Plato’s Noble Lie

     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.

References

Plato. Republic. Trans. Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2008. Print.

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5 thoughts on “Plato’s Noble Lie

  1. Appreciate the summation.

    I’d prefer a culture that instilled the concepts honestly however, and merely forcing people who don’t conform. Course, for that to work, you’d need ruling class that’s thoroughly vetted to not take advantage of their power.

    For that, you’d have to have a functioning moral system. I’d say Aristotle’s approach in Ethics and Politics is a good start. But the question is, how to work that into current society? Details of that would be a huge pain in the ass.

    I figure it will occur naturally over time. With the internet being an immutable record of all we’re doing wrong, people will have a bit better memory regarding what not to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      Culturally-instilled concepts are a good idea, I think, depending on what those concepts are. I don’t particularly agree with the ones that Plato puts forth. However, I’m not so much in favor of forcing citizens to abide by the values of society, or at least not all of them. I’m more of the modern liberal idea that political dissent should be accounted for within the political system and peaceful change should be made possible. One of the larger goals of ancient western philosophers (e.g. Plato and Aristotle) was in arresting change–in other words, to create a political system that would remain fixed. Personally, I’m of the mentality that change should be facilitated within the political system. However, I agree that some things should be sustained by force, such as peace.

      On the aspect of vetting power, I’m wary of the corrupting-nature of power, and so I side more with the classical liberal suspicion for the holding of great deals of power (or absolute power). As you hint at, it’d require a ruling class who wouldn’t take advantage of their power for that to work, but I’m skeptical of an individual who is completely immune to being corrupted by power. On that note, I think reasonable limits should be placed upon power and counter-weights to the ruling class should be implemented. So, the system of checks and balances in the United States would be an example of that, or perhaps the system of responsible government within Canada would be another example. It is in that line of thinking that I think the best solution can be found.

      I agree that a functioning moral system would be required for one, but I do not think it’s nearly as difficult as you’re thinking it is. For one, I think humans share a common sense of empathy. We have a sense of ethics nearly inherent to everyone. I purport that this is why you have strong similarities between commonly-accepted ethical systems that transcend culture, language, and geographical region. I’m of the belief that a common education which emphasized this shared sense of ethics would appropriately enhance the sense of empathy that we already seem to have as humans. It’s not perfect and we have moral blind-spots, but I think we have a lot more inherent to us that we can draw upon rather than using brute indoctrination.

      It may. The internet is a good resource in a lot of respects. It has made useful information more accessible than ever before. However, on the same note, it has given a strong rise to infotainment and consumers often indulge in sensationalist media. It’s time-consuming and energy-consuming to adequately research a particular topic, to debate about it, and to formulate reasoned opinions on the matter. For that reason, people default more easily to mind-numbing youtube videos, top-10 lists, and so on. So, while I believe there’s a lot of potential that the internet has given us, I think it has also made it easier for humans to become mentally lazy.

      Thank you so much for your thoughts and for taking the time to articulate them.

      Like

  2. Anything for Socrates and his disciples. Now, take my, following, haughty attitude and reckless structuring as a compliment – it means I think you’re capable of prioritizing information over your feelings, and figuring it out. Hell, I’d usually just link you to one of my already written out explainations.

    Look, I think the universe is likely to be composed of “self-consistent, noncontradicting” laws. That allows objective morality – what’s right and wrong being irrefutably right and wrong. Therefore, I’m not saying people be subjugated, I’m saying they either chose to obey those laws, which dictate their bondage until they can be productive members of the state, or they are exiled to go do whatever the fuck they feel like – understanding that if they return with intent to wage war, they will be ruthlessly slaughtered.

    Assuming we prove an irrefutably correct moral system, the trick then becomes convincing those requiring bondage to willingly do so. It would, essentially, be Plato’s Lie, but without the lying. You’d simply teach people to think for themselves, and give them all the information that proves that they are detriments to society, and need to submit to bondage until they mature. You empower them.

    The fact of the matter is, people can easily be categorized as beneficial or detrimental to society, and to what degrees. It’s just not part of the zeitgeist, because humanity is dominated by dipshits. Yes, almost all of said dipshits can be good people – doesn’t mean they are, at the moment. And the best way to stop them from being dipshits, to stop their dipshittery, is removing their freedoms.

    Consider this. What is prison, social aid programs, even elementary and high school? They’re all just what I propose, without unity or clear direction. It’s just a sloppily put together, naturally formed version of what I propose. Don’t obey society’s laws? Go to jail. Can’t support yourself, need social aid? Obey the rules, or live on the streets. Don’t go to school? Well.. I don’t know the penalty for that.

    Point is, I’m right. Just because it doesn’t sound pretty doesn’t make it wrong. Visit my site; I’m pretty amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, I see now what you are getting at. Forgive the far terser response on my end, but it will suffice to say on my end that I am actually largely in agreement with you on those positions. After delineating your position, I understand far better where you’re coming from. Of the self-consistent and non-contradicting laws whose existence you posit, do you conceive of these laws as existing in a transcendent way to humans, or merely that it is possible for objective morality to be obtained once morality is objectively defined by humans? As for your commentary on the state, I agree that, as a matter of practicality, it must be the case that members either conform or are exiled.

      I’ve visited your site already, actually. In fact, it was through your commentary on other blogs that I discovered you. When my time is freer, however, I will read something of yours at length.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      Like

  3. Even if those laws were beyond our full comprehension, we could still work with what we could understand – unless the laws we can understand are consistently, randomly, nonrepeatingly, fluctuating. Our scientific evidence shows the laws, within our observable area of the cosmos, are at least stable for thousands of years. Whatever we can determine, we go with, acknowledging there’s a grey area – then we establish moral laws to deal with the grey area.

    Problem of course is getting people to first acknowledge that we don’t know shit. People want absolute solutions. But that’s just not a damn option. Even “scientists” have a tendency to treat our scientific knowledge as more than just the working theory that it is. Then there’s the religious that still dominate society.

    But ya, if you want to thank me, follow the blog. More followers, more people willing to follow, more chances I find a god damned mate.

    Liked by 1 person

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