Brief paraphrase: In a certain city there lived a tyrant and a poor man, the tyrant did not know about his tyranny and believed that he was doing the right thing, the poor man saw the tyrant's injustice, but he himself did not become like him and therefore remained a poor man. The question was whether to choose to live richly and not knowing that you are hurting others or to live poorly but honestly looking at your actions.

I don’t remember, where I read it, for some reason I think that it was from Socrates. I hope this is not my fantasy and would like to find the original one.

  • While "Ring of Gyges" noted in answer below has some bearing, the peculiarity of your parable as stated is that the tyrant "thought he was doing the right thing," which is not the case, we assume, in Glaucon's story... or in the "happy" tyrant, forget his name, described by Menos. It is true, though, that Socrates thinks people will not do evil if they truly understand the difference, but this parable is not quite the same as those in Plato, in my view. Jan 2 at 22:35
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    But enough about Gamestop!
    – user4894
    Feb 1 at 20:33

There is indeed a very similar parable in Plato's work, but it isn't told by Socrates, it's presented as a challenge to Socrates by one of his interlocutors, Glaucon (Plato's brother) near the beginning of the Republic (around 360). It's called the "Ring of Gyges," and it's a legend of a shepherd who finds a ring that makes him invisible, and uses it to become a horribly abusive tyrant. The philosophical conundrum posed by the legend is that it seems obviously better to be the bad man, with wealth and power, that everyone thinks is a good man (Gyges) than to be the good man, with no wealth or power, who everyone thinks is a bad man (a hypothetical other shepherd who doesn't make the same self-serving choices).

There's a parallel story, posing a similar philosophical challenge, in Ecclesiastes (9:15-16), the story of a poor but wise man who saves a city, but is never rewarded, and is soon forgotten (possibly a reference to 2 Samuel 20). The challenge is the same, why then do good?

Socrates does provide an answer at the end of the Republic --the unjust tyrant is a prisoner of his own vices (think Trump), and thus ultimately unhappier than the poor good man, who is ennobled by his virtues, whatever his circumstances. The answer in Ecclesiastes is more existential --that we must choose to do good without expectation of either earthly or heavenly reward.

  • That's not how I interpret that story in Ecclesiastes, which finishes: “ 'Wisdom is better than strength.' But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good."
    – CriglCragl
    Feb 3 at 16:40

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