Today, now we see it, now we don't. The Honors College
at the University of Houston presents this program about
the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful
than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Capable
of turning invisible at the snap of the finger. Okay, quick: which of
these does not belong to Superman? Or any superhero devoted to justice?
Choose the last one? Congratulations: you made the same choice of most
comic book artists. Invisibility is mostly invisible in the pantheon of
superheroes. Is it because it isn't super enough? Or is it too super --
too much of a temptation -- for any single human ... even a super one?
Comic books, in this case, are just a footnote to Plato. The ancient Greek
philosopher makes the most of invisibility in his great work The Republic.
The book is a long dialogue between Socrates and a small group of young
Athenians on the subject of justice. They wonder what makes a just man just.
Does anything force us to be just except force itself?
Here Plato introduces the story of Gyges. Gyges, a shepherd, stumbles across
a cave. Inside, he finds a corpse with a ring on one of its fingers. Gyges
takes the ring and discovers that, by turning it around, it makes him invisible.
With this power, he kills the king of Lydia, takes his throne, marries his wife
and founds a new dynasty.
Unjust? Not for one of Socrates' friends, who claims that Gyges did what any
human being would have done. No one, he claims,
"is willingly just but only when compelled to act so." Here we are, teetering
at the edge of a moral abyss, waiting for Socrates to rescue us.
Well, the rescue takes another 200 pages. So let's put Plato aside and turn to
other icons of invisibility. There's Griffin in H.G. Wells The Invisible Man.
He's maddened by his invisibility and terrorizes a small town. Though Griffin
is finally stopped, the movie lived on sequels including an invisible woman and
a very visible Abbot and Costello. And there's Gollum in Tolkien's Ring trilogy.
I don't have to point out this fellow's precarious hold on sanity, either with
or without his "precious"? Or point out the connection between justice and a
world without such a ring?
Gyges, Griffin and Gollum: guys just like you and me. And that's the problem.
Comic book writers sensed what Plato showed: invisibility is a superpower unlike
any other. Run of the mill superpowers extend natural abilities. You run faster
or leap higher than you could before.
But invisibility is unnatural: it doesn't have degrees or shades. Try as you
might, you cannot become more invisible than you were before. This is why it
is more dangerous than even kryptonite. Unseen, we do not rise to the superhuman;
instead, we risk sinking toward the inhuman. Justice: now you see it, now you don't.
I'm Rob Zaretsky at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Plato, The Republic. trans. Allan Bloom, (New York: Basic Books, 1991)
H. G. Wells, The Invisible Man. (New York: Penguin, 2002/1897).
photo images by JHL
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H.