In the beginning of the second book of the Republic (359a–360d) Glaucon tells the story of Gyges, a shepherd from Lydia, who possessed a magical ring. Those who wore it could become invisible by twisting it on their finger. Thanks to this ring, Gyges was able to steal the king’s wife, to kill the king and rise to power.

The myth serves a thought experiment. According to Glaucon, if we gave such a ring to two different people, of whom the one would be considered just, the other unjust, we would soon realize that nothing would prevent the presumed just person to commit injustice, in order to fulfill his desires. Thus we conclude that just people choose just behavior because of the fear they feel for the consequences of its opposite.

This thought experiment functions as a challenge to Socrates who, in the rest of this dialogue must prove that the just life is preferrable to the unjust, not only because of its consequences but also because of its inherent value.

There is a certain amount of overlap between this myth, which is later exploited by Cicero, in a similar context (On duties 3.38-39), and a story told by Herodotus (1.7-13). But there are important differences both in the plot but also in the moral direction that characterizes the Platonic version for the story. The latter is dominated by certain elements of Sophistic teaching, which is the target of Socrates’ criticism. In particular, the view that just behavior is chosen because of the fear people feel for the sanctions they will face if an unjust act is detected, appears in Antiphon’s On Truth and in the Sisyphus’ Fragment (variously attributed to Critias or Euripides).

Author: Chloe Balla
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