The Ring of Gyges is a mythical magical artifact mentioned by the philosopher Plato in book two of his Republic (2.359a–2.360d). It granted its owner the power to become invisible at will. Through the story of the ring, Republic discusses whether a typical person would be moral if he did not have to fear the consequences of his actions.
According to the legend, 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.
The role of the legend in Republic
In Republic, the tale of the ring of Gyges is described by the character of Glaucon, who questions whether any man can be so virtuous that he could resist the temptation of being able to perform any act without being known or discovered. Glaucon suggests that morality is only a social construction, the source of which is the desire to maintain one's reputation for virtue and honesty. Hence, if that sanction were removed, one's moral character would evaporate.
- Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in 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.
- — Plato's Republic, 360b-d (Jowett trans.)
Though his answer to Glaucon's challenge is delayed, Socrates ultimately argues that justice does not derive from this social construct: the man who abused the power of the Ring of Gyges has in fact enslaved himself to his appetites, while the man who chose not to use it remains rationally in control of himself and is therefore happy.(Republic 10:612b)
The story has been cited as one of the sources to J. R. R. Tolkien's One Ring, especially to the behavior of Gollum, as bearer of the Ring and his misdeeds in his original village.
H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man had as its basis a retelling of the tale of The Ring of Gyges.
- ↑ In Republic Book 10, Socrates refers to the ring as belonging to Gyges himself, not his ancestor, as Glaucon states in Book 2. For this reason, the story is simply called "The Ring of Gyges".
- ↑ Philosophy Essay: Lord of the Rings
- ↑ H.G. Wells and the Ring of Gyges, Philip Holt, Science Fiction Studies #57 = Volume 19, Part 2 = July 1992
- Glaukon's Challenge Glaukon's speech from book 2, translated by Cathal Woods (2010).
- Plato, Republic Book 2, translated by Benjamin Jowett (1892).
- The Ring of Gyges Analysis by Bernard Suzanne (1996).
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