Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2359:
INVISIBLE JUSTICE

by Rob Zaretsky

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.

Wells's book 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 work.

(Theme music)


Plato, The Republic. trans. Allan Bloom, (New York: Basic Books, 1991)

H. G. Wells, The Invisible Man. (New York: Penguin, 2002/1897).

Invisible man bandaged

A Half-Invisible Man
photo images by JHL


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.