On the metamorphosis of Gyges: three stories about invisibility


In the first chapter of Marc Shell’s Economics of Literature, “The Ring of Gyges”, he relates two stories about the King of Lydia, Gyges. Shell is interested in Lydia because, in Greek historiography and legend, Lydia was the birthplace of coinage, and Shell is looking for something like the primal scene of monetization.

The reader, who has read her Plato, is already asking: What does money have to do with invisibility?
The logic of Shell’s chapter slowly brings together, through Greek texts, the power of the invisible and the power of money, or, more precisely, how money operates to introduce invisibility into society. We are dealing here not with deduction, but with association.

This is the context for his analysis of Gyges.

“It is not easy for us, who have used coinage for some twenty-five hundred years, to imagine the impression it made on the minds of those who first used it in their city-states. The introduction of money to Greece has few useful analogies.1° 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, as we shall see, is associated with new economic and political forms that shattered the previous world and its culture.”

Gyges was the subject of two different histories, Shell points out, in Herodotus and Plato. In Herodotus, the tale goes like this. “Candaules [the King of Lydia] fell in love with his own wife, so much that he supposed her to be by far the fairest woman in the world; and being thus persuaded of this, he raved of her beauty (eidos) to Gyges”. As Herodotus reports the story, Gyges, here, is a noble at King Candaules’s court. Candaules is strangely jealous not of his wife, so much, as of his. He accuses Gyges of not believing him, and thus orders Gyges to spy on the queen, his wife, when she is dressing. Gyges doesn’t want to, for to spy on the naked queen would mean, in his opinion, taking property from the King – for the queen’s eidos – her figure, is the King’s property in the same way that the King’s figure on a coin marks the coin as the King’s property. Of course, in the latter case, the property is alienated and circulates – but at no point in the circulation does the coin change its stamp.

Gyges, in the event, is hidden by the King in the Queen’s chamber, and spies upon her nakedness. However, as Gyges does this and contrives to slip out of the chamber, unbeknownst to him, the Queen spots him. The next day she calls Gyges into her presence and gives him a choice. Either she will have him killed for spying on her, or he will kill the King and rule with her over Lydia. In one way or another, she will have her honor – her aidos – avenged.

The invisibility in this story is all a matter of human invention. It is the invisibility of the person who is hidden. The story is neatly sewn together as the invisible and the visible positions change places. That the Queen’s beauty is invisible to any male gaze except the King’s (we discount, in this story, the Queen’s serving women) is the motive that sets the intrigue in motion, for her beauty is, in a sense, both undervisible and overvisible – it exists as a second visibility. The King’s love is constrained by the fact that this second visibility cannot circulate. Gyges, as the voyeur, is indeed put into a position where he, invisibly, takes possession of that second visibility – but immediately, his position is reversed by the fact that, unbeknownst to him, he is seen by the Queen when he leaves his spot. The voyeur is, in turn, spied upon. A trope we find, incidentally, in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. And finally, of course, the two come together in a plot to overthrow the King. Here, they become conspirators in a secret – a relative of the invisible and the hidden.

Plato’s tale is better known. It is told by Glaucon in The Republic. The personages and terms, here, are rearranged a bit. Gyges is not a noble in this story, but a shepherd. Then one day…

“After a great deluge of rain and an earthquake, the ground opened and a chasm appeared in the place where he was pasturing; and they say that he went down and wandered into the chasm; and the story goes that he beheld other marvels there and a hollow bronze horse with little doors, and that he peeped in and saw a corpse within, as it seemed, of more than mortal stature, and that there has nothing else (allo men ouden) but a gold ring on its hand, which he took off and went forth.”

This ring, it turns out, has the power to make its possessor invisible and then visible again. “Learning that the ring made him invisible, he immediately contrived to be one of the messengers of the king. When he arrived, he committed adultery with the king’s wife and, along with her, set upon the king and killed him. And so he took over the rule”.

The fable of Gyges is a limit case meant to throw light on the question of justice. If we have the power to escape the power of justice – the armed power of the state – by becoming invisible, would we continue to be just? Socrates argument is that the cause of behaving justly does not tell us the nature of justice – rather, justice is good in itself. “We have met all the.. . demands of the argument and we have not invoked the rewards and reputes of justice as you said [the poets] do, but we have proved that justice in itself is the best thing for the soul in
itself, and that the soul ought to do justice whether it possess the ring of Gyges or not, or the Helmet of Hades to boot”.

Shell’s argument is that we must go back to the terms of the story – the antithesis of the visible and the invisible – to understand how it works textually in the Republic, in which the power of money is at work as an irritant. First, he cites early commentators on Herodotus’ story, which introduce the features that coalesce, later, in Gyges’s ring.

“That the queen could see Gyges in the bedroom indicates that she possessed not only a power to make things invisible but also a corresponding power (as invisible spy) to make visible to herself things that were invisible to other people. Ptolemaeus Chennus writes that the eyes of “the wife of [Clandaules. . . had double pupils, and she was extremely sharp sighted, being the possessor of the dragon-stone. This is how she came to see Gyges as he passed through the door.” The dragonstone has an opposite effect from the magic ring. In one case the talisman makes people invisible; in the other case, it makes people visible: taken together, their power makes things visible or invisible. This is the power of Platonic Gyges. It is also the power of the archetypal tyrant.”

Shell, going back to the notion that the King possesses a property in the appearance of the wife, alludes to the Greek distinction between two forms of transaction.

“ousia phanera is property whose transfer was seen by others, and ousia aphanB is property whose transfer was not seen. (In a visible transfer, the buyer and seller might exchange a symbolic deposit not as part of the purchase price but as a visible sign of their agreement.) The second meaning of the opposition involves money: ousia phanera is a nonmonetary commodity (such as land or “real” estate) andousia aphanēs is money (such as a coin).”

Which brings us to our second history.

2.  The story of Plutos

An Athenian farmer, Chremylus, goes to Apollo’s temple at Delphi to ask advice from the God. Chremylus has been one of Socrates’ kind – he has done good all his life. But all around him, he has seen wealth go to the worst, the cunning, those who are incompetent in everything except plundering; more, he has seen honesty positively punished. Socrates, of course, extolled justice even if it put the just man in danger of losing his life. But this is to put the question on the level of the individual: how about a society in which the just man always loses? Is it just for a man to condemn his children to pain and poverty by teaching them to be just, thus reproducing the social conditions that make for injustice? Chremylus is too good not to be worried about how his son will make out if he follows his father’s path. Thus, he wants to know whether he should raise his son to be unjust, a criminal, and thus spare the boy the pain that the father has known.

The oracle gives him a typically oblique judgment – the first person he meets, returning to Athens, he is to talk to and take into his home.

The man he meets is blind. His clothes are ragged and dirty. Chremylus decides he wants to know the wretch’s story, and even threatens the blind man with his slave, Cario, if he won’t tell it.

PLUTUS. Listen then, since I must reveal what I had intended to keep a secret. I am Plutus.”

Chremylus is, of course, skeptical of this story. Plutus is the god of wealth – the man before him looks like the product of the worst poverty. The figures seem irreconcilable.

PLUTUS. Zeus inflicted it on me, because of his jealousy of mankind. When I was young, I threatened him that I would only go to the just, the wise, the men of ordered life; to prevent my distinguishing these, he struck me with blindness! so much does he envy the good!
CHREMYLUS. And yet, ’tis only the upright and just who honour him.
PLUTUS. Quite true.
CHREMYLUS. Therefore, if ever you recovered your sight, you would shun the wicked?
PLUTUS. Undoubtedly.
CHREMYLUS. You would visit the good?
PLUTUS. Assuredly. It is a very long time since I saw them.”

As A.M. Bowie has observed, Plutus’ story is paralleled by the story of Prometheus. Just as Prometheus, out of love for mankind, steals fire from the gods – and is punished for it by Zeus – so, too, the god of wealth, when he can see, intends to distribute money only to those who are upright – to, in effect, give money to the just.

Blindness is invisibility reversed – instead of the invisible being present to the seeing eye, the visible is made invisible by being present to the unseeing eye. But eye it still is. Aristophanes story – for this is the storyline of Aristophanes’ last play, Plutus – is a sort of variation on the Gyges story, substituting an immortal for a mortal and blindness – a sightless presence – for invisibility – a presence that can’t be seen. In the course of the play, Plutus’s sight is restored – and initiates a golden age of just deserts. What interests me is that, although Zeus’s treatment binds together the two mythical figures, it is Prometheus who survives, in the collective imagination, as the hero. The romantics, including Marx, were attracted to the Prometheus myth in that it countered Christian meekness and pulled away the veil from the violence of the established order. But the blessings of a seeing Plutus did not inspire the poets. Yet, the attempt to make Plutus see, the dream of the seeing god of wealth, has been the ardent pursuit, the mythic ideal, of liberal society – one that finally, in a dialectical movement, returns the utopian society of the end of Aristophanes play back to the blind god, now in John Rawls’ original position, distributing the goods in society properly, restrained not by Zeus, but by Pareto optimality.

  1. And then – another transformation of Gyges story – there is the story of the killing of the Chinese Mandarin.

The story is told in Pére Goriot. Rastignac is tempted by Vautrin to plot for the destruction of the rich brother of Victorine. Victorine would inherit the family wealth if her brother died – an event that Vautrin seeks to arrange through a duel. As Victorine is in love with Rastignac, it would only remain for the latter to marry the former and enjoy her wealth. The day after Vautrin reveals this plan, Rastignac consults a friend, Bianchon:
“‘I’m being tortured by evil thoughts,”‘ Rastignac says, adding: “Have you read Rousseau?” “Yes.” “Do you remember that passage in which he asks the reader what he would do if he could become wealthy by killing an old Chi-nese mandarin, without leaving Paris, just by an act of will?” “Yes.” “Well then?” “Oh, I’m on my thirty-third mandarin.” “Don’t joke about it. Come, if it were proved to you that the thing was possible and that all you’d need to do would be nod your head, would you do it?” “Is your mandarin very old? Oh, well, young or old, healthy or paralytic, good Lord … Oh, the devil! Well, no.”
I’m quoting the passage as it appears in Carlo Ginzburg’s essay, “Killing a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance”. This scene in Balzac is, of course, the seed for much that has followed in the novel – for instance, Raskolnikov’s problem in Crime and Punishment falls out along these lines, as Grossman has pointed out in his study of Doestoevsky. As I recall, Czeslaw Milosz devoted an essay to Rastignac’s problem – although I can’t find it now. But Ginzburg’s essay is exceptional in following the trace of the motifs that finally find their place in this mistaken reference to Rousseau. It is rather Diderot, as Ginzburg points out, who is Rastignac’s predecessor here. Diderot presents the problem of distance and conscience first in the Dialogue Between a Father and a Son, and later in Supplement to the Voyage of Bouganville. In the former, the story is told of a hatter who steals the inheritance of his dead wife from her family. The family had the legal right to it; the hatter, however, had taken care of his invalid wife for eighteen years. Finally, the hatter decides to flee with the money to Geneva. At this point, Diderot writes:
“We agreed,” Diderot writes, “that perhaps distance in space or time weakened all feelings and all sorts of guilty conscience, even of crime. The assassin, removed to the shores of China, can no longer see the corpse which he left bleeding on the banks of the Seine. Remorse springs perhaps less from horror of oneself than from fear of others; less from shame at what one has done than from the blame and punishment it would bring if it were found out.”

And so China, distance and murder come together. But the terms are reversed, of course, in Rastignac’s tale – which may well figure the reverse of the terms of adventure as eighteenth century colonialism, with its slavery and sugar, gives way to nineteenth century imperialism, with its markets and opium. Reversal, it turns out, is the rule in the game of invisibility, a game that is always turning the tables on the players.


I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.
About Roger 78 Articles
I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.

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