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In Defense of Plato



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I return to the eternal mantra: We have very smart readers.

Here’s a long defense of Plato from one of them:

The whole “lying” question has been frightfully misunderstood in relation to Strauss but even more fundamentally in relation to Plato. This misunderstanding of Plato is at the root of the vilification of Strauss. In other words, you can’t really deal adequately with the the question of lying in political philosophy without an understanding of what ‘lying’ means in the Republic.

Here is the best short piece I know on that subject. It is from John Wild, Plato’s Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law, 1953. The book itself is primarily a critique of Popper’s gross misunderstanding of Plato. pp51-52

“As a result of our intellectual heritage, of which Plato and Platonism are important parts, we have attained a respect for reason and truth, and a deep sense of the need for an educated and informed electorate, if democracy is to be maintained. Hence, the idea of rulers who deceive the people rightly offends us as undemocratic. Plato’s defense of the “noble lie” at Republic 414B strikes us as peculiarly obnoxious and even reminds us of unscrupulous totalitarian propaganda. This objection has been singled out for special emphasis by political thinkers like Crossman and Popper. Thus, Crossman interprets the passage as an approval of noble lies for “cajoling the civilian masses into obedience.”

Popper’s accusations are even more violent. He compares this procedure to the activities of the nefarious Nazi Propaganda Bureau, and attacks the noble lie of Plato as an attempt to infuse racialist doctrines of blood and soil and the master race into the innocent inhabitants of the republic. I am not prepared to defend Plato’s concept of the noble lie in all respects; but I believe that these charges rest on serious misunderstandings.

First of all, Plato has a somewhat elaborate and complex doctrine concerning the lie (382 A-C, 535E) which may be summarized as follows: The worst kind of lie, according to him, is “the lie in the soul,” the belief by one’s self of what is not so, whether or not the truth is suspected. Such lying to one’s self is involuntary, for no one really wishes to be deceived. Hence, it is utterly indefensible, unmitigatedly evil without exception. Socratic education–radical questioning of self–is required to root it out. What we commonly refer to as a lie is something quite distinct. This consists in telling someone else what the teller himself knows to be false, because he knows what is really true. In Plato’s view, this is secondary and derivative, for at least someone knows the truth. Hence, he calls this merely a lie in words. Such a liar is not deceiving himself, unless he is using the lie for a mistaken or immoral purpose. If so, it involves a lie in his soul, which is a disastrous evil. Sometimes, however, the lie in words is justifiable. This is when those to whom we are communicating are not in a position to understand or gain any benefit from the truth which we understand.

Thus, at the beginning of the Republic, Socrates brings up the case of someone who has lent us a deadly weapon and suddenly returns to demand it from us in a fit of homicidal minia. In such a case, it would seem reasonable for us to say that we had left it somewhere else or had misplaced it. Another less extreme case is that of children who may ask us questions, the abstract answers to whch they are not as yet able to understand. When they ask, we usually give them some concrete story or picture, which may convey something of the truth to them, but certainly not the clear, abstract truth as we understand it. We do not refer to such practices as lying. Plato, whose standards in this respec t are very high, calls this “a lie in words.” He says that the guardians of the ideal republic are in a similar situation . They possess a coherent body of abstract knowledge concerning human nature and the obscure notetic powers of man–the source of human unity–which they cannot explain in full detail to the artisans and auxiliaries, who see radically different functions being performed by different members of the community.

No society can live in a healthy state unless there is an underlying sense of unity and a feeling of devotion to the common purpose. The full nature of this purpose and the complex doctrine on which it is based cannot be fully explained. So the guardians simplify it and clothe it in the concrete imagery of a patriotic myth of common origin and of different natural endowment fitting men for different functions in the co-operative living of human life. This is the “noble lie”–a simplified version of the truth concerning diversified endowments and common origin, like simplified heroic versions of past history, and other symbols capable of eliciting group loyalty and common aspiration.

I believe that Plato overemphasized the need for such patriotic mythologies, but it is at least true that all human communities so far have developed them. In any case, this is the noble lie. The guardians know that it is not exactly true. Nevertheless, in a simplified version it does convey the gist of the truth. Men are bothters, though the earth is not their common mother. Souls are not gold and silver; this is mythological language. But that some are endowed with superior intelligence is true. The purpose is morally sound, though not exactly and abstractly stated. So this is a lie in words, a noble lie.

Popper claims that this myth is the expression of racialism. “These metals are hereditary, they are racial characteristics.” This is a non sequitor. We may grant that the metals refer to what Plato held to be hereditary tendencies toward greater or lesser intelligence. But from this it does not follow that these differences are racial. Racial traits are hereditary, but all hereditary traits are not racial.

According to Popper, the purpose of the myth is to emphasize these differences, and to strengthen “the rule of the master race.” As a matter of fact, Plato makes it quite clear that the purpose is rather that of emphasizing a unity of race, so far as race means common ancestry, and thus of eliciting a loyalty to the whole community which transcends differences of intelligence and social function.

If, as Popper supposes, the guardians were using this myth as political propaganda to support their own unjust rule, they would be guilty, on Plato’s view, of ignorance and self-deception concerning the most important matters–the lie in the soul.”

Good luck in your research. If I may presume to offer advice, I would suggest treading very carefully in this area, as misunderstandings are very widespread and very destructive. I would love to see you with the lying question, as it is important, but I would hate to see you become yet another victim of a mugging by the ignorant.



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