Herodotus tells the story of Gyges, King of Lydia in the 8th century BC. He was the founder of the third Mermnad dynasty of kings of Lydia descendents of the gods, Zeus and Hercules [Herakles] and forefather of Croeseus.
Croeseus was a king of unsurpassed wealth and power, but the last of his line and the one who succumbed to the Persian Empire.
In Herodotus’ tale, Gyges was bodyguard to the king Candaules, who suffered “uxoriousness” or extreme love of his wife, believing her to be the most beautiful woman on earth. The king persuaded Gyges to hide in his bedchamber to observe his wife disrobing, that he too may appreciate her unsurpassed beauty.
Gyges protested but the king insisted.
The Queen discerned she had been observed when Gyges left the room later that night. She did not say a word to her husband but she summoned Gyges and gave him the ultimatum, that he may suffer execution for what he had seen, or kill her husband and take the throne and herself to wife.
Gyges agreed to assasinate the king and take the throne. With the Queen’s help he succeeded and managed to quash the resultant civil war and hold the thone by sending tribute to the Oracle at Delphi in Greece.
With rich tribute to the oracle he inquired if he were the rightful king of Lydia, to which the Oracle replied he was, but his dynasty would only last for five generations.
By the 6th century, the King Croesue went to battle against the Persian army, believing himself to be invincible but was overpowered. Thus Herodotus accounts for the fall of the Lydian kingdom and accounts for the rise of the Persian Empire and her later assaults on Greece.
Plato, writing in the 5th century, recounts the myth of Gyges with a different emphasis. He tells of a conversation between Glaucon and Socrates in which Glaucon poses a moral dilemma.
Glaucon tells the story of Gyges, a mere shepherd in the service of the ruler, Candaules of Lydia. After an earthquake, Gyges discovers a cave in a mountainside near where he was feeding his flock. He enters the cave and discovers that it was in fact a tomb with a bronze horse and the armour of a giant. The giant’s corpse wears a golden ring, which Gyges pockets.
Soon discovering that the ring gives him the power to become invisible, Gyges then arranges to be chosen as one of the messengers who report to the king on the status of the flocks. Arriving at the palace, he uses his new power of invisibility to seduce the queen, and with her help he murders the king, and becomes king of Lydia himself.
In Republic, Glaucon asks whether any man can be so virtuous that he could resist the temptation of being able to perform any act without being known or discovered. Glaucon suggests that morality is only a social construction, the source of which is the desire to maintain one’s reputation for virtue and justice.
Hence, if that sanction were removed, one’s moral character would evaporate.
- Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.
- Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.
- For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.
- — Plato’s Republic, 360b–d.
Though his answer to Glaucon’s challenge is delayed, Socrates ultimately argues that justice does not derive from this social construct: the man who abused the power of the Ring of Gyges has in fact enslaved himself to his appetites, while the man who chose not to use it remains rationally in control of himself and is therefore happy. (Republic 10:612b)
Glaucon’s story show interesting parallels with Tokein’s epic narrative “Lord of the Rings” taken from Norse and Scandinavian myths. Both accounts pose the question of morality in the presence or posession of great power.
Though Tolkein’s epic shows that humble creatures such as Hobbits can partially resist the seductive powers of the ring, ultimately the ring holds an intractable force that will corrupt any living creature.
In Herodotus’ history, the rise of the Persian Empire and the fall of the Lydian kingdom was due in part to the foolishness of Candaules and the lust of Gyges centuries prior. Though a good king, Gyges usurped the throne immorally, sowing the seeds of the demise of his own Empire generations later.
Moreover, the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, questions whether justice is a social construct and whether humanity can resist enslavement to their appetites and retain a moral compass, Glaucon and Tolkein both disagree.
What do you think? If not, what indeed is the hope for humanity?
Tolkein’s narrative closes with Frodo unable to destroy the ring which he has carried into Mordor. Its corrosive powers had consumed him to the point where he no longer posessed his own powers of reason.
It was only another, more lustful than he, so obsessed by the ring that it was willing to throw itself into the flames to possess it, that finally brings about its destruction.
And allow peace and reason to reign again.
There is another story, one I’m fond of retelling, in which a humble man holds ultimate power in a small vessel – himself. It is only destruction of this power, by those more lustful and obsessed by having it, and the destruction of the vessel and so the man himself, that peace and reason are permitted to reign again.