The Ring of Gyges

John Holbo over at Crooked Timber has a post up asking some questions about what is going on with Glaucon and Plato as they discuss the Ring of Gyges in The Republic. Contemporary movie-goers will recognize the Ring of Gyges as the One Ring from Tolkein, for all practical purposes, a ring that allows the wearer to become invisible and do what he likes. The results are, according to Herodotus, that Gyges doesn’t behave himself particularly well, killing a king and taking his wife. Holbo asks about the dramatic incidentals in the story, and I admit I got nothing–I don’t understand them either.

Just a note about Tolkein: Tolkein borrowed from many places, and I doubt he used the ring in the central way he did believing that he was going to get away with something and that nobody would recognize it as the ring of Gyges. Instead, I think he counted on people recognizing his morality tale as an extended riff on accountability, power, and goodness contained in the original myth around Gyges. I think he expected his reading audience, unlike ours, to not only have read the Republic and Herodotus, but probably read both in Greek; he couldn’t have known about the collapse of the western cannon or what Peter Jackson would do with the book (nobody ever really knows what impact their act is going to have), in taking his books to people who have never and are likely to never have read The Republic.