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The story of the Ring of Gyges serves several purposes in both The History by Herodotus and The Republic by Plato. The most important of which is the distinction between inner morality versus external morality. Would a typical, average person act in a moral manner IF he did not have to fear any consequences of his actions? The two accounts which I will compare are those of Herodotus from his book The History, and Plato (via Glaucon) in The Republic. Both are metaphorical accounts of moral corruption caused by power.

In the version by Plato in The Republic, Glaucon says that men are inherently injust and only behave properly due to laws put in place by society as well as out of fear that they will somehow damage their reputation within said society. Socrates in discussing with Glaucon argues that justice does not stem from social construct and that Gyges allowed himself to succumb to his desires and ultimately lose control of his morality. Socrates blames no other than Gyges and says that the entire incident could have potentially been avoided had Gyges more willpower and determination to do what was just and right. In this instance, Gyges was not the victim and was very much his own worst enemy. Glaucon does question, however, if it is possible or any man to resist temptation and become a wholly virtuous being. Glaucon believes that it is impossible for man to resist such temptations, therefore arguing that morality is a social construct and if reputation was to be removed, morality would quickly vanish.

The account by Herodotus is very similar to that of Plato, except that Gyges is very much the victim in Herodotus’ book. Herodotus placed the majority of the blame for Gyges’ downfall on the queen, whereas Plato was very careful to not blame the queen in his account. I thought this distinction was something to think about considering that in The Odyssey, we read that women were very mischievous and were known for their ‘feminine wiles’ (Think Penelope and her nightly undoing of her days work of weaving). Additionally, in Herodotus’ account, Gyges was his bodyguard and confidant, not a lowly shepherd, like in Plato’s version, who has no real relationship with the king of Lydia. In Herodotus’ account, Gyges pleads with Candaules and urges him to not make Gyges view his queen naked. “[…] I beg of you not to demand of me what is unlawful! (Herodotus, 1.8)” What is also fascinating about this phrase is that Gyges uses the word ‘unlawful’. As Glaucon mentions, if law was not an issue, would Gyges have been so concerned with doing the right thing? Because nudity was a great taboo within their society, Gyges would be greatly disrespected and possibly shunned for dishonoring the king and queen in such a manner if the public found out what had transpired. As it was, Gyges greatly violated the queen’s aidos (honor)! But if society did not exist in such a way and did not hold such a taboo over nudity, would Gyges have attempted to refuse the king’s orders?

Both accounts are the same in that once Gyges is caught by the queen, he kills the king and marries the queen in order to rule over Lydia. In Herodotus’ story, the queen gives Gyges two options, rather than him going on a rampage through the palace as is inferred in Plato’s account. “Gyges there are two roads before you, and I can give you your choice which you will travel. Either you will kill Candaules and take me and the kingship of the Lydians, or you must die straightaway, as you are […]” (Herodotus, 1.9). It is somewhat understandable that in Plato’s account, Gyges selfishly chooses life since he was a shepherd and was looking at great wealth which he had never known. However in Herodotus’ account where Gyges is supposed to be the king’s long time bodyguard and confidant, it is extremely two-faced for Gyges to stab the king in the back (in all senses of the phrase), marry the queen, and take over Lydia. (Side note: …Isn’t that a serious bro-code violation?! I feel like that whole ‘bros before hoes’ thing goes way back… though maybe not as far as 678-652 BC… aka the rule of Gyges).

But looking back at Plato’s account of Gyges as the shepherd who stumbled upon a tomb with a golden ring of invisibility hidden inside a bronze horse on a corpse, I have to wonder about Gyges’ morality from the very beginning. Even before he decided to make himself invisible and sneak into the queen’s chambers, he took a ring that did not belong to him. “Aware of this, he immediately contrived to be one of the messengers to the king,” (II, 360.a). The word ‘immediately’ is something to whcih we should all pay a little extra attention, due to the sense of urgency and immediacy that Gyges must have felt just after taking the ring. He did not think to use it to play tricks on friends, sell it for extra food or clothes, or put it back. His first reaction was to become a messenger to the king to sleep with the queen and become the next ruler of Lydia. Did Gyges even have time to consider how society would view him if his plan failed? The way this passage is written causes me to believe that Gyges did not have the time to consider anything other than his own wishes and desires and his drive to fulfill them. Also, the cave in which the ring was hidden was yet to be discovered by other people, so there was no risk of judgment from external sources or jealousy over who would be the new owner of the ring. Since society, in this instance, was not really of any concern to Gyges, could one not argue that with or without “social construct” man is easily tempted and susceptible to persuasion and lack of morals when faced with fancy goods, food, or women?

 

 

 

19 Responses to “The Ring of Gyges as told by Herodotus and Plato”

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