Some Lies Really Aren’t So Terrible: On Socrates’ Noble Lie In American Political Thought

“If a prince wants to maintain his rule he must be prepared not to be virtuous” –Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince “Lie often enough and boldly enough, and people will find it difficult not to believe you” — Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf Unless you’re a very strange person, most people would say that they would perfer an honest politician to a dishonest one. We say that we don’t like lies or the people who tell them. We tell ourselves that “honesty is a virtue” and believe that it is a sin to spread false witness Our Congress impeached President Clinton, not because he recieved oral sex from a White House intern, but because he lied about it under sworn testimony. We say that people who have no capacity for honesty do not belong in politics and we often sour on elected leaders who are shown to have betrayed the public trust. The Founders advocated a system of open government. Jefferson believed that, if the people are well-informed, they will be able to use their rational judgment to render right decisions concerning how government is run. An open system is essential to securing democracy. But, the seeds of the Enlightenment and the American system are rooted in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, including Socrates’ ideal city in The Republic. Both Socrates and the Founders sought to create a city based on the ultimate Good of the people. In his description of the ideal city, Socrates states that, in the interest of achieving a state of virtuousness (the Good), the loyalty of the people to the city must be secured. A state of loyalty must be created and maintained through the telling of stories or Noble Lies. These stories, Socrates claimed, would (if they are the correct kind of stories) ensure the undying loyalty of the people to the state. Socrates believed that lying has political usefulness. According to Socrates, a philosopher (who is by nature a lover of wisdom) loves Truth. The philosopher knows that, without Truth, man is unable to lead the kind of life that he is supposed to lead, which is, according to the ancients, the life of virtue and intellectual fufilment. Socrates also said that the aim of the state is the achievement of the Good and ultimately of the Happiness of the community as a whole. Like the Founders, Socrates believed that the city should be led by the wise. The goal of the wise ruler (in The Republic, the philosopher-king) is to create a city that promotes the public Good and wards off the threat of anarchy. However, a philosopher is a wise man, and a man who is wise is well aware of the value of a well placed lie. A wise man, unlike the garden-variety liar who may lie about trivial matters, knows how and when to lie. And, who is is lying to. The who is you and me. If the leader’s duty is to secure the public Good and to secure the loyalty of the people to the state, he needs to create the want to be loyal to the state. Socrates says the the leader does this by the telling of myths — what Socrates calls Noble Lies. Noble Lies, Socrates says, are no ordinary lies. Although Noble Lies are like ordinary lies in that Noble Lies are deliberate falsehoods that are told, unlike ordinary lies, Noble Lies are told for a specific purpose. Namely, Noble Lies are told to bind the loyalty of the people to the state. People, Socrates says, are prone to making bad political choices. Common people, according to Socrates, have a lack of knowledge of political affairs and are easily manipulated. People are incapable of making important political decisions without prejudice or impulsiveness. These lies are meant to command the obediance of the ruled. When it comes to matters concerning the obediance of the people, Socrates believed the there was no need to tell the people the exact truth.

Socrates says, “….could we… somehow construe one of those lies that come into being in the case of need … some noble lie, to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city?” (The Republic, 414 b).

Noble Lies are not pure fabrications, but are tales of the right sort that will most effectively make people feel loyal to the state. Socrates says that the public must be taught the right sort of art, music, gymnastics (physical education), and the right sort of general education. This right sort of education, Socrates says, should be the type that stirs up feelings of patriotism. People, Socrates states, should feel that the state is their mother and should feel stronger emotional ties to their homeland than they should feel towards their biological families, friends, or lovers. But why is this so? Socrates says that there are certain qualities that rulers possess that the average citizen does not possess, namely those who rule possess the right kind of knowledge and wisdom that the average person does not have and cannot comprehend. Our own Founders believed that the best rulers were wise men, and that wise men (when at the head of the state) were likely to pursue the Good and Happiness of the people. Although our system is democratic, it is not without Noble Lies. The American political system is (supposedly) based on the idea of open government. A democracy, if it is to survive, requires a free exchange of ideas. These ideas are what the people act on — we vote on ideas, we vote for particular candidates based on their ideas. We say that American “values” embody the ideas of fairness, tolerance, liberty, and equality. It is important, then, that these ideas be presented accurately. But, the Founders also held apprehensions about the ability of the people to make rational decisions regarding the state. The American system is based on the idea of citizen participation. Unlike Socrates’ ideal city that is ruled by a philosopher-king, the United States is governed by elected representatives who legislate on behalf of the people.

In Federalist 71, Alexander Hamilton writes that government should not be swayed by “every sudden breeze of passion… every transient impulse the people may recieve from the hearts of men”. Hamilton continued, when occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests to withstand the temporary delusion in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.

What Hamilton is saying is that the people are prone to thinking with their hearts more often than they think with their heads, and that a group of people who are not swayed by the same petty passions should lead. Hamilton, like Socrates, calls these people “guardians”.

In Federalist 63, Madison writes, ….suspend the blow mediated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can reagin authority over the public mind?

The Founders and the ancient Greeks liked the idea of the virtuous statesman who rules when the people cannot rule themselves. He has the authority to assume control over the state in the absence of wiser men. Now, Socrates says that the philosopher-king has the duty to tell Noble Lies to the people to secure their loyalty to the state. We would like to believe that our Constitution, which says that power rests in the will of the people, does not allow a ruler to assume control over government. This is not so. The Founders also believed that not only does the executive have the power over government, but that he should, from time to time, lie to the American public to secure obediance and loyalty to the state. In Federalist 70, Hamilton writes that the executive branch of government (the president) possesses certain duties that allow him to do his duties as president. These duties are: decision-making, activity, secrecy and dispatch. The ability for the executive to use decision and secrecy means that he possesses the right to lie to the people if the lie enables him to do his duty as president. If anyone believes that Americans do not tell themselves Noble Lies, here are a few ideas for you: we believe that this is the land of opportunity. We believe that any man, regardless of his station in life, his color, gender, or creed, can succeed and move ahead in society. This is a form of Noble Lie. Although it is true to an extent, we told ourselves this same “you can get it too, if you pick yourself up by your bootstraps” story when our society was not free and equal. It’s also worth noting certain patriotism-inducing myths such as George Washington and the cherry tree, Betsy Ross, and Uncle Sam.There is a reason why we call ourselves a “melting pot”– we’re supposed to see ourselves as “Americans” first, and as members of our own families or ethnic/racial group scond (or not at all). But, there are people who will say that lying, especially lies that rob a people of its ability to know what exactly its government is up to, is pernicious and that no good will come of lying to the people, be it noble or not. But, as Socrates observed, it’s not the lie that we need be mindful of, it is the intent of the lie and who is telling it. Socrates said that the ultimate goal of Noble Lies is to achieve the ultimate Good. Those who are telling the lies are not just kings but philosophers. Philosophers, Socrates believed, were virtuous men. So, a virtuous man wouldnot fell an inclination towards telling his people lies that are harmful, primarily because harmful lies detract from the common Good. Virtuous men do not tell unvirtuous lies. Lastly, as we’ve seen with the latest batch of released documents courtesy of WikiLeaks, telling the truth to everyone can have disturbing effects, especially in the realm of international relations. Everyone need not know everything. There are some things that people need not know. A world where all truth is told can be an unpleasant one at best and a dangerous one at the least. Lies are not all the same, and as Socrates argues, some lies are necessary. Lies are not pernicious because of their being lies, they are pernicious on account of their intent and to some degree, on who is telling them. A lie told for the sake of mere deception or to mislead is often wrong or even dangerous. But, a lie told to guide or to comfort, or a lie that is told for the sake of a greater Good can be conducive to achieving the greater Good. And this case, some lies really aren’t so terrible.


One thought on “Some Lies Really Aren’t So Terrible: On Socrates’ Noble Lie In American Political Thought

  1. I had no idea you still kept up with this! I forgot my password to this thing and forgot that I even had it.Sigh, I'm part of like ten of these blogging-type websites.And for the longest time, you didn't even know I was one of your followers!You should think about getting a melodramatic, too.

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