PD 35, Plato's ring myth, and gods

  • This afternoon I was listening to a podcast in which the Plato scholar Jacob Howland was being interviewed. At one point he brought up the ring myth from Plato's Republic. The basic idea is, as I got it, is that people are such that if any of us had an invisibility ring and hence could do whatever we wanted without being caught, we would commit numerous injustices. Although of course it wasn't mentioned in the podcast, it immediately brought to mind this principal doctrine as yet another answer to Plato.

    At another point Howland mentioned that all-knowing gods were invented to solve this problem, and part of the rationale behind the totalitarian regime of the Republic is to create a society with no privacy in order to eliminate injustices committed in this way. Howland, to his credit, immediately pointed out the irony of that! He also pointed out that many totalitarians throughout history have referred to the Republic as a working manual. Further, the thinking was (and still is!) that if somebody is not afraid of, or does not believe in, all-knowing gods, then they will commit injustice.

    This serves as yet another illustration of the stakes of the conflict between Epicurus and the Platonists. It's also an illustration of the optimism of Epicurus, although many see materialist philosophy as leading to nihilism and hopelessness!

  • Godfrey do you recall if there are other occurrences of this doctrine in the texts beyond PD35?

    I am thinking it is in Cicero too - there is this in the Torquatus narration:

    "The usual consequences of crime are, first suspicion, next gossip and rumor, then comes the accuser, then the judge; many wrongdoers have even turned evidence against themselves, as happened in your consulship. And even if any think themselves well fenced and fortified against detection by their fellow men, they still dread the eye of heaven, and fancy that the pangs of anxiety night and day gnawing at their hearts are sent by Providence to punish them. But what can wickedness contribute towards lessening the annoyances of life, commensurate with its effect in increasing them, owing to the burden of a guilty conscience, the penalties of the law and the hatred of one's fellows?"

    But there's a fragment somewhere that says this is a hard question.....

    I am thinking i have another comment but I need to find that first.

  • OK here's my (admittedly half-formed) thought:

    I tend to see this PD35 as operating on multiple levels like most of the principle doctrines. it certainly is true from a practical point of view as written, but I don't think it is very satisfying unless it is viewed in the more abstract context of discussing the 'best life' or the "highest good."

    In that context, it serves well to point out that your aren't going to be able to live the best life possible if you indeed are worried about retribution for your crimes. As the doctrine points out, once you've committed the crime you'll always wonder if it will be found out, whether you should have turned yourself in, apologized, made it good, or what. And that amount of worry is something that will always stand in the way of the at least aspirational goal of pure pleasure.

    But I think it is indeed a "hard question" because Epicurean philosophy is also highly practical in realizing (in my view) that life requires pain and risk, and it's practically impossible to eliminate them. I can easily see the prudent Epicurean saying that just like the rest of life, it's a practical question of whether you should violate the seat belt law for a ten minute drive to the store, or violate the speed limit, or do any of a numberless type of crime where you might rationally deem the risk of punishment to be worth committing the crime.

    So I do tend to see this one as I tend to see many of them - more of a logical observation that is good for debating the greatest good and the issues of crime and punishment in a godless universe. I do believe it's a true observation, but it's also a true observation in the Epicurean scheme that everyone is going to determine for themselves what degree of hardship and risk they want to undertake in order to gain the pleasures they want.

    Now having said all that, I wonder if in listening to the podcast you heard anything about Plato's views of the ring myth that might give us subtleties on how Epicurus' viewpoint was a response?

  • My impression from the podcast was that Plato was saying that we're only just to avoid negative consequences and that injustice is more advantageous. The purpose of the ring (the ring of Gyges) is to avoid detection, to which PD35 seems to me to be a direct response:

    It is impossible to be confident that you will escape detection when secretly doing something contrary to an agreement to not harm one another or be harmed, even if currently you do so countless times; for until your death you will be uncertain that you have escaped detection. PD35

    PD34 and PD17 are also related to this, but PD35 seems directly tied to the ring problem.

    PD34: Injustice is not bad in itself, but only because of the fear caused by a suspicion that you will not avoid those who are appointed to punish wrongdoing.

    PD17: One who acts aright is utterly steady and serene, whereas one who goes astray is full of trouble and confusion.

  • PD17 Ὁ δίκαιος ἀταρακτότατος, ὁ δ’ ἄδικος πλείστης ταραχῆς γέμων.
    One who is just, moral, and virtuous has peace of mind; but one who is unjust is overflowing with agitation, confusion, and uncertainty. (ταραχῆς, i.e., the opposite of αταραξία).
    If you are just in your dealings with other people, moral in your actions, and do your best to display fair behavior, you have no need to be troubled. You've done your best. Don't get me wrong. Bad things will happen to you, and some people still won't like you. But you don't control that. Your mind can be at peace. On the other hand, if you treat people poorly, display amoral behavior, and are basically an objectively poor excuse for a human being, you have reason to be troubled! People will be out to get you. If you're the latter, you need to have some frank speech with yourself and get on the right track. To paraphrase Wil Wheaton: Don't be a jerk! If you take his advice, you and all of us who interact with you will be the better for it.