Plato’s political use of the ‘noble lie’

What would Plato have made of our ‘post-truth’ era where ‘alternative facts’ are likely to receive equal attention and are sometimes given more credence than analytic arguments, standing to reason? Well, Plato also had his own political agenda when writing The Republic and devising the most perfect society or what purports to be the most just society. The educational programme laid out by the alleged ‘founders’ of this utopian state, does not cater for the producers of material commodities. However, the very first stage of education, encountered in the dialogue, has three major aims:
1) Inculcate the basic rudiments of morality, through the selected study of the most edifying heroic poetry.
2) Teach what is beautiful and harmonious through the practice of music and physical exercise. Physical education comes after the development of a good moral character and an appreciation of beauty and harmony in music. The aim of physical training, in the form of military service, is to ‘breed self-control’, that is ‘to ensure a proper harmony between energy and initiative on the one hand and reason on the other, by turning each to the right pitch.’ [411e/412a] 3) Enforce the message of the ‘foundation myth’ or ‘noble lie’ through another ‘myth’, namely that ‘God is the cause, not of all things, but only of good.’ [380c] It is this very god who ‘fashioned’ the community of brothers living in the ideal state and whose ‘first and most important commandment to the Rulers is that in the exercise of their functions as Guardians their principal care must be to watch the mixture of metals in the characters of their children.’ [415b] Unlike the Guardians who are destined to a lifetime of philosophical education, culminating in their dialectical grasp of the Good, the ordinary members of the ideal state are, indeed, not meant to think on their feet or make their own judgements. Instead, they are treated like children, being told edifying stories as they are given a simplistic interpretation of the origin of their community. Their sole and only duty as citizens will be to do their duty, that is, to comply by the principle of specialisation and toil all their life for the benefit of the Guardians’ state. United around their rulers but divided into three distinctive classes, the citizens of the Republic never mix as their very constitutive element (gold, silver or iron/ bronze) destines them irrevocably to productive, military or philosophical activities. Like the prisoners in the cave, the productive class are simply abandoned to their ignorance and false illusions.

The ‘noble lie’ is, therefore, the most fundamental ‘law’ of Plato’s philosophic state and in this respect, it is to the productive class what the Form of the Good is to the Guardians, one being a vulgar piece of propaganda, the other the most sophisticated philosophical concept accessible to reason. For the Guardians, God is a ‘demiurge’ or ‘celestial architect’ who was ‘inspired’ to create the universe by no less than the Form of the Good itself!

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