The Ring of Gyges

from Plato's Republic

The story of Gyges the Lydian is part of Glaucon's initial speech in book II of the Republic. Glaucon steps in when Thrasymachus has been silenced by Socrates to defend the opinion that people don't practice justice for itself, but only for fear of what would befall them if they don't:

"That those who practice it [justice], practice it constrained by want of power to act unjustly, we might better perceive if we do the following in thought : granting each one of them both, the just and the unjust, license to do as he wishes, let us then follow them closely to observe whither his desire (è epithumia) will lead each. We should then catch the just man in the act of following the same path as the unjust man on account of the advantage that every nature is led by its very nature to pursue as good, being diverted only by force of law toward the esteem of the equal. The license I am talking about would be supremely such if they were given the very same power as is said to have been given in the past to the ancestor of Gyges the Lydian.

For he was a shepherd laboring for the then ruler of Lydia and some part of the earth was shattered by a violent thunderstorm developing along with an earthquake and a chasm appeared at the place where he was pasturing. Seeing this and wondering, he went down and the fable says that he saw, among other wonders, a hollow bronze horse having openings, through which, peeping in, he saw that there was a corpse inside, as it seemed, greater than is usual for men, and wearing nothing else but a golden ring at his hand, that he took off before leaving. When time came for the shepherds to hold their customary assembly in order to prepare their monthly report to the king about the state of the flocks, he came too, wearing this ring. While he was sitting with the others, it chanced that he moved the collet of the ring around toward himself into the inside of his hand ; having done this, he disappeared from the sight of those who were sitting beside him, and they discussed of him as of someone who had left. And he wondered and once again feeling for the ring, he turned the collet outwards and, by turning it, reappeared. Reflecting upon this, he put the ring to the test to see if it indeed had such power, and he came to this conclusion that, by turning the collet inwards, he became invisible, outwards, visible. Having perceived this, he at once managed for himself to become one of the envoys to the king ; upon arrival, having seduced his wife, with her help, he laid a hand on the king, murdered him and took hold of the leadership." (Republic, II, 359b-360b)

© Hank Edmondson 2012