Example Essay for Exam 1 (Remember, you are writing as if to one who is intelligent, but is unfamiliar with the

material. So, you want to explain WHY Glaucon says what he says. So, it’d be good to begin with some general preliminary comments about what Glaucon is up to. This better enables your audience to understand where Gluacon is coming from. The following is an example of one way this might be done.) 1. In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon presents to Socrates an argument for the origin of justice that he has frequently heard defended by the common people in the agora. Thus, he tells Socrates that he is going to speak at length “in praise of injustice,” in the hope that Socrates will eventually be able to come to the aid of justice, and demonstrate that it is to be loved for its own sake. Glaucon (speaking as the man of the agora) begins by stating what he thinks to be a true general principle regarding human behavior. He tells Socrates that to do wrong is naturally good, and to be wronged is bad. Notice here: This claim means that the natural state of affairs for a human being is to inflict injustice upon other people. Obviously this is a controversial claim, and Glaucon must argue for it. (So, at this point you will want to get clear about precisely what Glaucon’s argument is.) 2. He defends the above general principle by presenting an argument claiming that at the root and origin of “justice” is really nothing more than a social contract rooted in selfinterest and fear. Glaucon’s narrative argument proceeds thus: i.) ii.) iii.) Over a period of time people come to realize that in life one can both experience injury or inflict injury. After having experienced what it is like to be injured and what it is like to inflict injury, people then developed a sort of calculus of self-interest. Based on this calculus of self-interest people concluded that the suffering of injury at the hands of others so far exceeds in badness the good of inflicting it that, those who are unable to avoid suffering injury (the majority, if not all men) deemed it in their own best interest to come to an agreement with their fellow man neither to inflict injury nor to suffer it. As a result of this agreement laws were promulgated. Whatever the laws called “just” was just. Therefore, justice is nothing but the result of a pragmatic calculus of selfinterest designed out of fear. Justice is therefore a form of compromise that stands between the best and the worst: the best (and most natural) thing being to do wrong without paying the penalty; the worst being to be wronged without the power of revenge.

iv.) v.)

(Note: you needed to in some way touch on all of these elements of Glaucon’s argument to do justice to his claims—pardon the pun…)

From the above argument Glaucon concludes that the only reason that people love justice is because they fear being wronged and they themselves lack the power to do wrong. Thus, to praise justice is to praise an unnatural state of affairs. But it is a necessary state of affairs for most, if not all of us. From this it becomes obvious that everyone who practices justice does so against his will, and only because he lacks the power to do wrong. 3. Now, at this point Glaucon is well aware that what he is saying is still very controversial. So he proceeds to defend this argument for the origin of justice. The way he does so is by appealing to the story of the ring of Gyges. Glaucon invokes the tale of the Ring of Gyges as a sort of thought experiment in the hope of illustrating to Socrates the alleged truth of his claim that i) no one practices justice willingly, and that ii) the natural state of affairs is for people to practice injustice. If he can do this, he will have further supported his claim that the origin and essence of justice is nothing but a social contract based in self-interest and fear. (Now that you have told the audience why Glaucon is going to speak of Gyges, you will want to get clear on a couple of facts about the myth…) 4. The tale of the ring of Gyges is the tale of a shepherd who found a ring that made him invisible at will. In the original tale we learn of a shepherd who, upon accidentally procuring a ring that enabled him to become invisible at will, was faced with the ultimate test of his moral fiber: He now had the potential to do anything he wished without facing the penalty of any consequences for his actions. One immediately is able to see the relevance of this tale to Glaucon’s previous claims about justice. In the tale of the ring of Gyges we have a person who is in a position to be able to wrong others without having to fear suffering harm at the hands of others. According to Glaucon’s earlier statement, such a person would never live the life of justice. Glaucon says, consider the shepherd from the myth, and how he conducted himself when faced with the opportunity to wrong others without limit and without fearing being wronged himself. What did he do? He acted on it! He did as much wrong as he could: He broke into the king’s palace, committed adultery with the king’s wife, murdered the king, and took over the kingdom. (Now it is important to tie the tale back in with Glaucon’s argument. Many of you spent a lot of time describing—and sometimes embellishing—details about the story of the Ring of Gyges, but failed to speak of its relevance to Glaucon’s argument. That’s what the next sections are about…) 5. Now that Glaucon has related the myth of the ring, he attempts to make explicit its relevance to his previous claims about justice. Referring to the tale Glaucon now effectively says, “Look at the behavior of this simple shepherd and how he conducted himself when given the power to wrong others without the accompanying fear of being wronged in return. He did precisely what I claimed is natural to men, i.e. he

wronged people as much as he desired.”1 Having said this, Glaucon now proceeds to use the tale of the ring to make an even stronger point. He says, “Now Socrates, take any man in similar circumstances and he will do the same. Suppose you had two such rings, one in the possession of the just man, the other in the possession of the unjust man. Because neither have a reason to fear any consequences for their actions, both would go about wronging people for the sake of gain.”2 In saying this Glaucon uses the myth to support his original principle that the natural state of affairs is to wrong others as much as possible without being wronged in return. For, if any man— whether ‘just’ or not—would conduct himself thus if given the chance, then it seems that there is evidence that Glaucon’s original principle is true. (Now we finish by finishing up the link between the myth of Gyges and the argument that the origin of justice is a social contract based in fear.) 6. By appealing to the myth of Gyges to lend credibility to his original proposition about the ‘natural’ state of affairs, Glaucon has also, by direct consequence, lent credibility to his account of the origin of justice as residing exclusively in a social contract based in self-interest and fear. For, if he is right that any man (both the “just” and the “unjust’) would conduct himself like a wretch if given the ring, then there is no one who loves justice for justice’ sake. This makes his previous argument —i.e. his argument for the claim that the origin of justice is nothing more than a social contract rooted in fear and self-interest—much more plausible. Rather than justice being rooted in any extrinsic eternal moral standard, justice is result of an unnatural state of affairs that serves to restrain humans from harming one another. It is a sort of compromise that we settle for, and nothing more.

(And that should do it. We’ve moved carefully along from one point to the next, showing the continuity of Glaucon’s argument and illustrating why he says what he says. That is the goal in these exams.)

( Oh, and one more thing, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, Glaucon’s tale of the origin of justice is wrong.)


You will note that I am paraphrasing. Of course, because the text is not in front of us when we write these types of essays we must paraphrase. 2 ibid

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