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Commentary

Plato’s Ring in the Sudan
How Freedom Begets Isolation of the Soul


     
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“This means that man enters the world, no longer as a gift of the Creator, but as the product of our activity-and a product that can be selected according to requirements that we ourselves stipulate. In this way, the splendor of the fact that he is the image of God-the source of his dignity and of his inviolability-no longer shines upon this man; his only splendor is the power of human capabilities. Man is nothing more now than the image of man-but of what man?”
—Pope Benedict XVI

“During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man.”
—Thomas Hobbes

As part of his enduring legacy in the western canon Plato cemented truths about humanity that stoically weather the torrents of time. Each of his dialogues, with Plato’s teacher Socrates as the primary conversant, asks a question that is spare, yet consistently profound. In The Republic, the query asked is unique in its pertinence to both man as an individual, and the city as man’s analogous aspiration. When one ponders on how a life should be lived, as Socrates and Plato will remind future generations, the quality and necessity of justice is indispensable.

The concept of justice, though much lauded, often eludes, with most individuals being unable to approximate its essence. Veritably, it is often injustice, the former’s opposite, which the majority will be readily willing and able to identify. As shall be shown, Plato’s writings have much to add and perchance illuminate regarding the callous inhumanity of man to his fellows. In particular, the timely focus on the tragedy in Darfur, Sudan may benefit when viewed through the Athenian’s timeless lens.

It is not in keeping with Socrates’ character to directly instruct his conversants as to the proper response to his dialectic questioning. Such presumption is the province of his opponents, the sophists, and as pedagogy may itself be considered unjust because of its disallowing a student to freely reach his or her conclusions. It is in this spirit that Socrates will indulge his discussion’s participants to elaborate on their own theories of justice in the dialogue.

One of the particular instances where this extrapolation occurred in The Republic was when Glaucon, one of Plato’s older brothers, brought up the story of the ring of Gyges. The tale is simple enough. A shepherd called Gyges stumbles upon a hidden chasm in the ground of his pasture; a chasm opened by a recent storm and earthquake. Delving within he finds a trove of sorts, with a bronze horse inside which rests the remains of a being greater in stature than any man. Interestingly, Gyges is drawn to the corpse’s ring, which the former removes and places on his finger. He finds later that as he dabbles with the ring’s bezel he is rendered invisible to his fellow shepherds. After noting the pattern with which he either gained and surrendered invisibility, Gyges opportunistically steals into the royal palace where he seduces the queen and, with her aid, does away with the king and usurps his throne.

The statement later advanced by Glaucon to Socrates was one claiming that any man, just or unjust, given this situation, would have done exactly the same as Gyges. What then is the essence of the shepherd’s dilemma? Simply put, as the argument has gone on for millennia, is an act unjust if there is no one there to see it and later to judge it?

Furthermore, is it only natural for mankind, given the freedom of anonymity that the ring promises, to always seek for one’s own benefit, often in spite of others? It is here perhaps useful to address the recent revelations of the atrocities committed in the Darfur region of Sudan, and examine whether Glaucon’s warnings to Socrates resonate twenty-four hundred years after they were spoken. The ethnic strife occurring in this region has of course received much attention in recent months. From 1983 to 2004, the Sudanese government waged a bloody war with its own citizens. This civil conflict set not only Sudanese against Sudanese, but faiths against each other as well. With the government being run by a strain of radical Islam, its opponents to the south were composed animists and black Christians. After the two-decade-long war a cessation was agreed to by both sides in May of 2004.

Interestingly, a new conflagration arose over one year before the ceasefire. In February of 2003, black Muslims from Darfur and the west of the country mounted an insurgency against the central government to acquire greater political autonomy. The government responded with tactics separate from mere armed combatant exchange. It chose to unleash selected Arab militia groups, which came to be known as the “Janjaweed.” The destruction caused by this group has been staggering.

Unlike more conventional military operations, the Janjaweed specifically began targeting civilian communities in Darfur. With an unspoken endorsement from the Sudanese government, tens of thousands have perished. The USAID definition for a humanitarian emergency is the ratio of one death daily for every population of ten thousand. In a single village alone in Darfur, the rate once reached forty-one daily per ten thousand. With thoroughness, entire villages, including livestock, have been decimated. Interestingly enough, ethnically Arab villages but five hundred yards away from destroyed black Muslim villages remained intact. As an effort to end the future possibilities of resettlement, black Muslim women have been systematically raped.

World opinion on this issue has understandably been a mixture of revulsion and shock that such persecution and extermination is still possible. Sadly, one has but to examine at least the surface meaning within Glaucon’s tale to discern why such malevolence persists. Once Gyges the shepherd discovered that his new toy rendered him invisible to his peers, two potent elixirs began coursing riotously through his being.

Ironically, freedom–complete and unfettered–was the first. By being invisible to the shepherds and later on his kingdom’s fellow citizens, Gyges lost all sense of responsibility to his community; a group that normally would require certain social and ethical norms from him. Now, with the sudden license to pursue his appetitive desires with abandon, the shepherd stepped to the tasks at hand with relish.

Following this turgid flow came the realization of power. Invisible, unaccountable, and devoid of any responsibility, Gyges’ inherent desire to dominate his peers was given wing. Since he was alone in this capacity, it only further enhanced his previous feeling of freedom. Thus, he went forth, insatiable, vaunted, yet divorced from humanity.

It has been only recently that international opinion has been brought, with any serious level of scrutiny, to the Darfur tragedy. The larger institutions of authority in the immediate area, such as the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, have been reticent in speaking out for black Muslims. The European Union has likewise been relatively inactive. Only recently, the Unites States’ administration, ironically representing a nation more removed from the region than the abovementioned authorities, has taken the lead in calling for an end to the crisis.

As in the case of Gyges, when a government like Sudan’s cloaks itself with the invisibility of other nations’ apathy, wanton atrocity is not far off. Given the freedom to exterminate its minority groups, and the power such actions beget, the Sudanese government conducts itself like the despots of the east so reviled by the Greek political thinkers. These rulers, such as Persia’s Xerxes the Great, appeared to the world as kings of all they surveyed–yet were at their core slaves to their own appetites.

When examined thus, Gyges and Sudan both share the moral decline and decay inevitable with the autonomy that comes from being in a way divorced from a larger communion with others. However, if one delves deeper into the parallel drawn, it is possible to deduce a more profound warning. Gyges learns of the potential of his new ring by toying with its bezel. Uniquely, the direction the bezel is turned to elicit invisibility is inward, toward Gyges’ self. Needless to say, this is most telling. It is even possible Glaucon himself did not realize the importance of this one detail within his story. Socrates, however, would certainly not have ignored it.

The sophists of Athens, Socrates' natural antagonists, made a lucrative living for themselves instructing young men in the art of rhetoric. Along with this, these well-traveled cosmopolitans purported to teach their students that since freedom lay in not having any ethical parameters, man was indeed free to construct his own moral standards. The sophists gleaned this from their journeys and equivocation of various cultural values they encountered. Hence would come the implied reality of Glaucon, that which says absent any external standard, Gyges only did what was most natural; the cathartic extrication from any accountability to a community.

Yet, Glaucon is here ignorant of something Socrates will later detail in the dialogue. By seeking inward, as seen from the metaphor of the ring’s bezel, Gyges enacts a schism that predates and overshadows his later break from communion. Before the will can be wrenched away from the well being of one’s people, it must first be twisted against the better elements of one’s soul. Gyges, and man as a being, divorces himself from the internal and eternal moral judgment within his temporal body. The disavowal of this capacity to judge rightly the actions one undertakes in life makes the eventual estrangement from one community all the more expedient. If there is no voice within to halt one’s appetites, the gossamer entreaties from without dissolve with each broken promise.

As mentioned earlier, the twenty-one-year war between the Islamist Sudanese government on one side and animists and black Christians on the other would later lead to the current crisis in Darfur. It should not be lost in the telling of this sad tale that what sparked the initial hostilities in 1983, was the importation of radical Islam in the form of a group which resembled the notorious Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. This would lead to the establishment of shari’a law by the government, marginalizing its other indigenous religious communities.

The vestiges of this strain have now taken the form of the Janjaweed; displacing, raping and killing fellow Sudanese with deliberate swiftness. Though a recent ceasefire has been signed by the government and the rebel black Muslim group, this may prove too late for civilians, the chosen target of the Arab militia. Like their radical Islamist masters, men who view terrorism as a legitimate response to perceived grievances, the Janjaweed seek the eradication of the least powerful.

In this lies the deeper parallel to Gyges’ ring. Before Gyges decides to live and rule in spite of his community, he must first silence the better angels of his nature, those standards of rectitude which exist before and after an individual’s life. Believing themselves to be separated from their black Muslim victims by virtue of racial differences, the Arab Janjaweed and their Islamist leadership defile and annihilate their own citizens. In this they display a self-loathing which occurs most odiously when a part of one’s own soul is severed. Since Sudan, as has been cited, enjoys the lack of critical attention of international groups, its deadly focus is turned ever inward. The final bezel turn on the nation’s own ring of invisibility is one of a loss of humanity. In this, and in many other cases, freedom from one’s peers and ultimately one’s self delivers the soul and city into the dark embrace of nihilism.


José Maria J. Yulo is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He received his doctoral degree in the philosophy of education from the University of San Francisco and teaches philosophy and western civilization at the Academy of Art University.






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