Plato's The Republic, Book II: The Ring of Gyges


Plato creates a dialogue between Glaucon and Socrates as a way of exploring the origins of justice, and the arguments for and against laws and rules in society. But Plato also delves further, probing his characters' consciences for reasons that individuals should act fairly towards each other, and ultimately, act justly for the sake of justice. Using a story about a magic ring that grants the bearer the power of invisibility, Plato's Glaucon (playing the devil's advocate) demonstrates to Socrates, and of course to us, that not only does everyone want to break the law and act unfairly, but that one who does may actually be much happier than someone who doesn't. And it's this challenge that begs an answer to one central question: why pursue justice at all?

Study Notes

  • In this excerpt, Plato creates a dialogue, a scene with two people talking. His characters are Glaucon and Socrates. Glaucon does most of the talking because he wants Socrates to respond.
  • Glaucon says that he has never heard anyone defend justice for justice's sake. His plan is to say good things about injustice to make it clear what he would like to hear about justice. Think of it as satire, talking with 'tongue in cheek', or playing the 'devil's advocate'.
  • Definitions:
    • just = fair
    • unjust = unfair
Here's what Glaucon says:
  • The concept of justice and the laws that we follow as a society were created by people who were weak and needed protection. A powerful individual would never agree to rules that limited his or her power.
  • People who act fairly towards others only do so because they aren't strong enough to break the rules. If everyone were free to do whatever they liked, everyone would act unfairly towards others.
  • Naturally, people want what they don't deserve. It's the law that forces us to treat people equally.
Example: The Story of Gyges' Ring.
  • A shepherd in a field sees the ground open up during an earthquake. While exploring the cavern, he finds a giant dead body wearing a ring, which he takes.
  • He later discovers that the ring gives him the power of invisibility.
  • Gyges promptly uses his new power to sleep with the king's wife, murder the king, and take over the kingdom.
  • Now imagine that there are two rings that can make their owners invisible. One belongs to a fair and just person, and one belongs to an unfair and unjust person.
  • Both individuals would eventually use their power of invisibility to secretly do wrong. This is because even though justice and laws benefit society as a whole, they do not benefit individuals with power.
  • Everyone knows that being unfair and breaking the rules is more beneficial than obeying the law. And people who say that laws are good only do so because they are scared that people with power would harm them if it weren't for the laws.
  • Example: In public, everyone would praise the owner of a ring who kept the law. But people would only do this because they were afraid of the ring owner's power of invisibility. In private, people would think that the owner of the ring was a fool for not using the power. This is proof that everyone wants to break the law and that no one wants justice applied to his or herself.
  • Another allegory: Imagine that there are two people: an unfair and unjust person, and a fair and just person. In order to see which is better, justice or injustice, each person should be given what they want:
    • The unjust person acts unjustly, breaking the laws and benefiting from stealing and crime. And that person also gets treated unjustly. This means that they are able to steal and break the laws without ever getting caught. And on top of that, they become renowned as fair and just. After all, what could be more unfair than for someone who is a criminal to be considered a saint?
    • The just person, on the other hand, doesn't want to be considered just or fair, they actually want to be fair and just. And they are. This however, requires that they have a reputation for being unfair, because otherwise they might only be acting fairly so that people will admire them. To test them, everyone has to think that they are unfair and unjust until the day they die, even though they will have never done anything wrong.
Glaucon's Big Question: Which of those two people would be happiest?

Follow-up Questions:

  • Do laws and rules exist solely to protect the weak?
  • What stops people from breaking laws?
  • Would you break a law if you were guaranteed that you wouldn't be caught?
  • Is justice worth pursuing privately?
  • Do people desire justice for themselves? What about others?