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
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
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
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
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.
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).