One of the core myths in Plato’s Republic is the myth of the noble lie. The noble lie is a much-discussed moment in the book. Does Plato advocate noble lies? How does this square with Plato’s commitment to Truth? What are we to make of the noble lie which Socrates justifies?
It is important to remember irony when reading Plato. The Noble Lie situates itself in the broader context of Platonic irony throughout Plato’s corpus. Thus, the noble lie is tied to irony in Plato’s examination of states and orderly societies. In fact, Plato is revealing a profound truth about how societies are structured and run in the noble lie.
Socrates’ justification of the noble lie isn’t because Socrates is advocating for lies. Socrates’ justification of the noble lie is meant to reveal a reality about polities and politics for us. Again, using irony, the truth is signified to us through the lie itself.
Plato is arguing, here, that for societies to properly function there needs to be a grandstanding myth that unites the people. People need to believe in things, in something, in anything, to avoid the slide into nihilism and meaninglessness. The survival of the politeia is at stake if there is no grand myth—or story—for people to latch onto and believe themselves inhabiting or occupying.
In other words, Plato is saying that all nations, peoples, and polities exist on myths. The myth of British chosenness. The myth of American exceptionalism. The myth of Russia as Third Rome. The myth of celestial destiny in China. The myth of divine sanction for Rome. On and on and on we can go throughout history of stories, myths, being utilized to justify a nation’s or peoples’ existence and actions. This is the truth being communicated by Plato through the noble lie.
More recent times have seen variations of this myth. Rousseau’s Social Contract discusses the need for civil religion to unite disparate people. We might look at the United States as prime example of civic constitutional religion: The Founding Fathers as prophets; the Declaration and Constitution and Federalist Papers as holy scripture; the “Presidency” (or Presidential Office) as the Holiest of Holies that shouldn’t be “polluted” but respected; the Congress and Supreme Court as Temples, etc. What unites the disparate strand and multitude of Americans is civil religion: Belief in the goodness of America, her Constitution, and her Constitutional establishment which has a secularized religious embodiment, or nature, to it.
One might also look to the British Empire and the idea of “British mystical imperialism” and the “Civilizing Mission” as another example. The British peoples were chosen through their lineage of Anglo-Saxon liberty to Gospel Protestantism to bring liberty and civilization to the world which justified the nation’s existence and imperial conquests. In its most extreme form, there is even the strand of “British Israelism” that links the nation of England, and the English Monarchy, and the British Commonwealth, as the prophesied “company of nations” in Genesis 35:9-11! The loss of this noble lie has done irrevocable harm to the British peoples who are lost in a sea of meaninglessness without some grandstanding myth to unite them and justify them.
Extrapolating out further, one can say any coherent and systematic movement needs a narrative. For that is what myth is: A narrative, a story, a hermeneutic to make sense of the self and world. Today’s politically activist movements have their myths just as states have their myths. The functioning polity, indeed, the utopian polity, has its myth(s) too. Look at all the supposed utopian states—or attempted utopian states—in our history: They all had their noble lies, their mythic stories, which justified their position, power, and constitution of society.
Plato is, therefore, not advocating lying for the sake of lying. What Plato is trying to show is how such noble lies or myths are necessary for functioning polities, and how without such myth’s polities fall apart and disintegrate. Therefore, it is important for people to believe in myths propagated for the collective good—this is what politicians and political organizations do all the time. One could read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War to see this first-hand with Athens’ apologia for its empire before the declaration of war between Sparta and Athens at the close of the first book or with Pericles’ famous “Funeral Oration” given in the second book. It is remarkable, all things considered, that Plato—some 2,400 years ago—was right about how polities sustain themselves using “noble lies” and how all “coherent” systems must give themselves a narrative to make sense of themselves. In other words, or simply as Plato suggested, polities and coherent movements understand and sustain themselves through the stories they craft for themselves. Understanding this can help us begin to look out into the world to see other noble lies offered up for the coherency of the whole.
Thus Plato’s noble lie extends far beyond the pages of The Republic and helps us how to think and relate to the world we live in today. As Jacques Derrida said about understanding Plato’s lie, we can understand it either as a medicine, or a poison, to the world and life. That is, once we understand what Plato is informing us about the purpose of the noble lie, we must wrestle with whether such noble myths are helpful or hurtful to people, to society, and to the world. Yet again we see the essential value in Plato teaching us how to think instead of necessarily what to think.
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