Law and Justice – Plato’s Republic – 7.6 Ring of Gyges

>>>>The pursuit of justice in Plato’s dialogue
“The Republic” begins in conversation with an elderly man who says that justice is doing
no harm. It continues with the challenge of Thrasymachus, who says that in fact justice
doesn’t exist, that morality doesn’t exist. And this is a serious position, and to appreciate
the accomplishment of Plato you have to take seriously the idea that morality simply doesn’t
exist. That it has no basis in god, in nature, in tradition. Now the conversation becomes
even richer and the next scene is, I think, one of the finest contributions of Plato to
all of political philosophy. The conversation continues when Thrasymachus leaves the conversation
and another interlocutor enters: Glaucon. Glaucon will become the primary conversation
partner was Socrates throughout the rest of the dialogue. When Glaucon enters the conversation,
he picks up where Thrasymachus leaves off. Glaucon has a conversation with Socrates about
what is morality? What is the good? And they quickly begin to ask, how can we define what
the good is? And Glaucon offers the idea that some things are good in and of themselves,
and some things are good because of their consequences. And it’s a fundamental distinction
and it’s important, and Plato articulates it here in a way that it had never been expressed–
and its a profound distinction. There are things that are good in and of themselves,
regardless of their consequences. And there are things that are good because of their
results, because of what consequences they entail. And Glaucon asked Socrates what is
the nature of the true good? Is it truly what’s good in itself, or is it truly what results
in some other outcome, whether it’s pleasure or happiness or success? And to understand
the rest of “The Republic”, in fact to understand the entire political philosophy of Plato,
you need to understand that distinction between something that’s good in and of itself and
something that’s good because it entails good consequences. Because Glaucon will pick up
where Thrasymachus leaves off, in the idea that there isn’t morality, there’s simply
interest. To say that justice is a good because it has good consequences, and the entire rest
of “The Republic” is Socrates response, in which he’ll try to defend a position in which
justice, in which all of morality, is somehow that which is good in and of itself – independent
of its consequences. Glaucon says: “Let’s think about what we mean by justice. Justice
is obeying the law, and the laws are created out of a combination of self-interests in
competition.” He says: “People can either do no harm or they can harm each other.” And
he says that harm, in fact, has seriously negative consequences. And so, individuals
create laws to keep each other from harming one another. This is a profound idea. Plato
in the mouth of Glaucon, somebody whose ideas he doesn’t agree with here, gives very early
expression to what we might call a contract view of society. Glaucon says: “Why do we
have laws? Why do we have a state? Why do we have the social order that we have? We
have it because individuals wanted to call a truce. They signed a contract. They make
a compact in which they agree not to hurt each other.” He says that in a sense, society
is this sort of mutual agreement of not doing harm to one another. Therefore, he says, justice
isn’t something that’s good in and of itself. Justice is obeying the laws that come out
of this compact. Justice is good because of its consequences. Justice is good because
it prevents us from harming one another. And he gives a parable that expresses the meaning
of this idea, the parable that’s called the Ring of Gyges. He says: “Imagine this scenario
there was once a shepherd of a king named Gyges, and one day he was off in the wilderness
tending the king’s flocks when there was an earthquake and it opened up a chasm in the
ground. And he went inside and there was a giant bronze horse, and inside of it there
was a corpse. And he took nothing from this grave except a ring which was on the finger
of the corpse. And later he was standing around in the bureaucratic meeting where the king’s
shepherd talked about their, their sheep and he was bored and started playing with the
ring and he turned it. And when he turned it, turned the bevel towards the inside, he
became invisible. Now this invisibility gave him enormous power, because now he could do
whatever he wanted without anyone knowing that it was him. In other words he could behave
however he wanted and there were no consequences. There was no damage to his reputation and
there was no risk that he would be imprisoned for doing anything wrong. Well, what would
you do if you had this kind of power? The Gyges, this former shepherd, quickly used
it to amass riches, to kill his enemies, eventually uses it to seduce the queen, kills the king
and takes over the kingdom. He uses this power to pursue his own interests. And Glaucon is
saying that this is what society would be like if we didn’t have consequences, if the
laws didn’t establish punishments. And justice is simply obeying the laws that we’ve created
because you want to avoid the punishments. You want to avoid the consequences. And the
parable illustrates this by saying what would happen to any of us if there were no consequences
to our actions? Nobody behaves justly in and of itself. They do so to avoid the consequences
of disobeying the law. And that’s why we’ve created society, that’s why we’ve created
law, that is the very nature of political order.


  1. I don't think you understand how many articles I have read over and over again, trying to make sense of what you just explained to me in 6 minutes. Thank you, bless your soul.

  2. Best video explaining ROG. I still find it useful to read the actual parable and connecting what the video explains to what is difficult to interpret in the parable to better form a whole understanding !

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