The Ring of Gyges

by John Holbo on February 2, 2014

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?



Belle Waring 02.02.14 at 4:46 am

Gotta be horse. Sorry, dude. Everything that’s in a compound with the word “hippo-” means that thing only big or coarse or something (if it doesn’t mean actually that thing plus horse, like a kind of chariot or whatever. Or cavalry maybe though it can mean cavalry on it’s own too.)


Belle Waring 02.02.14 at 4:54 am

That was unclear, what I meant was: it is possible for hippo- to mean ‘big,’ or ‘coarse’ but only in compound. On it’s own it’s just horse, horsie, horse, horse, cavalry, horse. Also, agree about the giant:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


John Holbo 02.02.14 at 4:56 am

“Everything that’s in a compound with the word “hippo-” means that thing only big or coarse or something”

That’s what I got by clicking the Middle Liddel, via Perseus. (Thanks, honey!)


TheSophist 02.02.14 at 5:41 am

Wikipedia is right. Plato didn’t invent the ring tale, Tolkien did. Plato just borrowed it in an attempt to make The Republic more palatable to teenage readers. Technically, of course, Tolkien got it from the Fairbairns of Westmarch, so he didn’t invent it either, just reported it.

Also, is Hippo the place (as in “Augustine of”) simply a town called Horse?


strophariad 02.02.14 at 6:19 am

Nothing of the sort in Herodotus or Plutarch.

No? Beginning in chapter 8 of book 1, Herodotus tells a tale of Gyges killing the king, winning the queen, and taking the throne, his crimes according to the Republic. But in Herodotus Gyges is seen while trying to hide, and he’s compelled, under protest, to this course by the king and queen themselves. Herodotus’s Gyges even submitted himself to the Delphic oracle, who legitimized his reign.

Such an account hardly supports the lesson of Plato’s narrative, which is not to deny that the dramatic incidentals in the latter call for explanation.


John Holbo 02.02.14 at 6:38 am

“Beginning in chapter 8 of book 1, Herodotus tells a tale of Gyges killing the king, winning the queen, and taking the throne,”

Sorry, the thing I was objecting to was the specific claim that Plato didn’t invent the ring tale, i.e. the ring element of the tale. Clearly Gyges, in Herodotus, is sneaky in a couple ways: seeing without being seen, killing the king. Also, he’s a propagandist, bribing the oracle with gifts. But he doesn’t actually have a ring of invisibility.


Ben Alpers 02.02.14 at 6:44 am

Couldn’t the giant be the Space Jockey from Alien? (You gotta admit that this reading doesn’t make any less sense than Prometheus did!)


Ben Alpers 02.02.14 at 6:45 am

(Whoops! Tag fail. At least I eventually managed to close it.)


John Holbo 02.02.14 at 6:46 am

Ah, it looks like someone has already corrected the Wikipedia entry to more accurately reflect the paper cited at that point. Crooked Timber gets results! (Alternatively, I could just bother to learn to correct Wikipedia myself.)

“Couldn’t the giant be the Space Jockey from Alien?”

Having taught “Alien” for years in “Philosophy and Film” I totally thought of that! (But was embarrassed to say so in the post.)


Glen Tomkins 02.02.14 at 6:46 am

Did Plato really invent the whole Ring of Power schtick? Well then, his estate needs a good intellectual property lawyer, so they can get a hold of some of that LOTR cash.

Now, Tolkien presumably got the idea from Germanic legend, whether via Wagner or not. Did Plato get it from pre-proto-Germans as well? Vice versa?

This situation is curiously similar to that other myth stream that flows into the Republic, the metallic ages thing. This myth gets brought in at 414 as the model for the Noble Lie, and is curiously attributed to “Phoenicians”, despite being Greek at least as far back as Hesiod. In the case of this myth, we happen to have the story from the other side of the hill, so to speak, from the “Phoenicians” who wrote the Book of Daniel. There we have the ages in Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream, which, by the time Daniel was written, was identified strongly as a Hellenistic myth. But now the ages are parts of the composite statue, representing the succession of empires which persecuted the Jews, and which the Maccabees (of the time Daniel was written), notionally destroy at the end of the dream. The author of Daniel attributes the myth to those damned imperialistic Greeks. The metallic ages myth is like some tennis ball that Hellenes and Semitic types keep volleying back at each other.

Maybe the Germans and Hellenes are at the same game. “No, it’s not our Ring of Power, we’re not crazy. You people came up with the idea!”, it’s just that we don’t have the German side of the story from a nearer contemporary source like the Book of Daniel.

As to the details, Plato might have had some constraints created by the source myth, if there was one, Germanic or not. Just because we don’t have such a source on record until much later, in Germany, is not a strong indicator that the myth wasn’t current in Plato’s day. Quite a bit didn’t survive the Dark Ages.

As to those details, it’s not hard to understand why Plato would emphasize, if not make up, the descent into a cave. The Republic famously begins with “Kateben”, and it’s lousy with katabases all through it. You mention the more famous Cave as a parallel, but the closer parallel is the descent that Er goes on at the end of the Republic, into the Underworld to witness the choice of souls. But the Cave is a strong parallel as well. Think of it in terms of ascending out of it all you will, but the Cave is essentially the theater of illusions that allows injustice to masquerade as justice. Magic objects aside, the way injustice actually goes invisible in the real world is not by rendering injustice invisible per se, but by providing itself with exculpatory cover stories, by appearing as justice, rather than by not appearing at all. That’s the world of illusion that we have descended into in the Cave, just as, politically, we have descended into the Perspectival Vortex of Democracy in Book VIII. So, of course Gyges has to descend into such a realm to find that which confers power in a world without true light, the ability to spin the false light of theoretical structures.

The curious details of the giant stature of the ring-wearer, and his confinement in a large bronze horse, may, again, have been forced by the source myth. But there is the parallel to the spectacle of the punishment of the great tyrants of earlier ages that Er sees at the end of the Republic. Perhaps the horse isn’t a sarcophagus meant to honor the dead ring-wearer, so much as a means of confinement, perhaps also execution, of a great and monstrous evil that could not be controlled in any other way. Then Gyges comes along, aided by unnatural catastrophe, and lets this ancient evil loose upon the world yet again.

Oh, and as explained above, this ancient evil represented by the ring is, of course, Philosophy, the ability to invent and juggle theories so as to make the weaker argument the stronger, etc., thus blinding simple honest folk to your iniquities, etc.


Meredith 02.02.14 at 6:55 am

I doubt Plato invented it all, whatever “invention” might mean and whatever an “author” (here, Plato) might be. I’m thinking, maybe, something like “interventions.”

Also, there’s Polykrates. And check into Aesop (via Leslie Kurke).


John Holbo 02.02.14 at 7:09 am

I agree the ‘descent into the cave’ bit is totally fitting, in light of how the whole dialogue is full of those. The shepherd also makes sense, in light of the fact that we are just done with Thrasymachus, and there was a lot about shepherds and how they are only in it for the wool and meat.

It’s the bronze horse (with little doors) and the dead giant that seem oddly specific, yet hard to read. Positing that there is some lost source material here seems reasonable. But, then again, Plato would presumably have deleted a bronze horse and giant from the story if he didn’t have a use for them.

The German connection is truly far-fetched – but fun to think about for nerds like us. If Wagner’s source material was the Eddas, then there really isn’t an attested pre-Christian source. So it would be less far-fetched (but still pretty far-fetched) to suppose the Germans got it from Plato, via Iceland, than that Plato got it from some proto-German source. Right?

I thought about talking about the Myth of Er, too! I was just rereading that last night. I’m going through my myths, preparing to teach. The best part about the Myth of Er is the bit about the soul from heaven that chooses the tyrant’s life. How did that soul ever get to heaven, if it was prepared to make such bad choices? It lived its previous life in a good society, where it never had the opportunity to make such a bad choice. That’s like the shepherd, before the earthquake.


Glen Tomkins 02.02.14 at 7:19 am

Well, the ring of Polykrates is practically an anti- ring of power. Polykrates begins to worry that he’s too fortunate, that his life isn’t the sort of grim, unremitting horror that these early Greeks seem to have been more comfortable with (at least on an intellectual level), so he picks out a valuable and prized possession, this ring, and tosses it in the ocean. The idea seems to be that bad fortune has to follow good, so to avoid an uncontrolled hit from Fate, you should take the initiative and impose a misfortune on yourself. When this doesn’t work, when a fisherman finds the ring in a fish he catches and returns it to Polykrates, perspicuous observers understand that Polykrates is well and truly doomed. The gods must really be preparing some truly awful balancing misfortune for him if they won’t accept the loss of the ring as filling the bill.


John Holbo 02.02.14 at 7:23 am

Polykrates is good to mention: the category of potentially cursed rings, combined with a sense of luck (power) and isn’t going to last. In “Ion” Plato has more hazardous rings. Three of them, I think, in a magnetic chain. Anyway, again we have a kind of hazardous power that may be retracted or reversed. Poetic inspiration, this time.

(Obviously more sensible people will conclude that the image of three rings of power which don’t really have inherent power is a reference to the One Ring To Rule Them All. Plato is implying that Homer is an elf.)


John Holbo 02.02.14 at 7:25 am

Glen and I crossed comments, and we seem to be saying the opposite about Polykrates but not necessarily. On the one hand, Glen is right that this ring works differently. On the other hand, there is a common denominator: the spectre of power that may be withdrawn, that won’t last. That is sort of hollow.


Z 02.02.14 at 7:39 am

One noted anthropologist argues (following mostly Jean-Pierre Vernant in that respect) that the subterranean imagery, the desacralization of the tomb implied, the general atmosphere of secrecy, the themes of invisibility, blurring of the lines between public and private and revealing what was was heretofore hidden (including I guess the many windows in the Horse, which render visible what is doubly internal: beneath the earth and inside the beast, with all implications valid) is an allegory of the political, social and above all economical transformations which were shaking the Greek polis at the time, among them the transformation of political rituals in social institutions and the rise of coinage and monetary economy. The message being in essence: the rise to political, social and economical power is a process of unveiling, peeking in, uncovering and ruling over what should be (or at least was) secret, private, internal and personal. This is of course largely in lines with the usual anarchist framework of said anthropologist but interesting nonetheless, and it does seem to fit many of Plato’s obsession, including perhaps maieutics (reinterpreted not only as an epistemological but also political or social process).

That is for instance in The False Coin Of Our Own Dreams, a pdf copy of which is (or at least used to be) easily available online.


John Holbo 02.02.14 at 7:48 am

As to the windows. The Greek is ‘thurida’, a diminutive of door. Which seems to suggest something like ‘really tight entryway you squeeze through’ rather than ‘thing you look through’. So I think it’s supposed to be more a ‘cave within a cave’ kind of thing. I dunno. Thanks for the Vernant reference anyway.


Glen Tomkins 02.02.14 at 7:49 am

The virtuous soul isn’t used to the idea that injustice puts on a good appearance. The right choice of souls is some non-descript soul that doesn’t confine one to any pattern of life, that doesn’t have a shiny (shiny, that’s Glaukon) narrative attached, but just sort of sits there, with no “curb appeal”. But somebody who has gotten unused to dealing with injustice is the person who takes the shiny appearance at face value. Too many years of colorless Social Democrats giving them the good life, and they start voting Republican because of their shiny adherence to “family values” or some such rot.

The Eddas may have been written down in Iceland, but they derive from an oral tradition. Who knows how old that might be, or where its roots may reach. The Scyths, or any number of peoples from the Steppes, were associated with numinous horses and shamanry. Perhaps they passed it to both Germans and Hellenes. I don’t think that the surviving record is such that absence of evidence of such a myth from this period is even a tenuous evidence of absence. 99.9% 0f what was written in these times was lost.

And, sure, the story could have traveled the other direction. But was Plato ever popular culture, in the Hellenic world, much less Germany? A high-culture author like Plato, who is trying to understand and explain how people, all of us, think, will often borrow stories and images from popular culture , but I don’t think it goes the other direction nearly as much. Everybody knows what a Trojan Horse is, but how many people today, much less in the forests of Dark Ages Germany, know what a Ring of Gyges might be?


Glen Tomkins 02.02.14 at 8:07 am

Well, what makes Polykrates toss the ring isn’t really that it is powerful, at least not in the sense that it can do powerful things. He tosses it because he values it (Of course, in the unlikely event that they ever cinematize Herodotus, they probably will have him call it “My Precious!”. If they have Barry Humphries play Polykrates, I might even pay to see the resulting movie.).

You could say that Polykrates’ ring is powerful as a magnet for the outrage of the gods. The closest analogy I can think of is to the Ark of the Covenant that the Philistines capture. They are foolish enough to place it in the temple of Dagon as a trophy, whereupon that fish idol’s humanoid hands and feet drop off. So they send it off to another Philistine city, where it causes a plague, which is repeated wherever they send the damned thing, until they decide to just leave it in a ditch by the side of the road at the border with Israel.


John Holbo 02.02.14 at 8:10 am

“But was Plato ever popular culture, in the Hellenic world, much less Germany?”

No, but Christians read him. Educated, literate Christians. Monks. That would presumably be the path of transmission. I am speculating utterly.


Z 02.02.14 at 8:14 am

In fact, Beneath the Earth and inside the Beast does seem a quite fitting subtitle for The Republic, what with all its sword-wielding madmen, rings of power and philosophers-king (I’ll let you imagine the contemptible cover and the “the book which inspired The Lord of the Rings” blurbs).

As for the ring of Gyges coming from Germanic sources, this seems highly implausible to me. I don’t think there is a single attested example of Germanic culture even remotely influencing the classical Greek world, so why posit one about a story which is explicitly about a Lydian king rather than the obvious hypothesis that the myth (if not totally made up) is of Lydian origin? Beside, I don’t think there is actually a ring of power in the Nibelungenlied, rather Brunhild has a ring which is taken from her by Siegfried when he rapes her. Finally, the Nibelungenlied is the semi-mythic story of Old Burgundians, a barbaric people with more than 700 years of close contact with the Roman empire at the time of writing; more than enough for Greco-Roman background culture to percolate in.


Ben Alpers 02.02.14 at 8:22 am

Did monks read The Republic? Didn’t Plato in the Medieval West consist almost entirely of the Timaeus?


Z 02.02.14 at 8:26 am

No, but Christians read him. Educated, literate Christians. Monks. That would presumably be the path of transmission. I am speculating utterly.

My impression as well. And I don’t think this is solely baseless speculations: Wikipedia says that the most likely common origin of the relevant sagas and Old Germanic lieds are the old legal and historical founding texts of the Burgundians; texts which were compiled under the overarching influence of the Church and Roman intelligentsia (one and the same thing in the Germanic kingdoms of the 5th/6th century anyway).


Z 02.02.14 at 8:38 am

@Ben Alpers I think the idea is more like “OK, I am writing this epic about the mythic ancestor of the House of the lord protecting my abbey, wouldn’t it be cool if said ancestor were invulnerable because he bathed in something badass? Except he has one weak point because he did not bath completely.” No need to have access or even real knowledge of the original sources for that (and I’m taking the example of the parallel between Siegfried and Achilles rather than the example of the ring because I don’t remember rings of power actually showing up in the early Germanic stories).

Also, I’ll note that the earliest ring of powers I could find in Norse saga are 1) Draupnir, a golden ring which can multiply by falling (a rather clear symbol of monetary power) and 2) the cursed ring of Sigurd, which has no power and acts as a complete McGuffin (so again, plausibly a symbol of social or economical power).


Glen Tomkins 02.02.14 at 8:39 am


Well, Galatians were Gauls who made it to the center of Asia Minor and established a short-lived kingdom but long-standing cultural presence there. The Dying Gaul is one of these chaps from somewhere near Ankara, not a Gaul from modern-day France. If armies from Gaul could reach Asia Minor in good enough shape to capture cities, surely myths could make the same trip from a closer Germany.

We’re not sure who the Lydians were, or where they came from, and, to the point, who they may have shared myths with. It doesn’t seem terribly likely that Lydians lived in Asia Minor from forever. And it’s not as if you have to posit Germans as the source of the myth, we could just as easily be talking about something from “the Steppes” that traveled both west to Germany and south to Asia Minor, perhaps centuries apart, and who knows with what group of storytellers, missionaries, merchants or conquerors — perhaps with the Lydians.

Messy as the present is, we have no reason to imagine that the past wasn’t even messier. Asia Minor is now Turkey, and the Turks sure aren’t any more indigenous there from forever than the Lydians, or the Hittites, or the Galatians. We’re pretty sure that the Turks are “originally” from “the Steppes”, which is a lot more certainty than we have for the Lydians.


Jim Buck 02.02.14 at 9:06 am

Perhaps the bronze horse had been used as a ventriloquising legislator? Some big bloke tells you how many sheep to hand over to him; you may comply, out of fear; but your umbrage may aggregate with that of others to overthrow the bully. If a Bronze Age Mr Ed tells you the same thing ? Now that’s uncanny! Just hand over the sheep. By the fire later, musing: Maybe there’s a bloke inside there, voice amplified in the metal cavern? Neow! I put that question to the priest; he opened a little door and let me look inside; nothing to see in there–empty as the Wizard of Oz–just hand over the sheep; ever try slaughtering a bronze horse? (Never dreamed there was an invisible bloke in there, ’till the bastard todt)


Jim Buck 02.02.14 at 9:12 am

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Invisibility of Crowds


Glen Tomkins 02.02.14 at 9:28 am

I don’t know about educated Christian monks spreading the Gospel of Gyges among the heathen Germans in the 5th and 6th Centuries. Neo-Platonism was definitely a thing, but, never having applied myself to reading The Consolation of Philosophy, I have no idea if it goes into this particular passage in the Republic. I doubt that monks in Germany, Burgundy, or anywhere in the West, had any texts by Plato available, had anything of Platonism except what Boethius took from it. My understanding is that Plato was preserved in the East only.

Not that this mode of transmission is impossible, not at all. There might have been some knock-off work other than Boethius, some Reader’s Digest sort of thing, that preserved in the West this story about Gyges from The Republic. But you really have to posit a few centuries of oral tradition even for a theory that involves such a hypothetical lost text getting the Gyges myth to Germans or Burgundians in 550CE. If that’s plausible, why not cut out the middleman, and posit an ur-oral tradition about a Ring of Power that came to Germans and Plato separately?

My point is that the record is so thin for these millennia that all sorts of theories are perfectly plausible about where, if anywhere but from his own imagination, Plato might have gotten the basic idea of a Ring of Power, plus the details John is interested in. I just think that, in general, there isn’t a whole of evidence, none that I can think of, of Platonic stories getting into popular culture. He has had great influence — practically all of it since his reintroduction to the West in the Renaissance — on high culture, but high culture hasn’t paid much attention to his stories and myths, and so hasn’t gotten things like the Ring of Gyges or the Myth of Er into popular awareness. He’s known for a knock-off form theory in high culture, and an even worse knock-off, the Platonic Ideal, in a somewhat wider culture (People might know what you’re talking about if you ask for their nomination for which sandwich place makes the Platonic Reuben sandwich. But, Ring of Gyges?). But that’s it, he’s thought of as a technical philosopher in an age that has come to think of Philosophy as a fairly technical and abstruse enterprise, not as story-telling and myth-making. Plato’s Cave is about the closest thing I can think of to an image or story of Plato’s that anyone but a very narrow slice of the population would have ever heard of, and even there, I think it gets seen as an exposition of a theory (that he believed!), not really as a story or an image. Even most people who have read a Platonic dialogue would not see it as in any sense different a use of the form than Hume’s or Galileos’s dialogues — as a way of presenting formal theories that is hopefully less dry than the treatise format — and not as drama or storytelling. Serious people don’t make points by telling stories! Or so the theory goes.


Glen Tomkins 02.02.14 at 9:31 am


The idea of ventriloquizing from inside the horse suggests a connection to the Phalerian Bull. The tyrant Phalerus would lock his victims in this bronze bull, then place the bull over a fire. Their screams would come out through the narrow holes in the device as musical notes, sort of like a tea kettle on the boil.


NomadUK 02.02.14 at 9:46 am

I read ‘Polycrates’ and conflated that with ‘Kallikrates’, and now all I can think about is Ursula Andress and Peter Cushing, which, all in all, is a lot more pleasant than thinking about Plato, who was a pretty unpleasant old bastard, anyway.


Belle Waring 02.02.14 at 10:46 am

Exactly like what didn’t happen to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego!
Jim Buck @ 26, you are cracking my shit up.


Z 02.02.14 at 10:46 am

Glen Tomkins,
You make excellent points and I agree with you much more than this comment indicate. Let me make clear my position, though.

But you really have to posit a few centuries of oral tradition even for a theory that involves such a hypothetical lost text getting the Gyges myth to Germans or Burgundians in 550CE. If that’s plausible, why not cut out the middleman, and posit an ur-oral tradition about a Ring of Power that came to Germans and Plato separately?

My point is that I’m rather convinced by Vernant’s argument: the ring of Gyges is a story about political transformation and the new form of power coming with it. As such, it was more an allegoric tale of contemporary phenomenons than an accent myth brought back to life. If you buy that (and in some sense, you seem to, with you reference to Philosophy itself being the ring), then it is on the one hand dubious that Plato would have chosen an old mythic source to illustrate his cutting edge allegory, on the other hand quite clear why the same symbol resurfaced when Germanic tribes and Norsemen experienced the same social transformations.

When political power and monetized economy transformed Lydia and Greece, we got the ring of Gyges (explicitly a story of power and money). When it reached Germanic tribes, we got Draupnir and the Ring of Nibelungen (explicitly stories about power and money). When it reached the Iroquois, we got Wampum (explicitly…). No need to posit an elusive common mythologic source to what might be a simple reaction to social transformations.


Belle Waring 02.02.14 at 10:58 am

But let’s get down to brass tacks, everybody; who’s in favor of invisibly doing evil?! You alone, I mean. Not generally–that would be both wrong, and–more importantly–annoying. Assholes stealing your stuff, fuck that. And look, the first rule of invincible magical powers club is that you don’t tell anyone about your magical invincible powers, and that’s the next 15 rules till you get to “if you give them to anyone for 45 seconds as a demonstration, she better be chained to something and have no idea where the key is.” As to why will I even be demonstrating them to her I’m sure I don’t know. Oh, wait, no, duh. I’ll just hand it to my sister without even making any pre-conditions, right. But her friends will had better be chained to something but good.


Belle Waring 02.02.14 at 11:00 am

16 sqq are all good and interesting.


Jim Buck 02.02.14 at 12:51 pm

Invisibility, by means of a magic ring, may yet become visible by the light of Diogenes’s lantern; That’s why Gyges took the messenger gig–playing the sheep over at the dog-throttler’s palace for so long! Mr invisible standing there as Mrs Caundaules is shewed nude! Stands to treason when you think about it.


Jim Buck 02.02.14 at 12:56 pm

Odysseus played the invisible sheep also, one time. When muscle won’t work minuscule may.


Lacero 02.02.14 at 1:03 pm

I don’t know anything about the horse, but something struck me as I read the story. We’ll need to go to the amazing Myth and Myth-Makers by John Fiske as it’s online in project gutenberg, and amazing.
As it’s a 19th century anthropology text we’ll be needing all of King Frodi’s salt to accompany us.

He describes stories where someone hears a sound, goes into a new cave, and returns with treasure as lightning myths. It’s fairly persuasive in general although I suspect philology has come a long way since then. The outcome of the story is usually the finder gets trapped underground, or gets cut in two. The only lightning myth he mentions with invisibility, and I’ve heard no others until I saw this greek one today, is the raven-stone. There’s little talk of this on google so he may have invented it.

But in general there exists a class of myth where there’s an event, someone goes underground, sees treasure, gets trapped by doing something stupid like trying to take it. I had thought these stories were well known, by more than 19th century anthropologists, even if the link between them wasn’t.

So if we start from there, and make a reasonable assumption that all of Plato’s audience were familiar with one of the basic stories in this vein, could the ring be a change to the ending rather than a perfect retelling or fitting-in of an existing story? Gyges would be reasonably described as being trapped in plato’s cave after he gets the ring after all, and a switch here seems quite artful.

Also, I do think people above are getting a bit hung up on the fact it’s a ring. If you’re looking for similarities elsewhere I think it’s better to find something that does the same thing rather than something that is the same object. Function survives in these stories much more than form.


Belle Waring 02.02.14 at 1:46 pm

Indeed, and is this not why Rabinidrath Tagore says, “What you are you do not see, what you see is your shadow”?


Bill Benzon 02.02.14 at 3:55 pm

The first chapter of Marc Shell’s The Economy of Literature is devoted to the “The Ring of Gyges.” Perhaps it will help (I’ve not read it in years).


Ben Alpers 02.02.14 at 4:23 pm

Glen Tomkins@28:
“Cave is about the closest thing I can think of to an image or story of Plato’s that anyone but a very narrow slice of the population would have ever heard of, and even there, I think it gets seen as an exposition of a theory (that he believed!), not really as a story or an image.”

I think a case could also be made for Aristophanes’s speech in the Symposium as something that has broad cultural purchase today…and, in this case, not as something Plato thought, but precisely as a story or image.


mdc 02.02.14 at 4:30 pm

“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?”

Hell yes. Or like the teachings of Homer:

“and beneath did Poseidon cause the vast earth to quake and the steep crests of the mountains. All the roots of many-fountained Ida were shaken and all her peaks, and the city of the Trojans, and the ships of the Achaeans. And seized with fear in the world below was Aidoneus, lord of the shades . . . Lest above him the earth be cloven by Poseidon, the Shaker of the Earth, and his abode be made plain to view for mortals and immortals”

That is, if there were the right kind of earthquake, then the possibly naturalistic truth about the so-called underworld might be revealed.

It occurs to me that the earth, unlike the heavens, is not amenable to the kind of de-mythologizing yet philosophically edifying mathematical inquiry the guardians get in Book 7.


Nine 02.02.14 at 5:15 pm

Gyges can be explained by reducing it to another parable.

Let Gyges = Jules Winnfield, King Candaules = Ringo, Mr. 9 millimeter = ring


“See, now I’m thinking, maybe it means you’re the evil man, and I’m the righteous man, and ring here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the earthquake that’s evil and selfish. I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is, you’re the weak, and I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.”



Glen Tomkins 02.02.14 at 5:24 pm


One of the most frustrating things about trying to understand whatever dramatic or ironic twist Plato is trying to create by speaking in dialogues rather than treatises, is placing the references. Does he give Thrasymachus the lines he gives him because he was this publicly known figure whose publicly known words and deeds would give those lines all sorts of significance that is, sadly, totally lost on us? Is Thasymachus of the The Republic just made up, maybe there having been a real person of that name, but used here just as an empty name? Something in between? Unless somebody digs up the Complete Works of Thrasymachus from the sands of Egypt, or some such, we’ll never know.

The story of Gyges is certainly presented as something the listeners would have heard about, not something that Glaucon is making up on the spot. Presented in an era that was just two generations into literacy, and not understanding how extensively and deeply the written word had replaced oral tradition (We don’t really, for example, know how new and original what Herodotus and Thucydides did was. Was there already an extensive genre of history, with hundreds to thousands of works of history? Or did they invent the genre?), we have no way to gauge whether the source that the interlocutors are expected to be familiar with was an oral tradition, or some sort of novel (Did they have detective novels at this time? Who knows?), or some sort of anthology of myth. or some sort of political tract making exactly the point, quite explicitly, that Vernant is after. Add in the notion that, as you suggest, this whole story of the ring is meant as a symbol of the way the new-fangled literacy and money themselves changed power relationships, and you have a minefield of potential irony in which we have no idea what Plato invented in terms of story elements or the meaning of such elements, and what was already there that he is just playing off.

Consider how Plato plays off his source material in the one case (at least in this dialogue, for, say, the Symposium we have quite a bit of Aristophanes’ writings to compare.) of a Platonic reference we can check. He has Socrates attack the poets, name-checking Homer as the arch-poet, at the end, as if poetry was meant to be a fake and untrustworthy mimesis of true techne. That’s just such an utterly loony take on what Homer was trying to do, that you know Socrates is up to some infernal bit of irony. If you look through Homer trying to identify passages where his characters talk at all about any sort of technical matters, you don’t find much beyond the rare talk of some bit of warcraft (e.g., Odysseus advises his companions to take off their clanky armor when they set out for some scout patrolling at night, advice you get in Ranger School up to this day.), and it really seems obtuse to imagine that Homer intended discussions of fine points of patrolling as the substance of his poetry, like he was Tom Clancy or something. Now, one of the more prominent of these rare technical passages in Homer is Nestor’s chariot-racing advice to his son at the funeral games for Patroclus. It’s pretty basic stuff (lean into a curve!), and Homer clearly uses it not at all as a bit of procedural, but to give us a picture of a decrepit old Nestor who now has to compete vicariously through his son, somewhat pathetically, given the lame obviousness of the technical advice. His son gets the emotional point, and cheats to win for his father when cheating becomes necessary to win. This sets up a dispute over the distribution of prizes. Achilles has to judge how to adjust the allotment of prizes, and having overheard this pathetic bit of technical advice, and taking it for its emotional content, is what finally reconciles Achilles to the essential unfairness of the great game, and he does what Agamemnon failed to do and gives up his own goodies to give Nestor a consolation prize for being old and decrepit and having to live through his son. This distribution of prizes is both what the Iliad is all about, and what Book X reveals at the end that The Republic is all about.

No way you could have gotten all that multi-level reference and back-reference from the indictment of Homer as a mimetic poet unless you had the Iliad to look at and digest. We don’t have the source of the Gyges story to compare, so there’s no way to know if anything as complicated and involved is intended, or just what that involved and complicated content might be if unpacked. Maybe someday there’ll be an earthquake, and a hidden chamber will be revealed full of political tracts from proto-literate Lydia…


Glen Tomkins 02.02.14 at 7:46 pm

Ben Alpers,

Well, sure, Aristophanes’ image is striking and has found some purchase. But does anyone but a few fanatics remember Socrates’ contribution to the same story contest? Hedwig and the Angry Inch going to come out any day now with a single about Poros and Penia? (Okay, maybe if they misread the second element of that pair.)

If anything, the conventional take on Plato is that he’s in there with St Paul and Augustine on the question of sexuality, hopelessly naïve in his anti-sexuality and pro-abstinence stance. If you asked the artists, they would probably spin a tale about how Aristophanes is the refreshing breath of fresh air antidote to morbidly anti-sex Plato and his mouthpiece, Socrates. And they might actually be quite right in assuming that Plato is just reporting something that is actually Aristophanes’ idea and image, from a play or other writing of his that didn’t survive except in this retelling in a dialogue.

Socrates is pretty consistently portrayed as the remorseless killer of great ideas and great images. He jokes that he’s not so much a midwife of great ideas and theories as he is the inducer of their still-birth. I think that’s a pretty accurate as a description of what goes on in the dialogues. But you never know if these ideas and images and theories are things he is really behind, or trying to pop, or whatever in between.


Z 02.02.14 at 8:24 pm

Glen Tomkins,
Thank you for your deep and instructive comments. They are really eye-opener.


Niall McAuley 02.02.14 at 8:39 pm

So Gyges opens the “bronze horse”, takes the ring from the “Giant” and …

joins the Sinestro Corps?


scrantonius 02.02.14 at 10:19 pm

Just to get back to Holbo’s initial question about the dramatic details, I’d like to address the shepherd aspect. Shepherds clearly do represent a kind of justice, as they tend to their flocks not only in order to profit some day but also for the flocks’ own good. Thus in Homer the epithet “shepherd of the people,” used to describe the various kings, establishes a paternalistic relationship between basileus and laos. But those are figural shepherds. A literal shepherd is pre-political — his “rule” over his sheep can only prefigure the political community that obtains between human beings. So it makes sense that the shepherd is a figure of political potential, good to think with when you want to run a political thought experiment. (And there’s something darkly ironic about the fact that the empowered Gyges does not turn out to be a very good pastor of his people in the event — the tyrant, despite being a human being, is worse to his fellow citizens than humans are to beasts.)

Shepherds also inhabit a world on the border between human affairs and those of the gods (the “liminal space” much beloved by academics). Being closer to nature and to the unknown, the shepherd has (again this word) the potential to undergo supernatural experiences. Thus the poet Hesiod is visited by the Muses, who give him the power of song, while tending his flocks on Mt Helicon; Anchises the shepherd is visited by Aphrodite while in his shepherd’s hut; and Paris gets the chance to judge an immortal beauty contest while herding on Ida.

It is also worth noting here that there was a tradition that Zaleucus, the mythical lawgiver of the polis of Epizephyrian Locri in Italy, was a shepherd (perhaps even a slave) who was chosen lawgiver by the Locrians following an oracle; he then received the law code from Athena in a dream. The figure of the lawgiver, like that of the archaic tyrant, was often thought to be so exceptional as to be explicable only by recourse to the divine. Orthagoras, the tyrant of Sicyon, was the son of a butcher (mageiros — really a kind of all-purpose butcher and cook for sacrifices, so again close to livestock), and his rule was supposedly prophesied by an oracle. (The story is very similar to that of Cypselus, the first tyrant of Corinth, although I’m not sure what the occupation was of Cypselus’ father Eetion.)

So the shepherd aspect makes sense — a shepherd is at the same time the unlikeliest of rulers *and* just the sort of person who might be magically promoted to a position of power.


Glen Tomkins 02.02.14 at 10:36 pm

Yep, Plato’s estate needs to sue DC Comics as well as the LOTR folks.


Glen Tomkins 02.03.14 at 2:25 am

Getting back to the dramatic details, as Scrantonius suggests, let me suggest another take on the giant stature of the ring-wearer that Gyges’ ancestor finds.

He’s a giant because he’s from the remote mythical past when giants roamed the earth, the Golden Age. This is the same Golden Age that is the time of the best republic, when philosopher kings ruled. So far, so good, we have a fairly conventional trope about the elder days being better than things are now.

It gets complicated when we get to the devolution from the best republic that Socrates gets into in the second half of the Republic, with monarchy declining to timocracy, and then to oligarchy, and finally to the gravity sump of democracy, in which all impulses compete in the soul of the demos on an equal footing. This democracy sump is explicitly identified with Athens’ current state. But, to the conventional, one-way, secular decline from noble to base metal, this fillip is added at the end. Democracy is the breeding ground for tyranny, it will give way to tyranny because it is without direction or self-control. But tyranny has this possible outcome, that it can start the cycle over again by way of the tyrant dictating the rule of reason. We can have the Golden Age, best republic, again, the rule of philosopher kings, but only by way of the tyranny that democracy leads to.

So one of the bright, talented, energetic young men whom Socrates cultivates, who see themselves as being in Achilles’ position of living in debased times when their virtue doesn’t get its due allotment of prizes, dreams of a device that will reset history back to the Golden Age when people like himself will get their due. The whole scheme is not clear to him yet, Socrates has to spend the rest of the dialogue sketching out the whole vast pattern, but the narrator of the Gyges story is already fixated on this power of generating theories that will get him and those like him back in charge of things, as it was back in the days when giants roamed the earth.

Add the ring of power myth to the Age of Metals myth, and you transform a story of decline from original glory to the present sorry state, into a story of repeating, maybe endlessly repeating, cycles, in which the Golden Age can only be reset from the state of maximum decline.

To return from the abstract scheme to practical implications, what this new take on the conventional story of one-way decline introduces, is the idea that bold, tyrannical action is the only way to get us back upstream to the Golden Age from our present gravity sump of democracy. Bandying such ideas with ambitious young men who thought like this, and some of whom acted on these ideas, is what got Socrates in that bit of legal trouble.


Peter T 02.03.14 at 6:50 am

Just to add a bit. It seems we have here a collection of tropes woven into a new tale. Shepherds as potential kings (all respectable Persian dynasties start with virtuous shepherds), old-time giant people, as in the Bible, Titans etc, caves/the underworld as a source of power (cf Delphi, Taenaron, Avernus), the ring/circle object of power (snakes, which are also chthonian. Common shamanistic symbol). I presume they would all have resonated more strongly in Plato’s time, in an Athens full of phallic door guardians, sacred snakes, initiates of Eleusis and so on. But I’ll bet there is a strongly parallel myth among the Mayans.

Would Plato or Socrates have gone and nicked stuff if they had the ring?


Jim Buck 02.03.14 at 7:57 am

Back-packing Paris nicked Menelaus’s wife. No magic ring needed, just a cattle-herder ethic.


Glen Tomkins 02.03.14 at 3:32 pm

“Would Plato or Socrates have gone and nicked stuff if they had the ring?”

Well, that is the question posed by the ring of Gyges.

I think the best and final answer, from The Republic, we get to that question is the literally last answer in the dialogue, the bit about souls choosing the life (or fate) they’re about to be reborn into. The worst choices are the grand and extravagant lives, while the best are from the non-descript and unattractive pile left behind after everyone else has snatched up all the glittering lives. As long as you don’t use the ring to nick anything big or life-changing, you’re alright. You could be a professional thief and pass muster, as long as you keep your criminal activities modest and self-controlled.

But really, what’s the point of having such a ring if you don’t use it to go large, and become some world-historical tyrant? If you, as our notional professional thief, confine your activities to ordinary heists, if you are temperate and wise enough to not go large, you’ll never need the ring because ordinary competent and workmanlike thiefcraft will see you through.

Now, as to what the wise and temperate person who also happens to possess the ring should do with it, you have to look to the Gorgias. There Socrates tells us that if you possess the skill of rhetoric to such a degree of power that you can convince anyone of anything, the best use you can put it to is to go around convincing people that you are wicked and wrong and guilty. That way your life has to be so extraordinarily virtuous that the truth can overcome even your great skill at self-incrimination. So you would use the ring to appear at every crime scene holding the murder weapon just as the police arrive, and so forth. In real world terms, if charged with a capital crime such as Socrates was, you would mount a defense like that set down in The Apology, in which Socrates shows himself fully capable of obtaining a conviction in a case which some less talented advocate would have got him off in a walk.


BananaGuard 02.03.14 at 5:35 pm



South Asian stories of rings revealing that a husband accusing his wife of infidelity was actually the unfaithful one. (Look for Wendy Doniger.)

These all seem to be magical ring things that may have been thought up in ignorance of Plato (if not of Tolkein). If Wikipedia says Germanic myths are just Classical myths recast, well, isn’t that what classicists have been saying since Germanic myths became the focus of scholarly study? If scholarhship had begun with Germanic subjects, would Gyges magic ring be explained as Draupnir cheapened?


Aulus Gellius 02.03.14 at 8:03 pm

scrantonius @47 mostly made the point I was thinking of about shepherds: they’re often in a pre-political golden/primitive age (someone already mentioned the Cyclops, relevant here; Aristotle also, somewhere or other, puts pastoralism as the simplest kind of life). And I wonder if, from that starting point, we might be able to stretch the going-into-the-ground-and-getting-treasure into a symbol of agriculture succeeding pastoralism: rulers and farming are connected as typical signs of the fall from the golden age. Domesticating animals for work (the horse) could fit in there too. And, of course, mining — digging metals, though usually not in the shape of rings, out of mother Earth’s body — is even worse than farming, in terms of violating the Golden Age/primitive world.

OTOH, the earth opening up and revealing a person larger than a man, with dangerous consequences for law and order, makes me think Plato is hinting at the Gigantomachy, which is sort of the reverse of the above: atavistic barbarism destroying the hard-won virtues of civilization. Maybe Gyges, with the ring, is taking on some of the power/danger of the Giants who fought Zeus? (I admit, I’m not totally comfortable with turning this large corpse into a capital-G Giant.)


heckblazer 02.03.14 at 8:08 pm

This discussion now makes me read it as the “Ring of Gygax”. I may have failed a saving throw.


Kent 02.03.14 at 8:50 pm

Great discussion. But no one has mentioned my favorite part of the story. Once Gyges discovers that he possesses a ring of invisibility, he “immediately contrived to be one of the messengers to the king. When he arrived, he committed adultery with the king’s wife and, along with her, set upon the king and killed him.” (360a-b, Bloom translation) That’s a lot of storyline packed into two sentences. Two obvious questions: (a) what part if any does the power of invisibility play when Gyges arrives at the king’s palace and (b) why did the king’s wife participate in this terrible crime? Wasn’t she already Queen?


Jim Buck 02.03.14 at 10:25 pm


Jim Buck 02.03.14 at 10:57 pm

The bronze horse is an artifact internalised as the better angel of Gyges’s nature? The exposition of a dead giant inside the horse demystifies its Vatic power–supposedly disinterested, but now revealed as the usual bullying agenda ( phew! Almost used hegemony there!) Not to worry though because fearful obedience and restraint may be excellent training for “invisibility”–which of course requires not just allowing that horse to trot where it will, now that it is singular, but riding it to where one wants to go; up to the palace, even; a “messenger” oneself now, maybe.


SusanC 02.04.14 at 10:44 am

I like the interpretation that a shepherd looks after his flock of sheep in a similar way to a ruler over the people (cf. elsewhere in The Republic), and so the story of Gyges is not just about any guy gone bad, but specifically a ruler gone bad.

This “Ring of Gyges” notion is still very topical. Compare Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, for example. There, the idea is very much that if our government officials can act in secret, then — Gyges like — they will probably get up to all sorts of bad stuff.

I can’t recall if this aspect is in Plato or not, but in the contemporary version you get the idea that there is some form of adverse selection going on. Sure, you or I would not go the full Gyges if we got a magic ring, but the sort of person who is in high government office — by reason of what they probably had to do to get there — is exactly the kind of person you do not want to trust with the magic ring. The stonger, pathologizing, version of this account is to suggest that politicians are clinical psychopaths, that is they have something biologically different with their brains that causes them to behave differently in the Gyges-like scenario. (The even stronger version of this is to say that the ruling class are actually extraterrestrial lizards, and not human at all).

Now if someone wants to suggest that Assange is also exactly the kind of person you wouldn’t trust with the magic ring, for fear mght they become like some Alan Moore character — well yeah, and this is probably also in line with the spirit of The Republic.


Lisa Schweitzer 02.04.14 at 4:29 pm

I got nothing to add except to say thanks to everybody; this discussion has been wonderful to read.


Sumana Harihareswara 02.04.14 at 8:10 pm

I can help on a super tiny technical point: logging into Wikipedia and turning on Visual Editor in your editing preferences makes it a lot easier to edit.


John 02.05.14 at 4:40 am

At some point there was discussion of popular transmission of Plato. I would only like to add the the Ring of Gyges specifically would have been incredibly well known among the literate at any time in the West, not always because of Plato, but because of Cicero’s retelling in Book 3 of De Officiis.


Glen Tomkins 02.06.14 at 4:11 pm


It probably is true that in antiquity Cicero’s Republic was more widely read, probably a lot more widely read, than Plato’s work of the same name. So, sure a mention of the story in De Officiis is much more likely to have gotten the story to 6-7th century Burgundians than its original locus.

But how likely is it that De Officiis would have been read by anybody in those parts in that era? Knowing the route of transmission of that work would be some help, but I wouldn’t even know where to start looking for that information, since I’ve been away from the game for so long.

Even if it turns out that the history of transmission tells us that mss of De Officiis were common as dirt in 7th century Burgundy, that only gets us opportunity. There’s always tons of ideas and images floating around, or parading on the stage of the Cave, so to speak. Why do some stick in the popular mind of a given era, and others don’t? My point is that there has to be motive, some reason that people perpetuate one of these ideas or images, but others don’t resonate with them.

I think that Z’s suggestion, which he attributes to Vernant (We have our own history of transmission going!), about the myth of the Ring having resonance with people to whom money and literacy aren’t entirely familiar, is convincing. Socrates was taught as a child by people to whom literacy and money were new. Germanic and other “barbarian” tribes lived for centuries at the edge of a Mediterranean world run by money and literacy, but never fully incorporated them, so they were new to them for centuries.

If you accept that idea, then it seems to me that looking for Plato, via Cicero or not, as the source of the Germanic Ring myth, is just multiplying causes unnecessarily. We’re saying that a literary source gave rise to an oral tradition that was then written down more recently. Why not just go with an oral tradition for the whole era before it was finally written down? Imagine that there was this oral tradition that resonated with all sorts of tribes on the borders of the money/literacy culture, and so was preserved over centuries in that tradition. Within the culture, maybe the odd intellectual like Cicero, someone who has done enough thinking that money and literacy have their sheen of familiarity rubbed off and he or she is able to see them for the peculiar institutions they are, find the ring story worth repeating. But everyone else in a “civilized” culture doesn’t see money or literacy as at all problematic, so the ring story just doesn’t resonate and enter popular culture.

Sure, this universal barbarian border tribe theory of the Ring story means that you have to invent things, but it seems to me that our knowledge of idea transmission in antiquity is such that you have to do lots of inventing no matter what route you choose.

And, ha, I’ve hit upon yet another layer to the myth. The ring of invisibility is the magical power that being familiar and foundational to your culture possesses to hide the true nature of an institution. In our culture we can’t see, without special effort, how monstrous money and literacy really are. They pass instead as positively good things, because they possess this ring of invisibility.


Z 02.06.14 at 4:41 pm

And, ha, I’ve hit upon yet another layer to the myth. The ring of invisibility is the magical power that being familiar and foundational to your culture possesses to hide the true nature of an institution. In our culture we can’t see, without special effort, how monstrous money and literacy really are. They pass instead as positively good things, because they possess this ring of invisibility.

Bingo! This for me is exactly the deep sociological truth encapsulated in the symbol. I’ll note in passing that the two cultural references which nowadays come immediately to mind when speaking about ring of powers (Wagner’s Tetralogy and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) have both been frequently read as pessimistic commentaries about a world being destroyed by pervasive social change. Which brings me to Belle’s question.

But let’s get down to brass tacks, everybody; who’s in favor of invisibly doing evil?!

The point, I think, is that the answer is everybody, and so whether we want it or not. In Bourdieu’s parlance (just to change the perspective a bit), social forces get incorporated in individuals whence they can impose their evil will invisibly (evil both for Bourdieu and for Plato presumably, but for opposite reasons) .

I think that Z’s suggestion, which he attributes to Vernant (We have our own history of transmission going!)

But in this case, we can do something to set the record straight: I learnt this idea from David Graeber, who mulls over it in a chapter about the specular value of action (in an anthropological perspective) and quotes Vernant, but also a number of other person, including Marc Shell, whom I didn’t know but who wrote a quite enjoyable essay entitled The Ring of Gyges which deals with all these questions and that I would recommend (assuming it is not well-known to you already). It seems easily accessible online but you can ask me if you need it.


Jim Buck 02.06.14 at 5:30 pm

But let’s get down to brass tacks, everybody; who’s in favor of invisibly doing evil?!
Well, not the Lone Ranger for a start. And invisible to mortals is not necessarily invisible to the Gods, whose partiality, manifesting as a wink, is hardly an impairment to divine pan optics. No! invisibility (in this case) is just another means of making the lesser argument the stronger; and heeding your own diamonion–rather than that of a tyrant, amplified through the bowels of a bronze horse. (IMHO)


Jim Buck 02.07.14 at 9:42 pm

Apologies for my tenacious trolling. The rest is silence:

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