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Plato's Ring in the Sudan: How Freedom Begets Isolation of the Soul
| Dr. Jose Yulo | May 8, 2006
"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 Platos 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 mans 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 formers opposite, which the majority will be readily willing
and able to identify. As shall be shown, Platos 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 Athenians 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 discussions 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 Platos 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 corpses ring, which the former removes and places on his
finger. He finds later that as he dabbles with the rings 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 thrown.
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 shepherds 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 ones 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 Glaucons 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
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 Glaucons
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, freedomcomplete and unfetteredwas the first. By
being invisible to the shepherds and later on his kingdoms 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 Sudans 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 Persias Xerxes the Great, appeared to the
world as kings of all they surveyedyet 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 rings
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 ones people, it must first be twisted against the better elements
of ones 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 ones 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 sharia 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 individuals 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 ones 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 nations own ring of invisibility is one of a loss of humanity.
In this, and in many other cases, freedom from ones peers and ultimately
ones self delivers the soul and city into the dark embrace of nihilism.
Other IgnatiusInsight.com Articles by Jose Yulo:
The Echo of Melos:
How Ancient Honor Unmasks Islamic Terror
Temptation of the Earthly City: Tolkien's Augustinian Vision
Jose Yulo, Ed.D. teaches courses on philosophy, western civilization,
United States history, and public speaking at the Academy
of Art University in San Francisco. He has a Doctorate in Education
from the University of San Francisco, with an emphasis on the philosophy
of education. He also holds a Master's degree in political communication
from Emerson College in Boston, as well as a Bachelor's degree in the classical
liberal arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. Originally from Manila
in the Philippines, his research interests lie in Greek philosophy, the
histories of Greek and Roman politics and warfare, and the literature of
J. R. R. Tolkien.
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