Now if there were two such rings, and the just man would put one on, and the unjust man the other, no one, as it would seem, would be so adamant as to stick by justice and bring himself to keep away from others and not lay hold of it… …And in so doing, one would act no differently from the other, nut both would go the same way.Glaucon, Son of Ariston in Book 2 of Plato’s Republic (Allan Bloom Translation)
The ring of Gyges is probably the easiest hook into what it is Plato’s Republic is trying to resolve and why it might be worth working through the book to resolve it. The setup is simple. Imagine if you found a magic ring that could make you invisible, you could do anything you want and get away with it. Would anyone go around being a “good” person if there was literally no means to punish them?
In Plato’s Republic, this challenge is posed by Glaucon, who with his friend Adiemantus, show an ability to think for themselves that the others Socrates encounters in this dialogue do not. The conversation to this point has been about justice, and Glaucon cuts to the quick be proposing this magic ring A/B thought experiment test. If there’s really something about a just person that has to do with character, and this character thing about them matters, then fine, Galucon says, give a just man and an unjust man a ring of invisibility and see in your mind’s eye if they act any differently.
Glaucon’s position is that it strains credulity to think a just person would not do things they aren’t supposed to if they know it is impossible to get caught. As one of my teachers, C. Fred Alford, put it in his lectures, “why be just when you can have a magic ring that would let you be unjust whenever you wanted?”
The question of the magic ring is framed as a thought experiment and its delivered as the speculations of a young man at a party. But the question is not hypothetical. The question does not challenge Socrates’ view of justice, but how Socrates actually chose to live his life. Socrates could have given in to the dishonesty of the legal system to get a lighter sentence, but did not. A man who could have escaped into exile when his friend Crito bribed his guards to let him escape, literally paying them to pretend that Socrates was invisible for a couple of hours.
We already know in advance the answer to Glaucon’s implied question: what kind of person would have a magic ring like Gyges the Lydian did and do nothing with it? The answer is Socrates. The question, then, becomes why. And the why will take the whole rest of the book to explain.
One last point on the story of the ring of Gyges. The actual story is obviously myth and the details of it don’t really track, even in Glaucon’s telling. He says it is an ancestor of Gyges who finds the ring, but then the story of the murder of the King and the marrying of the King’s wife was something that was attributed to Gyges himself. There’s an important point in this story being so poor in its detail. The point is that it does not matter for what is really important. There’s a difference between really important (really, refer to something real, and not just a modifier indicating more of something) and factual. A story with incorrect or imaginary details can get to the heart of our real perception of things more than a factual story sometimes. The form of the story can be more important than the actual historical detail. This is an important idea to establish for the reader of Republic because as they get deeper into the work, the reader will encounter how the idea of the form of something being in some sense more real than the particular drives Socrates’ belief in having the deepest and most serious commitment to try and do the right thing.
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