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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 November 2013

Raphael Woolf
King's College London
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The tale of Gyges' ring narrated by Cicero at De officiis 3.38 is of course originally found, and acknowledged as such by Cicero, in Plato (Resp. 359c–360b). I would like in this paper to address two questions about Cicero's handling of the tale – one historical, one philosophical. The purpose of the historical question is to evaluate, with respect to the Gyges narration, Cicero's quality as a reader of Plato. How well does Cicero understand the role of the story in its original Platonic context? The motivation for the question is that, at first blush, Cicero seems to have badly misunderstood it. I shall argue that the appearance is illusory, and that Cicero understands the tale's Platonic provenance perfectly well. Now it should be noted that the question of Cicero's grasp of the tale's purpose in Plato is distinct from the question whether Cicero himself puts the story to the same or a different use than Plato did. I shall suggest that while there are striking points of contact between the two treatments, on one crucial feature – namely the tale's ostentatiously far-fetched nature – Cicero is instructively more explicit than Plato.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 2013 

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An earlier version of this paper was read at a seminar held at King's College London, organized by Professors Hugh Benson and M.M. McCabe, on the reception of the Republic in antiquity. My thanks to the audience on that occasion, and to the Editor of Classical Quarterly and an anonymous referee, for helpful comments and suggestions.


1 Hinc ille Gyges inducitur a Platone. Cicero has just said we ought to be persuaded not to do wrong ‘even with only a modicum of philosophy’ (si modo in philosophia aliquid profecimus, 3.37); and this he presumably takes the Gyges story to help provide.

2 Hunc igitur ipsum anulum si habeat sapiens, nihilo plus sibi licere putet peccare quam si non haberet; honesta enim bonis viris, non occulta quaeruntur.

3 One might wonder how much Gyges' coup against the king really counts as a clear-cut case of wrongful behaviour. I take it that both Plato and Cicero expect their readers to regard it as such, though see below for some differences of emphasis between the two versions in this regard.

4 nihil tamen avare, nihil iniuste, nihil libidinose, nihil incontinenter esse faciendum.

5 Griffin, M.T. and Atkins, E.M., Cicero, On Duties (Cambridge, 1991), 114Google Scholar push a little too far, however, in rendering Cicero's detraxit as Gyges ‘stole’ the ring – Cicero's Gyges, as Plato's (cf. περιελόμενον, 359e2), is said to do no more than pull the ring off the hapless body, though doubtless a theft it was.

6 There seems to me no need to amend the MSS reading here.

7 On the fictionality of the tale in both Plato and Cicero see Laird, A., ‘Ringing the changes on Gyges: philosophy and the formation of fiction in Plato's Republic’, JHS 121 (2001), 1229CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I concur with Laird's view (26 with n. 53), and hope that this paper provides further evidence, that Cicero used Plato's own text rather than an intermediary as his source for Gyges.

8 Holden, H.A.'s claim (M. Tulli Ciceronis De Officiis libri tres [Amsterdam, 1966], 374)Google Scholar that ‘Plato makes the same use of the [Gyges] story which Cicero does here’ therefore needs some qualification.

9 It may be that this resumption, thick with concrete exempla, serves as a deliberate counterpoint to the Gyges tale, fare for those readers not persuaded (despite Cicero's best efforts) that a fanciful Greek fiction can have anything useful to say.

10 si responderint se impunitate proposita facturos quod expediat, facinorosos se esse fateantur, si negent, omnia turpia per se ipsa fugienda esse concedant (3.39). On Cicero's argument here see A. Dyck, A Commentary on Cicero, De Officiis (Ann Arbor, 1996), 542.

11 Cicero calls the unnamed philosophers ‘not bad men at all, but insufficiently sharp’ (minime mali illi quidem, sed non satis acuti, 3.39), and is elsewhere prone to characterize Epicurus in similar terms. See e.g. Fin. 2.80, Tusc. 3.46.

12 Strictly speaking, that living justly, finely and wisely goes hand in hand with living pleasantly, but I shall ignore this further complexity here.

13 This is not to say that the two theories are the same, but that Epicurus' language makes it plausible that he has seen Glaucon's as a forebear. Glaucon's theory is in turn echoed at Cic. Rep. 3.23.

14 See most elaborately Fin. 2.49–72.

15 My thanks in what follows to an anonymous referee for prompting clarification of my view regarding the relation of the Gyges story to Glaucon's contractarian thesis, and the pertinence to the Republic of questions about the story's realizability.

16 Negant id fieri posse (3.39).

17 Retaining the MSS quamquam potest id quidem; the popular emendation nequaquam, for quamquam, is admittedly smoother, but Cicero's thrust is the same either way, namely that it makes no odds whether the scenario is possible or not.

18 sed quaero, quod negant posse, id si posset, quidnam facerent (3.39).

19 For a defence of ‘countermodal’ hypotheses in the context of Plato's version of the Gyges tale see Shields, C., ‘Plato's challenge: the case against justice in Republic II’, in Santas, G. (ed.), The Blackwell Guide to Plato's Republic (Oxford, 2006), 6383Google Scholar, at 75. Shields claims that such hypotheses allow the reader ‘to discover something actual and important about her own motivational structure’ – presumably, in this case, that justice has at most instrumental value. But one might wonder why that discovery should be found troubling if the scenario used to render it so cannot occur. For discussion of the separate but related issue of the imaginability of the tale see T. Gendler, ‘Imaginary exceptions: on the powers and limits of thought experiment’ (PhD diss., Harvard University, 1996), Appendix C.

20 Utopia and fantasy: the practicability of Plato's ideally just city’, in Fine, G. (ed.), Plato 2 (Oxford, 1999), 297308Google Scholar.

21 Plato against the immoralist’, in Williams, B., The Sense of the Past (Princeton, 2006), 97107Google Scholar, at 101.

22 Socrates also envisages that the rule of philosophers may have come about in the remote past (499c7–9). But in this context the past is not singled out; Socrates gives equal weight to the idea that such rule may be happening now in some foreign land, or will take place in the future (c9–d1).

23 περὶ τὸ ψεῦδος διατρίβει μυθολογῶν ὡς ποιητής.

24 One may trace this dialectic into the very different world of Ambrose's De officiis (my thanks for the reference to the Editor of Classical Quarterly). Ambrose recounts the tale of Gyges (3.32); dismisses it as a fable which ‘lacks the force of truth’ (vim non habet veritatis, 3.36), agreeing to that extent with the grounds given by Cicero's opponents for not taking it seriously; but cites Biblical narratives to show (as he sees it) that there are real-world examples of resistance to expediency on a par with refusal to use the ring unjustly (33–5).

25 This said with all due respect to recent research on so-called ‘cloaks of invisibility’. As any human technology, this one will develop (if it develops at all) gradually, incompletely and vulnerably. The effortless and immediate potency of the ring puts it outside the realm of human craft.

26 T.H. Irwin points out, in defending the relevance of the Gyges story, that ‘we all have the opportunity sometimes to commit injustice with impunity’ (Plato's Ethics [Oxford, 1995], 187Google Scholar). But not, surely, with the certainty of impunity that removes a whole dimension of constraint from the moral arena. In a later paper (‘Republic 2: questions about justice’, in Fine [n. 20], 164–85, at 172), Irwin sees the ring as ‘simply a way of making vivid an extreme version of the circumstances that we are actually in’. But its extremity is just what makes it something other than a version of our circumstances.

27 Whether one should say that fear of comeuppance either is inevitably consequent on that fact, or inevitably outweighs the benefits of exercising such power, is of course a different question.

28 Perhaps Cicero is less interested than Plato in giving a theoretical demonstration of this; but it is evidently a proposition that he treats with the utmost seriousness as part of his exhortatory strategy in De officiis, beyond its dialectical purpose of confounding a certain kind of dogmatic opponent.

29 The remarks in this paragraph are not intended as a knockdown argument against the Epicurean position but as an indication of the sorts of consideration that an advocate of such a position may need to attend to. For a defence of Epicurean theory's ability to handle Ciceronian objections, see Waerdt, P.A. Vander, ‘The justice of the Epicurean wise man’, CQ 37 (1987), 402–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar (see also Mitsis, P., Epicurus' Ethical Theory [Ithaca, NY, 1988], 8197Google Scholar), though it seems to me that appeal to the idea that the wise Epicurean does not have the kind of desires that might lead to unjust action does not resolve the issue, since reflection on the pain and anxiety of pursuing the satisfaction of such desires, a pain and anxiety very plausibly eliminated if one possessed the ring, is a large part of what teaches the Epicurean not to have them. For a modern contractarian response to the challenge posed by Gyges see Gauthier, D., Morals by Agreement (Oxford, 1986)Google Scholar, esp. ch. 10; see also n. 34 below. My strategy is to grant Cicero for the sake of argument his dissatisfaction with the Epicurean thesis, and ask whether his own view about the indefeasibility of justice can be upheld.

30 nihil est tam contra naturam quam turpitudo (recta enimnatura desiderat, aspernaturque contraria).

31 est enim hominum naturae, quam sequi debemus, maxime inimica.

32 One might compare here the prisoners in the Cave of Republic 7 who are said strikingly by Socrates, in response to Glaucon's exclamation that they (along with the scenario they inhabit) are ‘strange’, to be ‘like us’ (515a5), a remark no doubt meant to encourage the thought that locating people in unfamiliar, even bizarre, situations can be a way of revealing truths about human nature. But it seems an important contrast with Gyges' ring that the features of the Cave scenario, while deployed to create a memorably peculiar predicament, are themselves resolutely mundane.

33 That the corpse on which the ring is found is said by Glaucon to look ‘bigger than human’ (Resp. 359d8, echoed by ‘magnitudine invisitata [or inusitata]’ at De officiis 3.38) must surely gesture at this issue.

34 So, from the other side, one should not share Gauthier's confidence, which enables him to deem it irrelevant to considerations about justice, that Gyges' situation were it realized, would transcend human nature’ (Moral Dealing [Ithaca, NY, 1990], 147Google Scholar). The problem is not that we know this to be true of the situation, but that we have no firm grip here on what would count as transcending human nature.

35 One might, from a modern perspective, look to good science fiction as a source of scenarios designed to tell us something about human nature by putting people into situations that are certainly not required to be realistic or even realizable. But does the persuasiveness of such fiction provide a confirmation, or an illusion, that human nature is still being talked about?

36 Epicurus too has a conception of justice as, in some sense, natural: see KD 31. For a reading connecting this with the temporal and historical aspect of Epicurean justice see Morel, P.-M., ‘Épicure, l'histoire et le droit’, REA 102 (2000), 393411CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 An Introduction to Plato's Republic (Oxford, 1981), 70.

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