Through the story of the ring, Republic considers whether an intelligent person would be just if one did not have to fear any bad reputation for committing injustices. Gyges of Lydia was a historical king, the founder of the Mermnad dynasty of Lydian kings. Various ancient works—the most well-known being The Histories of Herodotus  —gave different accounts of the circumstances of his rise to power. In Glaucon 's recounting of the myth, an unnamed ancestor of Gyges  was a shepherd in the service of the ruler of Lydia. After an earthquake, a cave was revealed in a mountainside where he was feeding his flock.
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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.
Here goes the story. 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.
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. In the plans of the Republic I propose, I suggest that there is a relationship between this story, the allegory of the cave at the beginning of book VII and the myth of Er the Pamphylian at the end of book X.
This page is intended to explore this relationship and to "decipher" the meaning of the story of Gyges in that perspective. More specifically, I'd like to show that the story of Gyges or of whomever is the hero of the above tale is the exact antithesis of the ascending movement depicted in the allegory of the cave, in that it describes the downward movement of a man seeking in the laws of nature an excuse to escape responsibility in social life.
Then, I'll explore the relationship of these two stories with the myth of Er that concludes the Republic. The hero of the first story is a shepherd, a man who spends most of his time in the midst of nature, with very little social organization. He starts where the ascent of the prisoner from the cave ends, that is, in the open air and in the sunlight. And it is not under the leadership of some human teacher, as is the case with the prisoner of the cave, or as a result of a thought out act of his will, that he starts his investigation, but by mere chance.
It is nature itself which plays the role of a teacher to lead him downward inside a chasm in the earth opened by cosmic forces " at the place where he was pasturing ". And once his curiosity is aroused by the forces of nature, not by the lasting order of the kosmos that he may enjoy every day, but by some exceptional event of momentous proportion, he goes down alone inside "matter". Inside the cave, sure enough, he sees and at last " wonders thaumasanta " 2.
Here, there is only one horse, the symbol of a monolithic materialistic soul unable to move and as dead as the body that is inside it. This horse that plays the role of a soul around the body of man may also remind us of the Trojan horse, that instrument of deceit and war that gave the Greeks victory over the Trojan in the legendary war that was at the root of Greek pseudo-unity and at the heart of their culture and education. It stands for the purely external "soul" that defines man in a society which cares only for social behavior and external appearance, which finds pride only in its wars and victories and is not ashamed of the evil means it uses to reach its goals.
There is no sun inside the cave. The only thing that may be seen on the dead body, naked as on the day of his birth, is a golden ring daktulion at his hand. This ring, unlike the chain the prisoners of the cave have to get rid of, which is a consequence of their very nature, is a man-made sign of external wealth, but a wealth that amounts to almost nothing in the face of death.
It is the ring that Hippias had manufactured for himself, as everything he was wearing at Olympia see Hippias minor, b-e , the first item in the long list of his works detailed by Socrates, the first proof of his supposedly universal knowledge, a scientific and technical knowledge that doesn't make him capable of telling good from evil, or even of explaining what beauty is.
It is the ring which, in Socrates' discussion with young Alcibiades, should not be confused with the hand and even less with the true self 4 when deciding how we should go about taking care of ourselves Alcibiades, a and e.
And the ring that Gyges or his ancestor, turned into a tomb looter, steals from the dead body and deliberately puts on his finger, like a newly found truth about himself unearthed in physics and history, will turn him, when he returns where he came from, into a leader enslaving his fellow men, not into a teacher freeing them from their natural chains.
Yet, to reach this point, some more testing is needed to find the true "power" of the ring, the newly found truth about man, in social life. But here again, the test will come, not from a deliberate attempt to use reason, but as a result of mere chance. And what the holder of the ring will find, and what will lead him to a new level of wonderment, is that, by looking at himself with this new tool, he becomes invisible, in other words, he can escape responsibility!
If man is only what science shows of him, nothing but a highly sophisticated bunch of cells whose behavior is the result of chemical processes resulting from impressions of the senses, then he is not responsible for his acts. If the soul is no more than some sort of Freudian unconscious conditioned by his environment and past history, where is his free will? Back from the depth of the earth and in full light, wearing his new find, the shepherd is not even a shadow on the wall in the midst of the assembly of men.
And yet, he has no trouble convincing them to let him represent them to the king, whereas the man returning to the cave after having "seen" the truth outside is in high risk of getting killed by his fellow prisoners if he tries to compete with them.
Most people prefer the illusions they themselves build around them to the hard seen truth from a far away "place". But then, you too end up like anybody else, a dead corpse beneath the earth, naked as on the day of your birth, and someone else steals the ring And if we remember that not long ago, in the midst of his discussion with Socrates, Thrasymachus used shepherds as an image of rulers, when claiming that rulers seek their own interest, not that of their "flock" Republic, I, b , we may want to see in the shepherds of Gyges' story an image of selfish rulers, and then, in the king, an image of the demiourgos , the god who created the kosmos , and in the queen an image of "matter" he "espoused" for such a creation 6.
Then, the final usurpation is that of a ruler who embraces materialistic views to kill the gods and make himself god in front of men. It reminds us of Critias, Plato's cousin, both sophist and tyrant, who, in one of the few extant fragments of his works, talks of the gods as the invention of some shrewd man to hold his fellow-men in check through fear and the sentiment of guilt DK, fr. B, XXV.
Thus, in a sense, Gyges is something like Mr. Earthling or Mr. They are modes not even fit for women, let alone for guardians of the city, leading to drunkenness, softness and laziness. In it, Gyges is no longer a shepherd, but the favorite bodyguard of the king. It is the king himself, so proud of his beloved wife's beauty, who arranges for Gyges to see her naked in their bedroom so that he may judge by his own eyes that she is the most beautiful woman in the world.
Unfortunately, the queen, unnoticed to Gyges, catches sight of him when he tries to surreptitiously leave the room, but says nothing at the time. The following day, she summons him and offers him the choice either to kill the king, marry her and take his place, or to get killed for having seen her naked. In order to save his own life, Gyges accepts to kill the kind, and, once again, this time with the help of the queen, becomes invisible in the royal bedroom to take advantage of the king's sleep to dispose of him.
Though, from a literal standpoint, these are two quite different stories, it might be possible to see how Plato reworked Herodotus' tale of a singular event to give it a more universal meaning 8. The king of Lydia of Herodotus' story gives way, in the first part of Plato's story, to the king of the universe and his most beautiful wife becomes his created world, that Gyges is induced to admire by the power of the king's might leading him to a naked body.
The ring that he steals is the bond that ties him to the queen as soon as she catches sight of him fleeing. But whether he submits to the king's will who tempts him into watching his naked wife or to the queen's who induces him to kill the king to save his life , so long as he renounces his own free will, Gyges soon finds himself "invisible" in the royal bedroom Yet if Plato starts his inquiry into justice by the story of a man who tries to escape responsibility for his acts, then, after showing us, in the body of the discussion, how, far from plunging into deeper chasms inside the earth, we should ascend on the path of education from the chasm we live in 9 up the hill toward the only truth that can free us from the invisible chains binding us to our cave and make us responsible leaders of others, he concludes his inquiry by putting us in front of the existential choice that awaits us.
Indeed, the myth of Er may be viewed as another reversal of the story of Gyges in more than one way, not only because it depicts many bodiless souls facing their own responsibility with regard to their whole earthly and heavenly life in opposition to one soulless body evading his own responsibility to better his material earthly life. One starts with the many deaths in battle of brave warriors that induce a flock of souls to walk toward a marvelous daimonion meadow where preexist four everlasting chasms chasmata leading toward and coming from both the heaven above and the depth of the earth below to end with an earthquake seismon that sends souls back to life like shooting stars, whereas the other starts with an earthquake seismou that opens a single new chasm chasma at the feet of a shepherd in the very meadow where he is pasturing his flock of sheep and induces him to go down into an underground tomb full of wonders thaumasta to end with the single death of a king that sits the shepherd turned murderer in his throne.
The fact is, the whole story of Er needs to be read with care and turned upside down in more than one way. Spatially, it nowhere says that it takes place in the "underworld", and only implies it by talking about the dead. If anything, we might even feel closer to heaven as the story spends quite some time describing what looks like the whole universe under the form of the spindle of Necessity.
Thus, we should not have to make a great effort to see this world as our world and all these souls as more living than dead. Another indication that the story might not be about the underworld after all comes at the very beginning. Before starting the myth, Socrates warns us, with a play on words, that he is not about to tell " a tale to Alcinous Alkinou apologon , but that of a brave man alkimou andros " Republic, X, b.
But, if we dig a little deeper and remember what is in the original " tale to Alcinous " in the Odyssey, we'll find that a good deal of it tells the story of Odysseus' trip into Hades and evocation of the souls of the dead, a story Plato refers to to criticize it and its likes at the start of book III see note Thus, after more criticism of Homer in the first part of book X, Plato subtly warns us that he is not writing another such tale.
One way of seeing this is to start at the end, that is at birth and read the myth backward toward death. And that's not all yet! Another hint that, from a temporal standpoint, we should read the story backwards comes in the middle of it. As usual with Plato, the center of the story holds the key to it. Both parts are meant to show that men alone, not gods or laws of nature, are responsible for their own fate.
Lachesis, whose name means "destiny" is telling the past " ta gegonota, the things that have become " while Atropos, whose name means "unchangeable", is telling the future " ta mellonta, the things that must happen ".
Clotho alone, whose name means "spinster", seems to be at her place, standing in the middle and telling the present " ta onta, the things that are ". To give each Fate her due role, we only have to reverse the order so that Lachesis, Destiny, who in effect presides over the choices of lives, will tell the future while Atropos seals the past to make it unchangeable.
Or we may decide that, in this tale where the dead are living and the living dead, the future is the past and vice-versa, which amounts to reading the story backwards! The messenger that is supposed to give them hope goes by the name of Spring 14 and in fact, as seen by the name of his kin, Pamphylia, is any one of u s Destiny only decides when we live the casting of the lots in front of Lachesis , not how we live.
Then, as we grow older, we may come to realize that the laws of nature are not a "ring" that "frees" us from any responsibility in our acts, but a model of order and harmony that we should strive to imitate, and this is the first step in getting rid of the chains that bind us in the "cave". The man-made horse than surrounds a dead body in the story of Gyges gives way to the celestial spheres that surround our world and Gyges' ring gives way to the lot that sets the time each one has to face his responsibility in choosing his "model" of life.
Eventually, when comes the time of death and judgment, we will raise or fall according to our own behavior in life. In the story of Gyges, the three sections follow in that order, but they are unbalanced. First comes the description of Gyges initial state, of the nature he lives in and of the trip he is led to make in the depths of it. Everything that happens to Gyges to improve his condition happens by chance until he becomes invisible! In the allegory of the cave, the three sections follow in the same order but, in this story, they are in perfect balance.
The first part describes the "natural" state of the prisoners, that is, us, in the cave before the educative process. The second part describes the educative process that leads us all the way up to the "sun", that is, to the idea of the good that provides the true rationale for all our acts. The middle of the story falls at the point where the prisoner is "forced" to leave the cave and starts climbing the hill outside.
But this necessity has very little to do with fate and a lot to do with the rational requirement that we get the proper education and come to see the truth. Once the prisoner has seen the sun itself, the third part describes the effects of this sight, the judgment that the educated freed man lays on his fellow prisoners, and the judgment that they lay on him when he gets back to the cave.
With the story of Er, things are not so simple. The second order details the practical implications of the educative process depicted in the central section of the allegory of the cave, in terms of ways of choosing a lifestyle. And the central subsection that is, the concluding lines of section 2 and the opening lines of section 3 that make up the center of the myth , already analyzed above, makes it clear that these two orders of reasons don't interfere with one another, that the laws of nature don't deprive man of his freedom of choice and of his responsibility in his choices.
Gyges may think he has become invisible once he puts himself under the scalpel of science, and he may be for his fellow prisoners who don't care for the light of the sun, but he is not for the judges above, who will some day seal his fate and turn his "chance" around.
On either side of this dual section on logos , we may read the two surrounding sections two ways, depending on which way we read the whole story, and which order of explanation we give precedence to. Then the last section depicts the judgment that results from this in the choice of life. The end result is that there is little if anything we can do to change the script, education in this life is of no use and we may be technically responsible of our fate but it takes some believing, and fate it remains for all practical purposes!
Such a reading lay the stress on the first order of reasons, ill understood. But if, once again, we read the story backwards, then the various "models" of life men choose from in the last section become first depict the different "natures" they may be born with, and the initial section become last describes the judgment of the souls at the end of their lives, not by themselves, but by the judges up above. In the reading, the order of reasons given in section 3 the principles of choice of life become prevalent and the educative process called for by the allegory of the cave is paramount.
In this reading alone does man's freedom find its due place. Or rather, it is only if we accept both readings, both orders of explanations, if we understand that it is not because there is something in us that binds us to the "earth" that it prevents the other part in us that comes from "above" to play its role, if we realize that the laws of nature don't deprive us from our freedom of choice, that we may properly play the part that is expected from us.
EL MITO DEL ANILLO DE GIGES EN LA REPUBLICA DE PLATON.
Ring of Gyges