manuscripts are not corrupt (see note 1), Plato talks about "the ancestor of Gyges the Lydian", and not of Gyges himself. It is and is not the same story, and, by pushing it even further back in the past, that is, closer to the "origins", he gives it a broader bearing. But the link with Gyges' story must be kept through Gyges' name, to help us draw the parallel with the beginning of Herodotus' Histories. Plato is not writing the history of one unjust war that was at the root of Athens' glory, he is writing the "history" of justice itself... (back)
(9) The same word, chasma, used by Plato to describe the opening in the earth in which Gyges plunges, is also used by Socrates in the myth at the end of the Phædo to describe the openings in the earth where men live their mortal lives (Phædo, 111c8, 111e6, 112a5). (back)
(10) The same Greek word, skia, designates the shadows on the wall of the cave and the shadowy souls of the dead that, for instance, Odysseus evokes in book XI of the Odyssey (Odyssey, X, 495), a verse that Plato quotes in book III of the Republic (Republic, III, 386d) as an example of wrong ideas about death found in the works of poets. (back)
(11) And beware of translators that are not always as careful ! At Republic, X, 614b, we are told that Er came back to life and "related what he had seen there (ekei ; Shorey's translation in Loeb : "in the world beyond")" ; a few lines later, at 614d, Er is told by the judges "that he was to become a messenger to men of things from there (tôn ekei ; Chambry translation in French in Budé : "les nouvelles de ce monde souterrain")" and is instructed "to listen and observe everything in the place (en tô topô)". It is true that the word ekei is often used as euphemism for "in Hades", but Shorey himself, in a note ad loc., points at a reference in the allegory of the cave (516c) where the same word ekei refers to the cave (again at 520c), and to another in book VI (500c) where it refers to the "world of the ideas". Thus, it is better to keep the ambiguity in the translation that was probably deliberate on the part of Plato. (back)
(12) See Phædo, 97b-99d for the story of Socrates' disillusion about Anaxagoras' nous. (back)
(13) The mention of Sirens singing in harmony with the Fates (Republic, X, 617b-c) may be another reminder of "the tale to Alcinous" : it is in this part of the Odyssey that Odysseus tell of the encounter with the Sirens (Odyssey, XII, 37-200). But Plato's Sirens are not there to get men out of their way but to induce them to copy their harmony in their lives. (back)
(14) The name of Er (èr, contracted form of ear) means "spring" (the season). But this name, whose only mention, at 614b, is the genitive form èros, evokes much more than that. It looks like the masculine form of Hera, the name of Zeus' wife, except for the smooth breathing replacing the rough one. And if we look at what Plato has to say about the etymology of Hera in the Cratylus (Cratylus, 404b-c), we see that he associates it with love (eros) through the adjective "lovable (eratè)", but also with air (aer), which, applied to Er, opposes him to Gyges the earthling : hope is not in our material, earthly nature, but in our celestial, godly power of thought and understanding, and in the power of love that sets it on the move. (back)
(15) Panphulos, the name of Er's tribe, means "of all tribes or races". Shorey suggests in a note that he might as well have translated "to genos Pamphulou" by "of the tribe of Everyman". And while we are at names, the name of Er's father, Armenius (tou Armeniou) is a close call for Harmony (armonia), a concept dear to Plato and central to the whole Republic, as well as to the myth of Er, with the "harmony of the Sirens" mentioned at its center (617c). (back)