Invisibility Cloaks and the Ring of Gyges

George Eleftheriades and Michael Selvanayagam, researchers at the University of Toronto, have designed and tested a new approach to invisibility cloaking. Their method involves surrounding an object with miniature antennae emitting an electromagnetic field that cancels out waves reflecting back from the cloaked object. Although their tests showed the cloaking system to work with radio waves, they see no reason why, as the necessary antenna technology matures, it could not also work with light waves.

All this opens the way for a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak that is thin, scalable, and adaptable to different types of objects. Some of the uses being touted for this quasi magical cloak include hiding military vehicles and conducting surveillance operations. But what if the cloak falls, as it surely will, into the wrong hands? Have the scientists really thought through the consequences? The infamous banker Bob Diamond spoke of ethics as ‘what you do when nobody’s looking’. If bankers, politicians, and even churchmen can no longer be trusted to do the right thing, then who can? But beyond this, the cloak of invisibility raises important questions about human nature: do intelligent people do the right thing because it is the right thing or because they fear being caught, judged, and punished? More fundamentally, is man innately good, under the direction of his conscience and sense of guilt, or is his restraint rather the product of fear and coercion instilled by a Hobbesian social contract that serves to keep him in check?

In Greek mythology, the Cap of Invisibility or Helm of Darkness is a helmet or cap variously worn by Athena, Hermes, and Perseus to make themselves invisible to gods, heroes, monsters, and men. In Book II of the Republic, Plato discusses the Ring of Gyges, which, according to legend, makes its bearer invisible. The ring was once given to the shepherd Gyges who used it to seduce the Queen of King Candaules and thereby usurp the throne of Lydia. In the Republic, the character of Socrates asserts that justice is the excellence of the soul without which a man cannot live well and be happy, and, therefore, that justice is inherently desirable. However, Glaucon doubts whether to be just is always better than to be unjust. All goods, he says, can be divided into one of three classes: harmless pleasures that are desirable in themselves; goods such as gymnastics, the care of the sick, or the various ways of making money that are desirable for what they bring; and goods such as knowledge, sight, or health that are desirable both in themselves and for what they bring. To which of these three classes does justice belong?

Socrates replies that justice belongs to the third class, but Glaucon points out that most people would disagree and place it firmly in the second class. Indeed, most people think that to do injustice is good, but that to suffer injustice is evil; as the evil outweighs the good, they agree among themselves not to do injustice. If a just man got hold of the Ring of Gyges, he would most certainly behave unjustly, proving that he is just only because he is weak and fears retribution, and not because justice is desirable in itself. The truly just man who cares only for justice and not for the appearance of justice will be thought unjust and suffer every kind of evil until the day he finally understands that he should not be, but only seem, just. In contrast, the unjust man who is resourceful enough to seem just will be thought just and always get the better of everyone and everything. Adeimantus adds that when people praise justice, they praise it for what it brings rather than for itself. Realizing this, the superior man devotes himself not to justice itself but only to its appearance.

Adeimantus claims that he does not truly believe his argument, but is nonetheless pressing it to provoke Socrates into taking its other side and demonstrating that justice is desirable in and of itself. As part of his lengthy reply, Socrates famously conjures up an idealized Republic to help him define justice (or, as he puts it, “locate justice within the State”). After having defined justice in the state and justice in the individual, Socrates asserts that the just man orders his inner life in such a way as to be his own master and his own law. The soul of such a man can be said to be healthy, for justice and injustice are to the soul as health and disease are to the body: virtue is the health and the beauty of the soul, vice its disease and debility. If justice is the health of the soul, and if health is desirable in and for itself, then, by analogy, justice too is desirable in and for itself.

This is as far as Plato gets in the Republic. Notice that his conclusion that justice is intrinsically desirable does not in itself answer the original question, which was whether an intelligent person would still behave justly if he no longer feared being caught and punished. From Plato’s other writings, the answer is surely yes, even if Plato defines ‘intelligent’ in such a way that only he and some of his friends at the Academy actually meet the criteria. These select men are, of course, the famous philosopher-kings.

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Platonic myths: The Myth of the Metals

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In the Republic, having discussed the class of producers and the class of guardians, Socrates goes on to discuss the third and last class of citizen in his ideal State, the class of rulers.

Rulers should be chosen from amongst the guardians after close observation and rigorous testing of their loyalty to the State.

Guardians who are chosen as rulers should receive further education; guardians who are not chosen as rulers should no longer be known as ‘guardians’ but as ‘auxiliaries,’ whose role it is to implement the will of the rulers.

Socrates says that all the citizens should be told a useful lie so as to promote allegiance to the State and enforce its three-tiered social order.

According to this ‘myth of the metals’, every citizen is born out of the earth of the State and every other citizen is his brother or sister. Yet God has framed them differently, mixing different metals into their soul: gold for the rulers, silver for the auxiliaries, and brass or iron for the husbandmen and craftsmen.

Children are usually made of the same metal as their parents, but if this is not the case the child must either descend or ascend in the social order. If ever a child made of brass or iron was to become a guardian, the State would be destroyed.

As guardians are made of divine gold and silver, they should have nothing to do with the earthly sorts which have been ‘the source of many unholy deeds’.

Guardians should not have any private property; they should live together in housing provided by the state, and receive from the citizens no more than their daily sustenance.

Guardians may be the happiest of men in spite, or because, of their deprivations, for the arts and crafts are equally liable to degenerate under the influence of wealth as they are under the influence of poverty: ‘the one is the parent of luxury and indolence, and the other of meanness and viciousness, and both of discontent’.

Adapted from Plato’s Shadow

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Plato’s Metaphors: The Sun, Line, and Cave

1. The Metaphor of the Sun

1. Just as it is by the light of the sun that the visible is made apparent to the eye, so it is by the light of truth and being – in contrast to the twilight of becoming and perishing – that the nature of reality is made apprehensible to the soul. 2. Just as light and sight may be said to be like the sun, and yet not to be the sun, so science and truth may be said to be like the Good, and yet not to be the Good; it is by the sun that there is light and sight, and it is by the Good that there is science and truth. 3. Just as the sun is the author of nourishment and generation, so the Good is the author of being and essence. Thus, the Good is beyond being, and the cause of all existence.

2. The Metaphor of the Line

A line is cut into two unequal parts, and each of them is divided again in the same proportion. The two main divisions correspond to the intelligible world and to the visible world. One section in the visible division consists of images, that is,
shadows and reflections, and is accessed through imagination. The other, higher section in the visible division consists of sensible particulars and is accessed through belief. One section in the intelligible division consists of Forms and is accessed through thought, but via sensible particulars and hypotheses, as when geometers use a picture of a triangle to help reason about triangularity, or make appeal to axioms to prove theorems. The other, higher section in the intelligible division also consists of Forms but is accessed by understanding, a purely abstract science which requires neither sensible particulars nor hypotheses, but only an unhypothetical first principle, namely, the Form of the Good. The purpose of education is to move the philosopher through the various sections of the line until he reaches the Form of the Good.

3. The Metaphor or Allegory of the Cave

Human beings have spent all their lives in an underground cave or den which has a mouth open towards the light. They have their legs and their necks chained so that they cannot move, and can see only in front of them, towards the back of the cave. Above and behind them a fire is blazing, and between them and the fire there is a raised way along which there is a low wall. Men pass along the wall carrying all sorts of statues, and the fire throws the shadows of these statues onto the back of the cave. All the prisoners ever see are the shadows, and so they suppose that the shadows are the objects themselves.

Picture by Dr Tom Stockmann

If a prisoner is unshackled and turned towards the light, he suffers sharp pains, but in time he begins to see the statues and moves from the cognitive stage of imagination to that of belief. The prisoner is then dragged out of the cave, where the light is so bright that he can only look at the shadows, and then at the reflections, and then finally at the objects themselves: not statues this time, but real objects. In time, he looks up at the sun, and understands that the sun is the cause of everything that he sees around him, of light, of vision, and of the objects of vision. In so doing, he passes from the cognitive stage of thought to that of understanding.

The purpose of education is to drag the prisoner as far out of the cave as possible; not to instil knowledge into his soul, but to turn his whole soul towards the sun, which is the Form of the Good. Once out of the cave, the prisoner is reluctant to descend back into the cave and get involved in human affairs. When he does, his vision is no longer accustomed to the dark, and he appears ridiculous to his fellow men. However, he must be made to descend back into the cave and partake of human labours and honours, whether they are worth having or not. This is because the State aims not at the happiness of a single person or single class, but at the happiness of all its citizens. In any case, the prisoner has a duty to give service to the State, since it is by the State that he was educated to see the light of the sun.

The State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst… You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life… And the only life which looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy. Do you know of any other?

Adapted from Plato’s Shadow

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Platonic myths: The Myth of Er

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At the end of the Republic, Plato relates an eschatological myth (a myth of death), the so-called ‘myth or Er’.

Er was slain in battle but came back to life twelve days later to tell the living of what he had seen during the time that he was dead. During this time, his soul went on a journey to a meadow with four openings, two into the heavens above and two into the earth below. Judges sat in this meadow and ordered the good souls up through one of the openings into the heavens and the bad ones down through one of the openings into the earth. Meanwhile, clean and bright souls floated down to the meadow from the other opening into the heavens, and dusty and worn out souls rose up to the meadow from the other opening into the earth. Each soul had returned from a thousand year journey, but whereas the clean and bright souls spoke merrily of that which they enjoyed in the heavens, the dusty and worn out souls wept at that which they had endured in the underground. Souls that had committed heinous crimes, such as those of tyrants or murderers, were not permitted to rise up into the meadow, and were condemned to an eternity in the underground.

After seven days in the meadow, the souls travelled for five more days to the Spindle of Necessity, a shaft of intensely bright light that extends into the heavens and that holds together the universe. The souls were then asked to come forth one by one and to choose their next life from a scattered jigsaw of human and animal lives. Not having known the terrors of the underworld, the first soul hastily chose the life of a powerful dictator, only to discover that he was fated, among many other evils, to devour his own children. Although he had been virtuous in his previous life, his virtue had arisen out of habit rather than out of philosophy, and so his judgement was poor. In contrast, the souls that had known the terrors of the underworld often chose a better, more virtuous life, but this they did on no other account than harsh experience. Thus, many of the souls exchanged a good destiny for an evil or an evil for a good. The soul of the wily Odysseus, which was the last to come forth, sought out the life of a private man with no cares. This he found easily, lying about and neglected by everybody else.

After having chosen their next life, the souls travelled through the scorching Plain of Oblivion and encamped by the River of Forgetfulness. Each soul was required to drink from the river’s water so as to forget all things, but the souls which had not been saved by wisdom drank more than was strictly necessary. In the night, as they slept, the souls shot up like stars to be reborn into their chosen lives. As they did so, Er opened his eyes to find himself lying on his funeral pyre.

Adapted from

The Art of Failure

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