Whether in classical or contemporary stories, invisibility is often associated with immense power. Why are humans so obsessed with this ability?
The Power of Invisibility Through the Ages
If one were to ask people of any age, gender, or culture about their most cherished wishes, invisibility would likely rank high among the answers. To be there without being seen, to listen to what others say about us behind our backs or to access forbidden spaces without betraying our presence… So many reasons why invisibility feeds the most diverse films and fictions, while being at the heart of the most experimental theories of physics, with the aim of finding a mathematical formula allowing visible objects to escape the refraction of the light.
Two great fantasy sagas of our time, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, give considerable importance to invisibility. In the former, Sauron's ring makes anyone wearing it invisible. And while it may seem original to us, this narrative device already appears in one of the oldest classical works of our Western culture: The Republic by the philosopher Plato, where a character named Glaucón has a conversation with Socrates and shares the story of a powerful ring found by a shepherd named Giges. The latter discovers a bronze horse with a corpse inside, wearing a sparkling golden ring. When he puts it on, he becomes invisible and uses this power to seduce the queen and assassinate the king.
Plato and the morality of invisibility
Plato sought to demonstrate that a man is evil only when he has the power to commit evil. In the case of Glaucón, this power is the invisibility conferred by the ring. The philosopher reflects thus: “Every man believes that it is much more personally advantageous to be unjust than just”. We might therefore deduce that what fills the world with injustice is not so much human wickedness in itself, but a great capacity to do evil, that is, a great power. Many will remember, at this point, one of the most mythical phrases in cinema, uttered by Spiderman's uncle to his nephew Peter Parker before he died: “With great power comes great responsibility”. And, in Plato's classic story, this great power is not having superhuman physical abilities and flying through the air thanks to an ultra-resistant spider web, but invisibility. A much more discreet power, but infinitely more powerful.
The “perspective-refuge” and the attraction of invisibility
As we see, the ability to not be seen is considered one of the most incredible and powerful since ancient times until today. What is the reason for this? Why do we have this desire embedded in our subconscious for centuries? One of the most appropriate explanations for this immortal desire to be invisible is that put forward by the British geographer Jay Appleton, who coined the theory of perspective-refuge. Since the dawn of time, man's adaptation to nature has involved the ability to hide. Because of his condition as a weak animal, susceptible to being preyed upon by other more ferocious and formidable living beings, his mission to preserve life was based on the ability to detect threats (to obtain perspective) and, at the same time, to be protected against these same threats (which would amount to building a refuge).
“Humanity's oldest and strongest emotion is fear, and the oldest and strongest type of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Fear of the Unseen
On the other hand, nothing is more frightening than what is not visible. We see this in the great horror stories, especially in the fables of H.P. Lovecraft, as in “The Dunwich Horror,” a short story written in 1928 about a gigantic being, larger than a full-grown elephant, that ravages a small village. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” the author wrote in his 1925 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature. Of all the paranormal and monstrous beings, it is the ghosts that best represent the attribute of being invisible. And precisely, ghosts fuel all horror literature from the past to the present.
Again, nothing is more frightening than the unknown, hence one of the most common aversions when we are children: the dark, precisely because we are unable to see and whatever is lurking there, out of the shadows, silently watching us, is invisible. “Children will always fear the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary inheritance will always tremble at the thought of hidden, unfathomable worlds of strange life that may beat in the abysses beyond the stars,” Lovecraft later wrote.
An Invisible God
Of course, not everything that is invisible has to be malevolent. The Christian God, although having an anthropomorphic figure in biblical representations, is also invisible and invokes the highest idea of the Good that would evolve from Plato, through St. Thomas Aquinas to Descartes. If the world is well made, it is because it was created by this invisible father of humanity, who in turn made us in his image and likeness, not in the physical, but in the spiritual. The belief in the soul or in ideas, the fact that we possess rationality, comes from the religious idea of God, which is entirely invisible since it has no physical form.
“The various representations of invisibility suggest that the concept serves as a mirror to see ourselves.”
Invisibility: a mirror for humanity
“Invisibility is sometimes seen as a blessing, sometimes as a curse,” writes Greg Gbur, a professor of physics and optics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who wrote an article in the journal Aeon where he reviews all these myths of invisibility. He also mentions science's efforts to mask the visible, written up in a series of studies published in 2006 in the journal Nature, in which a group of scientists tried to show how to make an invisibility cloak, like the one that appears in the aforementioned Harry Potter movie. “Although no object has yet been created that can be described as invisible in the literal sense, and it may never be, the attention physicists have given to this power shows how deeply intriguing the concept can be.”
“The various representations of invisibility in literature and popular culture suggest that the concept serves, ironically, as a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected,” Gbur concludes in his article. When we can't see, our minds tend to fill the void of meaning and significance using our imagination, just as a child fears the dark because he or she suspects there may be monsters lurking. We then project a part of ourselves that gets lost in this invisible whole. And this, according to magical thinking, leads us to the idea that there are many more ghosts around us than we imagine. “All love stories are ghost stories,” is the title line of a biography by one of the greatest recent writers, and even if we don't know it, we are also ghosts to someone we stopped seeing long ago.
Invisibility: a privilege in a hyper-visible world
In a current sociological context, invisibility can be considered a privilege in a world where everything is made visible. If an important event happens on the other side of the world, someone will be there to record it and we will be able to see it in real time on our cell phone. If we meet someone on the Internet, we will probably have access to a multitude of photos and content that tell us about their personality without even having met the person in question. And we say privilege, because being invisible in today's world can seem suspicious, as if we actually have great power that others cannot afford. Where does that person go who doesn't share their actions and thoughts on social networks?
Ultimately, the desire for invisibility spans ages and cultures, reflecting our aspirations, fears, and fascination with the unknown. As technology and science continue to advance, invisibility remains an enigmatic and complex quest that drives us to explore our world and ourselves ever more deeply.
I'm a big fan of short stories about people – I'm a pro at tech and smartphones, serial literature, and writing in my spare time.