February 22, 2007KR Blog

What Is a Noble Lie?

Maybe it’s something in the air these days that has me thinking about Plato’s notion of the noble lie. In the Republic, Plato has Socrates draw a distinction between a true lie, which leads to “ignorance in the soul,” and a lie in words merely, which leads to (I am quoting from the translation by G. M. A. Grube, revised by C. D. C Reeve, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1992), “a kind of imitation of this affection [that of ignorance] in the soul, an image of it that comes into being after it and is not a pure falsehood” (382b-c). Investigating what is at stake in this distinction between the true and the imitation lie will reveal Plato’s drive toward control of the ideal state, a control that may remain unknown even to the ruling class, as distinct from the ruling philosopher king and his coterie. The text of the Republic thus situates the figure of the philosopher, corresponding with Socrates as the dominant figure within the text and with Plato as the author of the text, outside though in control of the fray of political life.

True to his philosophical commitments, Plato draws a distinction between true and imitation lies based on the primacy of the soul, which he holds to be of a dignity superior to that of the body. In fact, the affection or ignorance in the soul is the true lie because it is what misleads the soul’s noblest part, the reason. If the reason, which is to rule over the soul’s other (the spirited and the appetitive) parts, is distorted, then the whole soul will be twisted as well. By contrast, Plato’s definition of a ‘lie’ merely in words very much resembles what he says about art in Book Ten of the Republic (596a-598d): that it is an imitation. For Plato, an imitation is always less real than that which it imitates. As he puts it in one of his examples, just as the couch made by a carpenter exists at a remove from the eternal, unchanging Idea of couch, so also the artist’s painting of a couch exists at a remove from the couch made by the carpenter. Because the artist’s rendering is an imitation of an imitation, and thus two removes from what is truly real in Plato’s terms, the work of the artist is of even less value than that of the carpenter.

The case of the verbal art of poetry presents even greater danger than that of painting. Not only is Homer as an imitator removed from reality (598e-599a), what his kind of poetry often imitates is behavior hardly worthy of a wise person. Whereas this latter kind of person has a “rational and quiet character, which always remains pretty well the same” (604e), the kind of character that Homer often represents in his poetry is one given over to the energies of the lower, less controlled parts of the soul: “If you admit the pleasure-giving Muse, whether in lyric or epic poetry, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law or the thing that everyone has always believed to be best, namely, reason” (607a). Homer’s art is to be excluded from the ideal republic because it threatens to debase the citizens’ souls. But if the verbal art of poetry, existing several removes from the Platonic real, threatens to debase the citizens, why does the verbal art of the ‘noble lie’ not present a similar threat? Or to put the question another way: If Homer’s art of imitation is to be excluded from the Republic because it threatens to debase the citizens’ souls, why does the art of the imitation lie–the lie in mere words–become a necessary part of the Republic’s existence?

The answer to the question, in Platonic terms, has to do with the effects on the soul of the ‘lie’ to be told. Part of the function of Plato’s earlier distinction between true and imitation lies is to prepare the way for the possibility that some lies might be noble, even ennobling. Thus, the lie in words only–a mere imitation of a true lie–is no more real than the couch or the painting of the couch is the real, eternal Idea of couchness. In other words, the lie in words is as negligible with regard to truth as the painted couch is negligible with regard to to the Idea couch, provided that the lie causes no damage to the soul; for it is the real lie that causes damage to the soul–such damage is where the real lie lies. A noble lie, then, is one that not only does no damage to the soul, but also does the soul good. Of course, one condition of Plato’s doctrine of the noble lie, as it seems to me–though this is a condition that he never states explicitly–is that the true philosopher, the philosopher in the highest and truest sense, can never believe the noble lie, for Plato points out again and again in the Republic that the philosopher is one who loves truth (see for example 611b-612a). The philosopher in the truest and highest sense, certainly the philosopher king, is one who knows and loves the truth in its unadulterated form, a form that must exclude any lie, however noble.

But for Plato the rest of the populace will remain in need of an ennobling fiction. The noble lie is noble because it benefits the soul of the person who believes it. The lie in this sense will communicate to the soul of the believer as much of the truth as she or he is able to negotiate. In the clearest instance, the noble lie is designed for one whose soul is dominated by something other than the reasoning part, someone who needs the assistance of fiction because he or she is not able to negoriate reality with the fluency and strength of the truly philosophical soul. The myth of the metals, which is the noble lie in Plato’s text, is crucial to the Republic because this myth will convince those who believe it that their station is life is the appropriate one; they will thus believe that they must devote themselves to the work dictated by their station in life and not try to move out of this station. This ideal, which serves the ultimate good of the polis as a whole, relates for example to the primary task of the guardians, those who “are the best guardians of their conviction that they must always do what they believe to be best for the city” (413c). The wording of Socrates’s explicit proposition of the notion of the noble lie is telling: “How then could we devise one of those useful falsehoods we were talking about a while ago, one noble falsehood that would, in the best case, persuade even the rulers, but if that’s not possible, then the others in the city?” (414b-c). If even the guardians or rulers of the city were to believe the lie, who would be in charge of formulating, promoting, and promulgating the lie? The structure of the text’s formulation of the lie provides the answer, for Socrates continues to speak of the lie, along with the city whose populace believes the lie, from the outside. Socrates, along with anyone who hears or reads and underestands him, remains (by the implication of the text’s mode of address) outside the realm of the lie, in some sense outside the political fray. Finally, the idea of the noble lie leaves Socrates and his coterie both in charge of and outside the city, as well as responsible for dispensing the city’s truth.

Alfred North Whitehead famously stated that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato. I fear that in many ways Whitehead’s statement continues to be true of much Euro-American thinking. Among the contemporary thinkers whom I most often read–philosophers, theologians, and cultural critics–there is general agreement that we need to work hard to write ourselves out of Plato’s text. The vision of a world dominated by figures of leadership who exist both outside and in control of public discourse, is not the least reason why the creation of new modes of thinking continues to be an urgent task.