Tolkien and Plato

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Saerös 29/Dec/2006 at 10:03 AM
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No – This isn’t another "Is Tolkien stealing from Harry Potter/The Bible/Wayne Rooney’s Autobiography?" I just got thinking about this story and the way it relates to and possibly influences Lord of the Rings and was curious as to what other people thought about it.

In his dialogue "The Republic", Plato, (an ancient Greek philosopher) explores through the conversation of several characters, several themes, including politics, corruption, society and the nature of the philosopher.

One of the stories that is used in The Republic is that of the ring of Gyges. This story bears several similarities to key topics in Lord of the Rings and some of the similarities between the two seem more than coincidental.

In the story, Gyges, a shepherd finds a tomb hidden in a cave. Inside the tomb lies a body, wearing a golden ring. He takes the ring and returns to his friends. Whilst talking to them, he puts on the ring and, much to their astonishment, disappears. He discovers that the ring enables him to become invisible at will and decides that it must therefore contain powerful magic.

Gyges’ group of shepherd friends are summoned to the King to report on their flocks and Gyges is chosen as their representative. While at the court, Gyges uses his new-found invisibility to seduce the Queen and then murder the King and take his throne.

Plato uses this story in The Republic to explore the theme of power and corruption. He argues that even the most virtuous man would be tempted to use such a ring for evil.

"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: The Republic (Benjamin Jowett Translation)

This seems similar to some of the themes explored in Lord of the Rings. Not only do both stories revolve around a ring that gives the power of invisibility, but both rings offer huge temptation and induce corruption.
It is corruption that leads Isildur to fail to destroy the ring, corruption that makes Frodo’s task of destroying the ring so dangerous, it is corruption that both Gandalf and Elrond fear. In particular, Frodo’s relationship with the ring is crucial: if he surrenders to its’ temptations, he will be captured, with terrible consequences for the whole of Middle Earth.

Although I do not believe that Tolkien engaged in plagiarism regarding the story of the Ring of Lydia, I find it highly probable that he was aware of, and was influenced by the tale in his writing. What does everyone else think?

*Sources: Plato – The Republic (Benjamin Jowett Translation)
Wikipedia Article -

geordie 29/Dec/2006 at 10:16 AM
Hugo Bracegirdle Points: 20570 Posts: 14087 Joined: 06/Mar/2005
I’m sure he was aware of the tale - after all, he went up to Exeter College Oxford on a Classical exhibition [like a scholarship, but not wrth as much in money terms]. Certainly he would have been expected to be familiar with Plato’s Republic, and in the original Greek too. [in her contribution to JRR Tolkien: Scholar and Storyteller, Tolkien’s friend and former student Simonne d’Ardenne tells of how Tolkien not only knew Ancient Greek, but all of its dialects, as well].

But I’m not convinced that T. was ’influenced’ in this way, any more than claims that he was influenced by the Ring of the Nibelungs. Nor stories by Andrew Lang nor Chretian’s ’Yvain’. [thanks to Hammond and Scull’s LotR Reader’s Companion for that].

As I see it, he merely used the invisibility given by the ring as a plot device in the story he was telling his children, in the late 20s-early 30s. Nothing more.
Saerös 29/Dec/2006 at 11:15 AM
Defender of Imladris Points: 770 Posts: 582 Joined: 13/Jul/2003
Geordie - Thanks for your comments. I’m interested that you think the invisibility of the ring was just used as a plot device. I’m curious as to why you don’t think the corruptive side of the ring in Plato’s story influenced Tolkien? As far as I can see, from my interpretation of both texts, Plato’s main point is about corruption, and one of Tolkien’s main focuses throughout the trilogy is the temptations of the ring and Frodo’s ability to resist them where others succumb to it. Do you not think that these are at all related?
Sil 29/Dec/2006 at 01:53 PM
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Ah, a philosopher? *g*
Plato’s point seems to be more that "If you know for certain you can get away with something, you are more likely to do it", as invisibility means you will probably never be caught.

The corruption of the one Ring stems from the Ring itself, however, not the invisibility it grants. Even when the Ring is not worn, it still preys on the bearer’s mind; Frodo avoids wearing the Ring, but its proximity to him means it is still able to work its influence. The ring Plato speaks of is not exactly evil in and of itself - it merely gives men the chance to work evil.

The ideas do seem connected though. But Frodo doesn’t exactly resist the temptation of the Ring, no more than any other hobbit would, perhaps; he still is unable to free his mind from it entirely at the end.

geordie 29/Dec/2006 at 02:58 PM
Hugo Bracegirdle Points: 20570 Posts: 14087 Joined: 06/Mar/2005
My point is that the ring as it was first used by Tolkien was not yet the Ring - capitalised - that is, it was in his book The Hobbit just another magic device to help his fairy-tale hero. It was’nt until after the pub. of TH, and when he began to develop LotR, that the Ring took on more significance.

But, as I said - one story - that of Gyges - does’nt seem to me to have had any more ’influence’ on Tolkien than any other of all the myriads of stories he must have known. Tolkien did’nt work that way.

As far as I can see, from my interpretation of both texts, Plato’s main point is about corruption, and one of Tolkien’s main focuses throughout the trilogy is the temptations of the ring and Frodo’s ability to resist them where others succumb to it. Do you not think that these are at all related?

Frodo resisted the Ring’s influence. So did Aragorn; Elrond; Legolas; Gimli; Merry; Pippin; Sam; Faramir; Gandalf; Galadriel - in fact, the only ones I can think of at the moment who fell under the spell of the Ring are Denethor and Boromir. And Gollum, of course. So, no. I don’t think that the two stories or situations are related - to any great extent.

goldenhair 29/Dec/2006 at 03:44 PM
Scholar of Isengard Points: 1480 Posts: 1194 Joined: 10/Dec/2002
In various myth’s you can find invisibility confered by rings, cloaks, necklaces and stones. I am sure there are other items (or potions-seems Merlyn provided one). Tolkien was neither the first nor last to use invisibility, temptation, perserverance over seemingly impossible odds.....

Unfortunately because his work is so epic we tend to compare him to everything we know (before and after).   
halfir 29/Dec/2006 at 04:26 PM
Emeritus Points: 46547 Posts: 43664 Joined: 10/Mar/2002

This excerpt from the first of the five archived Rings of Power threads

demonstrates the very wide mythology that may have helped develop Tolkien’s inspirational creativity, and fleshes out some of the general points made by goldenhair’s post.

 "A. The "Cosmogony" of the Rings of Power

1. In an earlier post in this thread I wrote: "this section  seeks to set Ring mythology in a  wider context than just Tolkien".

While I fully accept that the Ring Lore of LOTR and The Silmarillion, plus associated writings of Tolkien is entirely his own, the concept of Ring Lore per se has a much wider and earlier existence than that exemplified in LOTR. Tolkien would have been well aware of some of this. . Moreover, he wrote in the context of a literary and oral tradition in which Rings and Ring Lor, as magical objects and mythical archetypes,were very much par for the course. So, while the Ring Lore of LOTR is his own, the wider context in which it is set, and the rationale for the choice of that Ring  imagery in LOTR fits a much wider mythical context.

(In referring to ’myth’ or ’mythical’ in this wider context I am using Joseph Campbell’s definition of  myth as : " an entire body of folklore, tradition and beliefs, not just one particualr story."

2. In a post in another thread in this Lore forum (Why did Tolkien base the story upon Rings?") Osse and Bearamir, respectively wrote: "Rings have been important tokens and symbols for almost as long as there has been civilisation", and :"..rings in legend,lore, and history have a long and distinguished history. Legend has it that King Solomomn had a magical ring, and Osse has mentioned the ’Ring of the Nibelungs" in his post."   Let’s just concentrate for the  moment on "that long and distinguished history."

3.Polycrates had a ring, and Sir James Frazer tells us that an ancient Greek maxim attributed to Pythagoras forbade people to wear rings - because they could capture or restrict ’the soul". (Sound familiar?).

4. Frazer also tells us that the Minanka-Bauers of Sumatra are just one of hundreds of native tribes who tie a "ring" of thread or string round the wrists or loins of a woman in chilbirth, so that "when her soul seeks to depart in her hour of travail, it may find egress barred."  Likewise, the same authority tells us that on the Isalnd of Carpathus rings are removed on death from the fingers of the deceased as they can: "capture the soul and act as a spiritual fetter". (Sound familiar again?)

5. Siegrfreid had a ring - the Ring of Wagner’s great operatic cycle - and that ring gave its possessor "power over the world." (Ring any bells?sorry about the pun! )

6. Owain in one of the stories from the Arthurian canon had a ring that made him invisible, and of course Gawain  in ’Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (whose medieval poetry was both commented on and translated by Tolkien) had a ’ring’ in the form of a ’girdle’ , for which he forswore his knightly honor - he surrendered something of his personlity, soul, or being.

7. Which brings me to the most important point of all. We have seen that rings in mythology and folk-myth can restrict, control, render one invisible, grant power, but , as with Gawain - a price has to be paid.

8. The Ring is traditionally a symbol of the personality, and to bestow a ring implies the surrendering, for good or evil, of one’s being. Moreover, the receipt of a ring, can imply the same thing.

9. In Medieval Templar symbolism, during Divine Mediation, when God the father and God the mother put on Rings, it is the union of their personality or being.

10. Miyamoto Mushashi’s great book on sword fighting "The Book of FIve Rings", is about developing the personality or being, to become a master-swordperson.

11. In the exchange of rings in the Christian marriage ceremony the union of two-in-one is achieved  by the "surrendering" of each  individual personality.

12. Which brings us to LOTR. Sauron "surrenders" part of himself to create the One. Sauron again ’"surrenders" himself to the One in using it: "it was beyond the strength of any will (even his own) to ignore it, cast it away, or neglect it." (Letter # 131).

13. In turn, Sauron gives Rings, the Seven and the Nine, to Dwarves and Men in order to get them to "surrender" their will, their personality to his. (Admittedly he comes unstuck with the Dwarves, but nonetheless the Dwarven rings inflame their posessors with greed - a "surrender’ of the personality also.)

14. Bilbo feels "stretched’, Frodo claims the One for himself on Mount Doom, Gollum is a puppet of the Ring, his personality totally dominated by it, Saruman rejects his Istari pedigree to try and obtain the One, Boromir betrays his noble nature to try and get the one - all, in one way or another a "surrender" of their personality.

15. So, external to the story, Rings grant power, control will, constrict personality, confer invisibility, demand "surrender" of self - and so they do within the story.

16. As I said at the outset of this post: "While I fully accept that the Ring Lore of LOTR and The Silmarillion, plus associated writings of Tolkien is entirely his own",I would argue taht Tolkien also wrote in the knwoledge of a  wider mythological context , and one which perfectly dove-tailed into his use of his own Ring-lore - for his Ring-lore was just part of the on-going tradition of Ring-Lore that had been used universally for ages."



Saerös 29/Dec/2006 at 05:39 PM
Defender of Imladris Points: 770 Posts: 582 Joined: 13/Jul/2003
Eek. I’ve learnt lots about rings! Unfortunately, I have no access to the books at the moment for quotes, so I’m going to have to do this off the top of my head!

Silendra - *g* Nope, not a philosopher, just a student! Thinking it through, I do agree with you to a certain extent in Plato’s message, and reason for telling the story, but isn’t doing something you shouldn’t just because you have the power to do so a form of corruption?

Geordie - I never knew that! Interesting that the ring took on more significance only later. I have to admit, I somewhat overlooked the long list or characters that resisted the temptations of the ring. However, if I remember correctly, Gandalf would not bear the ring for fear of its’ misusing his power, and Galadriel was briefly tempted by it, but resisted.

Goldenhair - Good point, but , without wishing to be rude, I was aware of this when I made my post. Tolkien used common themes in his writing, as does any other writer - corruption, power struggles, love, pride. In my opinion though, there are such very clear parallels between the two stories, that I retain my arguement that it seems likely that Tolkien was influnced by this story, as well as any number of others. 

Halfir - Where to start? I’ve got to admit, I was somewhat nervous when I saw that you’d posted, but, as usual, an incredibly informative post.

Firstly, thank ye kindly for the link, lots of very interesting food for thought.

I was not at all aware of the history of ring lore, I knew that rings had been of importance, particularly symbolically for a long time, but had no idea of the extent of this. If I understand you correctly, your arguement is that contextually, in the genre in which he was writing, it is to be expected that the ring lore that Tolkien drew upon would mainly be based around themes of rings which enable the user to act in a certain way, but, as with everything, it will have its’ consequences. Right?

Learning from your post that Ring lore was somewhat older and vaster than I had previously thought, it occured to me that Plato may well have used the example of a ring, as the idea of a magical ring, and the temptations of such an article, because it would be a familiar concept to his audience and therefore a good medium through which to make his point. 
goldenhair 30/Dec/2006 at 09:58 AM
Scholar of Isengard Points: 1480 Posts: 1194 Joined: 10/Dec/2002
Halfir, I am always amazed at how much is right at your finger tips. May I ask if you can pull comments on the Ouroboros out of your hat??? I also seem to remember Soloman having a ring?? Did I miss that in your post?

I was thinking this morning of the Ouroboros as reflected in mythologies as divergent as Greek, Chinese and Norse.

Interesting the nature of Ouroboros, that is the end becoming renewal. that happens as the ring is destroyed. I have always focused on the rise of Man in the fourth age as a result of all that passes away (not only Sauron, but the age of Elves). It never occured to me before that the demise of the ring itself was rebirth.

"And thou Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove mine instument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined."

Not only was Frodo meant to have the ring, Sauron was meant to create it.

The second thing about the adaptation of a ring is that it mimics very much the process Christianity used, not just prosletyzing people, but prosletyzing their customs and symbols as well. Almost by definition, in Tolkien’s desire to create the ’true story’, the symbolism of the ring would have to be adopted.
Kirinki54 30/Dec/2006 at 03:01 PM
Librarian of Imladris Points: 2897 Posts: 1354 Joined: 17/Nov/2005

goldenhair: Not only was Frodo meant to have the ring, Sauron was meant to create it.


That is certainly a valid observation, and one that is often ignored. In that creation lay also a seed of destruction; both for its maker and for the ring itself. The image of that cycle also constitutes the likeness of a ring, both a start and an end. The temptations that were dormant in the One held its own futility. This is a morality well in tune with the ‘wider mythical context’ halfir mentioned; evident in many tales of many cultures.

halfir 30/Dec/2006 at 04:57 PM
Emeritus Points: 46547 Posts: 43664 Joined: 10/Mar/2002

Raen: If I understand you correctly, your arguement is that contextually, in the genre in which he was writing, it is to be expected that the ring lore that Tolkien drew upon would mainly be based around themes of rings which enable the user to act in a certain way, but, as with everything, it will have its’ consequences. Right?X(

goldenhair: Solomon’s ring is referred to in point 2 of my previous post!X( 

Ouroboros  - the snake or dragon swallowing its own tail, is traceable back to Ancient Egypt, and then appears in many different cultures, although its name derives from Grecian philosphers who called it ’the tail-swallower".

It symbolizes a closed cycle of development -the ouroboros eats its own tail in an eternal cylce of renewal:This symbolises the cyclic Nature of the Universe: creation out of destruction, Life out of Death.

Ouroboros represents the conflict of life as well in that life comes out of life and death. ’My end is my beginning.’ In a sense life feeds off itself, thus there are good and bad connotations which can be drawn. It is a single image with the entire actions of a life cycle - it begets, weds, impregnates, and slays itself, but in a cyclical sense, rather than linear.

Thus, it fashions our lives to a totality more towards what it may really be - a series of movements which repeat. "As Above, So Below" - we are born from nature, and we mirror it, because it is what man wholly is a part of.

It has a strong relation to what is known as the Androgyne. The androgyne is the united male and female principles together.

In some versions of the Ouroboros, the body is half light and half dark, alluding in this way to the successive counterbalancing of opposing principls as illustrated in the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol for example.

It appears in Phoenicain, Norse, Hindu, Aztec, Chinese,  Native American, and Christian mythology, in variant forms, some of which see it as evil.

Jung wrote of the ouroboros:

The alchemists, who in their own way knew more about the nature of the individuation process than we moderns do, expressed this paradox through the symbol of the uroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. In the age-old image of the uroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself.

The ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ’feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the uroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilises himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolises the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia which [...] unquestionably stems from man’s unconscious’. (Collected Works, Vol. 14 para.513)

N.B. Ouroboros information derived from the Penguin Dictionary of Symbolism and my file note from

E.R. Eddison’s most famous novel is perhaps The Worm Ouroboros. Tolkien knew and liked the work of Eddison, with some reservations (cf.Letter # 199) Indeed on June 8  1944, Eddison was a guest  (for a second time) of the Inklings and read from a new work of his The Menzian Gate.{cf. Letter # 73 ; Hammond & Scull, Chronology p. 274 Reader’s Guide p.p236-7).