We are all familiar with the one and only, the precious, the most powerful of them all: Tolkien’s ring. The story of Lord of the Rings has inspired many folklorists, psychologists, anthropologists and other academics to analyze the plot and the characters, to broaden the boundaries of J. R. R. Tolkien’s world to the moral and ethical frameworks of “ordinary people.”
Interestingly, Tolkien might have borrowed the idea for a powerful artifact that can tempt and corrupt even the best of men.
A mythical artifact with magical powers is described many centuries before Tolkien in the context of morality, in the second book of Plato’s Republic. The philosopher describes a ring that possessed the power to make its owner invisible at will. Through the story “The Ring of Gyges,” Plato, through the character of his brother, Glaucon, argues that if an intelligent person no longer feared being caught and punished for committing an injustice (because wearing the ring made him invisible), he need not concern himself with society’s moral code.
According to various ancient works, Gyges was a King of Lydia and the founder of the Mermnad dynasty of Lydian kings. The legend of how he became a king varies, but what is certain is that originally, Gyges was a subordinate of King Candaules of Lydia. According to all accounts, including “The Histories” of Herodotus, he seized the throne after he killed Candaules and married the Queen.
In Plato’s Republic the story of King Gyges as told by the philosopher’s brother is not considered historical fact. According to Glaucon, Gyges had an ancestor who worked as a shepherd, serving the King of Lydia. There was an earthquake that revealed a cave on the mountainside where his flock was staying. The curious shepherd entered the cave and inside he discovered a corpse, much bigger than that of a man, sitting on a bronze horse.
The corpse had a ring, and the shepherd took it. Soon, the shepherd learned that it wasn’t an ordinary ring but a magical one that could make him disappear whenever he wanted. The power of the ring sparked the shepherd’s ambitions, and he arranged to be chosen as a messenger to the King, reporting on the flock’s status. As soon as he arrived at the palace, he seduced the Queen by revealing his power of becoming invisible. And then, with her help, he killed the King and became the new King of Lydia.
The character of Glaucon, in Plato’s Republic, asks the question if there is anywhere a man so righteous and genuine that he could resist the temptation of performing an act that will never be discovered and known. He argues that the concept of morality is a social construction, a social ideal that controls everyone’s desire to maintain their reputation by behaving in the frame of what is considered moral. Thus, he believes that if the sanction were to be removed, the true morality of the individual would be revealed.
Further, Glaucon gives an example that if there were two such powerful rings, and one was given to the just and the other to the unjust, they would both fail the test of temptation. Because no man is made of iron and they can’t resist possessing such power when they have no fear of punishment. No man would resist being like a god among men. According to Glaucon, the actions of the just and the unjust would be the same, and in the end, they would both arrive at the same point.
The idea of the magical Ring that has the simple power of making one invisible is an archetype that dates from before Plato. It is a simple story of human nature.
According to Tolkien, though, there is at least one human character, Aragorn, who undermines Glaucon’s view and by so doing redeems the possibility of moral truth.