Entry 102: Roscoe– What would you do with the ring of Gyges? The story goes that Gyges was in service to King Caduales of Lydia as a shepherd when he discovered a ring in a cave after an earthquake uncovered its entrance. The ring conferred invisibility on the wearer so he made his way to the palace where, with the aid of the magical ring, he seduced the queen and murdered the king thereby securing both throne and queen.
Wikipedia takes up the story, In Plato’s The Republic, the tale of the ring of Gyges is described by the character of Glaucon who is the brother of Plato. Glaucon asks whether any man can be so virtuous that he could resist the temptation of being able to perform any act without being known or discovered. Glaucon suggests that morality is only a social construction, the source of which is the desire to maintain one’s reputation for virtue and justice. Hence, if that sanction were removed, one’s moral character would evaporate…. 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.
The ring of Gyges is the basis for The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Rings of power are also the subject of Wagner’s Ring cycle and Tolkein’s, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Of course, the rings symbolise absolute power, and, as Lord Acton so famously observed, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. With the corruption attendant on power comes injustice. Injustice is much easier to apprehend than justice, just as evil is more tangible to us than goodness; although, paradoxically perhaps, the most satisfactory outcomes in fact and fiction are when good triumphs over evil.
And, to return to Plato’s Republic, where Glaucon gave the cynical and widespread view that the tendency to evil when one can act without impunity is universal- what did Socrates have to say on the matter? He argued that one who used the ring unjustly was slave to his appetites whereas the just man who refused to use the ring was rationally in control of himself and therefore, happy. But away from the rarefied atmosphere of philosophical speculation, I’m pretty sure the framers of the constitution of the US got it right with the separation of powers. The checks and balances of democratic systems of governance are much preferable to any of the alternatives, however efficient they may, supposedly, be.
I read David Yallop’s, The Day the Laughter Stopped back in 1978 and I was incensed enough by the fate of the silent-film era comedian, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, to write an atypically lengthy song. Atypical, also, in that its content was based on a close reading of another text. Usually my inspiration comes from something fleeting or ephemeral: was it George Eliot who could concoct a complicated narrative from just a glimpse through a doorway of a mundane domestic scene? At any rate, not only did I write a six-minute plus song but I gave headings to each of the verses utilising Roman numerals: I THE SETTING, II THE PARTY, III THE TELEGRAM, IV DEATH AND THE DOCTORS, V THE POWER GRAB, VI THE TRIALS, VII THE ACQUITTAL AND REACTION OF THE JACKALS, VIII ROSCOE’S FIGHTBACK AND IRONIES OF THE END.
What really got to me about the Arbuckle story, was that such an egregious instance of injustice took place in the land of the free where the rule of law and separation of powers were supposed to guarantee the liberty of the citizen. Yes, I was rather naïve and idealistic way back then. Now I just weep as I view, and read about, the manifold injustices of the world even as I am being assured that things are getting better all the time. Oh, go on! Tell me the parable of the starfish- you know, where a man asks a child, who is on a beach throwing back into the sea one starfish even though the beach is covered with thousands, what difference will it make? The child answers that it will make a difference to this one.
But what if the child is throwing a crown-of-thorns starfish back onto the Great Barrier Reef? Still, the urge to do something active seems a better response than that of passivity. And, again, I look to the poets to bring into clear focus the issue about which so much has been written, discussed and fought over.
Langston Hughes speaks for all of the oppressed when he says, That Justice is a blind goddess/Is a thing to which we black are wise:/Her bandage hides two festering sores/That once perhaps were eyes. Israeli poet Yehudi Amichai observes, Out of three or four in the room/One is always standing at the window/ Forced to see the injustice amongst the thorns,/The fires on the hills.
Thank God for the minority who stand at the window and make an effort to correct injustices: who see, and act.