The Ring of Gyges and Whiteness or Making Invisibility Rings Visible

In Plato’s famous work, The Republic, Glaucon, Socrates’ spirited, energetic, philosophically erotic dialogue partner, challenges Socrates to give an adequate definition of justice and to convince him as to why a just life is superior to an unjust life. As part of Glaucon’s argumentative strategy, he offers a thought experiment, the story of the Ring of Gyges (359d-360d), in which the unjust life is presented as the best life. Socrates’ job is then, on the one hand, to show how Glaucon’s account is flawed, and on the other hand, to answer the questions mentioned above (e.g. “what is justice?” and “why is justice superior to injustice?”). The view of justice presented in the Ring of Gyges myth does not represent Glaucon’s own position; rather, he articulates the sophist Thrasymachus’s position, which in some closely related variation is also shared by the “many” (i.e. the hoi polloi) yet is amended in order to make it as persuasive as possible. As the story goes, Gyges, a lowly shepherd finds a magical ring that makes him invisible. He uses it to engage in acts that would normally be socially unacceptable and, in some cases, quite illegal but which allow him to act on whatever desire he may have and to “get away with it” (e.g. he sleeps with the queen; he kills the king and takes over his kingdom). So the lowly shepherd becomes in effect a despotic tyrant.

So what is Glaucon’s point? His point is the following: if any of us possessed such a ring, we’d do the same thing.  Why? Because, so the story goes, we really want to perform unjust acts, and if we could do them and not be punished for them via the law etc., then we most certainly would. Stated otherwise, if you could engage in unjust acts to fulfill your desires and you could do so with absolutely no negative consequences, what reason would you have for engaging in just acts?

Although there are several dialogical directions one might take in discussing Glaucon’s myth, I want to engage in a similar thought experiment, altering Glaucon’s storyline in order to address contemporary concerns of justice in my own socio-political context, the U. S. A.  What if, instead of the lowly shepherd, Gyges, sporting the treasured ring of invisibility, an entire group of individuals are clad with invisibility rings, affording them privileges and freedoms denied to other groups in their society. Let’s assume (for the sake of the story) that the ring-wearing people have no idea that they possess these magical rings. They enter department stores and are not followed by security guards. They are not frisked or interrogated regularly in public spaces by the police as are their ring-less counterparts. When their crimes rates are the same as the non-ringed people, they are significantly less likely to spend time in prison. When they decide to move into a particular neighborhood or housing community, they do not worry as to whether their “kind” will be seen as a threat or as a “sign” that the neighborhood is in decline. Then let’s suppose that one day, the gods decide to reveal to one of the ring-bearers—a man named Edward—the magical properties of his ring. Thus, Edward’s ring is removed, and he is treated like the other ring-less people. In order to process his newly found knowledge, Edward decides to talk an evening walk. A young ring-clad female sees him walking toward her. Edward notices that she seems nervous, as she began looking around to see if there were any other ring clad people nearby. Then suddenly she crosses to the other side of the street. “Is she afraid of me?” Edward wondered. Acting as if he were still a ringed-one, he decides to cross the street in order to explain to the woman that he had been made aware of the invisibility powers of his ring—powers which grant his people unjust social, cultural, and economic privileges—and he was now trying to figure out what, if anything, he could do to make these truths known and to effect change more broadly—i.e., institutionally, legally, socio-politically, etc. However, Edward never had the chance to discuss these issues with the young woman. She panicked, began to scream, and ran to the nearest house. The owner of the house, George, had been watching the scene unfold through his living room window. George didn’t like ring-less people, and he was quite vocal in his community about his views. “These people are lazy. They don’t work, they do drugs, and they live off the welfare system—and hard-working people like me have to pay for their hospital bills when they overdose.” When George saw Edward crossing the street and moving toward the young woman, he ran to his bedroom to get his handgun. There’s no need to spell out the details of this story’s ending; it is all-too-familiar these days. Suffice it to say, Edward died that night from a gunshot wound to the chest.

In her book, Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege, philosopher Shannon Sullivan builds upon insights from W. E. B. Du Bois and John Dewey concerning conscious and unconscious habits and applies these to race and white privilege. Sullivan understands “habit” as “an organism’s subconscious predisposition to transact with its physical, social, political, and natural worlds in particular ways. Habit is equivalent to neither routine nor a ‘bad habit,’ as the term is often used. Habits instead are that which constitute the self” (23).  Habits can be formed consciously or unconsciously, and quite often they are formed unconsciously. Our habits constitute our “style” understood phenomenologically (see Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception); they are “manners of being and acting that constitute an organism’s ongoing character” (ibid.). Although habits stabilize and have a “steadiness” and regularity about them, they needn’t be understood as necessarily fixed or unalterable.  Moreover, habits affect both our mental and our physical being. We see instances of physical habit in the way that women in a sexist society carry their bodies—notice the difference in how women pose for pictures versus how men pose. Similarly with respect to race, we find both conscious and unconscious mental and physical habits, which can either limit or make possible one’s ability to act. As Sullivan explains,

“to be a white person means that one tends to assume that all cultural and social spaces are potentially available for one to inhabit. The habit of ontological expansiveness enables white people to maximize the extent of the world in which they transact. But as an instance of white solipsism, it also severely limits their ability to treat others in respectful ways. Instead of acknowledging others’ particular interests, needs, and projects, white people who are ontologically expansive tend to recognize only their own, and their expansiveness is at the same time a limitation” (25).

People are often asked to “own” their actions and to “break” their habits. So how might one work toward owning his or her white privilege? Of course the answer will differ from person to person, context to context, and so forth. Likewise, habits of this sort are not simply individual habits but are also social and require large-scale socio-political structural changes. However, in agreement with Sullivan, I believe that human agents can act to re-shape their “style,” re-constitute themselves, and strive “to transform their habits of white privilege to ones of resistance” (197). Thus, with Sullivan, I am committed to an ongoing self-interrogation, considering how I might “go ring-less” in my various spheres of influence.

2 thoughts on “The Ring of Gyges and Whiteness or Making Invisibility Rings Visible”

  1. The hardest part is to be conscious of all the ways being white privileges us. I don’t say impossible; I just say “hardest”, because it does take an effort of conscious will.

    It isn’t the big glaring stuff that counts, but the myriad tiny things each and every day that make the difference so stark and clear. Thanks for this.

  2. Very good point about how women (versus men) pose in photographs, and how this suggests that we live in a sexist society. Not sure I’ve ever really that about that particular phenomenon.


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