By Groundhog Day I mean the movie, with Bill Murray--you know the one, with the same day repeated over and over until finally (maybe because the main character has learned to transcend himself) a new day begins.
The ring of Gyges figures in a story told in Plato's Republic. Gyges is a shepherd who discovers a magic ring enabling him to become invisible at will. After using it to seduce the queen and kill the king, he himself becomes king of Lydia. In The Republic Plato has Glaucon tell the story to illustrate the nature of justice and the motives that lead people to be just or unjust. Glaucon argues that all people will be unjust--that is, will wrong and manipulate others--if they can get away with it. The only reason people are just is because they fear the social consequences--that is, they are afraid of getting caught and punished. "Justice" or morality is thus, in this view, a social construction, or at least something that functions only in terms of social expectations and constraints. People behave "justly" only because they lack the power or the courage to pursue self-interest ruthlessly. But anyone who is powerful enough will supposedly pursue self-interest without restraint, and that will mean behaving in ways that we conventionally call "unjust."
This view, by the way, is not Plato's. He has Glaucon introduce the argument only so that the book's main character, Socrates (who, in real life, had been Plato's friend and teacher), can refute it. But in many ways Glaucon's argument is compelling--or, rather, seductive. It is easy to fantasize about being invisible, doing whatever we like without anyone knowing, and having no consequences. This tantalizing dream of unconstrained self-indulgence appeals to something in human nature--what the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls "the happy spontaneity of the self" ("Signature" 293). (For a translation of the Gyges episode in The Republic, click here.)
Levinas also discussed the myth of Gyges and his ring. For him, Gyges--who sees without being seen--is an image of the human self living for itself alone, as if it were not responsible to anyone else. The fact that we are capable of doing this is a consequence of our being truly separate from each other. But that separation, though the necessary grounds of our individual existence (and, hence, of our individual moral responsibility), also gives rise to the futile and self-destructive dream of complete autonomy and "the possibility of injustice and radical egoism" (Totality and Infinity 173). (See also Totality 61, 90, 170, 173; and Otherwise than Being 145.)
According to Levinas, in addition to being separate from each other, we are also necessarily connected with each other. It is the other person, who is absolutely other than myself and who cannot be reduced to a concept or possession, who first makes me aware of myself and who makes the world genuinely real and external, because it is something I have in common with others. The other person also calls my egoism into question and thereby endows me with moral responsibility. To be human is to be responsible--we can try to ignore this responsibility, but we cannot escape it. We have always already been responsible to and for others, or as Levinas puts it: "I am defined as a subjectivity, as a singular person, as an ‘I,’ precisely because I am exposed to the other. It is my inescapable and incontrovertible answerability to the other that makes me an individual ‘I.’ So that I become a responsible or ethical ‘I’ to the extent that I agree to depose or dethrone myself—to abdicate my position of centrality—in favor of the vulnerable other. As the Bible says: ‘He who loses his soul gains it’" (Face to Face with Levinas 27).
Plato and Levinas, each in his own way, show why morality does not arise simply from yielding weakly or naively to social constraints and why the fantasy of being like Gyges does not correspond to the reality of our situations as human beings--most importantly, why we would not be truly happy if we were able to get away with whatever would satisfy our personal desires.
The question to which Plato has Socrates respond in The Republic is this: Is it better to be unjust (assuming that you get away with it) or just (even if you are thought to be unjust and are mistreated as a result)? Or put in different words: Is justice better than injustice, even if neither men nor gods know that you are just?
The answer, which it takes much of the book to explain, is that it is better to be just because justice consists in each element in the human soul performing its proper role and relating to the other elements properly, with the result of harmony, happiness, and wisdom. And so even if a just man is misunderstood and persecuted (as Socrates was), he will still be at peace, while the unjust man, even if he is successful in worldly terms, will not be at peace with himself. He will live in a state of fear, agitation, and insatiable desire. Since he lives in an obsessive, addictive state, with the evil parts of his nature in control, he is not truly free. But the just man, who is ruled by reason, the source of true knowledge and wisdom, is truly free.
There is much to be said for Plato's view. But I find Levinas's arguments even more compelling. Yes, it is possible to be unjust--that is, even though we are responsible to others, we can try to ignore that responsibility, we can deafen our ears to the call of the Other. (Or to be more precise, we can try to deafen our ears. In reality, as Levinas notes, though "The will is free to assume this responsibility [to and for the Other] in whatever sense it likes[,] it is not free to refuse this responsibility itself; it is not free to ignore the meaningful world into which the face of the Other has introduced it" [Totality and Infinity 218-19].) But what happens if we try to ignore our responsibility? Our existence becomes isolated, more isolated the more we seek to ignore the otherness of others, to treat them as objects or obstacles. And this isolation deprives our existence of moral significance and transcendence. We are stuck with being only ourselves.
When we do that, not only does our existence lack moral meaning (or rather we twist ourselves into an attitude of trying to ignore that meaning, for it always has moral meaning), it also takes on an eerily unreal quality. For if we do not acknowledge the otherness of others, if they are only "things," then our consciousness becomes closed in upon itself and lacks the dimension of exteriority provided by the presence of others who are genuinely and absolutely other than ourselves. The world takes on a dreamlike quality; we are overtaken by the solipsistic anxiety that only the self exists--that all that seems external is only a phantasm, perhaps something we are fantasizing, perhaps something put in our minds by some malign being (the "evil genius" that Descartes imagines). Therefore, only when we acknowledge that others are truly other than ourselves and accept our responsibility for them does the world become fully real to us. Only then in fact do we ourselves become fully real. "The solipsistic anxiety of consciousness"--the anxiety that only I exist--the terrible situation in which my consciousness "[sees] itself in all its adventures as captivated by itself, ends here": ends, that is, in my genuine encounter with another person. "The privilege of the Other in relation to the I--or moral consciousness--is the very opening to exteriority," the opening up of a world outside of myself that I share with others ("Signature" 294).
In an essay titled "Freedom and Command," Levinas makes his points in a somewhat different way. He specifically discusses Plato's ideas about tyranny and then makes the point that the tyrant who seeks to control others absolutely loses the satisfaction of controlling others to the extent that he is successful in doing so. Why? Because to control another person is to turn that person into an object. But when a person is turned into an object, there is no longer anyone there to control or to be aware of my success in achieving absolute control. A tyrant who is successful in exercising absolute control will have power over nonentities, for his subjects will cease to be other than himself to the extent that he succeeds in controlling them. The entirely successful tyrant would no longer have anyone left who could genuinely acknowledge his power, no one over whom he could truly have power.
In contrast to the empty and meaningless existence of the tyrant is our calling as human beings to "be for the Other"--that is, to be beyond ourselves by serving and caring for other people. When I acknowledge and welcome others, my "center of gravitation" moves outside of myself (Totality and Infinity 283). And yet that shift in the center of my gravitation makes me more truly myself. As Levinas puts it, "The I, which we have seen arise in enjoyment as a separated being having apart, in itself, the center around which its existence gravitates, is confirmed in its singularity by purging itself of this gravitation, purges itself interminably, and is confirmed precisely in this incessant effort to purge itself. This is termed goodness. Perhaps the possibility of a point of the universe where such an overflow of responsibility is produced ultimately defines the I" (Totality and Infinity 244-45). This is what Levinas means when he writes of "transcendence": at one and the same time, I am myself (uniquely myself, because I am the only one who, right here where I am, can respond to the Other), and yet I am also beyond myself by being genuinely in relation with someone who is absolutely other than myself.
What does this have to do with Groundhog Day? Some of you who know the movie well will already have guessed at my point. I'll be explaining that point in my next post. (To be continued . . .)