Posts filed under ‘Philosophy’
I have an acquaintance who is currently doing his PhD in bioethics and who recently published a paper on bioconservatives vs. bioliberals. That is, he is concerned with the ethical questions in enhancing or even perfecting humans through science and technology.
As a layman, I definitely learned something from the paper about the current debate within this particular field of ethics and, as my acquaintance put it, about “the crucial question of the ultimate goals of biotechnological interventions.”
As he explained to me, the main criticism of the paper is directed against people who “refuse to speak of an ideal at all,” although they “cannot avoid having an ideal influencing the way they wish to enhance.”
I think I agree. But in the paper, he charges bioconservatives with an “untenable ambiguity between criticizing and endorsing ideas of human perfection,” meaning that by not wanting to use (or restricting the use of) science and technology to enhance human perfection, they, themselves, have a certain idea of the perfect human being in mind, namely one that is not enhanced.
In the paper, there are also charges made against bioliberals, but I’d like to restrict my comments to the charge against bioconservatives for now.
Of course, it is true that anyone who makes any kind of proposition in regard to human behavior has some kind of ideal in mind. Otherwise the person would not make a proposition at all. People who say that everyone should do as they please have the ideal of individual autonomy in mind. People who say that human perfectibility is not desirable thereby say that another human state is more desirable and hence, in a certain sense, more perfect.
But this observation, as true as it is, seems to me little more than a tautology. It says little more than, “People who make a normative statement, no matter of what kind, have a certain norm in mind.” Naturally. But does that merit the charge that bioconservatives have an “untenable ambiguity” in regard to human perfectibility? I doubt it.
To make clearer why I doubt the merit of this charge, let me use a few (rather old) examples from other fields. Take political philosophy, for instance. According to the thinking of the paper, one may charge Machiavelli’s realpolitik with the same kind of “untenable ambiguity” as the paper charges bioconservatives, because Machiavelli makes the prescriptive (=idealistic) statement that a ruler should not be too idealistic but rather use whatever methods work to maintain order and protect the city state against enemies. One could then take the criticism of Machiavelli’s ambiguity further and claim that his Prince is really just as idealistic as Plato’s Philosopher-King, because he makes just as many normative statements about him as Plato does about his explicitly ideal ruler. Therefore, one might say, Machiavelli should bring his implicit idealism into the light of explicit discussion instead of pretending that he is abandoning the political idealism of the likes of Plato.
However, to my mind, such a charge is more sophistic than helpful and blurs the very important distinction between the idealism of Plato’s Philosopher-King and the realpolitik of Machiavelli’s Prince. Plato is clearly an idealist (at least if we take the text of his Republic at face value) and Machiavelli is clearly a realist (at least in the Prince), and making normative statements about being flexibly realistic does not make him an idealist.
To give another example, this time from the earliest literature we possess, which already deals with the big themes of the human condition and the ideal human life: In the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient king of Uruk (modern-day Iraq) called Gilgamesh loses his best friend and realizes that he, too, shall one day die. Hence, he goes on a quest to find immortality, but in vain. Not only does he learn that immortality is reserved for the one couple that survived the Great Flood in a boat, because it was a unique situation that led the gods to bestow immortality on them, but the rejuvenating Plant of Life is also stolen from Gilgamesh by a serpent. Gilgamesh therefore has to accept his mortality, and he proceeds to engage in great building projects in order to make a lasting name for himself in that way.
The Epic of Gilgamesh seems to make the point that, in order for a human to flourish, he or she needs to accept their mortality. In other words, the story can be said to set up a kind of ideal of what the good life is, but at the same time the story conveys the strong message that the good human life is far from perfect. “Ideal under the very imperfect circumstances” is not the same as perfection.
Or take that famous inscription at the temple of Delphi. There, the Greeks were instructed to “know thyself,” that is, to know the limits of the human condition, and this self-knowledge can be said to have been an ideal. But the ideal consisted precisely in the acknowledgment that, under the circumstances, humans are not and can never be perfect.
In my view, it would be confusing to say that recognizing the existence of imperfection as a precondition for many good things is to erect another standard of perfection, as the paper seems to charge certain bioconservatives with doing. It is not another standard of perfection but simply the recognition that certain good things hinge on the existence of imperfection.
That’s the two cents from a layman for now, written with much ignorance about the details of today’s bioethical debate.
This is going to be my third and last post about the concept of the “second naïveté” (click here and here to read the first two posts). As I mentioned in the first post, my findings are based on a little research I did in my e-library.
One idea I came across during my reading was to put the concept of the second naïveté within the context of mystical religious experience in relation to analytical critique. The Modern West was marked by privileging the mind as distinct from the body, and ultimately divorcing it from religious language and experience. The Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements points out that Ricoeur’s concept of the second naïveté makes the believer re-appropriate religious language and experience, even while he or she acknowledges critical understanding alongside these more subjective forms of being.
“The sheer diversity and seeming ubiquity of mysticism in a variety of societies and times,” says the Encyclopedia, “testifies at least to family resemblances among different cultures and systems of belief, including indigenous tribal communities, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The tendency in the Western world to privilege the mind as distinct from the body and the West’s insistence on doctrinal formulations as essential to religious experience are frequently repudiated in mystical accounts, where the experience is as much somatic as intellectual. As a result, many Westerners living in the disenchanted world of modern technology have sought out romanticized versions of Eastern or tribal mysticism to compensate for and to remedy the dualism typical of some Judeo-Christian religious sensibilities.” In this context, the second naïveté could be seen as a counter balance to the extreme mind-centeredness of European religion in the Modern age.
An even more general way of looking at the concept of the second naïveté, one not bound to religion, is the way we read any text, not just religious texts. Victor Nell, a South-African psychologist, sees four stages in reading: (1) attention, (2) modest comprehension, (3) absorption, which then can, for some readers, conclude in (4) entrancement. Stephen Happel compares this to “Ricoeur’s understanding of reading as an interpretive spiral that begins with a guess, develops through validation and explanation, and issues in comprehension and appropriation. In turn, therefore, the reader moves from a naive appreciation of symbols and metaphors through criticism to a second naiveté. See Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory, 71–88” (Metaphors for God’s Time in Science and Religion).
But though my little digging in my e-library has clearly shown Ricoeur to be the main propagator of the “second naïveté,” he is not the only one who uses this concept. The Encyclopedia for Social Theory, for instance, summarizes part of the philosophy of the German thinker Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) in this way: “If we cannot live the lives of others with the original experience of them, we can, through interpretation, attain a second naïveté. It is through interpretation that we can see and hear again, that we can come to understand others and, thence, ourselves.”
And, according to the Blackwell’s Companion to Pragmatism, Hilary Putman characterized the evolution of his own thinking also in terms of a second naïveté: “Ideas like this seem to put significant distance between Putnam and the historical pragmatists, and in the 1990s he announced that he was giving up his ‘internal’ or ‘pragmatic realism’ in favor of a ‘natural realism’ or a ‘second naïveté’ that better acknowledged the distinctness of the world, or many parts of it, anyway, from our beliefs and the experiences we use to verify them.”
But the main other author whom I found to repeatedly use the term “second naïveté” is Theodor Adorno. In fact, in a biography about Adorno, Detlev Claussen says that the “second naïveté” is the kind of philosophy that Adorno aspired to: “Adorno generated distance as if he needed the space between himself and others as a protective cloak. He could charm people with his voice and his look, in which melancholy and loneliness could often be read, as well as an interest that suddenly flared up or curiosity, an infinite astonishment as well as a kind of naïveté about which one could never be sure whether it was a hangover from childhood or the ‘second naïveté’ he aspired to that was supposed to become manifest after all reflection had been completed.”
Hence, Adorno writes about Marcel Proust that his “naïveté is a second naïveté. At every stage of consciousness a new and broader immediacy arises. Whereas Valéry’s conservative belief in culture as a pure thing in itself affords incisive criticism of a culture which tends by its very historical nature to destroy everything self-subsistent, Proust’s most characteristic mode of perception, his extraordinary sensitivity to changes in modes of experience, has as its paradoxical result the ability to perceive history as landscape” (Adorno, Prisms).
In the same book, Adorno mentions the “second naïveté in Hofmannsthal’s poetry,” by which he means Hofmannsthal’s ability to portray innocence, but not naive innocence, rather “deliberate, cultivated innocence about which there can be no mistake, which goes directly to the heart and enthralls with all the power with which perfection is endowed.”
However, Adorno did not see the attempt of a second naïveté as always successful. He writes about the composer Richard Strauss that “his consciousness denied itself the critical self-reflection of which it was unquestionably capable; he stuffed his ears with cotton and relied on himself. His attitude may have suited his innate disposition, not wholly formed by musical culture. But the sacrifice, a second naïveté, definitely did not turn out for the best. His refusal to listen critically to his innovations deprived them of their own consequence. He combined them with whatever in the traditional stock in trade happened to please him by means of links which were either flimsy or nonexistent” (taken from an essay by Adorno on Strauss).
All right, enough digging in my e-library for now.
In a recent discussion on certain historical accounts from Antiquity, I brought up Donald Kagan’s concept of the “higher naïveté.” This caused one of my discussion partners to mention the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur and his notion of the “second naïveté.”
I had never heard of it, and all my knowledge of Paul Ricoeur (which is very little) has been second hand. But I do actually have several of his books in my e-library, and I took the opportunity to dig around a little.
From what I could find out, Ricoeur uses the idea of a second naïveté mostly within the context of religious faith and hermeneutics, that is, for how to read and interpret a text. Within Christian hermeneutics, this text is mostly the Bible, but principles of hermeneutics can also apply to other texts.
In Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur talks about the philosophy of suspicion set up by Freud and others, and he says that the opposite of suspicion is faith. But what faith? “No longer, to be sure, the first faith of the simple soul, but rather the second faith of one who has engaged in hermeneutics, faith that has undergone criticism, post-critical faith.” The maxim of such post-critical faith is, “Believe in order to understand, understand in order to believe.”
Ricoeur sees the second naïveté as the climax of the battle between reductionism and “a retrieval of the original meaning of the symbol” (see The Rule of Metaphor). If I understand him correctly, he says that you can either (1) reduce a text to “nothing but …” and hence explain its meaning away, (2) attempt to retrieve the original meaning of the text, or (3) wrestle with both of these opposing approaches to the text to finally reach a second naïveté, which does not completely reject criticism of the text, but still finds it relevant for now.
This second naïveté is, as Richard Kearney has put it in an essay, “authentic faith after the dogmatic prejudices of one’s first naïveté have been purged.” Kearney says that Ricoeer “speaks accordingly of debunking false religious fetishisms so that the symbols of the eschatological sacred may speak again” (“Returning to God after God: Levinas, Derrida, Ricoeur”).
One way of summarizing Ricoeur’s distinctions is to say that there are three stages: the pre-critical, the critical, and the post-critical stage. The pre-critical is the first naïveté, and the post-critical is the second naïveté. Hans W. Frei says in The Bible and the Narrative Tradition that post-critical reading attempts to do the opposite of what the “masters of suspicion” à la Freud had done and engages in a “hermeneutics of restoration.”
In a similar vein, The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation quotes Ricoeur as saying, “Hermeneutics seem to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen.” The Cambridge Companion goes on to say that “Ricoeur speaks of faith in this context. Idols must be destroyed, but this may generate ‘faith that has undergone criticism, post-critical faith… a second naïveté’ [compare quote above]. This has direct relevance to biblical studies. The axis of suspicion encourages Ideologiekritik of the text and suspicion concerning the vested interests of the interpreter and the interpreter’s community-traditions. What subtexts lie beneath both the biblical text and the interpreter’s goals, methods and conclusions? We begin to travel the road of social and ideological critique of ‘interest’ explored further by Habermas, as well as issues of manipulation and power exposed by Michel Foucault and others. Nevertheless Ricoeur’s most brilliant work stands on the side of retrieval and creative understanding.”
One may even take a very broad brush and see the pre-critical, the critical, and the post-critical as historical stages of the Christian West, the pre-critical being the general Christian consensus prior to Modernity, the critical being the reductionism that marked Modernity, and the post-critical being the Zeitgeist of post-modernism.
But this really is a very broad brush, since, unlike the fragmentization of post-modernism, “Ricoeur does not wish hermeneutics to collapse into a diversity that loses its overall coherence and sense of direction. He resists the postmodern turn of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, even if he appreciates their concerns in the context of intellectual life in the Paris of the late 1960s and 1970s; and shares some of them. The greatness of Gadamer and especially Ricoeur lies in their capacity to address the distrust and suspicions of postmodern contextualism while insisting that life and truth also offer much more” (Cambridge Companion).
As I said, while Ricoeur seems to place the second naïveté primarily in the context of religious faith, one can probably apply it in a wider context as well.
I’m currently reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Czech author Milan Kundera. Though it is a novel, the beginning reads more like a non-fiction philosophy book and delivers some of the best paragraphs I’ve ever read on the idea of the eternal return, made famous by Nietzsche. (Not that I’ve read so many treatments on the eternal return, but you get the point.)
This is Kundera:
The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?
Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing. We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.
Will the war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century itself be altered if it recurs again and again, in eternal return? It will: it will become a solid mass, permanently protuberant, its inanity irreparable.
If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no one. There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and a Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.
Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.
Not long ago, I caught myself experiencing a most incredible sensation. Leafing through a book on Hitler, I was touched by some of his portraits: they reminded me of my childhood. I grew up during the war; several members of my family perished in Hitler’s concentration camps; but what were their deaths compared with the memories of a lost period in my life, a period that would never return?
This reconciliation with Hitler reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.
A few days ago, I mentioned Virgil’s Aeneid and drew a parallel to the Founding Fathers of the United States. To prevent misunderstanding, perhaps I should stress again that there are, of course, numerous differences between the founding of Rome and the founding of the United States, not the least of which is that we have a lot of reliable historical information on the latter, while the former is shrouded in myth. But my point was more a psychological observation, namely that one of the reasons I (and presumably others) am so fascinated by the Founding Fathers is a very similar (psychological) reason that the Romans were fascinated by the Aeneid or that the post-Solomonic Israelites/Jews were fascinated by the story of Abraham on Mt. Moriah.
Now, this kind of teleological perspective (=looking at the beginning of something primarily in view of its outcome) can have negative consequences, such as overly romanticising the past, or, one could also add, overly criticising the past. As we all know, hindsight is twenty-twenty, and it is easy to see in retrospect why, say, President Wilson should have granted the Japanese their request for the Racial Equality Clause during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and should not have granted the Japanese the Chinese province of Shantung, since, through these two decisions, he alienated both Japan and China in one swoop. This likely led to the rise of Communism in China and the animosity of the Japanese against America, culminating in Pearl Harbor.
Or it is easy to see in retrospect why President Hindenburg should not have appointed Hitler as his chancellor. Since the Nazis were already in decline at that point, the Third Reich might have actually been averted through this one simple decision. But, of course, Wilson and Hindenburg were children of their time and could not foresee the future. Also, unfortunately, history is not a scientific laboratory and we never know for sure what exactly would have happened if people had acted differently.
So, while there are definitely dangers of putting on our teleological lenses when studying the past, my post was not meant as a criticism. I don’t think it’s at all wrong to be fascinated by an event or person in the past because they led to far-reaching developments. In my daydreams, I frequently indulge in history-nerd fantasies about being able to time-travel to past events that turned out to be highly significant in the long run, and to witness them with the full knowledge of what would come of them.
Just imagine being able to attend the trial of Socrates with the full knowledge of the history of philosophy that would grow out of this event. Just imagine being able to accompany Columbus with the full knowledge of what the meeting of the Old with the New World would entail, even as Columbus himself remained completely unaware that he had discovered something other than India. Just imagine being there when the Declaration of Independence was drafted.
I find these fantasies thrilling, and, one could argue, Virgil’s Aeneid is also such a fantasy, albeit a more fictitious one than the examples I gave here.
I think enough time has now passed since my last Aristotle post to dare bothering my readers with another one. One of the most famous and central concepts of Aristotle’s ethics is the idea of the golden mean – the notion that the good usually resides between two extremes. Here is the most relevant passage from Book 2 of his Nicomachean Ethics:
There are three kinds of disposition, then, two of them vices, involving
excess and deficiency and one an excellence, viz. the mean, and all are in a sense
opposed to all; for the extreme states are contrary both to the intermediate state
and to each other, and the intermediate to the extremes; as the equal is greater
relatively to the less, less relatively to the greater, so the middle states are excessive relatively to the deficiencies, deficient relatively to the excesses, both in
passions and in actions. For the brave man appears rash relatively to the coward,
and cowardly relatively to the rash man; and similarly the temperate man
appears self-indulgent relatively to the insensible man, insensible relatively to the
self-indulgent, and the liberal man prodigal relatively to the mean man, mean
relatively to the prodigal. Hence also the people at the extremes push the intermediate man each over to the other, and the brave man is called rash by the coward, cowardly by the rash man, and correspondingly in the other cases.
These states being thus opposed to one another, the greatest contrariety is
that of the extremes to each other, rather than to the intermediate; for these are
further from each other than from the intermediate, as the great is further from
the small and the small from the great than both are from the equal. Again, to the
intermediate some extremes show a certain likeness, as that of rashness to courage and that of prodigality to liberality; but the extremes show the greatest unlikeness to each other; now contraries are defined as the things that are furthest from each other, so that things that are further apart are more contrary.
To the mean in some cases the deficiency, in some the excess is more opposed;
e.g. it is not rashness, which is an excess, but cowardice, which is a deficiency,
that is more opposed to courage, and not insensibility, which is a deficiency, but
self-indulgence, which is an excess, that is more opposed to temperance. This
happens from two reasons, one being drawn from the thing itself; for because one
extreme is nearer and liker to the intermediate, we oppose not this but rather its
contrary to the intermediate. E.g., since rashness is thought liker and nearer to
courage, and cowardice more unlike, we oppose rather the latter to courage; for
things that are further from the intermediate are thought more contrary to it. This,
then, is one cause, drawn from the thing itself; another is drawn from ourselves;
for the things to which we ourselves more naturally tend seem more contrary to
the intermediate. For instance, we ourselves tend more naturally to pleasures, and
hence are more easily carried away towards self-indulgence than towards propriety.
We describe as contrary to the mean, then, the states into which we are more
inclined to lapse; and therefore self-indulgence, which is an excess, is the more
contrary to temperance.
That moral excellence is a mean, then, and in what sense it is so, and that
it is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency, and
that it is such because its character is to aim at what is intermediate in passions and in actions, has been sufficiently stated. Hence also it is no easy task to be good.
For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle
of a circle is not for every one but for him who knows; so, too, any one can get
angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person,
to the right extent, at the right time, with the right aim, and in the right way, that
is not for every one, nor is it easy; that is why goodness is both rare and laudable
A couple of days ago, I quoted a passage from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Here is another one that stood out for me:
You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better. We see that in sports all the time, don’t we? The tennis challenger starts strong but soon loses confidence in his playing. The champion racks up the games. But in the final set, when the challenger has nothing left to lose, he becomes relaxed again, insouciant, daring. Suddenly he’s playing like the devil and the champion must work hard to get those last points. So it was with me. To cope with a hyena seemed remotely possible, but I was so obviously outmatched by Richard Parker hat it wasn’t even worth worrying about. With a tiger aboard, my life was over. That being settled, why not do something about my parched throat?
This reminds of when I was part of a table tennis team as a teenager, back in the day when you had the 21-point scoring system. At one match, my opponent already had 20 points, and I had only managed to score a few points against him. But, as Pi points out, since I had nothing left to lose, I started playing like the devil, and I actually ended up winning the game!
But of course the larger question is whether an overall pessimistic outlook on life is actually psychologically freeing or not.
The recent movie version of Life of Pie has prompted me to take my copy off the shelf again. I read it several years ago, and while flipping through the pages now, I stumbled across this passage which I had underlined back then:
Every single thing I value in life has been destroyed. And I am allowed no explanation? I am to suffer hell without any account from heaven? In that case, what is the purpose of reason, Richard Parker? Is it no more than to shine at practicalities—the getting of food, clothing and shelter? Why can’t reason give greater answers? Why can we throw a question further than we can pull in an answer? Why such a vast net if there’s so little fish to catch?
What Yann Martel has his protagonist say here is essentially the same thought expressed by Immanuel Kant in his opening of the Critique of Pure Reason, which I recently quoted in my post “15 Best Opening Lines of Books”:
Human reason, in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer, as they transcend every faculty of the mind.
To use Martel’s language, Kant proposes that human reason is like a vast net that we feel compelled to cast into the sea, but there is so little fish to catch that it doesn’t even come close to filling the net.
The philosophical jargon for reason shining at no more than practicalities is “instrumental” reason—reason being a mere instrument for the running of practical life. If and to what degree reason has a role beyond mere instrumentality has been one of the big debates in philosophy.
Two days ago, I quoted Plato’s “Ring of Gyges,” one the most famous passages from his book The Republic. An even more famous passage is the Allegory of the Cave, probably the most discussed picture in the history of philosophy. The allegory is meant to show that it is only through education that we can come to know reality as it really is; without education, Plato thinks, we are caught in a world of unreality.
Here is this influential text. The speakers in the dialogue are Socrates (in the role of teacher) and Glaucon, the same one who had told the story of the Ring of Gyges.
And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: — Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
Yes, he said.
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
No question, he replied.
To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
That is certain.
And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, — what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, — will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?
And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?
True, he said.
And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.
Not all in a moment, he said.
He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?
Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.
He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?
Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.
And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?
Certainly, he would.
And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, ‘Better to be the poor servant of a poor master,’ and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?
Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.
Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?
To be sure, he said.
And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable), would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.
No question, he said.
This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed — whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.
Disclaimer: By quoting a text, I do not necessarily signal agreement with everything it says. Part of the purpose of this blog is to explore a great variety of viewpoints, without always immediately condemning or approving them.
Long before Bilbo found a ring that made him invisible, a shepherd in ancient Lydia did the same. That’s at least what the character Glaucon, Plato’s brother, tells us in Plato’s Republic, written around 380 BC. The point of the story is to show that, as Glaucon thinks, people are not inherently upright and just, but only act uprightly and justly because they are constrained to do so. If they had the power, he says, everyone would abuse it.
As with the invisibility of the ring, this theme, too, is picked up in The Lord of the Rings. The One Ring has to be destroyed, because it would corrupt anyone who would use it, even if one initially set out to use it for the good. This, one might argue, shows that Tolkien had a similarly pessimistic view of human nature as Plato’s Glaucon, though somewhat lessened by the fact that the Ring makes Tolkien’s characters come under the evil influence of Sauron rather than simply bringing out their own evil.
But read this famous passage for yourself. It’s not very long. This is Glaucon speaking:
“Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended.
“Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result — when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.
“Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; whereas soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.
“Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point.
“And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.”