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500 - 323 BC - Classical Greek Philosophers

”The Ring” from Plato’s Republic


Socrates enters into a conversation with a man named Glaucon about government and justice (laws and rules). Glaucon argues that justice (law) was invented because people are afraid of being hurt more than they fear hurting others. So, to keep from being hurt, people make an agreement not to hurt each other (in other words, they form a social contract).

Glaucon tells a story to explain that people only do good things because they are afraid of being caught for doing bad things:

A man named Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia . One day, there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock.

Amazed at the sight, he went down into the opening, where, among other amazing things, he saw a hollow bronze horse with doors. Looking inside the horse, the shepherd saw a very large dead body. It looked to the shepherd to be more than human. The body had nothing on but a gold ring. He took the ring from the finger of the dead man and climbed up out of the hole in the ground.

Now all the shepherds met together, according to their custom, so they might send their monthly report about the flocks of sheep to their king. Gyges joined the other shepherds having the ring on his finger; and, as he was sitting with them, he twisted the ring on his finger, and instantly he became invisible to the rest of the shepherds.

The other shepherds began talking about him as if he were no longer with them. He was astonished at this. He again twisted the ring around his finger and reappeared. He tested the ring over and over, and always found the same result. Whenever he twisted the ring so that the collet (the thick, decorated part of the ring) was facing inward, he became invisible. When he twisted the ring so that the collet faced outwards, he reappeared.

This gave him an idea. He used his invisibility to gain entrance to the palace of the king and queen. Once inside, he seduced the queen, making her fall in love with him. And, with her help, he plotted against the king and killed him, taking over the kingdom.

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and a just man (someone who does what is right) put on one of them and an unjust man (someone who does what is best for himself, not caring about others) put on the other ring. It’s human nature for both men to act the same. 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 sleep with any one he wanted, or kill or release from prison anyone he chose. Someone with such power would be like a god among men. In this situation, a good man and a bad man would both come at last to the same point. They both would do the wrong thing because they could get away with it.

This proves that people are just (good), not because they want to be, but because they are afraid of being caught. Whenever a person thinks he can be unjust (bad) without being caught, he will, because all people believe in their hearts that being bad is far more profitable than being good. Can you imagine anyone finding this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong? The temptation would be too great. And besides, anyone who has such a great opportunity to do whatever his heart desires without having to worry about the consequences, and does not take the opportunity, would be thought of as a great idiot. Publicly, he might be praised for being such a good man, but privately, everyone would think that he is an idiot for letting a great opportunity pass him by.

What do you think?

Socrates thinks about this dilemma and tells Glaucon to look at the larger picture to figure out what justice really is. Socrates believes that justice is good not only for its results (keeping people safe) but for its own sake (doing the right thing is best no matter what is gained from it). Being a just man may not have immediate satisfaction, but will have better results in the long-run. Therefore, it is better to be just (good) than unjust (bad).



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