Plato in the Republic recounts a story about a magical artifact, the Ring of Gyges, in Book II of the Republic. It is a device to motivate an investigation into the collective aspect of morality. Would anyone be ethical if they did not need to fear capture or punishment? Socrates ultimately argues that:

the man who abused the power of the Ring of Gyges has in fact enslaved himself to his appetites, while the man who chose not to use it remains rationally in control of himself and is therefore happy

So although this story is oriented towards a man and the individual conscience, it seems also possible (and possibly intended) to read this concern with accountability and corruption, and perhaps the social construction of morals more generally, to states, political classes and so on. Especially given how Plato is investigating an analogy in the Republic between the parts of soul and partitioning of cities.

What sorts of resources might be available around the question of the ring, especially in terms of contemporary social formations? Given the ubiquity of mass surveillance, it seems plausible that Plato's discussion of the ring may be present in philosophical letters about the moral ambiguities attached to certain new technologies (particularly as the Republic is seen as one of the founding documents discussing the nature of the Western polity.)

One resource that has turned up so far that seems important is Plato's Invisible Cities: Discourse and Power in the Republic by Ophir, which mentions the ring extensively (it grounds the invisibility in the title); and possibly Foucault's panopticism. What other sorts of resources might be pertinent to an investigation of surveillance and invisibility that might also relate to the ring?


There is a fascinating paper by Marc Shell The Ring of Gyges (The Economy of Literature/1978, ch.1 p.11-62). Herodotus' and Plato's versions of Gyges are interwoven with emphasis on power, vison and wealth.

Tales of Gyges associate him with founding a tyranny in Lydia and with a power of being able to transform visibles into invisibles and invisibles into visibles. This power . .. is associated with new economic and political forms that shattered the previous world and its culture.

David Graeber in his writings on value often refers to cultural-anthropological findings that connect hidden wealth and visibile signs for it . Today Plato's version seems to be more popular but Hebbel's drama Gyges and his Ring (1865) relies more on Herodotus, with modern commentators noting the links as done by Albrecht Koschorke in his Phantasmagorias of Power: Hebbel's Drama Gyges und sein Ring


At one level, the Ring of Gyges can take on an overly broad meaning. Simply put, invisibility is a form of power, presumably technological, and power corrupts. Analogies abound, from Dr. Faust to military Stealth technologies. Not terribly interesting.

You could equate this power with the visual field of "mass surveillance," but this risks arbitrarily stretching the meaning beyond Plato's purposes, and in effect adopting the Gyges legend for your own literary effects. I would see the Ring Effect as something closer to the opposite of mass surveillance.

The idea in Plato, as proposed by Glaucon, is the case made by Hobbes, Durkheim, or Parsons that our lupine natures are only kept in check by the mutual surveillance embodied in society. When the constraint is lifted, the will seeks power, wealth, and fleshpots. Justice resides in nothing more than such external and mutual constraint.

Socrates can only add that this may indeed be the case, but the extrapolation only gives us something like the City of Pigs. This is not true justice or freedom. We free ourselves from social constraint only to enslave ourselves to our impulses and appetites. It is an argument, perhaps, against our own "Land of the Free," a social equilibrium through mass market consumerism... which leads, not surprisingly, back to necessity of mass policing and incarceration. Bad model, Glaucon.

We might surmise that Plato favors the Panopticon, a form of "supervision" that Bentham intended to guide the wayward back to Protestant self-reflection, a mechanical version of Kant's categorical imperative. After enough surveillance by the benign prison guards or Guardians, everybody learns to watch themselves. This was precisely the problem modernity faced once Enlightenment doubt assailed the panoptic God of Christianity. What can replace Fear of the Lord? Reason? The categorical imperative? The Panopticon? Second Empire spies and police networks? London's CCTV "Ring of Steel"?

So the Ring of Gyges operates on Glaucon's assumption that, indeed, some constraining force is needed to watch the people... and watch the watchers. H.G. Wells' "Invisible Man," Alberich's ring and cloak of invisibility in Rheingold, Sauron's ring of power, and so forth... all release the human will from the many-eyed gaze of society, bringing about their own downfall as well, as Socrates argued.

Rather than mass surveillance, it is the Hacker who most resembles Gyges. A comic book Mad Hacker who can slip unseen into the electronic infrastructure and take whatever she wants, her lust for power increasing exponentially with every new supercomputer brought under control. A Moore's Law of Corruption. The corruption is latent everywhere, evasion of the social gaze and the eye of god enables it to flourish. I'm sorry not to direct you to specific texts, but you may do just well as googling. And here's a nice tip. Do you know which sites are routinely blanked out on the Google Earth panopticon? All Google server farms!

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