Gyges' Dilemma: Morality and Happiness in Herodotus and Plato
Herodotus and Plato both tell of the usurpation of the Lydian throne by Gyges, a subject of the king. Both accounts, moreover, maybe interpreted as parables reflecting on moral choice, external contingency, and their bearing on human happiness. Herodotus' Gyges, properly understood, is endowed with the resources and affective responses of a respectable, if ordinary, moral agent. He successfully navigates a pair of perilous dilemmas that will catapult him, without ambition or malevolence, into ultimate power, privilege and, presumably, happiness. Plato's account teases out, clarifies, and reframes issues implicit in Herodotus' tale, exploring how and why ordinary moral agents may fail in their choices, despite apparently desirable outcomes, visiting ruin on their potential happiness. In the process Plato self-critically illustrates the inefficacy of the Socratic elenchus alone to prevent or correct the motivational mistakes of such agents, and vigorously expands the role of philosophy in securing human happiness.