Plato’s Republic – Book III: Lies

Continued from about a month ago.

Because I’m focusing more on the main images within the Republic rather than the arguments, I’ll spare you the tortuous road whereby Socrates arrives at this conclusion:

“Then, it’s appropriate for the rulers, if for anyone at all, to lie for the benefit of the city in cases involving enemies or citizens, while all the rest must not put their hands to anything of the sort.” (389b)

So politicians are allowed to lie? The fact that they do isn’t a surprise to anyone. But that it’s okay? That doesn’t quite ring right to me. Socrates qualifies this later in Book III – it’s not that politicians are allowed to lie whenever they want about anything they want:

“Could we somehow contrive one of those lies that come into being in case of need, of which we were just now speaking, some one noble lie to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city?” (414c)

So they can lie only “in case of need,” and they can lie only once – “one noble lie.” And even the rulers are to be told this lie if possible, but at least everyone else. I guess one lie is better than many, but if you ask me this is getting even weirder.

But we’re not even warmed up yet. Socrates actually tries his hand at composing the noble lie himself (and it’s a long story so bear with me):

“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…when the job had been completely finished, then the earth, which is their mother, sent them up. And now, as though the land they are in were a mother and nurse, they must plan for and defend it, if anyone attacks, and they must think of the other citizens as brothers and born of the earth.” (414d-e).

So the lie we tell the citizens of our city is that…their entire life so far is an illusion, and the truth is that they’ve really been under the ground, that the earth is their mother, and that all of us are dirt babies and siblings to each other?

Don’t worry, if that’s not weird enough, it gets worse:

“‘All of you in the city are certainly brothers,’ we shall say to them in telling the tale, ‘ but the god, in fashioning those of you who are competent to rule, mixed gold in at their birth; this is why they are most honored; in auxiliaries, silver; and iron and bronze in the farmers and the other craftsmen. So, because you’re all related, although for the most part you’ll produce offspring like yourselves, it sometimes happens that a silver child will be born from a golden parent, a golden child from a silver parent, and similarly all the others from each other.” (415a-b)

So it turns out that not only are we all siblings (which should make us care about each other), but we’ve all got metal inside our bodies which determines our character (which should make us respect class distinctions). Just after this, Socrates describes how, if a “golden child” is born to bronze parents, it should be taken away and given to be raised by those in the upper golden class.

So now it’s not just weird but positively horrifying. What the hell is going on?

Why?

What’s the point of doing this at all? Why is there a need to lie, and lie in this particular way? What’s Plato’s goal here? Far be it from me to speculate on Plato’s intentions, but I’ll give you my best guess (yes, this is my lame way to dodge some criticism).

Have you guys seen “reaction videos?” This is a YouTube phenomenon where people film themselves watching or listening to something for the first time, so that you, the viewer, can see their facial expressions and hear their comments. Describing this in words makes it sound unbelievably dumb. But I have a confession to make:

I LOVE reaction videos.

Whether it’s two teenage brothers reacting to music from decades before they were born or dads reacting to the brutality of Eminem diss tracks, there’s something really entertaining about watching these. I propose, dear reader, two possible reasons for this:

  1. We are ever-aging, and our world is getting more and more bland and colorless, and watching others react to something old and tired to us makes it new again. This is also a reason why it’s different, more fun, to watch movies with people who haven’t seen them. We see and hear and feel through their souls, and because it’s new for them, it’s somehow new for us again.
  2. We are increasingly lonely, and connecting to someone connecting to something we are already connected with somehow breaks into our loneliness. It’s different than watching it ourselves – there has to be a third thing there. Just having a subject and an object is still somehow lonely. There needs to be an ablative of association as well. There needs to be a third walking beside you as you talk.

These phenomena seem to be the fruit of living in real communion with others – in other words, friendship. Just being in the same geographic location, or sharing the same roads, might be convenient or useful for one reason or another, but it’s not a city. For there to be a city, there needs to be a connection of human beings as human beings – a connection of minds and hearts.

The problem is, these connections, just like the roads we share, don’t come for free. Left to ourselves, we can easily retract into loneliness and selfishness – we put on the ring, get everything we want, and lose everything else. Some force is needed to connect us to one another, and it seems like Plato provides for this with the “noble lie” of Book III. Because we lean towards selfishness, we need to be told that we are all siblings and connected – that we all spring from the same soil. Because we are often willing to reject the conventional structures around us to get what we want, we need to be told that social things are natural things and shouldn’t be tampered with. Unity and peace are above all the essence of a city, but unity and peace come at a cost.

Whether?

It’s certainly possible to reject any of the premises I presented above. Maybe real happiness has nothing to do with connecting to others, but really is possessing everything you want; maybe social structures need to be adjusted, or maybe it’s possible they can be entirely eradicated. Ayn Rand might argue the former; Marx probably the latter. Plato seems to argue that connection to community is the best and most just way for humans to live, and that any community’s existence requires some form of structure and law to enforce or encourage peace and unity. I’ll let you figure out who’s right on this yourself, and move on to another question.

Is it possible to really persuade people that this tale is the truth? Socrates seems on the surface to be arguing that the ruling class needs to convince the rest of the citizens of the city that this obvious myth of being born under ground and having metal in your bodies is the literal truth, and that the widespread acceptance of this lie is necessary for the good of the city.

I’ll be honest – I’m not sure I can convince a single person, even a child, that this is the literal truth, much less an entire community. On the other hand, I’m a really bad liar, and people really believe some really dumb crap. I can’t even keep up with the latest conspiracy theories anymore, and the more I read about them the less I want to know.

But even if it’s possible, is it even a good idea to convince a whole city something that their own eyes can prove to be false? Even if there are reasons to motivate it like those I discussed above, isn’t it pretty likely that your lie would eventually be uncovered? And if that happens, wouldn’t that throw your city into a worse chaos than if you had never lied in the first place? This seems to be what Aristotle argues somewhere in the Politics, but I don’t feel like looking for where. If you know, comment and I’ll add it.

If there’s a risk that your lie will be found out, and if that might mean the end of your entire city, it might not be worth it, much less “necessary.” In fact, why can’t you just tell the truth? There might be another way to connect people to one another.

Once Upon a Time

Is it really a lie to say that we’re connected? We are all part of the human race, and whatever our background and inner life, we do have some things in common. And it seems just as true to say that caring for others is not only an external obligation placed on us by some abstract principle of justice, but really does follow from the kind of beings we are, and is connected to our own happiness. Why not just say that, rather than lie?

You already know the answer if you’ve ever tried to talk a drunken friend out of taking another shot or going home with someone they’ll regret. Telling the plain old truth is honest, but it’s not always effective. Sometimes the truth needs a little oomph. That oomph might come from the threat of punishment, like telling your drunken friend you’ll rat them out to their grandparents. It might come from actual force, like physically dragging your friend out of the bar and taking them home in the trunk of your car.

But Plato is creating a city, and a city is made up of free citizens, not slaves. The threat of punishment and the use of physical force are there when needed, but if they are your ordinary modus operandi, what you have isn’t a city but a tyranny. If you’re ruling free citizens, you need to treat them that way. You need to convince them like adults, not compel them like children – at least not all the time.

On the other hand, you as the ruler (I’m not sure when in this article you became the ruler, but here we are) are in charge of a city with all kinds of citizens, not just a bunch of philosophers who will willingly and happily listen to reason. So you need to get creative – it’s tyranny to have a gun to everyone’s head, but it’s naïve to expect everyone to hear you out fairly all the time.

I think we can find the solution by looking at the larger context of Book III, which contains extended discussions on drama, poetry, and music, and “imitation” in general, which is described as a “kind of” lying. Maybe Socrates isn’t telling rulers to flat out lie. Maybe he’s telling them about the importance of stories in the life of a city.

When you tell your kids “once upon a time there was a princess who lived in a pink cloud and rode a magical dinosaur named Glaucon,” they know damn well there’s no such princess. But you’re not lying to them, because you know they know damn well there’s no such princess, and they know you’re just telling a story. And a story is a lie that isn’t a lie – a lie that everyone knows is a lie, so it’s not wrong to tell. And if the story leaves your kid feeling good about doing her chores and being nice to her brother, it’s a noble lie, because it’s hard to do chores and be nice to our brother.

We’ll see a lot more about the importance of media in civic life later in the Republic, but this alone is an important point. How do you get ordinarily self-centered people to care about each other? It’s not a matter of convincing, since it’s more often their heart that’s selfish than their head. But it can’t be a matter of force, since having a gun to my head will only make me fearful and resentful, and it definitely won’t make me care for others. The way to get people to care is to tell them stories and sing them songs that make them not only see but feel the truth that we’re all dirt babies living in the same garbage can, so we’d better take care of each other.

2 thoughts on “Plato’s Republic – Book III: Lies

  1. Hi Fr. Andy, I was a part of the OG garbage people class at JPC. I feel like I’ve done my time and still would like to know what it means when the slave grabs Socrates coat tail, which you refused to share. This is something I’ve lost sleep over. A response would be much appreciated. Thank you.

    Like

    1. Polemarchus sends a slave to hold Socrates back from Athens. Political authority uses force to prevent the philosophical life when it’s a threat to civic comfort. The slave holds Socrates’s garment: clothing possibly signifies convention, which is the means by which Socrates is bound to obey Polemarchus.

      That’s all you’re getting.

      Like

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