The Ring of Gyges at different resolutions

Republic II, 360, Glaucon speaking to Socrates:

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the 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 a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak 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-when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were 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 the kingdom. 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.

At the first level of resolution, Glaucon’s story of the ring of Gyges is much longer than it needs to be. Gyges finds a ring that makes him invisible and uses it to get away with murder. Gyges’ former moral life was therefore pretense and hypocrisy, and most of the world is like him in this. Why else would we think it is a bad idea to randomly distribute invisibility rings to the population?

At a sharper level of resolution one sees something very different. Glaucon is a shepherd who leaves his sheep to wander into a hole leading under the earth, where he finds both treasure and corpses. In the deepest part of the pit he finds a bronze horse, and inside the horse is a corpse wearing an invisibility ring. Gyges, in other words, leaves off the care and tending to the good of others because he becomes fascinated with the underworld, and with each step he becomes more and more fascinated with death and treasure. At the center of this Hell one finds a Trojan horse, i.e. something that everyone takes as a gift from the gods but which is in reality a curse. Gyges takes the ring, i.e. he betroths himself to the totality of this underworld and in doing so becomes a ghost. He dies in the underworld and brings death back with him.

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