In the Republic, Plato details his model for an idyllic community. This community is to be completely harmonious and efficient based upon the values of collectivism and Plato’s principle of specialization. Plato’s principle of specialization is the conception that people are naturally suited for one job or another and that society functions most efficiently when everyone only focuses on what they are suited for (352e-353a, 369e-370c). This leads Plato to separate society into three social classes based upon function: guardians will rule the community, auxiliaries will assist the guardians and protect the community as the military branch, and workers will fulfill the work-needs of the community (412b-e). In order to inculcate this collectivist ethos and principle of specialization into the public’s moral conventions, Plato conceives of a “noble lie” which can be told to the public to achieve this end.
Before defining what a noble lie is, it is important to understand how Plato conceives of lies in the first place. Plato, through Socrates, draws a distinction between a “spoken lie” and a “genuine lie.” Plato defines a genuine lie as “the state of misapprehension caused by a falsehood in the mind” (382b). He conceives of genuine lies as states of misery, where a person’s beliefs are perverted from reality and secure them into a state of ignorance (382a-b). This is to be contrasted with a spoken lie which Plato describes as a lie that is helpful or beneficial in some manner (382c). Spoken lies are akin to the modern “white lie,” telling someone that you believe in them (even though you don’t) so that they’ll perform better at some task, or the usage of parables in order to convey some underlying maxim. In fact, it is this last case which appeals to Plato most, for he says that parables and similar stories are an ideal way to teach children the values of the community (377a). It is from this line of reasoning that Plato conceives of the “noble lie,” a specific kind of spoken lie which can be used to “indoctrinate the rulers themselves, preferably, but at least the rest of the community” (414c).
The type of noble lie which Plato wishes to have his community believe is twofold: an origin myth and a myth about human nature. Plato wishes his community to believe the origin myth that all of their childhood education and training “happened in a kind of dream-world” and that, “when they were finished products, the earth, their mother, sent them up above ground” (414d-e). The second myth which he wishes them to believe is the myth of metals. This myth details how the citizens of community, while being formed below the earth, were created out of different metals: gold, silver, and copper and iron. He states that the people made from gold “have what it takes to be rulers,” that the people made from silver were to be auxiliaries, and the those made from copper and iron are to be the working class (415a). Furthermore, he says, “nevertheless, because you’re all related, “sometimes a silver child might be born to a gold parent, a gold one to a silver parent, and so on” (415a-b). It is through this noble lie that Plato intends to inculcate his collectivist ethos and principle of specialization into the minds of the public.
Each part of the noble lie emphasizes a different value, with the origin myth emphasizing the collectivist ethos and the myth of metals emphasizing the principle of specialization. Through the origin story, Plato attempts to create a common bond between all members of his community, stating that they will “think of the rest of the inhabitants of their community as their earth-born brothers” (414e). In addition to this, the guardian and auxiliary classes, who are charged with the protection of the community, are to “regard the country they find themselves in as their mother [and] they must defend her against invasion” (414e). It is through this lie that Plato intends to do away with family and other non-communal ties that he considers corrosive to social cohesion. The myth of metals, on the other hand, is to reinforce the notion that everybody has something that they are inherently suited for, as determined by the metal that one is forged by in the myth. This effectively purges the notion of determining one’s job on the basis of heritage or other privileges, as it was in Plato’s time. This valuation is cemented when Plato states, “there is no aspect of their work as Guardians which they shall be so good at or dedicated to as watching over the admixture of elements in the minds of the children of the community,” stating explicitly that ensuring that people perform the role which they are inherently suited for is of chief concern (415b). Thus, it is to secure the collectivist ethos and principle of specialization within public consciousness and behaviour that Plato recommends this noble lie.
Plato’s noble lie is intended as a kind of community parable which conveys the values that he believes will secure the best possible community. Through his origin myth and his myth of metals, he attempts to both unify the community together and also place significant importance on the principle of specialization as the guiding principle behind jobs in the community. In the same stroke, he attempts to do away with common individualist or non-communal narratives which he believes will corrode the harmonious community, such as the importance of self, family, or of exclusive relationships with others. Thus, the philosophical foundations of the community, and the community by extension, are safeguarded due to the communally-accepted noble lie.
Plato. Republic. Trans. Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2008. Print.