“The Ring of Gyges” byPlato

Relief of PlatoThoemmes Press

About the author. . . . Other than anecdotal accounts, not much is knownabout Plato’s early life. The association with his friend and mentor Socrateswas undoubtedly a major influence. Plato’s founding of the Academy, aschool formed for scientific and mathematical investigation, not only es-tablished the systematic beginning of Western science but also influencedthe structure of higher education from medieval to modern times. Plutarchonce wrote, “Plato is philosophy, and philosophy is Plato.”

About the work. . . . Glaucon, the main speaker of this reading from Plato’sRepublic,1 expresses a widely and deeply-held ethical point of view knownas egoism—a view taught by a Antiphon, a sophistic contemporary ofSocrates. Egoistic theories are founded on the belief that everyone actsonly from the motive of self-interest. For example, the egoist accounts forthe fact that people help people on the basis of what the helpers might getin return from those helped or others like them. This view, neither rep-resentative of Plato’s nor of Socrates’s philosophy, is presented here byGlaucon as a stalking horse for the development of a more thoroughlydeveloped ethical theory. Although Socrates held that everyone attemptsto act from the motive of “self-interest,” his interpretation of that motiveis quite different from the view elaborated by Glaucon because Glaucon

1. Plato.The Republic. Trans. by Benjamin Jowlett, Book II, 358d—361d.


“The Ring of Gyges” by Plato

seems unaware of the attendant formative effects on the soul by actionsfor short-term pleasure.

From the reading. . .

“. . . those who practice justice do so involuntarily and because theyhave not the power to be unjust. . . ”

Ideas of Interest from “The Ring ofGyges”

1. According to the Glaucon’s brief, why do most persons act justly?Explain whether you think Glaucon’s explanation is psychologicallycorrect.

2. If a person could be certain not only that an action resulting in per-sonal benefit would not be discovered but also that if this action werediscovered, no punishing consequences would follow, then would thereany reason for that person to act morally?

3. Is it true that sometimes our self-interest is served bynotacting in ourself-interest? Fyodor Dostoevsky writes:

Advantage! What is advantage? And will you take it upon yourself todefine with perfect accuracy in what the advantage of a man consists?And what if it so happens that a man’s advantage,sometimes, not onlymay, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harm-ful to himself and not advantageous.2

Construct an example illustrating this view, and attempt to resolve theparadoxical expression of the question.

2. Fyodor Dostoevsky.Notes from Underground. Trans. Constance Garnett. 1864.

2 Reading For Philosophical Inquiry: A Brief Introduction

“The Ring of Gyges” by Plato

4. Quite often people are pleased when they can help others. Analyzewhether this fact is sufficient to prove that the motive for helping oth-ers is ultimately one of pleasure or of self-interest.

5. According to Glaucon, how does the practice of justice arise? On theview he expresses, would there be any reason prior to living in a soci-ety to do the right thing? Does the practice of ethics only make sensein the context of living in a society?

The Reading Selection from “The Ringof Gyges”

I am delighted, he replied, to hear you say so, and shall begin by speaking,as I proposed, of the nature and origin of justice. They say that to do injus-tice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greaterthan the good. And so when men have both done and suffered injusticeand have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and ob-tain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves tohave neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that whichis ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. This they affirm tobe the origin and nature of justice; —it is a mean or compromise, betweenthe best of all, which is to do injustice and not be punished, and the worstof all, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation; and jus-tice, being at a middle point between the two, is tolerated not as a good,but as the lesser evil, and by reason of the inability of men to do injustice.For no man who is worthy to be called a man would ever submit to suchan agreement if he were able to resist; he would be mad if he did. Such isthe received account, Socrates, of the nature and origin of justice.

Now that those who practice justice do so involuntarily and because theyhave not the power to be unjust will best appear if we imagine somethingof this kind: having given both to the just and the unjust power to do whatthey will, let us watch and see whither desire will lead them; then we shalldiscover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding alongthe same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be theirgood, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law. Theliberty which we are supposing may be most completely given to them inthe form of such a power as is said to have been possessed by Gyges theancestor of Croesus the Lydian.

Reading For Philosophical Inquiry: A Brief Introduction 3

“The Ring of Gyges” by Plato

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the kingof Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening inthe earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight,he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld ahollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking insaw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, andhaving nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the deadand reascended.

From the reading. . .

“For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more prof-itable to the individual than justice. . . ”

Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they mightsend their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assem-bly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting amongthem he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when in-stantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began tospeak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this,and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared;he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result-whenhe turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reap-peared. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers whowere sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen,and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took thekingdom.

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on oneof them and the unjust the other. No man can be imagined to be of suchan iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep hishands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he likedout 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 aGod among men.

4 Reading For Philosophical Inquiry: A Brief Introduction

“The Ring of Gyges” by Plato

Socrates and Æschylus, Antiquities Project

Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; theywould both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirmto be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinksthat justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for whereverany one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all menbelieve in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individualthan justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that theyare right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becominginvisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, hewould be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, althoughthey would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearanceswith one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice. Enoughof this. Now, if we are to form a real judgment of the life of the just and un-just, we must isolate them; there is no other way; and how is the isolationto be effected?

I answer: Let the unjust man be entirely unjust, and the just man entirelyjust; nothing is to be taken away from either of them, and both are tobe perfectly furnished for the work of their respective lives. First, let theunjust be like other distinguished masters of craft; like the skilful pilot orphysician, who knows intuitively his own powers and keeps within theirlimits, and who, if he fails at any point, is able to recover himself. So let theunjust make his unjust attempts in the right way, and lie hidden if he meansto be great in his injustice (he who is found out is nobody): for the highestreach of injustice is: to be deemed just when you are not. Therefore I saythat in the perfectly unjust man we must assume the most perfect injustice;there is to be no deduction, but we must allow him, while doing the most

Reading For Philosophical Inquiry: A Brief Introduction 5

“The Ring of Gyges” by Plato

unjust acts, to have acquired the greatest reputation for justice. If he havetaken a false step he must be able to recover himself; he must be one whocan speak with effect, if any of his deeds come to light, and who can forcehis way where force is required his courage and strength, and commandof money and friends.

And at his side let us place the just man in his nobleness and simplicity,wishing, as Aeschylus says, to be and not to seem good. There must beno seeming, for if he seem to be just he will be honoured and rewarded,and then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or forthe sake of honours and rewards; therefore, let him be clothed in justiceonly, and have no other covering; and he must be imagined in a state oflife the opposite of the former. Let him be the best of men, and let him bethought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shallsee whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences.And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming tobe unjust.

When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and theother of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier ofthe two.

From the reading. . .

“Now suppose there were just two magic rings. . . ”

Related IdeasSocial Contract( In-ternet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A short summary of the history of so-cial contract theory.

Prisoner’s Dilemma( Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. An outstanding summary of avariety of characterizations of the philosophical and mathematical aspectsof the dilemma.

Opening Pages of the The Selfish Gene( World of Richard Dawkins: Evolution, Science, and Reason. A short

6 Reading For Philosophical Inquiry: A Brief Introduction

“The Ring of Gyges” by Plato

excerpt from Richard Dawkin’sThe Selfish Gene, introducing the biologyof egoism and altruism.

The Parthenon, Library of Congress

From the reading. . .

“For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more prof-itable to the individual than justice. . . ”

Topics Worth Investigating

1. Psychological egoism is the view that all persons, without exception,seek their own self-interest. Ethical egoism is the view that recog-nizes that perhaps not all persons seek their own self-interest but theyshould do so. Explain whether Glaucon’s account supports psycho-logical hedonism or ethical egoism or both. Explain whether psycho-logical egoism implies ethical egoism. Can you construct an unam-biguous example of an action that could not possibly be construed tobe a self-interested action? Would people always steal when the ex-pected return greatly exceeds any expected penalty? You might wantto consult such subjects as rational decision theory, the oft-termed

Reading For Philosophical Inquiry: A Brief Introduction 7

“The Ring of Gyges” by Plato

“Chicago school” economics, and psychological studies of the Pris-oner’s Dilemma.

2. A closely related view to egoism is psychological hedonism: the pre-sumption that all persons seek pleasure. If I go out of my way to helpothers, and it gives me pleasure to do so, am I necessarily acting asa psychological hedonist? Explain this apparent paradox. If psycho-logical hedonism were true, would that imply that ethical hedonismis true? Ethical hedonism is the view that all personsought to seekpleasure, even though some persons might not actually do so.

3. Compare Glaucon’s account of the origin of covenants with the ideaof the social contract described by Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau. So-cial contract theory holds that people in a society implicitly agree toabide by unwritten or written agreements among themselves becauseit is in their interest to do so. Does Glaucon presuppose a actual “stateof nature” prior to the formation of covenants or is his account only alogical justification of mutual agreements?

4. If human beings have a biological nature just as other living thingshave a nature, then what arguments can you propose that that thenature of human beings is primarily social rather than individual?Aristotle wrote, “A man living outside of society is either a man ora beast.” In the language of Richard Dawkins, are our genes “self-ish”? Do human genetic factors favor cooperation among the species?Do you think this question empirically resolvable?

IndexAntiphon,1, 3Dawkins, Richard,8Dostoevsky, Fyodor,2egoism,1



8 Reading For Philosophical Inquiry: A Brief Introduction

“The Ring of Gyges” by Plato


Hobbes, Thomas,8law, 3Locke, John,8nature

biological,8pleasure,2Prisoner’s Dilemma,8Rousseau, Jean Jacques,8selfish

gene,8social contract,3, 8Socrates,1

Reading For Philosophical Inquiry: A Brief Introduction 9

  • The Ring of Gyges by Plato
  • Ideas of Interest from The Ring of Gyges
  • The Reading Selection from The Ring of Gyges
  • Related Ideas
  • Topics Worth Investigating
  • Index