"The Ring of Gyges"
& the Cesspool of Injustice

Essay by
Natalie G. Britton
December 2013

Actions secret or knowable

Arguably, the predominant philosophical controversies revolve around the nature of humanity, as the timeless debate of whether morality is inherent or a learned standard still stands today, remaining significantly relevant to the wellbeing of society. However, the answers to the questions about the nature of man and the origins of ethics are indeterminate and left to personal opinion. While many questions in life, like the aforementioned uncertainties, can never be answered precisely, legends are often considered for principles of truth. Though legends are commonly valued for their entertainment and amusement, folk tales have been assigned the valuable role within societies to educate and instruct important matters when nothing and no one else can. In particular, the legend of "The Ring of Gyges", given in The Republic, is a powerful allegory for today's society, showing the nature of humanity to be purely self-interested and the origins of justice as merely a compromise, suggesting the dangers of invisibility and the importance for individuals to create a standard for internal harmony.

Plato's The Republic, written in 375 BCE, was a response to the moral decay the state of Athens was experiencing due to the teachings of the Sophists that were spreading and quickly gaining momentum. His discourse is charged with opposing theories concerning the nature of man and the origins of justice as the interlocutors endeavor to prove their view as most precise. In an attempt to hear Socrates' defense for justice, Glaucon, Plato's younger brother, endorses the Sophist perspective, giving a detailed account of their philosophy and ways of life. Regarding human nature, the Sophist's argument is founded on the notion that all men are self-interested actors; "no man is just of his own free will, but only under compulsion, and that no man thinks justice pays him personally, since he will always do wrong when he gets the chance" (Plato 2.360c). In efforts to display his theory of man's inclination to act out of self-interest, Glaucon narrates the legend of Gyges of Lydia:

[Gyges] was a shepherd in the service of the then king of Lydia, and one day there was a great storm and an earthquake in the district where he was pasturing his flock and a chasm opened in the earth. He was amazed at the sight, and descended into the chasm and saw many astonishing things there, among them, so the story goes, a bronze horse, which was hollow and fitted with doors, through which he peeped and saw a corpse which seemed to be of more than human size. He took nothing from it save a gold ring it had on its finger, and then made his way out. He was wearing this ring when he attended the usual meeting of shepherds which reported monthly to the king on the state of his flocks; and as he was sitting there with the others he happened to twist the bezel of the ring towards the inside of his hand. Thereupon he became invisible to his companions, and they began to refer to him as if he had left them. He was astonished, and began fingering the ring again, and turned the bezel outwards; whereupon he became visible again. When he saw this he started experimenting with the ring to see if it really had this power, and found that every time he turned the bezel inwards he became invisible, and when he turned it outwards he became visible. Having made his discovery he managed to get himself included in the party that was to report to the king, and when he arrived seduced the queen, and with her help attacked and murdered the king and seized the throne. (Plato 2.359d-2.360b)

Glaucon uses the legend's element of invisibility to further justify humanity's nature, suggesting that if two rings with the power of invisibility were handed to both a just and an unjust man, both men would behave immorally: "there is no one, it would commonly be supposed, who would have such strength of will as to stick to what is right and keep his hands from taking other people's property" (Plato 2.360b). According to the Sophists, as long as immorality is hidden from the public eye and reputations are left untainted, "injustice pays the individual better than justice" (Plato 2.360d) as it provides a shorter course to the rewards and benefits of morality. Thus, Glaucon's premise further suggests that morality is not built into human nature; rather, justice is conceived by humanity within the context of society.

In terms of the origins of justice, Glaucon expresses that morality has been established by men because of their predisposition to self-interested acts. However, as a result of people acting unjustly for selfish gain, there will always be someone who will consequentially suffer. And while "the disadvantages of suffering ... exceed the advantages of inflicting" immorality (Plato 2.358e), justice originated as solely a matter of convenience. While no one wishes to endure the consequences of injustice but all hope to lavish in the spoils, morality was designed as a middle ground. Compromising "between what is most desirable, to do wrong and avoid punishment, and what is most undesirable, to suffer wrong without being able to get redress" (Plato 2.359a), justice became institutionalized to protect those being wronged acting as "the shield of the weaker" (Bhandari) and serves to cancel out altogether the benefits and drawbacks of immorality.

To defend the reasoning of the Sophists, Glaucon continues by teaching what motivates individuals with self-interested tendencies to act justly though injustice bears more fruit. Ironically, the motivation still rests in the individual's best interest: "for fathers tell their sons, and pastors and masters of all kinds urge their charges to be just not because they value justice for itself, but for the good reputation it brings" (Plato 2.363a). In a society that places no worth in justice, the overarching motive for all actions, whether they be just or unjust, remains in the value behind achieving a good reputation. Glaucon illustrates the dysfunction of an individual with the aforementioned standards: "such a young man may well ask himself ... 'Shall I by justice reach the higher stronghold, or by deceit,' and there live entrenched securely? For it is clear … if I am just, it will bring me no advantage but only trouble and loss, unless I also have a reputation for justice; whereas if I am unjust, but can contrive to get a reputation for justice, I shall have a marvelous time" (Plato 2.365b). According to the Sophists, as long as an individual appears just and his or her reputation adheres to the standards of justice, the unjust behaviors and actions are irrelevant as long as they remain invisible to the public, for "appearance trumps reality" (qtd. in Jones). Glaucon points out that the standards for a meaningful life in Athens lie in prestige, wealth, and power, not integrity or virtue. Thus, all of society is "ready enough to call a bad man happy and respect him both in public and private provided he is rich and powerful, while they have no respect for the poor and powerless, and despise him, even though they agree that he is the better man" (Plato 2.364a-2.364b). However, the legend of Gyges and the Sophists fail to acknowledge the adverse ramifications caused by a life of injustice on a personal and societal scale.

The capacity to turn someone invisible, derived from the legend of "The Ring of Gyges," is a popular theme in modern literature and entertainment. In most stories, invisibility symbolizes "the ability to escape detection" (Holt), usually presenting the corruption that follows a lack of accountability. One example is in H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man in which the main character, Griffin, has special powers of concealment. His "invisibility allows animal instincts to surface in him", and Griffin becomes a "threat to public safety" as he "violates the ethics of modern science by pursuing knowledge as a means to [attain personal] power" (Silet). Another example in popular culture is J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, wherein Tolkien's "Ring of Power" has the ability to turn those who wear the ring invisible but, consequentially, the ring also "rots ... [its possessors'] moral fibre" (Mullan). In all three stories, as well as many others, the essence of invisibility gives the impression of being an asset; however, the power actually serves to destroy and corrupt the heart and soul of the possessor as invisibility most often fosters injustice.

The sole purpose behind Glaucon's commentary was to hear Socrates' argument against the absurdity of living an unjust life for the benefits and rewards immorality offers. He wanted Socrates to prove "not only that justice is superior to injustice, but that irrespective of whether gods or men know it or not, one is good and the other evil because of its inherent effects on its possessor" (Plato 2.367e). In an attempt to satisfy Glaucon's request, Socrates proves his defense for justice through "investigat[ing] the nature of justice and its benefits on the civic level in order to discover by means of analogy the nature and benefit of justice on the personal level" (UCSB "The Republic: Outline and Overview" 14). In doing so, Socrates concluded "that 'justice' is no mere instrumental good — something that is beneficial merely in virtue or its rewards and consequences — but rather a 'virtue' that has intrinsic value and is therefore something beneficial in and of itself as well as for the rewards and consequences associated with it" (ibid. 14). Socrates demonstrates that justice is good, not for the benefits that follow, but because living justly produces an invaluable internal harmony which, of course, supersedes any difficulties that may follow the just man.

While "The Ring of Gyges" reveals the self-interested tendencies of humanity and suggests the origins and nature of justice, the legend and all of the stories implementing the ability to be unseen, in addition, is a warning to all people, demonstrating the dangers of invisibility, given man's egoism. Whereas Gyges was magically made invisible by twisting the bezel of his ring, man's capability to become invisible today — that is, to act invisibly — is just as feasible. Because of the greater impersonality of modern society, acting in hidden ways is far more widespread and commonly practiced nowadays, allowing men and women alike, on a personal level, to engage in unjust acts to gratify their selfish interests at the expense of their conscience and, in terms of society as a whole, to further put humanity in risk of depravity. For example, cheating, whether on a test, taxes, or in a relationship, and stealing are injustices that, if the act can go unnoticed, can easily accomplished the goal of gaining the participant an advantage while not destroying his or her reputation. Nevertheless, though one's outward character goes untainted by masterful secrecy and concealment, he or she can distinguish the advantage as only being obtained by deceit through invisibility.

In regards to the larger society, invisibility is reached through secretiveness, confidentiality laws and rights, and the lack of substantial accountability. According to former Columbia professor and engineer, Stephen Unger, "secrecy is used to conceal abuse of power, illegality, corruption, incompetence, and waste" (Unger). Conceivably, the American government and political leaders, as well as business investors and political lobbyists, more than any other people group, have been criticized for their incessant secrecy. Examples, such as the Watergate scandal and the numerous Wall Street scandals, have, more than anything, reflected the harsh truth of "The Ring of Gyges" in which invisibility breeds injustices. Though the beneficiaries of these scandals often succeed in injustice with their reputations standing strong and bank accounts overflowing, the "culture of secrecy" (Podesta and Legum) has corroded the prestige behind American capitalism and democracy and the trust attributed to those highly ranked in society. In most cases, while invisibility offers the opportunity to attain what is openly unachievable, the associated injustices are far more dangerous and detrimental to the culture and the soul, whether they be as substantial as the loss of a nation's trust in their governmental leadership or as seemingly insignificant as internal disharmony.

Given humanity's inclination to serve their self-interests and their desire to maintain an upright reputation, the balance between having noble character and living justly, while still receiving the benefits and rewards of morality, can be established by avoiding the opportunities to embrace invisibility. Any reward gained by an unjust act within the context of invisibility is subsequently followed by a negative consequence, whether being a loss of trust, inflicting harm on another, or having a troubled conscience, canceling out the initial benefit of the deed. Therefore, refraining from, altogether, any secrecy or concealment will allow for deserved goods and an earned merit, and establishing values and principles to live by is of chief importance to live intentionally rather than on innate, selfish tendencies. For example, to solidify the desire to live according to Socrates' philosophy in which the goal is to live with internal harmony, one must live by core values such as purposing to avoid secrecy, refraining from cheating and stealing, putting others' needs before one's own, and so forth. To live justly, a man must set in his heart a value for justice and live accordingly.

To further live intentionally and avoid invisibility and its perils, people must refrain from isolation and, instead, embrace living in community and with adequate accountability. Accountability acts somewhat like a safety net in order to "ensure transparency and openness" (Williams) and hinders people from acting safely unseen, shielding them from the temptation to unjust actions. While the governmental checks and balances and the three specific branches of government have been established to secure accountability on a national level, accountability looks different on a personal scale as the responsibility to manage one's egoism is vital. In all cases, men and women need to establish a relationship with someone they highly respect and whose input they value, prioritizing transparency and teachability within the relationship and allowing the esteemed individual to suggest and redirect values, reasoning, motives, and actions when necessary. The aforementioned relationship promises beneficial accountability and the devotion to core values is a sure means to aide humanity in abstaining from invisibility and injustice. Regardless of humanity's natural inclinations, people posses the power to make their own choices and the freedom to live as they please whether the path they walk on resembles that of Gyges of Lydia or Socrates of Athens.


© 2013 Natalie G. Britton

Works Cited

Philosophy at Troynovant
nature of existence; history of ideas

ReFuture at Troynovant
history of science fiction
& progress of fantasy


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