In Book II of Plato’s Republic, Glaucon relates the story of a shepherd who, during a violent rainstorm and an earthquake which breaks the ground and creates a chasm, descends into the fissure and discovers many wonders, including a bronze horse with window-like openings in it. The shepherd climbs through one and discovers a corpse wearing nothing but a ring of gold on its finger. He returns to his life above ground and, while playing with the ring, discovers that when he turns the hoop toward himself he becomes invisible, and when he turns it away from him becomes visible again. In short time, thanks to his newfound power, he seduces the king’s wife, kills the king with her help, and takes over the kingdom. The upshot of Glaucon’s story is that given the right opportunity, we will turn from the path of virtue and do what we can to achieve our ambitions, fulfill our pleasures, and abandon ourselves to unrepentant profligacy. “Even those who practice justice,” observes Glaucon, “do so against their will because the lack the power to do wrong.”
This is an incredibly cynical view. According to this logic, the only reason we behave with any virtue at all is because we’re seen by other people. Our real inner nature is chronically frustrated by the constraints imposed on us by the possibility of someone else seeing what we do. That’s it: sheer visibility is the only motivating engine of the good we do and the bad we avoid doing.
I wonder how true this is. I imagine myself being invisible. The first thing that comes to mind is going naked. I like being naked. I’d be a nudist if it weren’t for the fact that I’d prefer not to see that many other people naked. Not everybody looks like Scarlet Johansson. But it does feel damn good on a warm summer day to walk around without any clothes on. So that’s the first thing I’d do. Next on my list would be shoplifting. But how would that work out? Wouldn’t people see items floating off the shelves at the grocery store? Most jewelers keep their items in a glass counter. How could I get into the counter if I were invisible? Wouldn’t someone hear me breathing or fussing with the backs of the display cases, brush up against me, step on a toe? Stand in open-mouthed awe as they watched rings and necklaces float out of their case before ringing for security? And what if, as some woman bent closer to get a look at a diamond solitaire, I coughed, or sneezed, and tried using her blouse to wipe my nose? Would people scream? Faint? I try to remember what went on in H.G. Well’s novel The Invisible Man. It’s been many years since I read it, or saw the movie, but I clearly remember it ended badly.
This is, of course, beside the point. Would I, given the opportunity, the complete wherewithal to do bad things with impunity, and with no one knowing my true identity, steal, kill, play out every libidinal and instinctual whim that came to mind? Squeeze boobs and run away laughing? Steal cars, grab money from people at the cash machines, through rocks through windows?
I don’t think it’s in me to do those things. Maybe I’m too old. I don’t know. Have I become tame in my waning years? I don’t do bad things not because I’m fearful of people seeing me and tarnishing my image in the community, or having scorn and abuse heaved on me, not to mention imprisonment, but because it’s not in me to do bad things. If I do something good, it’s not because some invisible film crew is watching my actions, or the mayor and city council are nearby with a trophy and a golden sash to present to me as soon as they see I’ve done something virtuous, helped a blind person across the street or returned a stray dog to its owner. If I do something bad it’s done inadvertently, by accident or negligence, not because I intended to do something bad, and certainly not because I felt I was hidden or invisible. And if I do something good it’s because it was in me to do something good. I generally act out of compassion. Nor do I believe I’ve cornered the market on virtuous behavior. I’ve had enough favors and kindnesses done to me over the years to believe that a substantial number of people in the human family are inclined (at least part of the time) to do good without reward or recognition, nor do bad when no one is looking. Or think no one is looking.
So I believe Glaucon is wrong. Except in one area: bankers. High finance. Corporations and the people that occupy their higher echelons. These people are for the most part invisible. These are the people that, to quote Nomi Prins, perpetrated “corporate malfeasance of epic proportions,” “massively destructive deceptions” calculated to fleece the public of their money with “fraud-induced bankruptcies.” And it’s still going on. Nothing has been done to regulate these institutions. Corporations are destroying the planet with hydraulic fracking, war profiteering, reckless and unrepentant oil spills, destroying biodiversity with genetically modified “killer seeds,” wreaking havoc among ecosystems and delicate habitats, monitoring employees with global positioning systems, using lobbying as a strategic weapon to distort competitive markets and create monopolies, transforming our universities into profit-driven, overcrowded job factories that saddle their graduates with crippling debts, and shifting heavy tax burdens to the public while they go scot-free. Here in Seattle none of the big corporations, Boeing, Microsoft or Amazon, pay their fair share of taxes. Boeing, in fact, enjoys a minus 3.3 percent tax bracket. We owe them money. Meanwhile, the infrastructure is going to shit and the giant drill the city purchased from Japan has already broken down and sits in waterfront mud waiting to be disassembled. The mayor, however, has made sure the city has bicycle lanes.
Why do these people manage to do so much harm with so much impunity? Has there ever been a moment in human history in which evil of this magnitude has been so rampant and so unpunished? I find it interesting that while corporate managers remain comfortable in their invisible realms of power they use high technology to spy on, intimidate, and dehumanize their employees. Or kill people from a safe distance with drones.
Why do people do evil? Why do people do good? Is it possible to do good and evil simultaneously? Is it sometimes evil to do something good? Is it sometimes good to do something evil? And why are outlaws so damn sexy?
It’s the bank robbers who are sexy. The guys with guns. Out in the open. It’s their bravado that makes them sexy. It’s the sneaky bankers and CEOs and politicians that rob people sneakily, invisibly, that do the most harm and create the most toxic consequences. They’re not sexy; monstrous, yes. They’re hideous, blood-sucking hemorrhoids that work in the dark. They’re about as sexy as a genital wart. But rich, with an estate in the Hamptons with 35 toilets and a kitchen with every conceivable amenity.
Socrates answers Glaucon by a long, indirect route. He describes the city, cities in general, and how it is that all the people of a city require food and shelter and clothing, and that this is the reason for the city to exist, that each person has a task to fulfill, the best to his or her ability, and that because each person fulfills a task such as the growing of food or making and mending of clothes, the building of houses and ships, each person is able to benefit from these things, since no single person is capable of growing food, building a house, making and mending clothing, caring for the elderly and sick, etc., entirely on their own. Everything is made easier by sharing these tasks. So what does any of this have to do with good and evil?
Socrates ascribes war and violence to a city that has exceeded its needs and has developed a taste for luxuries. Then the people of the city must conquer and take what they desire from other people and other things. And to prevent one’s own city from being conquered and pillaged, it is necessary to build an army of tough, honor-bound soldiers. Soldiers who are brutal in war and good at killing but who treat their own families and citizenry with respect and gentleness. And the way to arrive at these virtues is through the telling the proper kind of stories. Stories that inspire honor and valor. Bad stories, which are stories that distort the truth, create bad people. And here he begins to rail against poets. For it is the poets who tell lies and distort the actions of the gods and give the impression that sometimes it is the god or gods who are guilty of the things people do and not the people themselves. That they are skilled at making untruths seem as truths, and blurring the line between what is true and what is not true.
I totally disagree with Socrates on these points, but he’s gone and no longer available for debate. He’s become as invisible as one can be, which is to die, and decompose, and go god knows where. He may be nowhere. He may be somewhere. Only Socrates knows where Socrates is, or is not. He has, however, prepared the way, and for that I am grateful.
I would agree wholeheartedly with Socrates if he were addressing the issue of video games that glorify brutality and killing, that exalt stealth and violence and that use their art to inspire this kind of madness in the young. Narratives that give the impression that life, to be experienced to its fullest and richest extent, must be had by barbaric and violent action. Or that war and killing are sexy, manly pursuits, the province of heroes, à la John Wayne’s tough guy posturing or the pageantry of the Roman gladiator, mercilessly plunging a sword into the body of the defeated while the crowd roars their admiration. This is what one finds in television and movies and video games, not necessarily in poetry. What one finds in poetry is a far different reality. It amazes me that the Socratic dialogues are composed with so much poetry, and yet distrusts the very quality that has brought them to life. The very quality that makes them compelling, and capable of truth at all.
The model that Socrates proposes is based on a logic of mutuality. Each person contributes to the collective whole and benefits from the collective whole. To do harm to another member is to do harm to oneself because one is involved in a system of interrelation. Socrates says nothing about a hierarchy in which some members are compensated more royally than others, or that some members are more highly skilled than others and so deserve a higher compensation. His chief worry is that the army gets out of hand and begins abusing its citizens. Keep the poets away from the army, above all. I’ll go along with that.
Socrates doesn’t really answer Glaucon’s implication of perversity. The feeling that there is inside everyone a desire to indulge one’s pleasures regardless of who gets hurt. What is lacking is the power to do it; given the right set of circumstance, the best of us will give in to temptation and do wild and crazy things. There isn’t any logic there. Human behavior doesn’t fit a syllogistic pattern.
Socrates saves his discussion about theia mania, divine madness, for The Phaedrus.
Rousseau, in his book The Social Contract, saw people as inherently good. Hobbes, in his book Leviathan, saw people as inherently bad. Nietzsche saw good and evil as relativist concepts, the one comprehensible only in relation to the other, and each a matter of subjective, willed belief. Hannah Arendt referred to the banality of evil, someone of mediocre character who follows rules, no matter how good or bad, and does so without undue reflection. Evil has the potential to rise out of thoughtlessness, superficiality, indifference; a willingness to do whatever one can to remain comfortable no matter how one’s actions may affect someone else. There is a kind of invisibility in this milieu, one’s anonymity providing a cover for whatever one does. Invisibility, that is, coupled with a willed and deliberate ignorance.
I dressed as The Invisible Man one Halloween and did such a successful job wrapping my head in white bandages and wearing a trench coat and fedora and gloves and cleverly making my hand disappear at the end of my sleeve, I won an award at a local video store. And later, at a party, I was asked to remove the bandage. It was truly frightening people. If only I could’ve achieved true invisibility, or perhaps went around naked believing myself invisible, somewhat like the story of the emperor’s new clothes. How does one achieve invisibility in real life? It’s not that hard, as Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man points out. Social invisibility due to one’s race or impoverishment is a problem that continues to plague a huge population of homeless people.
The protagonist of H.G. Well’s novel is an asshole. A scientist blown with ambition and mad for power ruthlessly bullies and harms anyone in his way. It is a story of science gone off its rails, similar in its warnings to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Griffin (The Invisible Man) is killed by a mob who manage to get hold of his invisible body and pummel him to death. The image of the dying man is quite beautiful; as life goes out of his body, his body resumes visibility:
Suddenly an old woman, peering under the arm of the big navvy, screamed sharply. “Looky there,” she said, and thrust a wrinkled finger.
And looking where she pointed, everyone saw, faint and transparent as though it was made of glass, so that veins and arteries and bones and nerves could be distinguished, the outline of a hand, a hand limp and prone. It grew clouded and opaque even as they stared.