A Philosopher's Blog

Summary of Plato’s Ring of Gyges

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 29, 2009
Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...
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The “Ring of Gyges” begins with a challenge put forth by Glaucon-he wants Socrates to defend the just life and he wants the defense to show that justice is intrinsically preferable to injustice. For the sake of the argument, Glaucon proposes to present a defense of injustice.

Glaucon begins by asserting that people find it desirable or good to inflict wrongdoings on others but these wrongdoers regarded being on the receiving end of misdeeds as undesirable. When people have been on both ends of misdeeds (giving and receiving), they quickly realize that the pains of being a victim far outweigh the benefits of being the victimizer. To avoid being victims, people come together and forge agreements and dub these agreements with the name “justice.”

Glaucon makes it clear that people do not enter into the agreement that gives rise to justice willingly and that this situation is not regarded as the best. He regards justice as a compromise between what is most desirable to the individual (doing misdeeds with impunity) and what is the most undesirable for the individual (being a hapless victim). He further concludes that people accept justice because they are weak and that a person with the power to successfully carry out misdeeds would be a fool not to do so.

In support of his claims that no one is willingly a follower of justice and that anyone who was free to be unjust would be unjust Glaucon tells the tale of the ring of Gyges. In this tale the shepherd Gyges finds a magical ring of invisibility within a strange bronze horse that has been exposed by an earthquake. Using the power of the ring, he seduces the queen and, with her help, murders the king and takes control of the realm.

Given his tale, Glaucon concludes that if identical rings were given to a just man and an unjust man, then both men would act unjustly. This proves, to his satisfaction, that people act justly only under compulsion. By nature, he claims, all living beings desire more than what they are actually due. Despite this, he does consider the possibility that someone might decline to use the ring to perform misdeeds. While such a person would be praised to her face, she would be regarded as a great fool for not using the power in her possession.

Glaucon finishes his case by presenting the details of his challenge. In this challenge the perfectly unjust man is to be squared off against the just man. The unjust man must be the very pinnacle of injustice and must have all that he needs to be unjust and carry out his misdeeds effectively and secretly. To this end he is, for the sake of the argument, given great skill in the use of both persuasion and force and is equipped with various virtues such as bravery and strength. He is further to be blessed with wealth, companions, and an unblemished (though false) reputation for justice. In short, though he is truly a master of injustice he is regarded by all as a just man.

In stark contrast, the just man, while truly just, is stripped of everything but his justice and his life. He is burdened with a reputation for being unjust, despite his true nobility. After all, as Glaucon points out, the just man must be properly tested to see whether he acts justly for the sake of justice or merely for the sake of the reputation and all that goes with it.

Given this setup, it must be determined which man is happier-the just man or the unjust man.

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29 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on October 3, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    good summary

  2. Anonymous said, on March 1, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    “While such a person would be praised to her face, she would be regarded as a great fool for not using the power in her possession.”

    Why do you say “her” instead of their,they?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 2, 2011 at 5:33 pm

      I was experimenting with ways of being non-gender biased. At that moment, I was using “her” rather than the usual “his.” Back when I took English, we were taught that “their” was for the plural only and duly marked down for misusing it. I still feel odd using “their” and “they” for the singular.

      Either that or I am an evil Vatican assassin warlock misogynist who uses “her” to express my unrelenting evil and hatred.

      • Anonymous said, on September 9, 2014 at 2:18 pm

        Now, why do you have to use ‘Vatican’ as part of your sarcastic description? Why not ‘Mecca’ or ‘Jerusalem’?

    • Anonymous said, on November 8, 2012 at 12:29 am

      Actually, in academia, it is quite correct to use “her” in this way or the alternative “his” so don’t take it personally. And the use of ‘their’ would not be correct grammar since “their”, “they” refers to being plural. In reality, the above statement is gender neutral even when using the seemingly specific pronoun ‘her’, or at least ought to be interpreted as such since the key to understanding the statement is “…such a person…” If you want to be technically correct then would you prefer for the writer to have written ..his/her face? Either way, not their or they.

    • Omar A. said, on December 6, 2012 at 10:37 am

      Because the antecedent, a person, is singular so you have to follow the sentence with “she” “he” or a singular pronoun. To use “they” instead would be grammatically incorrect because it’s plural.

    • Anonymous said, on December 11, 2012 at 1:27 pm

      Because it’s proper english

      • Pat Griffin said, on February 9, 2013 at 9:49 pm

        English can be changed. It has changed continuously in the past. Additionally, “you” can be used for singular or plural. Why not, parallel to the already proper use of “you,” start using “they” for singular as well as plural, by establishing a rule that “they” can be used as a gender inclusive or gender neutral singular pronoun? That strikes me as better than using “s/he” or alternating between “he” and “she,” both of which strike me as much more awkward (since one isn’t a word, and the other is inconsistently using two different words) than using “they” as a gender inclusive singular.

  3. Mobuto Seseseko said, on March 21, 2011 at 11:59 am

    riveting tale chap

    all i know is that the summary is on dat dere phaggy time. Brought to you by MISC!

  4. eric said, on August 10, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    Although I don’t understand how the just man would be regarded by his peers as unjust, this was a great read

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 11, 2011 at 2:34 pm

      Glaucon mostly just does that by fiat, but it is easy enough to imagine how a good person could be seen as a bad person. Smear campaigns, misunderstandings and so on. For example, many historical figures that are now regarded as good people were often vilified in their own time.

  5. Suzy said, on December 14, 2011 at 2:23 am

    This whole ring of gyges allegory reminds me of the problematique created through the anonymity of the internet and things people allow themselves given this “invisibility”…. great summary by the way.
    Very well done.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 14, 2011 at 1:40 pm

      That is a good analogy-the internet does allow people to conduct misdeeds (ranging from flaming to criminal hacking) behind a cloak.

  6. Lia said, on September 17, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    You just made my day! I read the story for Ethics class and could not understand the whole of the story. I understand now everything. Thank you, evil Vatican assassin warlock misogynist who uses “her” to express your unrelenting evil and hatred. :)

  7. George Collingwood said, on September 23, 2012 at 10:58 am

    I never read the Republic, but if there is an ideal version of justic somewhere,I can’t imagine what it would look like. And if there isn’t an ideal (or if we can’t say what it looks like) what then?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 23, 2012 at 12:16 pm

      Plato’s ideal justice is the form of justice, which exists outside of space-time. I don’t buy into that myself but he has some decent arguments for the Platonic forms.

  8. Anonymous said, on November 26, 2012 at 8:12 am

    nice summary!!!

  9. Anonymous said, on January 28, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    What does Glaucon want to demonstrate by giving two people rings?

  10. Sarah said, on March 1, 2013 at 3:53 am

    Reblogged this on breezy and commented:
    The original Lord of The Rings –– Plato’s Ring of Gyges hahaha

  11. syl said, on May 10, 2013 at 12:51 am

    what’s the value of this story?

  12. Susan said, on July 29, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    How would the ring of gyges and the parable of the cave compare and contrast to Jesus’ teachings in Matthe?
    w

  13. […] B3. Een op hol geslagen tram, de dikke man en het “ongeluk” (vgl. Plato’s ring van Gyges) […]

  14. […] (from aphilosopher.wordpress.com) […]

  15. Anonymous said, on March 12, 2014 at 12:02 am

    jk

  16. […] of the myths about Gyges was that he was given a magical invisibility ring that let him get away with anything […]


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