Glaucon, the older brother of the great philosopher Plato and a student of Socrates, presents Socrates with the myth of The Ring of Gyges in book two of The Republic during their discussion about the nature of Justice. The Ring of Gyges is the story of a man who finds a ring that gives him the power to turn invisible and he uses this ability to do immoral things. Glaucon uses this story to state his claim “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 “ (Plato, 359a–2.360d) Glaucon is stating in that quotes that he believes that injustice that benefits someone personally is not evil for that specific person, but it is only evil to the people that suffer because of that that same injustice. Glaucon believes that people only act justly out of a fear of others seeing their unjust acts and using them as justification for committing acts of injustice against them. I do not agree with Glaucon’s statement that all men would abuse the power of the ring of Gyges. Glaucon uses the story of the ring of Gyges to make assumptions about all of humanity and he failed to consider the complexity of humanity, and the wide variety of ways that one might utilize the ring of Gyges.
The myth the Ring of Gyges tells the story Gyges, a Shepard who serves the king of Lydia. One day after a terrible storm and earthquake Gyges finds an opening in the earth that had been created by the earthquake. When he descends into this opening he finds a dead body wearing a golden ring. Gyges takes the dead man’s ring and then leaves this opening in the earth to go and meet with the other shepherds. While meeting with the shepherds Gyges twists the ring on his finger and is shocked to discover that the simple act of twisting the ring on his finger had turned him invisible. He twists his ring again and becomes visible once again. He tests this trick several times to ensure that twisting this dead man’s ring is what gives him the ability to turn invisible. The shepherd chose Gyges to go to the king and give their report on how the king’s flocks of sheep are doing. When Gyges gets to the castle he decides to use his newfound power of invisibility to seduce the queen. After Gyges seduces the queen together he and the queen plot to kill the king. After killing the king Gyges takes over the kingdom of Lydia.
Glaucon does not use this story to condemn Glaucon for his actions. Glaucon tells this story simply to make a statement that he believes all men would take whatever they wanted and do whatever they wanted if there were no consequences for their actions. Glaucon tells Socrates that, “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” (Plato, 359a–2.360d). Glaucon even goes as far as to say that if a man could posses the ring and resist the temptation to use it’s great power to do commit acts of injustice that this man should not be praised but instead he should be mocked and called a fool. Glaucon says, “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, 359a–2.360d). Glaucon Clearly believes that justice is only necessary for escaping punishment and suffering. Personal gain through immoral acts, if it does not come at the risk of punishment, is a good thing from the perspective of the person these immoral acts according to Glaucon.
When making the claim that all men would abuse the power of the ring of Gyges for their own personal gain Glaucon makes several assumptions about humanity. First he is assuming that all of humanity shares his opinion that justice is only good for escaping punishment or suffering. If a man who truly valued justice for its own merit came to posses the ring of Gyges he would immediately do whatever was in his power to prevent the ring from falling into the hands of those who would use the ring to commit acts of injustice. Glaucon also assumes that anyone who decided to use the ring would only use it for his or her own personal gain. Someone could use the power of the ring of Gyges to fight injustices rather than create more injustices. Where one man might see the ring as an opportunity to take whatever he desired another man could see it as a responsibility to use the ring to make the world a better, and safer world. Glaucon assumes all men would take the path of injustice and that is not the case. Glaucon makes another assumption that all men have the stomach to do evil things. Gyges may have been capable of going from a mild-mannered shepherd one day and then becoming a murderer, a thief, and an adulterer overnight, but it is quite a stretch to say that any man could do the same. People can feel guilt over their actions even when they know that there is no chance that they will get caught. There is a chance that the next morning when Gyges wakes up in the King’s bed next to the Queen he feels great remorse for his actions and turns himself in and confesses his crimes. For any other man who possessed the ring, there is a chance that the guilt could prevent him from committing any of the same crimes that Gyges committed in the first place.
The Author J.R.R. Tolkien offers a counter example to the Ring of Gyges in his series The Lord of The Rings. Tolkien, an author from the early twentieth century, wrote three books detailing the journey of a young hobbit named Frodo who finds a ring of great power and goes on a quest to destroy the ring at great personal risk. Frodo does not set out on this quest alone he has the help of some other hobbits, a few men, an elf, a wizard, and a dwarf. Frodo’s ring has the same power Gyges’ ring. Frodo can slip on the ring and become invisible to everyone around him, but when Frodo does this he becomes exposed to Sauron . Frodo uses the ring several times to escape from Sauron’s armies, but he does not succumb to the power of the ring or give in to the temptation to use it for personal gain. Tolkien gives us an example of a hobbit that has succumbed to the power of the ring his name is Gollum. Gollum used to be a normal hobbit named Smeagol, but when he discovered the ring he became obsessed with it and its power. Gollum is depicted as pale, slimy, miserable creature that hardly looks like a hobbit anymore. His obsession with the ring caused him to forsake his own health, grooming, and other basic needs to solely focus on his “precious”. Frodo eventually is able to destroy the ring and the evil power that lived inside the ring without becoming corrupted by its power.
Frodo and Gollum serve as two examples of what could happen to someone is possession of such a power. Frodo saw the ring as something that was evil and the only solution was to do whatever it took to destroy the ring. Frodo took the ring on as his personal burden, and while he had help on his journey he was responsible for ridding the word of that evil. The burden of the ring weighed heavily on Frodo, but he was able to complete his mission. Gollum saw the ring and all its power as something too be lusted after. Gollum became corrupted by the ring and let it consume him to the point where he lost all of who he was until his obsession over the ring was the only thing he had left.
Tolkien was not Socrates or Plato by any stretch of the imagination, he can be considered a philosopher in his own right. Tolkien has written several lectures and letters concerning philosophical topics and was a dear friend of the modern philosopher C.S. Lewis. If you present with Glaucon’s situation where a just man and unjust man were given two rings with the power of the ring of Gyges, he would disagree with Glaucon’s assessment that just man would be a fool. Tolkien would tell us that the just man would take his ring and do whatever it takes to keep that power out of the hands of those who would abuse it, whether that be by destroying it, guarding it, or hiding it where no one would ever find it. Tolkien would recognize that the temptation to abuse that power would be great and so the just man would enlist the help of others whom he trusted to prevent him from falling to that temptation. The man who Glaucon would call a fool Tolkien would call noble and a hero. On the other side of the coin the man Glaucon believes is smart for using the ring for his own gain Tolkien would call a fool. Tolkien would say that like Gollum the man who used the ring of Gyges for personal gain would soon become obsessed with it’s power. The pleasure he gained from the things he stole, and the women he lied with would rapidly decrease as he realized he could take whatever he wanted and sleep with whomever he desired. Once he lost pleasure in these things he would become increasingly obsessed with his power and his ring. He would not be able to sleep at night because of the fear of someone coming in while he was sleeping and taking his ring away. The pleasures that the ring could bring him would be petty and momentary and eventually all the ring would leave him with is fear and anguish.
When looking at these two tales told by Glaucon and Tolkien and their drastically different views of how a ring like this should and would be used I see Tolkien’s view as the more plausible. Tolkien looks farther down the road with his tale than Glaucon does in his talk with Socrates. Tolkien gives us two examples of how he thinks someone could be affected by possessing this power. He gives us the pure and noble her Frodo who takes on the ring as his personal burden and does everything in his power to wipe the ring from the face of the earth. Tolkien also gives us a view of how a weak willed fool like Gollum would handle this power. Gollum succumbs to the ring and loses himself to obsession and evil. Glaucon uses the story of one mythical man to make assumptions for all of mankind. Tolkien’s characters offer us more of a spectrum of how someone would handle that power. There would be few people who could handle the ring in a nobler way than Frodo and there would be few people who would handle the ring in a more pitiful and miserable way than Gollum. Most of humanity when presented with a power like Tolkien’s one ring to rule them all, or the ring of Gyges would fall somewhere in between Frodo, Gyges, and Gollum. Glaucon’s position to automatically assume the worst of people is not unrealistic, but it does severely underestimate humanities potential to do good.
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