Wednesday, November 22nd 2017    |   


Ring of Gyges

Friday, May 23, 2008   |   Literature
The Ring of Gyges is a mythical magical artifact mentioned by the philosopher Plato in Book 2 of The Republic (2.359a - 2.360d). It granted its owner the power to become invisible at will. Through the story of the ring, The Republic discusses whether a typical person would be moral if they did not have to fear the consequences of their actions.

The Legend
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. 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.

The Moral
In The Republic, Plato puts the tale of the ring of Gyges in the mouth of Glaucon, who uses it to make the point that no man is so virtuous that he could resist the temptation of being able to steal at will by the ring's power of invisibility. In contemporary terms, Glaucon argues that morality is a social construction, whose source is 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. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another's, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another's faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.

However, in the dialogue Socrates goes on to explain that justice would not be defined by just this social construct; the man who abused the power of the Ring of Gyges has become morally bankrupt and suffered irreparable failings of character, while a man that chose willingly not to use it is at least at peace with himself.