Monday, May 23, 2011

A Ring to Rule Them All

Herewith a story:

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; 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 descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended.

Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result—when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.

Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. 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 lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point.

And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice. Enough of this. [Glaucon speaking, in Book II of Plato’s The Republic, Benjamin Jowett’s translation]
A collet is a flange that holds the precious stone on the ring. I found this quote thanks to Brandon at Siris who, in this post, made me aware that hidden in Plato is one of the earliest suggestions of cyclic civilization, moving from timarchy (rule by honor, by the best), to oligarchy, democracy, and then to chaos—by very arrangement suggesting a down-ward spiral. I was too young and ignorant in college when last I looked at the Republic and read only selected parts of it as part of a survey course. At the same time I am fairly certain that J.R.R. Tolkien, certainly a scholar, must have read the whole of it. If I had read it, I would certainly have remembered it.


  1. We all, as youngsters I suspect, may have wished for such a magic ring; one that would've allowed us to become invisible now and then. But we would never have used its powers in an UNJUST way. Of that I am sure...well, almost sure.

  2. I remember once spending time with Gyges and wondering whether there was an echo of Gigas in the name, and how they related to Ge, or Gaia...
    and the bronze works of antiquity and hollow animals, whether or metal or wood(Pasiphaea's cow and the Trojan Horse)...

    Plato had his theory of the Metal Ages of mankind, too: gold, silver, and whatever.
    Heraclitus pre-dated Plato and had a cycle, the Great Year, and during part of it, Eris, or Strife, ruled the universe.

  3. Yes. Good points, Montag. And then also the Hindu yugas. Those were looong...


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