Every Four Years Someone Is Lying to You

Every four years Americans have the opportunity to elect their new leader. These days electing a new president or re-electing the incumbent president is no big deal. But if you think about how much of history was dominated by monarchs and self-appointed rulers, you’d think that Americans should take the opportunity dare I say right to choose their leaders a little more seriously. However, despite our right to choose less than half of all eligible voters voted in the presidential election.

Thank God for pluralism or we’d never elect a president.

The funny thing about Americans and elections is that despite the fact that the numbers of regular voters seems to indicate a general lack of interest in the political process, people often complain about the quality of the candidates running for office. Americans often say that they don’t vote because there’s no one worth voting for. One reason why many Americans say no one is worth voting for is because politicians are  professional liars who will say anything to anyone to get elected.

It seems that when it comes to politicians, the American public wants a leader capable of telling the truth.

It also seems that a truth-telling politician is a bit of a contradiction. Or at least a creature as rare as a diamond or mythical like a unicorn.

The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt writes that a functional society must have “a robust appreciation of the endlessly protean utility of the truth.”   If you think about it, an honest politician shouldn’t be regarded as an oxymoron. The truth is a necessary element for cultivating the kind of informed public that Thomas Jefferson says is necessary for maintaining a democracy. And on whole, the American public says we want a politician who won’t drown us in platitudes, repeat the same party-approved talking points or God forbid, lie right to our faces. In film and television, movies like Dave, The American President, The West Wing, The Distinguished Gentleman, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Bulworth demonstrate our desire for  a leader who tells the truth; someone the public can trust will tell them what the deal really is.
We say we want to elect someone like this:

That’s what we say we want. But is a truth-telling politician really what we want?

…. Or what we deserve?

If history (or philosophy) tells us anything, the answer to both questions is no.

Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton (one-third of Publius, authors of The Federalist Papers), wrote that “Those politicians and statesmen who have been the most celebrated for the soundness of their principles and for the justness of their views…” require the power of secrecy to fulfill their duties while in office. The power of secrecy entails the power to withhold information from the public. The English political philosopher John Locke (whose political philosophy influenced the Founders) argued that executive  (presidential) discretionary powers exist without the approval of the legislative or the people, and that the executive for the sake of the public good may take action that runs counter to the will of the people.

Now, think about it. If the power of the government (the executive branch, anyway) includes the power to do what the public doesn’t want you to do, it might be fair to assume that some lying would be required on the part of the politician. Wait before you object, let me tell you this: Plato says not only is it fair to assume a politician is lying to the public, for the politician, lying to the people is essential.

In Book III of Plato’s Republic, Socrates states that in order to ensure the loyalty of the people to the city, the people must be told a “needful falsehood” (or Noble Lie), a myth that ties the people to their home nation.* Socrates says:

Could we… somehow contrive one of those lies that come into being… some one noble lie to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city?

The purpose of lying to the people, Socrates reasons, is to ensure harmony within the state. And as we all know, Plato says that without harmony, we cannot become philosopher-kings.*

You might be tempted to reject Plato’s we-need-to-think-philosophically-stuff and say that Plato’s lying-as-public-policy argument should remain in the ancient philosopher’s dustbin. Here’s the thing: the argument for lying to the public isn’t just an ancient philosopher’s idea. The late German-American political philosopher, Leo Strauss (September 20, 1899 – October 18, 1973), argued that the intent of lie is not outright deception or done with malevolent intent, but that lies are told for the purpose of instilling the people with good morals and fostering personal and civil enlightenment. If we think about lies done for the purpose of making society better, we might be inclined to want a politician who is inclined to lie to the people.

Maybe.

At least we can tell ourselves when a politician lies he’s really looking out for our philosophical well-being.

 

NOTES:

* If you’re familiar with the practice of political lies and politicians lying, you might be thinking what is the difference between Plato and Machiavelli. It may be important to distinguish Plato’s Noble Lies from Machiavellian lies, which are told with the intention of seizing or maintaining tyrannical power or for nefarious purposes.

* Ok, I’ll be honest here. Plato endorsed Noble Lies because he believed that some people (aka philosopher-kings) are smarter and more qualified to lead than Average Joe and Jane like you and me. The Noble Lie, Socrates says, is meant not only to convince the rabble that whatever class and/or occupation we have in life is dictated by the gods, but are also told with the belief that some people are not mentally adept enough to make their own political decisions.

* It is important to mention that not all of the Founding Fathers believed that it is essential to lie to the people. Thomas Jefferson believed that the truth should be plain for all of the people to see.

SOURCES:

Harry  G. Frankfurt. 2006. On Truth.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 15

Plato. 1968. The Republic. Trans. Allan Bloom. Book III. 414 b-c

Publius. The Federalist Papers. 1961. Ed. Clinton Rossiter. New York: Signet Classics. 422.

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Doubletapping Socrates: On How The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes IS the Philosopher-King

Halloween was a few days ago.

I had completely intended to write up few spooky-themed posts, but as nature has a way of making its own horror show, my plan was thwarted by an unusually strong bout of food poisoning.

I’m fine now.

But, had I been able to write before Halloween (instead of spending a week hovering over a… well, you know), this is what I would have posted:

For those who are unfamiliar with this image or the AMC Network television show The Walking Dead, this slightly rugged, gun-pointing fellow is Rick Grimes. Rick Grimes is a  sheriff’s deputy who awakes from a coma to find the world overrun by hordes (in the show they’re called “herds’) of flesh-eating zombies.

Rick played by the British actor Andrew Lincoln.

I mention this only because the show takes place in Georgia and Rick Grimes isn’t English.

I must say he fakes the accent rather well.

Anyway, the reason why Rick is such a big deal (besides the fact that he carries a gun) is because Rick is what we call a H-E-R-O. The famous writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell describes what a hero does as follows:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

We like Rick because he is a hero. Rick is not only smart and capable, he is also loyal, not only to his wife Lori and son (the ever-annoying Carl), but to the other survivors who are looking to Rick’s abilities and leadership to guide them through the zombie apocalypse. Rick steps up to the plate when no one else is either willing or capable of doing so. It’s No doubt that, when zombie movie enthusiasts pick their fantasy zombie killing team, Rick Grimes is at the top of the list.

It’s a good enough reason to appreciate Rick Grimes for his action hero qualities, but there’s another reason why we should like Rick — moreover, there’s a reason why the philosophically inclined should like Rick Grimes — Rick Grimes is positively philosophic.

….at least that’s what I think after reading Plato’s Republic.

Most political philosophers will tell you that Plato’s Republic is the greatest and most influential political work ever written. Written around 380 BCE, Plato’s political treatise asks (and answers) the question “what is justice?”, but more importantly, Plato (through the character of Socrates) asks how does the state achieve justice?  Through the characters, Plato examines different ways of answering the question (what is justice). Through Socrates, Plato argues that the just state is one where the people value and are guided by reason and virtue. Socrates argues that when a person is acting in a virtuous manner, society (as a whole) benefits. Acting virtuously enhances the soul — and a good soul, according to Socrates, is the soul of a philosopher.* Socrates argues that we must be taught to obey the laws and to do good. When we are introduced to the character Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead, we see that Rick is a police officer, the guardians and enforcers of the law (it is worth noting that, in Plato’s Republic, the just city also includes a class of guardians who are charged with keeping order in the city).

In fact, Rick’s coma-inducing injury (he’s shot) happens while Rick is attempting to apprehend suspects following a police chase.

Even after Rick awakens to find the world full of walking dead people (aka “walkers”, “geeks”, and “biters”), he does not abandon his sense of upholding the law. When Rick goes back to the police station to retrieve firearms, he puts on a clean police uniform, badge, and hat. We see that although though the world has gone to seed and lawlessness, Rick believes that the fact that civilization has disappeared does not give people the right to act uncivilized. He repeatedly cautions others to keep their heads and not to let their emotions dictate their actions. When the potentially threatening (and definitely shady) Randall must be dealt with, Rick tries to reason his way to the best solution for dealing with Randall, even though Rick’s best friend, former partner, and nemesis Shane Walsh wants to take Randall out back and snap the poor, doomed boy’s neck.

Speaking of Shane Walsh….

Just as ever hero has his nemesis, Rick Grimes has his. Rick’s is his former partner and wife Lori’s I-thought-my-husband-was-dead-so-I-started-banging-the-nearest-guy-with-dropped-trousers lover, the late and then late again, Shane Walsh (played by Jon Bernthal). Now, I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that action heroes are the only people out there with arch nemesis but that assumption is incorrect. Like Rick Grimes, Socrates also has an adversary. Socrates’ nemesis is named Thrasymachus.

This is what Thrasymachus looked like:

Socrates and Rick Grimes have the souls of philosophers. They believe that reason, controlled emotions, and a sense of justice should guide our actions. According to the philosopher, right and wrong are not matters of opinion or taste, but perpetual and universal standards to which everyone should be held.

This is the way that philosophers should think.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ theory of justice is challenged by the sophist Thrasymachus (see above). As a sophist, Thrasymachus believes that rhetoric and persuasion (not well-reasoned logical arguments) are the prefered method of argumentation. Thrasymachus, whose name (in Greek) means “rash fighter” is depicted as intemperate and arrogant. He lacks virtue and believes that might makes right. Thrasymachus attempts to win his argument with Socrates by force rather than by logic. Thrasymachus is willing to do anything, including personal attacks on Socrates, to win the argument. In a verbal confrontation with Socrates, when Thrasymachus feels that he cannot defeat the philosopher’s logic, he aims his attack not at Socrates’ argument, but at Socrates himself:

Thrasymachus: “Tell me Socrates, have you a nurse?”

Socrates: “Why do you ask such a question, I said, when you ought rather be answering?”

Thrasymachus: “Because she leaves you to snivel, and never wipes your nose.”

In many ways Shane is like Thrasymachus. Shane is often guided more by his emotions than by reason. He believes (and more importantly acts like) might makes right. Shane never fails to remind Rick that his thinking man’s demeanor is unfit for a world filled with zombies and that Shane’s re-kill first, ask questions later philosophy is. Unlike Thrasymachus, who kept his attack of Socrates at the verbal level, the conflict between Rick Grimes’ Socratic and Shane’s Thrasymachean dispositions finally result in a physical confrontation between the two men.

Here are a few of Shane’s (other) Thrasymachean qualities:

  • When fellow survivor Carol Pelletier’s husband, Ed Pelletier, slaps his wife, Shane promptly beats Ed senseless (while telling Ed that he is going to beat him to death, no less).
  • When Lori tells Shane that their relationship is permanently over, Shane attempts to force himself on her.
  • While in the woods looking for “walkers” Shane aims his gun at Rick (however, it’s not clear whether Shane intended to shoot Rick or not).
  • Shane repeatedly engages in ad hominem (personal) attacks on Rick and his leadership style (but often has to admit that Rick makes the right decision).
  • Shane believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he is the one to protect Rick’s wife and son (and unborn baby that may or may not be his).
  • When Randall is captured and brought back to the survivors’ farm, unlike Rick, who wants to reason his way to a proper punishment, Shane immediately concludes that the right and only choice is to kill Randall. Shane is so convinced that he’s right that when the group leaves Randall without supervision, Shane takes Randall out into the woods and kills him.
  • And, in an attempt to wrest the leadership of the group from Rick, Shane tricks Rick into looking for an escaped Randall with the intention of killing Rick. He fails to do so.

Shane’s failed attempt at unseating the philosophical Rick Grimes results in the Thrasymachean Shane Walsh winding up like this:

I’m pretty sure Shane has seen better days

…and Rick still gets the chick.

 

Oh wait, she just died.

 

* Socrates’ thinking on the soul of the philosopher (aka Socratic virtue) goes a little like this: through reason and controlling our emotions we attain wisdom –> wise people possess virtuous qualities such as courageousness and temperance –> when we are temperate we attain internal/intellectual harmony –> things that are in harmony function according to purpose (i.e. as they should) –> when things function as they should this leads to a good soul –> philosophers (esp. philosopher-kings) possess good souls.