Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: The Ring of Gyges

Gareth B. Matthews

Review of The Ring of Gyges in Republic II (359c-360d) by Plato (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992, Grube translation pp. 35-36).  Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 12(4): 1.

A year ago, I was asked to conduct a philosophy demonstration session with a dozen fifth- and sixth graders in a midwestern city. The onlookers were teachers and parents interested in the possibility of having philosophical discussions with kids. As the basis for our discussion, we read together Plato’s story of “The Ring of Gyges” from the Republic.

In the story Gyges, a shepherd in the service of the King of Lydia, discovers a large crater where he is tending his sheep. Going down into the great hold, he finds a hollow bronze horse with window-like openings, in which can be seen a corpse wearing nothing but a ring. Gyges removes the ring from the corpse and puts it on his own finger.

At the next meeting of the King’s shepherds, Gyges happens to turn the setting of the ring inward, towards himself. When he does this, he suddenly becomes invisible, as he discovers from the comments of those around him. When he turns the setting out, however, he becomes visible again. When it is clear to Gyges that he can become invisible any time he turns the setting of his ring inward, he arranges to be one of the messengers sent to the King. Arriving at the King’s palace, he seduces the Queen, and, with her help, kills the King and takes over the kingdom.

Gyges, we are led to suppose, was a conventionally good man until he came into the power of making himself invisible. Plato uses the story to get us to consider whether we, like Gyges, behave in a morally acceptable fashion simply for fear of being caught doing wrong, and whether if, like Gyges, we had the power of doing wrong with impunity, we would not, also like him, discontinue our efforts to be moral.

I asked these fifth- and  sixth graders whether, if they had the ring of Gyges, they would continue to be as good as they now are, or whether they would steal and do other  bad  things that they now would not  consider doing.

Their responses were remarkably fresh and candid. Most of them said they would probably do some bad things that they would not do now for fear of being caught. But one student insisted that she would also use the opportunity to do some good things that, without the ring, she would not undertake. It would be fun, she thought, to give surprise gifts to people, if the recipients could not find out where the gifts came from.

We talked for a while about anonymous gifts. Some people give gifts only on condition that they will not be identified as the donors. But, of course, some people also give gifts anonymously in the hope that eventually, when the identity of the donor is discovered, the giver will be admired even more.

The upshot of this discussion was that having the ring of Gyges would probably free people up to do both better and worse things than they now do. These children certainly recognized the restraining influence that the judgments of our family and friends have on our behavior, to say nothing of the police! But, quite shrewdly, they pointed out that acting in the knowledge that others will judge what we do makes it harder for us to have the best motives in doing what we expect others to approve of, as well as harder to do what we expect others to disapprove of, or punish us for.

I have often discussed the ring of Gyges with university students. But these fifth- and sixth graders seemed more sensitive to the complexities of human motivation than many college students. They were also much more imaginative than most adults in taking the thought experiment seriously. Thus, one student wanted to know whether, if I were made invisible by the ring, what I was carrying would also be made invisible. If, for example, I had undertaken to remove  a  TV set  from an appliance store and what people could see was a TV set mysteriously rising off its table and floating out the door, the theft would be less likely to be successful than if the TV, too, were made invisible by the ring.

No one had ever raised that question with me before. But, once we had thought of it, we began to think of ways in which even the cleverest and best-equipped thief might be somehow detected. And suppose the thief is not caught, but someone the thief knows to be innocent is punished instead. This is the plot of The Real Thief by William Steig. (See Thinking IV/3&4, p.l) Remorse can be the worst punishment of all.

Much to my relief and gratification, that demonstration class showed that the story of the ring of Gyges is just as effective for raising interesting questions with children about the nature of morality and moral motivation as it is for adults.