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Of the many ideas enunciated from Book I to Book IV, few are as elusive and prone to assumptions as the noble lie (3. 414d-414e5). Malcolm Schofield, whose interpretation serves as a point of reference for this essay, presents the noble lie as “a charter myth for Plato’s good city: a myth of national or civic identity” (Schofield, 2006). For Schofield it is the amalgamation of two related myths: “one grounding that identity in the natural brotherhood of the entire indigenous population (they are all autochthonous, literally born from the earth), the other making the city’s differentiated class structure a matter of divine dispensation (the god who molds them puts different metals in their souls)” (page 138). The motivation for this dipartite myth is motivation itself, i.e the urging of citizens to care for the city and each other. This opens the text up to a serious paradox, since, following Schofield, the motivation Socrates proposes as the genesis of an unshakeable true conviction to care is founded upon a lie: the edifice crumbles under shaky roots (page 153). However, this paradoxality is mitigated once the noble lie is considered in the context of children’s education.
Schofield makes numerous references to the part of the dialogues in Book II, where Socrates takes issue with the effect of poetry on the souls and minds of children (2. 377b-378e). From this section the insights of interest are that the minds of children are highly malleable and unsophisticated, but also prone to the sedimentation of certain unchangeable ideas. Hence, “fictive stories about a paradigmatic but inaccessible past rather than abstract arguments are the things to teach them. Here considerations of the good of the city must be paramount” (page 153). The noble lie is constitutive of a good education due to the same reason why poetry must be strictly regulated: they have ability to implant virtuous moral values to gullible, tender children. Whereas in regards to poetry we can speak of a creator, when it comes to the city we must speak of rulers or guardians.
In this essay I intend to demonstrate that the noble lie is far more meritocratic in nature than is supposed by Schofield, meaning that rather than serving as a divine justification for the city’s inherited class structure, the noble lie is an attempt to eradicate distinctions of nobility and establish rulers as such by virtue of their wisdom. My argument supposes that we must distinguish between two stages of the lie: at first the lie will be told to everyone upon graduation rather than during the process of education and as such it serves to distinguish who is deserving to be a ruler and guardian of the lie, and in the following generations the rulers will include the lie in the education of the young in order to ensure a meritocratic and malleable class structure that aims at the survival and prosperity of the polis as a whole.
The noble lie as articulated by Socrates is an instrument. Schofield references 414b in order to label it as a device that is to be used only in case of need. Looking back at his preceding section on the morality of lying, we find the earlier articulation of the connections between the noble lie and the regulation of poetry. Here there is a distinction between lies in words and lies in the soul, the latter being labeled as the true lie because a person has deceived themselves by believing. This true lie is in the form of “saying something false in your own mind to yourself” (page 144). As such, “exceptions would always need a special defense, such as the argument that the telling of the right kind of myths to children induces not deception but truth in their souls in regard to ‘the most important things’ (2.382a)” (page 146). In broad moral strokes, the noble lie is just because of the outcome that it attempts to ensure. Rightfully and in order to understand this, at the beginning of his essay Schofield reminds us to ward off the projection of our present values into the Athenian past. On the one hand of the modern continuum we find liberal values which hold that only an appeal to reason can serve to legitimate a political order, and on the other hand the Knatian derived morality which posits that people must be treated as ends and not means. All in all, Schofield demonstrates that not only there was no absolutist position in regards to lying in Ancient Greece, but also that a lie is not harmful as long as it is not believed in the soul.
The ground zero of the lie is its annunciation to the first generation of graduates. As such it serves as a sort of litmus test for who is worthy of ruling altogether: it is the beginning of a meritocratic selection of rulers that makes rule by nobility a thing of the past. The true rulers are the ones that will accept and propagate the lie, but will not be deceived by it in the soul. In page 147, Schofield touches upon Socrates’ initial characterization of useful lies through the analogy of the drug administering doctor. “Just as only doctors – the experts – should administer drugs, so in the public sphere it is appropriate for the rulers alone to lie, for the benefit of the city, weather as regards enemies or citizens.” It is the ability and willingness to administer this lie as useful drug that distinguishes the rulers as worthy of being such. This is somewhat of a foreshadowing of arguments to come in the book in regards to the rule by philosophers, or rather rule by wisdom. The rulers are never deceived in the soul when it comes to the noble lie, but rather understand its usefulness for the formation and protection of a civic and national identity. Long before JFK, it was Plato through Socrates that introduced the idea of ‘ask not what your city can do for you, but what you can do for your city.’
The instrumental purposiveness of the regulation of poetry seems to function within a similar framework to that of the noble lie. One important distinction needs to be maintained however: whereas poetry has a clear creator with whom we can quarrel about its contents, the noble lie posits the earth itself as a mother-creator. Hence, central to the idea of the noble lie is what I call the ground zero, or the first generation of graduates that will be not only rulers of the city, but also guardians of the lie. In 414d, when explaining the mechanics of the lie at length Socrates says: “I’ll attempt to persuade first the rulers and the soldiers, then the rest of the city, that the rearing and education we gave them were like dreams; they only thought they were undergoing all that was happening to them, while, in truth, at that time they were under the earth within.” In opposition to a model of rule by nobility whereby the rulers stand at the top of the social hierarchy, as guardians of the noble lie they are guardians of one big family: they in fact stand at the foundation of the city and compel others to care for it as well.
When valuing it in accordance to modern political and moral sensibilities it is difficult not to view the noble lie through the lens of mystification. An invisible veil of ignorance that motivates one in accordance with the flows of power. Schofield is correct in identifying a paradox here, for the unshakable conviction that forms a solid polity cannot be based on a lie that is from the outset know to be a lie. I would refer to this veling conception of the noble lie as a negative, or extractive one, for it is one that primarily hides some truth for the sake of the polity’s stability and longevity. Is it then possible to be generous to Plato in another route, namely on that supposes the noble lie as a positive or productive one? Why would a lie then, compel citizens to unite in their care for the city and each other? Where are the clues for such a conception? I turn to earlier passages in Book III, where Socrates articulates a rationale for why the guardians would be compelled to care for the city. “A man would care most for that which he happened to love. […] Wouldn’t he surely love something most when he believed that the same things are advantageous to it and to himself, and when he supposed that if it did well, he too himself would do well along with it, and if it didn’t, neither would he? (412d)” Schofield rightly interprets this form of care for the city as a matter of reciprocal obligation. He earlier summarizes Socrates’ appeal in Book VII to the philosopher as obliged to repay the city for the upbringing and nurture it has provided them with (page 162). This double coincidence of interests need not be interpreted as a negative account of care for the city or other citizens, in fact this reading would be a projection of our contemporary sensibilities on the idea of interest and obligation.
The noble lie is precisely what crystallizes this idea of mutual obligation; as a myth of national and civic identity it supposes a form of exchange to qualify as a relation. It is not cynical to assume that this relation is defined by interest, for this interest is not purely economic in nature. As Socrates declares in 416d3, in the city “no one will possess any private property except for what is absolutely necessary.” To be interested is to be invested, it is the very constitutive factor of care and what places entities in a relation to each other. The love for the city that Plato posits as necessary and derivative of the noble lie is the return of this idea of individual reciprocity, but at a higher, transcendental level. The story of the metals articulated from 415b-415d further elucidates this point when Socrates declares that: “First, no one will possess any private property except for what’s entirely necessary. Second, no one will have any house or storeroom into which everyone who wishes cannot come.” This does not presuppose a purely divine determination of of an inherited class structure, but rather a meritocratic structure that is not only determined by the lottary of noble birth. “If a child of theirs should be bom with an admixture of bronze or iron, by no manner of means are they to take pity on it, but shall assign the proper value to its nature and thrust it out among the craftsmen or the farmers” (415c). Rather than a justification for a predetermined class structure, the noble lie as articulated by Plato has a far more positive foundation that is meritocratic in nature.
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