Plato and the Noble Lie

Peter: Truth hurts. Lies harm.

I humbly request an example of a true lie (from Egbert) and a noble lie. I only know the false, ugly and base sort. First hand. The status update attempts to draw a very sharp distinction between pain and harm, two aspects of experience that I have sometimes wrongly conflated.


Well, of course, Plato speaks about “The Noble Lies” in “The Republic,”

The “noble lie” (also translated as “magnificent myth”) is a fictional account that Plato gives for the origin of the three classes in his proposed republic. He talks of a stratified society, where the populace is told a tale of how all people are brothers born of the same mother-earth, but different kinds of people are constituted of different types of metal

Rulers have gold, auxiliaries have silver, and farmers have bronze and iron. Most children of rulers have gold, but some will have silver or bronze and would be demoted to lower classes, whereas some farmers or auxiliaries would be born with silver or gold and promoted.

Plato claimed that even though this tale would be literally false, if the people believed it, an orderly society would result as it would explain the origin and importance of the three classes. Thus it would serve the same function as other creation myths. This is his noble lie “gennaion pseudos” (although this two-word expression does not appear explicitly).

(excerpt)- Desmond Lee: “Plato has been criticized for his Foundation Myth as if it were a calculated lie. That is partly because the phrase here translated ‘magnificent myth’ (p.414b) has been conventionally mistranslated ‘noble lie’; and this has been used to support the charge that Plato countenances manipulation by propaganda. But the myth is accepted by all three classes, Guardians included. It is meant to replace the national traditions which any community has, which are intended to express the kind of community it is, or wishes to be, its ideals, rather than to state matters of fact.”

Well, consider this hypothetical scenario. Let us for argument’s sake say that there NEVER WAS a good Samaritan which Jesus describes in detail. Let us say he made up the account in order to address some current situation with a group of people. Now clearly we might consider that a lie. And yet countless generations of people have taken it to be a true story and have performed many selfless charities because of the inspiration they drew from what was initially a lie.

Now, consider the argument which I enjoy making that “oath talking” in courts of law is misleading because it implies that someone who testified has “access to the TRUTH.” You may perhaps argue that if the examiner asks me “How much is 2 + 2?” and I answer “FOUR” that I have access to “THE TRUTH.” But if one googles on the mathematical PROOF that 2 + 2 = 4 one finds that it is a proof with 251 steps which the likes of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead might product.

What the court should REALLY be asking the witness is “do you solemnly affirm that the testimony you are about to give is given UNDER PENALTY OF PERJURY should the court determine that you have intentionally lied.” You see, I can be conscious that I am fabricating a lie, but I do not have access to TRUTH but rather only hearsay. If I testify that the Earth is round it is not because I have traveled into space and viewed the Earth.

But, let us say that an illiterate man takes the witness stand to testify. He is asked if he can read and accurately compute arithmetic problems. He lies and says yes because this serves some agenda. He is then asked to compute 2 + 2. He makes a wild guess and HAPPENS by shear chance to answer FOUR which is what we all accept on the basis of hearsay. Now his INTENT is to lie and deceive the court that he is competent in arithmetic. His intent is a lie but by chance he states what is accepted as THE TRUTH. So, do we judge his testimony as the truth or a lie?

Well, of course, Pilate laughs at Jesus and says “What is truth?” whereas Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Now I should explain that I am basically Hindu and Buddhist in my own eclectic beliefs so I am not trying to get all Christian on you. Gandhi (who rejected Christianity proper) tried and succeeded in following what Jesus hints at. Gandhi was asked by a journalist “What message would you like to give to future generations” and Gandhi, looking somewhat surprised, replied “My LIFE is my message.”

I am sure that Siddhartha Gautama meant the same sort of thing regarding “talking the talk” and “walking the walk.”

Peter: I don’t think we mean the same thing by “truth.” I mean what is, not truth telling, but living truth. It’s not easy to explain, really. And it’s not accessible through hypotheticals or situational speculations. Quibbling over what ifs is no…t helpful around truth vs. lies for me. What’s helpful for me is to affirm the basic fact: truth may or may not be painful to hear or realize, but lies of any significance cause harm. Harm and pain are different. Lies are not parables, stories, myths, analogies, metaphors. Lies are not really very gray at all. Lies are actually very clear. For example, when I said to my ex that I was capable of an exclusive monogamous commitment, that was a lie. It caused harm, to myself and her. That’s the sort of non-speculative, fairly clear, not really very gray lie that I mean in my status update. The shit we try to throw over on ourselves and others to engage in self-serving, self-seeking, dishonest shenanigans. That is the kind of lie that causes harm. The kind of lie that makes it convenient to use someone, to manipulate someone, to enforce separation from someone and to deprive people of their reality. That’s harm. That’s the mortality of the lie that Marlowe is referring to at the end of Heart of Darkness, for example. He is rightfully ashamed of the lie he tells Kurtz’s fiance. That is a catastrophic lie, and his tale is his relatively weak attempt at making amends for it. So that’s the only kind of moral conversation I’m interested in having. The rest is not really very interesting to me any more, ultimately because it just seems shoddy, dodgy, overly rhetorical and all too often used to justify shitty behavior.

Peter, as I quickly scan your above reply I sense that I understand what you are getting at and very much agree with you. But I must read and reread more closely and think upon these things.

The Christians have their “golden rule” which presumes that we actually possess a knowledge of what is “good” for others and that we should then “do it to them.” Christianity patronizes the Jewish maxim of Hillel and Shamai as “the SILVER rule,” namely; “That which is hateful to yourself do NOT unto others.”

I think we can KNOW when we are lying and why we lie but we cannot have access to the truth. Solomon says “There are ways which seem good to a person but the end thereof is death.” I think the “silver rule” of Judaism is more sound than the golden rule of the Christians who go around looking for someone to “do a good deed” on. We KNOW what is hateful but we do not have an accurate knowledge of what is good.

Karl Popper says that we cannot know that every atom of copper conducts electricity. We can only know that ever copper sample we have ever tested is conductive. There is a certain amount of faith and also inaccuracy in our mathematical and scientific knowledge.

Just sipping my coffee and thinking about neighbor’s dog that I should walk at 4am. Stay tuned.


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