In book 2 of the Republic, Adeimantus tells the story of the ring of invisibility, the ring that conceals injustice. It gives the unjust man the reputation of perfect justice, while the just man is martyred (Socrates, a precursor of the story of Jesus 399 years later).
One night, lightning strikes and a chasm opens in the earth. Gyges, a shepherd in the kingdom of Lydia, descends and finds a huge horse perhaps reminiscent of Troy, war, and deception. He crawls into it and finds a large, naked corpse, with only a ring on its finger. Not spooked by the dark, he takes the ring, and climbs out. This cave precedes the famous cave in book 7 and the underworld in the Myth of Er (the direction of the Republic is down, the first sentence: yesterday I went down to the Peiraeus with Glaucon, son of Ariston to see the festival of the [Thracian] moon goddess Bendis).
Gyges sits among his fellow shepherds around a fire, turning the ring. When he turns it in, they speak of him as if he were not there (remember Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party at the opening of Lord of the Rings). When he turns it out, he reappears. He acts swiftly. He goes to the palace, with invisibility (like a succubus) seduces or rapes the Queen, and kills the King. He becomes the tyrant in Lydia.
The challenge to Socrates which drives the rest of the Republic: anyone who has the ring of invisibility will commit any injustice or impiety. Socrates is himself a counterexample, but the lingering thought – a classier version of Thrasymachus’ “justice is the advantage of the stronger” from book 1 – has had, historically, wide political sway.
A master of stories like Shakespeare, Plato was retelling a story of Herodotus who wrote the first history.* In Herodotus, Gyges is an aide to King Candaules (he has a name). The king is struck with a hubris familiar in the male Hellenic world; he thinks he has married the most beautiful woman on earth (shades once again of Helen, perhaps the first Hellene**, after the rule of the goddess, and Troy). You must see her naked, he says stupidly and in heat to his counselor. No, no, sire, says Gyges, do not make me do this.
The King hides Gyges behind a door to his chamber. His wife comes in, takes off her clothes and Gyges sees her. As he exits, just as his master said, she glimpses him.
The next morning Gyges is summoned to the Queen. He thinks nothing of it, Herodotus says; he was often invited to talk with the Queen. I have been shamed, she says; you have seen what you should not see. I must have you killed now or you must slay my husband and take his place (royal rule often depends on who kills whom and not much else). Choose, she says. No, no, he says to her, do not make me do this.
That night, poised with a dagger in the same spot behind the door, he waits for Candaules to lie down, slays him and becomes the king or tyrant of Lydia.
In Herodotus, the woman plays a large and decisive role. Plato often runs away from women – substitutes the view of an Athenian patriarch – and this is an instance. See here. In addition, it is her shame which drives the choice she poses to Gyges; he must kill her husband and reestablish her modesty or die (and reestablish her modesty). Further, the story is about the fatheadedness of Candaules, the hubris (the seeking to be a god: look at this woman, my goods, look how beautiful she is). And Gyges is but the will-less puppet of Candaules and the Queen, though a little empathy – he dispatches Candaules quickly enough – suggests his agency.
In Plato, only the agency of the shepherd – he gets the ring and acts swiftly to take it all, the whole kingdom – is at issue. Anyone with the ring will do it (the metaphor of a shepherd, also plays a large and ambiguous role in Socrates’s discussion with Thrasymachus in book 1). Troy and war are adumbrated in both stories, more directly in Plato’s, as is the deception, what is and is not hidden or glimpsed. A long paper could be written on this, as on many other stories in Plato, all hidden from earlier classical scholars. The Perseus program at Tufts (www.perseus.tufts.edu) lists all mentions in the classics as history in every language; one can find citations to Gyges in Herodotus, and contemporary essays, as I often have my students do. But no mention is made of Plato’s Gyges. An immense field of creative scholarship opens about the dialogues to any student who has Plato and a computer (widespread reading in Homer, Aristophanes and the like will do much better, but one can go right to the connections here)..
The ring of invisibility inspired Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray. Dorian looked young and beautiful, despite his crimes, but his portrait grew uglier and uglier, until he stabbed it and died. Wilde understood the Republic; a striking theme is the psychological self-destruction of the tyrant, how ugly the life is (it is also a theme of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, particularly book 7 where the horror of solitude of the tyrant is a contrast to the love of self and independence which permits genuine friendship). Of course, Plato also had the hidden view for his students (Aristotle is one, as book 5 of the Politics shows) that a tyrant of a certain kind becomes a philosopher-king, or more aptly, a philosopher-tyrant. Hence, the decline of regimes from philosopher-king to tyrant. But everything is not a decline in the Hellenic world. As Aristotle, his student, says delicately, it would be “prefect and a circle” if a tyrant of a certain kind became a philosopher-king. See my "Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?," Constellations, January, 2009, here.
J.K. Granberg-Machaelson, a student of mine a few years ago, wrote a brilliant paper on the ring of invisibility and the Lord of the Rings. The one ring, the ring of power, the ring that would corrupt all except Frodo (it does ultimately kill him), Sauron’s ring longing and questing to return home to its evil master in Mordor, is the ring of invisibility. Tolkien was a student of classics at Oxford (and every student there at that time read the Republic, often in Greek; Oxbridge education in Greek is still impressive). Tolkien knew the story in book 2 which stirred his imagination. One can see the influence of the Lord of the Rings even in Harry Potter (though not the ring; Rowling’s central device, Voldemort dividing his soul in pieces and locating them here and there even in Harry, is also striking).
But the story of the ring of Gyges is both the motivation of the Republic – Socrates must show, against all odds, why he is not a person who would take the ring and use it as most people, on Plato’s view, would. Both his argument and the way he went to his death does. But the Republic leaves the implication about most people and regimes; Tolkien did not misread it. The image of the ring inspired great novels by Wilde and Tolkien. Quite a lot to find in a transformation of a story from Herodotus.
* I am endebted to my student Jim Cole for initially bringing the Herodotus version to my attention.
** As my 13 year old, Sage Bard Gilbert pointed out to me, that title is usually given to Hellen, son of Deucalion and grandson of Prometheus.