Plato and Wilde on Justice

Plato’s The Republic, a cornerstone of Western philosophy, is a dialogue between Socrates and several other Athenians and concerns itself primarily with the concept of justice. Plato’ famous two-way analogy of the soul and the state was itself only created within the dialogue for the purpose of demonstrating that justice is preferable to injustice.

Before this analogy is introduced, Glaucon (an interlocutor, and brother of Plato) protests that justice is only preferable to injustice because of the consequences both behaviours result in. In other words, one only acts justly because the rewards outweigh the penalties of acting unjustly. Glaucon argues that these consequences come mostly in the form of effects on one’s reputation. Glaucon seeks to prove that if these effects were removed from the situation, one would act unjustly, and thus that unjust behaviour is preferable and more intrinsically rewarding.

To do this, Glaucon introduces the legend of The Ring of Gyges. Gyges, a shepherd, stumbles upon a tomb in a cave wherein he finds ’a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring’ (Book II, 359d). This ring, he later discovers, gives him the power of invisibility on command. This invisibility affords him such power that ’he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; whereas soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.’ (360b). Glaucon then asks us to consider two of these rings in existence, alongside the just man and the unjust man. He argues that if ’the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.’ (360b-d).

So what does the Ring of Gyges have to do with Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray? Well, I would argue that Wilde and Plato share thoughts on the morality of justice in behaviour. Put simply, that one only refrains from ‘sin’ due to its effects on reputation.

Wilde’s protagonist Dorian Gray, though, does not wish for invisibility when sitting for the artist Basil Hallward in the opening chapters of the novel, but rather that ’the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now!’. Gray is described (if not defined) by his beauty, and upon realising its inevitable fading with time, wishes that the portrait painted of him might bear the ageing which awaits him. This beauty, though, can be seen as a metaphor for the innocence of youth. At the time of Dorian’s egocentric plea he is young and untouched, his conscience white, his reputation clean.

Gray’s wish becomes true, and he goes on to live a lavish lifestyle, indulging all of the senses to a state of ecstasy and leaving in his wake such tragedy as the suicide of his lover. As he leads this marvellous life the portrait he once worshipped deteriorates until his painted self becomes grotesque. Wilde argues that sin has a negative effect on one’s appearance. Indeed, the high society of London marvel at Gray’s ability to live such an elaborate life but to keep his youthful beauty. Gray is horrified by the change in his portrait and in refusing to accept the effects on his conscience, tries to destroy it. In doing so he kills himself. This is proof that the painting transcends the material realm and can be viewed as Gray’s soul itself.

Both Wilde and Glaucon ask ‘what if?’, and provide an example whereby the effects of unjust behaviour on one’s social reputation are removed and in both cases, unjust behaviour ensues. Although Wilde uses beauty as an allegory for reputation -which in itself exposes the vanity of the Victorian upper class, as behaviour, he tells us, was not judged against a set of principles or laws (as Gyges escaped) but by its effect on outward appearance – the central argument is the same. Reputation is the genesis of just activity.

There are some differences between the two explanations, though. Glaucon introduces Gyges to prove the superiority in satisfaction of injustice over justice; Wilde writes of Dorian Gray, in my opinion, to argue in favour of reputation’s role in society. Without any effect on his beauty (reputation), Gray’s actions go unnoticed and unchallenged by his peers. Lacking any accountability or criticism he falls subject to his most animalistic, indulgent nature. Gray’s reason and self-respect succumb to his urges and addictions. In the words of Plato’s tripartite soul, Dorian Gray’s appetites have a regrettably disproportionate dominion. Reputation, Wilde appears to argue, keeps one’s appetites and worst tendencies in check. Lord Henry, then, can be seen as the advocate of appetites, his influence can only be viewed as negative. It seems to me that Wilde uses Henry as an instrument to portray all that he condemns. The following quote encapsulates the above argument, given that external reputation informs the internal ‘monstrous laws’ of the soul:

”The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.”

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