The point of the myth, from Book II of Republic, is clear because it’s utterly explicit. This is a thought-experiment to explore the proposition that humans will only do right – be just – under duress and compulsion. What you can get away with, you will get away with. So imagine a guy who can act with impunity. What would he do? That’s your answer.
But what do we make of all the dramatic incidentals, which seem to be Plato’s invention? Why Gyges, in particular (or an ancestor of Gyges)? Why a shepherd? Why an earthquake? Why a crack in the earth? Why a hollow bronze horse with little doors? Why a dead giant (larger than a man)?
Also, why is Glaucon telling the myth, rather than Socrates? Glaucon is a pretty straightforward guy. (For a long time I misremembered that Socrates himself tells the myth as a way of coloring in Glaucon’s straightforward challenge.)
The ring I’ll grant you. Makes total metaphorical sense.
(Here’s a mistake in Wikipedia, if any wikipedian cares to correct it. The entry for Gyges implies that Plato did not invent the ring tale. But he did, so far as we know. Nothing of the sort in Herodotus or Plutarch. Also, ‘Socrates encounters a man named Glaucon’ is not an accurate gloss on the dramatic incidentals. [UPDATE: someone did the necessary. Thanks!)
Here’s an allegorical reading, more or less off the top of my head: ancestor of Gyges because this is the Ur-form of the tyrant’s tale. He is Everytyrant.
He starts as a shepherd, in tune with the seasons and nature, which is a kind of justice. (All in due course, nothing in excess.) Most tyrants would probably have lived pretty ordinary lives if they hadn’t happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as it were. An earthquake is a symbol of that. It’s the closest nature comes to injustice, since it is excessive and irregular.
For the first time, the shepherd has the opportunity to become a worse person. Moral hazard.
Going down from the natural, sun-lit fields into the earth. Opposite of the Cave Allegory. Is there additionally a sense that delving into ‘secrets under the earth’ is something atheistic, in a natural philosophy sort of way? Like the teachings of Anaxagoras?
The horse stands for … animality? Appetite? Honor-lovingness? In the famous charioteer image, there is a good horse and a bad horse, needing guidance by reason. Which one of those two is this one? Have they become one (in spiritual death?)
(The wikipedia entry links to a translation that reads ‘bronze bull’. Why translate ‘hippon khalkoun’ as that? Could the original be read, somewhat metaphorically, a ‘giant bronze animal’? ‘Horse’ just means big, generically? Big as a horse?)
Normally, you would imagine the beast in the human, as a part of us. The divided soul and all that. But now we – the human figure – is/are in it? It has grown larger than us, enveloped us?
Is it a Trojan Horse? A disguise? (But that’s sort of what the ring itself is.)
The human figure is a giant because …? He’s a tyrant. He had power, but is it inevitably a cold, dead power. Injustice in the soul is always misery and all that.
Is the myth so colorful because it’s foreign, practically Persian? Gyges the Lydian and all that?
Anyone have any bright ideas?