SRI LANKA: Glaucon’s story about the ring of invisibility and J.R. Jawardene’s legacy 

Basil Fernando 

In Plato’s Republic Glaucon narrates a story about a ring of invisibility.  The man who found the ring used his power to enter the palace, rape the queen, kill the king and to take over the throne.

‘They’d have the scope I’m talking about especially if they acquired the kind of power which, we hear, an ancestor of Gyges of Lydia* once acquired. He was a shepherd in the service of the Lydian ruler of the time, when a heavy rainstorm occurred and an earthquake cracked open the land to a certain extent,* and a chasm appeared in the region where he was pasturing his locks. He was fascinated by the sight, and went down into the chasm and saw there, as the story goes, among other artifacts, a bronze horse, which was hollow and had windows set in it; he stooped and looked in through the windows and saw a corpse inside, which seemed to be that of a giant. The corpse was naked, but had a golden ring on one finger; he took the ring off the finger and left.

Now, the shepherds used to meet once a month to keep the king informed about his locks, and our protagonist came to the meeting wearing the ring. He was sitting down among the others, and happened to twist the ring’s bezel in the direction of his body, towards the inner part of his hand. When he did this, he became invisible to his neighbors, and to his astonishment they talked about him as if he’d left. While he was iddling about with the ring again, he turned the bezel outwards, and became visible. He thought about this and experimented to see if it was the ring which had this power; in this way he eventually found that turning the bezel inwards made him invisible and turning it outwards made him visible. As soon as he realized this, he arranged to be one of the delegates to the ag; once he was inside the palace, he seduced the king’s wife find with her help assaulted and killed the king, and so took possession of the throne.1

The following conversation illustrates the relevance of this story to a discussion on the 1978 Constitution;2

“This is a discussion among several imaginary characters. These imaginary characters do not represent any living persons.

The Characters:

A journalist, conducting the interview;
A senior police officer who has agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity;
A retired judge;
A political scientist;
A philosopher.

 We have now discussed some important transformations in our country. We discussed about the Gyges’ ring, which makes the wearer invisible as part of our local experience now. In that transformation the 1978 Constitution played a very significant role. Now, the executive president can wear the Gyges’ ring and what this does is make him quite invisible. Perhaps we need to discuss this more.

At this stage, I thought it is better to recall the legend of the Gyges’ Ring. I found this description of it in Google: According to the legend, the ancestor (in Book 10 Socrates refers to the ring as belonging to Gyges himself, not his ancestor as Glaucon states in Book 2) of Gyges of Lydia was a shepherd in the service of King Candaules of Lydia. After an earthquake, a cave was revealed in a mountainside where Gyges was feeding his flock. Entering the cave, Gyges discovered that it was in fact a tomb with a bronze horse containing a corpse, larger than that of a man, who wore a golden ring, which Gyges pocketed. He discovered that the ring gave him the power to become invisible by adjusting it. Gyges then arranged to be chosen as one of the messengers who reported to the king as to the status of the flocks. Arriving at the palace, Gyges used his new power of invisibility to seduce the queen, and with her help he murdered the king, and became king of Lydia himself. King Croesus, famous for his wealth, was Gyges’ descendant.

Political Scientist:
 Now, the moral of the story is that a typical person would not be moral if he or she did not have to fear the consequences of their actions. If anyone can be invisible, it is possible to do things that one may not be willing to do because of bad publicity and other adverse consequences.

Retired Police Officer:
 I think I understand this legend and what it tries to say. But, I cannot agree that we should encourage our officers or leaders to follow the moral of this story.

Political Scientist: You mean it is too western?

Retired Police Officer:
 Whatever. If we have to become visible, we cannot do anything. We will become powerless. How can we ask our officers to kill undesirable people, bad criminals, if they have to do that openly. If their wives and children know these things, they will think they are bad people. Ordinary folk need to observe morals. If they know what we do, they will try to emulate us and then there will be more problems. We need to have the capacity to do many things in an invisible way.

Retired Judicial Officer: Some people might say that what our police officer says is wrong. However, he is simply saying honestly what everybody knows to be happening.

Political Scientist
: Now, let us go back to our original question: in 1978 when the Executive Presidential system was created the President gave himself, the Gyges’ Ring. We created a very powerful president, as powerful as those Kings who ruled before this thing called democracy came to the world. We rejected the Western Democracy and created our own thing.

Philosopher: What you mean, I think, is that we replaced the paramount law idea with the idea of the paramount personae. Large, big, tall, fat personae as we see them in ancient statues, which is really, our thing, our idea of who the powerful person should be.

Retired Police Officer: Let us be frank. Do you think that we can persuade people to work for the government and hold high office, if they are to be told that they have account for every cent they spend, that they would have keep books and be audited; that they can’t use their official position to help their family or friends and the like? If we ask our officers to bring every suspect before judges, that they should not torture people who do not give information, or that they have to produce every dead body before a magistrate to have a post mortem, will they do anything? We will have to pay officers who do nothing

Retired Judicial Officer: I think what you are saying is that we must be more flexible. We must give people room to exercise power, more freedom. Freedom of those in authority is more important than ‘the so called people’s freedom’. People are free only if they obey rulers and respect rulers.

 According to our officer and judicial officer, this is what has happened since 1978. This is our new order.

Journalist: Now I understand why so many journalists are being killed. Since, we journalists believe in transparency and accountability we no longer have any place under this new order.”

When Sri Lanka said no to John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau

The founding constitution of Sri Lanka at independence in 1948 was based on the tradition of John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Britain’s own political tradition has been shaped by the enlightenment tradition. All the political leaders of Sri Lanka at the time of the independence were schooled in this tradition. The drafter of the 1948 constitution, Ivor Jennings, was a well known British constitutional expert.

In 1972 when the coalition government spoke of creation of a “autochthonous constitution”, all that it meant was that the constitution was not given by the departing colonial ruler but adopted by representatives of elected by the people of Sri Lankan. It did not imply rejection of constitutional thought of liberal democracy. Despite of some attempts to modify some rules, which in fact did to some extent interfere with the all structure of a liberal democracy, the framers of the constitution were carefully not to undo the basic framework of the founding document.

1978 went the whole way, to undo that basic framework and to abandon the enlightenment tradition altogether. The very notion of the equality before was abandoned by placing the executive president above the all.

Though this document is called a constitution, which carried the idea of the supreme law, it is in fact, a declaration of accepting arbitrariness as against law. The very foundation of law itself was removed.

It was document that de-legalized the state.

Rousseau spoke of the bonds of law being equally strong as the bonds of blood. It is the legal bonds that hold citizens together. 1978 marked the removal of the hidden threads that hold the nation as a nation.

The subsequent chaos that descended on Sri Lanka is usually attributed to various conflicts and to terrorism. The constitutional unwinding of the nation has not been looked into as perhaps the most important cause of such chaos.

Days of Sri Lanka’s great achievements

Sri Lanka was looked at a model for development during the early part of 20th century. There are many commentators, which includes Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen, who has pointed to such achievements. In recent book Half The Sky, the authors write,

“Poverty is obviously also a factor, but high rates of maternal mortality are not inevitable in poor countries. Exhibit A is Sri Lanka. Since 1935 it has managed to halve its maternal deaths every six to twelve years. Over the last half century, Si Lanka has brought its maternal mortality ratio down from 550 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births to just 58. A Sri Lankan woman now has just one chance in 850 of dying in pregnancy during her lifetime.

That is a stunning achievement, particularly since Sri Lanka has been torn apart by intermittent war in recent decades and ranks 117th in the world in per capita income. And it’s not just a matter of throwing money at the problem, for Sri Lanka spends 3 percent of GNP on healthcare, compared to 5 percent in India next door—where a woman is eight times more likely to die in childbirth. Rather, it’s about political will: Saving mothers has been a priority in Si Lanka, and it hasn’t been in India. ( File Photo: Sir Ivor Jennings)

More broadly, Sri Lanka invests in health and education generally, and pays particular attention to gender equality. Some 89 percent of Sri Lankan women are literate, compared to just 43 percent across South Asia. Life expectancy in Sri Lanka is much higher than in surrounding countries. And an excellent civil registration system has recorded maternal deaths since 1900, so that Sri Lanka actually has data, in contrast to vague estimates in many other countries. Investments in educating girls resulted in women having more economic value and more influence in society, and that seems to be one reason that greater energy was devoted to reducing maternal mortality. Beginning in the 1930s, Sri Lanka set up a nationwide public health infrastructure, ranging from rudimentary health posts at the bottom to rural hospitals one tier up, and then district hospitals with more sophisticated services, and finally provincial hospitals and specialist maternity centers. To make sure that women could get to the hospitals, Sri Lanka provided ambulances.

Sri Lanka also established a major network of trained midwives, spread across the country and each serving a population of three thousand to ive thousand. The midwives, who have undergone eighteen months of training, provide prenatal care and refer risky cases to doctors. Today, 97 percent of births are attended by a skilled practitioner,

and it is routine even for village women to give birth in a hospital. Overtime, the government added obstetricians to its hospitals, and it used its data to see where women were slipping through the cracks—such as those living on the tea estates—and then to open clinics targeting those women. A campaign against malaria also reduced maternal deaths, since pregnant women are especially vulnerable to that disease. Si Lanka shows what it takes to reduce maternal mortality. Family planning and delayed marriage help, and so do mosquito nets. A functioning health care system in rural areas is also essential.”

Such stunning achievements were possible because of the legal structure that was introduced in Sri Lanka and the civil service that was created on the foundation of these legal norms. This legal framework provided the foundation for a well-organized society within which, with the cooperation of the citizens and the state, social miracles could be achieved.

It was this legal foundation that was removed in 1978 and resulting chaos is no surprise.

In a place like Hong Kong, where similar frame work was created, people are thriving. They have even proved capable of effectively eradicating corruption on the basis of legal institutions created for that purpose, and these were built on the foundation of a legal structure which is similar to what existed in Sri Lanka prior to 1978.


1. Plato, The Republic-A New translation by Robin Waterfield, pa.47
2. Sri Lanka Guardian , 9th July 2009,Replacing paramount law with a paramount personae, Basil Fernando
3. Half The Sky- Turning Opression into opportunity For Women Worldwide- Nicholas D. Kristor and Sheryl Wudunn, pgs 117-118