Chapter 21. "The Ring of Gyges" by Plato

Table of Contents
Ideas of Interest from "The Ring of Gyges"
The Reading Selection from "The Ring of Gyges"
Related Ideas
Topics Worth Investigating

Relief of Plato Thoemmes Press

About the author…

Other than anecdotal accounts, not much is known about Plato's early life. The association with his friend and mentor Socrates was undoubtedly a major influence. Plato's founding of the Academy, a school formed for scientific and mathematical investigation, not only established the systematic beginning of Western science but also influenced the structure of higher education from medieval to modern times. Plutarch once wrote, "Plato is philosophy, and philosophy is Plato."

About the work…

Glaucon, the main speaker of this reading from Plato's Republic,[1] expresses a widely and deeply-held ethical point of view known as egoism—a view taught by a Antiphon, a sophistic contemporary of Socrates. Egoistic theories are founded on the belief that everyone acts only from the motive of self-interest. For example, the egoist accounts for the fact that people help people on the basis of what the helpers might get in return from those helped or others like them. This view, neither representative of Plato's nor of Socrates's philosophy, is presented here by Glaucon as a stalking horse for the development of a more thoroughly developed ethical theory. Although Socrates held that everyone attempts to act from the motive of "self-interest," his interpretation of that motive is quite different from the view elaborated by Glaucon because Glaucon seems unaware of the attendant formative effects on the soul by actions for short-term pleasure.

Ideas of Interest from "The Ring of Gyges"

  1. According to the Glaucon's brief, why do most persons act justly? Explain whether you think Glaucon's explanation is psychologically correct.

  2. If a person could be certain not only that an action resulting in personal benefit would not be discovered but also that if this action were discovered, no punishing consequences would follow, then would there any reason for that person to act morally?

  3. Is it true that sometimes our self-interest is served by not acting in our self-interest? Fyodor Dostoevsky writes:

    Advantage! What is advantage? And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect accuracy in what the advantage of a man consists? And what if it so happens that a man's advantage, sometimes, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous.[2]

    Construct an example illustrating this view, and attempt to resolve the paradoxical expression of the question.

  4. Quite often people are pleased when they can help others. Analyze whether this fact is sufficient to prove that the motive for helping others is ultimately one of pleasure or of self-interest.

  5. According to Glaucon, how does the practice of justice arise? On the view he expresses, would there be any reason prior to living in a society to do the right thing? Does the practice of ethics only make sense in the context of living in a society?



Plato. The Republic. Trans. by Benjamin Jowlett, Book II, 358d—361d.


Fyodor Dostoevsky. Notes from Underground. Trans. Constance Garnett. 1864.