Personal Philosophical Musing: The Ring of Gyges and Human Nature Examined

[Posted 28 May 2020 - Anthony Hui - Introduction to Political Philosophy]

Personal Philosophical Musing 
The Ring of Gyges and Human Nature Examined
Glaucon's Tale in Plato's Republic

With Personal Commentary 

With the ring, he arrived and “seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom” (Caste 23). 

These were the actions of Gyges, a legendary and originally humble shepherd character that is told by Socrates’ student, Glaucon in “Book II” of Plato’s Republic. Yet, with the accidental discovery of the powerful and magical ring, Gyges goes down a path of personal gain and benefitting that will ultimately bring all the benefits and pleasures to himself. Glaucon’s narration of the Gyges’ tale elucidates an important theme of human character and nature, that greed and power corrupts, and that in many situations, humans will do unjust and self-centered/selfish deeds rather than being just. Glaucon’s statements and tenets ultimately provide insight and differentiation between the just and the unjust, and ultimately, which is preferable.

The theme of the Gyges’ tale revolves around the rather simplified idea of “power corrupts,” and the more elaborate idea of how even though someone is deemed just, they will become unjust when they get something of unlimited power. Or in other words, this corrupting power at the very least develops an individual’s mindset to focus only on benefiting oneself first (a selfish character), before considering others. These themes are supported with the insight and critique from Glaucon, where he presents several key ideas that seem to differentiate the just and unjust elements of a person. He first underscores the normal human’s inherent selfish and self-centered nature by stating how “no man would keep his hand 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” if he were to get such a powerful artifact (23). This excerpt shows how if a man, even a just one, was given something of magical power like the ring, that greed will transcend his “just” nature and thus reinforce his own selfishness and personal benefit. This is further reinforced when Glaucon directly states how “no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice,” which refers to how someone’s just character cannot really have a stand to something with immense personally benefiting power. Glaucon also lends insight on the relationship and differentiation between the human natures of being just and unjust, and ultimately concludes how being unjust is a better alternative than being just. To provide context, Glaucon underscores the idea of “seeming” and how, when it is done, makes a just man worse off than an unjust man. He states that a just man, who is truly just in his heart, has to suffer from a “fear of infamy and its consequences” because he has the burden of seeming to be unjust despite his noble and just nature. This idea of “seeming” is recurring for Glaucon’s case of a super unjust man who possesses the “most perfect injustice,” but it is for the better and his own convenience. Instead of suffering the consequences of a just man throughout his life, this unjust man can appear to have “acquired the greatest reputation for justice” and other advantages as long as he is good with recovering himself and carrying out his misdeeds secretly and effectively. At the end, he will be “honored and rewarded” (24). Glaucon’s insight and observation highlights the second point, where the human nature of being unjust is better or “more convenient” to an individual than being just. Thus, it emphasizes the human nature of a just and unjust man, and how it would be better to be unjust and seem to be just, rather than vice versa. To support this rather theoretical observation in his head, Glaucon provides a real life example in daily times that show the relationship of “seeming” and just/unjust. He gives the case of parents and tutors who “are always telling their sons… that they are to be just” not for the “sake of justice, but for the, but for the sake of character and reputation” (25). This not only emphasizes the human nature of being just out of necessity to get personal benefits, but also underscores how someone who is unjust (and seems to be just) can get all the “advantages occurring to the unjust from the reputation of justice” (25). All in all, Glaucon’s story illustrates the inherent selfish human nature and the effects of corruptive power on making even the just person… unjust.

Socrates’ perspective and view on human nature differs with that of Glaucon. A central tenet or theme that provides a stark contrast is Socrates’ belief in arete or excellence that comes from doing something to the best and will result in happiness emerging from one’s satisfaction and fulfillment. This human nature perspective is more positive and, in my opinion, optimistic compared to Glaucon’s. This is because Socrates believed that someone should do something that fulfills their role in their society, and this will ultimately give him virtuous happiness and a sense of duty. For instance, in the notes, Socrates would say that a doctor should have a goal of curing and helping a sick patient rather than just merely benefiting himself and fail to fully recover him so that he can earn more money. Socrates, who represents Plato’s views here, then takes this into a social and government standpoint, by introducing the human nature of three different classes, and the highest and governing Guardian class. The Guardians are supposed to command wisdom and have an arete to rule/govern justly and for the common good, rather than for personal selfish interests. With these cases, literary Socrates ultimately believes that because of arete, a person’s human nature is shaped to take an active role in working towards a better society and to embrace justice and their respective and unique arete, rather than dwelling for personal gains. Furthermore, Socrates believes that it is better to be just than unjust as that coincides with an individual’s arete both in society and a state. Plato, through literary Socrates, ultimately connects this positive theme to his ideal kallipolis, where everyone can get along together and, in layman’s terms, stay in their own (societal) lane.

Before I conclude with my take on “human nature,” I would like to say how there are many cases where Glaucon’s truth holds substance. There are numerous historical cases where someone who possesses something powerful and advantageous just like that mythical ring, will, in concordance with psychology and inherent human nature, do things that will benefit oneself. For instance, numerous commanders, once they had control of an entire army or a considerable amount of presence in a government, would easily stage a coup d’etat and topple the government and proclaim a new one under his rule. This was the case for Napoleon I who declared himself First Consul of France, and General Yi Seongye, who led his army to victory over the Goryeo Dynasty and proclaimed himself the first king of the Korean Joseon Dynasty in 1392.

Concluding, I would personally define human nature as, “A trait we are born with that changes, develops, and molds for the better (just?) or the worst (unjust?) as we get more experiences. Human nature ultimately shapes how we interact with one another and defines our kind throughout the past, present, and future.”

The Ring of Gyges: Is Justice Always Self-Interested?

A Ring (of Gyges?) 

Source and Reference Text:
  • Plato: Republic (Book II)