A Critique of Noble Lies And The "Theologies" They Create

In this long post, I begin by explaining Plato’s formulation of the concept of a noble lie for those unfamiliar with it and then I explain in detail numerous problems I see with employing noble lies and with attempts to persuade people through “theological” arguments. I think all theology is either an explicit or an implicit attempt at a noble lying and that anything true or good which a theology conveys to people is capable of a literal, philosophical, social scientific, or natural scientific account which is preferable rationally, morally, and politically. I will explain all these views in what follows. Feel free to skip the first section if you do not need, or are not interested in, or do not have the time to read my primer on noble lies which opens things up.

What Noble Lies Are And How Plato Suggests They Might Be Justified

Plato thinks, reasonably enough, that a polity should be ruled by those who are most knowledgeable. Those who know the most about the truths of morality and the essences of things would be able to implement laws that led to the greatest flourishing of all people, according to the most just laws.

But such expertise is difficult to attain. Plato assumes that not everyone has either the patience or the aptitude for the rigorous reasoning required to figure out what is truest and what is best for themselves, or to understand when others teach them about it. This could cause a serious problem of legitimacy for the wise rulers. The mass of people, though incorrigibly ignorant and on that account unqualified to rule, might nonetheless think themselves fit to rule or to question the judgments of those who know better than they do.

Plato does not seem to think that the wisest should, in such cases, just make their appeal to the people the best they can and then defer to the authority of democratic opinion. Nor should they cede their power to democratically elected rulers. He flirts with the idea that the solution is not to let the ignorant people, or their comparably foolish representatives, take charge, but rather instead to placate the people by teaching them not to question their proper intellectual rulers.

To accomplish this goal he proposes the idea that the knowing rulers would create a religious myth to convince the average people that they have no choice but to defer to their wise guardians because to do so they would be going against the will of the gods and the inherent limitations that the gods gave them.

The hypothetical myth Plato suggests is one in which the gods made the people of the city from the ground on which they live and that when the gods made their souls, the metals of the earth got mixed in with their souls. As a result some people were born with gold in their souls, others with silver, others with bronze or copper or iron, etc. Those the gods made with gold in their souls were the ones who are naturally fit to rule, those with silver in their souls were made to protect the city as warriors, and those with lesser metals in their souls were made to engage in all the economic activities through which the people’s appetites were satisfied—farmers were to grow food, smiths and carpenters, etc., were to make things, merchants were to sell things, etc.

The members of each group would accept their place in the social order and not presume to overthrow the proper, most rationally equipped rulers because their place was determined by the very natures of their souls, i.e., their own very natures themselves. Believing in this myth, it would not make sense to them that someone born with the soul for being in the working class should even think about joining the ruling class and so they would feel no resentment or frustration at being subjected to the rule of those whose souls actually were suited for governing.

And there can be upward mobility based on talent. Even though Plato hypothesized that the classes should live and be educated separately from each other, and that the people should be taught only to breed with those with natures like their own, nonetheless young people of great intellectual ability discovered among the working classes would be “discovered” to have gold souls and brought into their rightful class and power. And, even more urgently, those born to the wise rulers who nonetheless proved themselves unwise and incapable of adequate rational investigation for ruling would, of the greatest necessity, be kicked out of that the powerful class for having the wrong kind of nature.

Plato speculates that teaching this religious myth to the people about why they are where they are in society would be justifiable because even though it was false—since, as the philosophers would know, no one would literally have had metals put into their souls by literal gods—if the people were to accept these myths they would actually be more receptive to living according to the actual philosophical truth, i.e., that the most knowledgeable about the morality and the essences of things should rule and all else should fulfill the other tasks at which they are best suited. If the people were left to think for themselves about literal truths, they might be led by their ignorance or selfish vanity into false beliefs—such that they were fit to rule or that their own ill-informed judgments were superior to those in the wise guardian class.

So, in a way, the false belief about gods and metaled souls becomes a way of expressing a literal truth about how nature has bequeathed different people with different capabilities which justly should place them in different stations in life. And not giving them the mythicfalsehood  about metaled souls would most likely wind up with them developing with beliefs which are entirely false. And that is worse than having mythic false beliefs which are only false when taken literally but which are true in other philosophical, and practically beneficial, ways.

By saying “I have an iron soul, therefore I am meant to be a blacksmith and not a ruler” the person who truly is best suited to being a being a blacksmith would be effectively saying and believing something true, “I was born with a nature that makes me a good blacksmith but would make me a bad ruler” even if there is a literal falsehood involved in the way he says this or imagines it in literal terms.

If there is no way to be upfront with people and get them to grasp the truth and if, rather, being upfront with people only leads to them winding up with greater falsehoods than they would have with certain mythic, non-literal, but philosophically accurate beliefs, then both commitment to truth and the best outcomes requires teaching the people to accept noble lies as the literal truth so that they might at least indirectly have the most essential, deeper truth and live the best lives they could according to it.

Noble Lies, Theology, and Religion

Leading religious authority figures have probably always used a combination of deliberate and inadvertent noble lies in order to guide their flocks. From a truth perspective, theology always is either an intentional or inadvertent form of either noble or ignoble lying. Self-aware religious thinkers may sincerely believe that they grasp (at least to some extent) the “real”, rationally most sophisticated and truthful inner meaning of their religions’ myths, and they may to one degree or another approve of the literally false, superstitious, and mythical confused beliefs of the average adherent to their religion insofar as those beliefs are those average believers’limited minds’ categories for understanding those same essential truths that the thinkers understand more rigorously and abstractly.

In other cases, religious leaders may be as deceived about the literal truths of their beliefs as their followers are. Where their mythic and superstitious categories nonetheless convey actual truths their teachings are only luckily and accidentally working like noble lies. The literally ignorant may strike accidental effective truth either by lucky coincidence or through the logic of concepts or through the genius of previous philosophical innovators within their tradition who created the symbolically loaded beliefs which the literalists are merely transmitting but not actually understanding.

So, in these ways, teachers of religiously believed lies may—whether wittingly or unwittingly, and to one extent or another—be conveying philosophical truths and leading to practical benefits in spite of the literal falsehood of what they teach. Of course, to the extent that the myths transmitted lead the people to think falsely even in philosophical terms, religions lead not only to literally false beliefs but to philosophically false ones as well. This could happen because the self-conscious noble liars are themselves to a certain extent philosophically wrong and so their myths wind up inculcating false morals to the people.

Or sometimes self-conscious noble liars may have good philosophical truths but they are bad at devising good myths for properly inculcating the right patterns of thought in the people.

Or noble lies might wind up philosophically false because they arose without any self-conscious noble liars who took any philosophical care but rather because they arose in a haphazard, unphilosophical historical process that too deeply ingrained misunderstandings in people’s minds rather than truths. The people’s literal errors guided their literal beliefs in ways that led to literal and philosophical falsehoods on nearly every level.

Or, finally and most insidiously, noble lies may be philosophically false because they were ignobly designed by ignoble liars who devised and disseminated them not for the people’s good that the people may indirectly have actual truths, but for their own benefit that they might deceive the people into submission.

The Great Dangers of Noble Lying in Theology and Politics

There are several great dangers to implementing noble lies, even when it is the wisest people creating them according to their best grasp of the truth and with the most morally approvable of intentions.

The first problem is that this approach deliberately cripples the critical thinking skills of the ordinary people. This may help make them compliant and comfortable in the social order but it also makes them inflexible and rationally atrophied. They may be good at assimilating the mythic stories they are taught and be disciplined and reliable at obeying each command which comes from their myth-givers through those stories, but they will be harmfully oblivious to seeing how some cases are exceptions to the rules they memorize and unthinkingly apply to every case. They also become fierce defenders of the eternal absoluteness of those myths and their morals, even as on the long term they become outdated, no longer useful, stagnating, and outright damaging to life. And this leads them to stubbornly reject new ideas (whether presented as myths or literal truths) from new generations of intellectual leaders with either improved or up-to-date knowledge so long as they conflict with those the myths taught by the earlier myth-givers. Using noble lies is a temporary solution for motivating the masses to accept a current state of knowledge which then makes getting the masses to accept inevitable changes to understanding a huge pain in the ass—and often even psychologically impossible. Damage people’s critical thinking skills for their short term good and you sew any number of seeds of their future self-destruction.

The second problem is that over the course of generations the rational, experimental, and pragmatic virtues of the original reasoners who gave the original myths might be lost. In subsequent generations, the leaders may be as literalistic as the common people, may be as deceived into not knowing the difference between myths and their philosophical justification, may no longer have any of the rational rigor or pragmatic judgment of the original generation of thinkers, but instead seek to apply the founding generation’s teachings, which were finely fit to their own time, couter-productively in an absolutist fashion to all times and places the same. This can lead to stagnation and regression when ideas which are growing obsolete are not continually adapted or replaced to account for new circumstances.

To me, this is clearly what happens in the case of the contemporary Tea Party which idolizes and wants to freeze in time the thought of America’s founding generation. America’s founding parents were political geniuses because they were not dogmatic worshipers of the past or tradition. They were iconoclasts who sought perpetual improvement and were open to frightening, unguaranteed experiments which sought radical change from everything that had gone before. They were not afraid of the future, clinging to inalterable beliefs like those who want to freeze their ideas in time are.

The Tea Partiers either have fallen for the last vestiges of noble lie that America’s founders were half-grudgingly still employing as they weaned the average person off of centuries of religious and political authoritarianism, still clinging to the founders’ passing references to the divine as absolute truth. Or to the extent that the Tea Partiers are more self-aware and cynical, they are trying to preserve the founders’ own uses of noble lies out of fear that true and complete philosophical honesty and openness would open the floodgates to immorality. Whenever someone says, in effect, “We must teach people to believe in God, despite the lack of good reason to believe in God, lest there be immorality” they are saying, “We must keep the noble lie about God alive lest there be immorality.” This causes me to suspect whether at least unconsciously anyone making that argument truly believes or is making a pragmatic calculus they need to believe and to perpetuate religious belief for the sake of order.

The third major problem with noble lies is the concentration of power they put in the class of those presumed to be smartest. This is faith in elites who make publicly unanalyzable decisions is foolish for at least several reasons.

1. The smartest people can still wind up in future generations being evil and self-serving, rather than just. Noble lies can be (and I would argue usually are) tools of self-interested power and not just benign.

2. The smartest people, even with the best intentions, may be woefully fallible in being able to predict or control the future or to impose an order on every part of life that will make every outcome best. So, the wisdom of a free and critical thinking populace and free, unregulated aspects of society, are necessary checks on rulers’ abilities to try to impose utopias through theory alone. 3. Institutions of power—even those theoretically built around intelligence—will inevitably, at least sometimes, fall to those who are not the smartest but who have charisma or political sway. And an educated populace is needed to tell the difference when this happens and to be able to resist the corruption it creates.

4. It intrinsically damages the flourishing of the average person to actively thwart her abilities to think for herself as much as possible and to be autonomous as possible and the truly wisest who truly loved the good would value the potential autonomy and wisdom of even ordinary people, even at the risk of arrogance and incorrigibility among other ordinary people.

Why I Oppose Noble Lying Today

Now this brings us to today. If there are any truths within theology, they are philosophical, psychological, sociological, or scientific truths which can be had without theology and which we can reformulate and teach to people without any needed reference to superstitions people regularly confuse for facts. Theological ideas in some cases are both literally and philosophically false and/or harmful in practice. In other cases, they are literally false but to some extent capable of philosophical reformulation in ways that are relatively true or productive of goodness.

Since I think that an honest reading of psychology, history, and politics,  and a correct understanding of ethics, all vindicate prioritizing the maximum cultivation of the average person’s autonomy consistent with social order and overall flourishing, I think we should give people the truth, straight up. We should engage with everyone in a philosophically and scientifically sincere way. If we are engaging in useful fictions like literature or art, we should not in any way use it for noble lie purposes which tries to teach people philosophical truths by getting them to believe in literal lies. We should let them decide the relative value of fictions for themselves, knowing full well they are fictions and not literal truths they must accept.

I think that anything true people currently believe based on their religious training (say, that it is good to love one’s neighbor or that all humans should be thought to have dignity) should be explained to people in the true philosophical terms which justify these views. They should not be pandered to or deceived any further than they already have. They should be dealt with honestly.

The Case of Antonin Scalia

All of this provides context to answer a specific objection raised to me the other day. Justice Scalia argued that it was perfectly legitimate not to view the death penalty as “cruel and unusual” if the majority of people in America were Christian and accordingly believed that death was not the ultimate end of life and so not an absolute evil to inflict on a criminal. I argued that it was dangerous to let a wholly unjustified, religious metaphysical belief determine our laws about who should be killed or not.

I worried that Scalia himself may reason about the justice of the death penalty on such grounds, in effect letting people legally be executed because of a fairy tale belief in life after death. I worry this may contribute to callousness towards the justice systems murdering innocent people cleared after death by DNA analyses. If he thinks God sorts everything out in the afterlife, then this may make him indifferent to the injustice on earth. If Scalia really believes this and is willing to judge accordingly, or is willing to approve of the mass of Americans’ judging accordingly and make his judgments respect their irrational religious feelings, then he is letting a groundless and extremely implausible metaphysical assumption potentially victimize people in the most profound way.

In reply, Marta Layton argued we need better theology to disabuse Scalia of such horrible inferences about what his (or others’) religious metaphysics can morally justify. Her argument seems to me to be that if Scalia, due to religious prejudices, will not listen to philosophically presented arguments that he thinks are trumped by his (or Americans’) theology, then we should present those philosophical arguments within the theological terms he is most deeply committed to so we will have hope of actually persuading him.

I reject this approach because it just perpetuates both the false attribution of authority to theology and the false idea that it is just to consider theological arguments in legislating and these are the real sources of the problem. Not to challenge this perpetual error machine itself but to just try to work within it and correct the errors one by one is like treating symptoms and not the real disease.

I do not want to strategically prop up the noble lies any longer. I stand with philosophy and trust reason to make its case publicly and not through subterfuge. I am tired of the unintended consequences of centuries of lies to the average person. I am tired of having to wade through a mess of half-truths taken for absolute truths. It is time for the failed and perpetually backfiring attempts of arrogant elitists to educate the average person by lying to her to end. If philosophers are committed to the truth and to the good above all things, then they have no business lying for political reasons.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    If philosophers are committed to the truth and to the good above all things…

    Hypothesis assumes facts not in evidence.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      HA. Kidding aside, that full sentence is not a hypothesis it’s a litmus test.

    • Pierce R. Butler

      Which color does it turn when dipped into a “truth” philosopher, and which for a “good” one?

  • Beth

    Interesting and thought provoking, but I have no particular fondness for the ‘noble lie’ to begin with. IMO, you left out the primary reason not to support such lies: to do so is to become a liar.

    However, I do question some of your premises. For example, Whenever someone says, in effect, “We must teach people to believe in God, despite the lack of good reason to believe in God, lest there be immorality” Who says this? Are you personally acquainted with people who advocate ‘noble lies’ in this way?

    The people I know who feel it is important to teach people to believe in god appear to feel that there are good reasons to believe in god, not because they fear there will be immorality otherwise. They may fear that too, but they don’t perceive themselves as teaching lies but teaching truth.

    While you and I may not agree with their reasons for belief, that is a different matter for debate than whether or not they are propogating a ‘noble lie’ for the greater good.

    The paragraph that begins “The first problem is that this approach deliberately cripples the critical thinking skills of the ordinary people. This may help make them compliant and comfortable in the social order but it also makes them inflexible and rationally atrophied….” This paragraph goes on at some length about the bad results of ‘noble lies’. But I know of no evidence that would back up the claims you have made. Why do you presume such results are caused inevitably by the use of ‘noble lies’?

    • Ƶ§œš¹

      In answer to Beth’s question of who says, “We must teach people to believe in God, despite the lack of good reason to believe in God, lest there be immorality.”
      Daniel Dennett’s work article “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” (a quick summary of which is here) touches on this briefly. The secretly non-theist religious leaders maintain their positions despite their lack of faith partly because of their concern for the effects on the community.
      This line of thinking is also implied in a number of religious arguments. Back in 2009, for example, Way of the Master attempted to discredit Darwinian Evolution (with literature passed out at college campuses) not by measuring its factual accuracy but by associating it with Nazi Germany. It is also present in the common assumption that atheists, by not believing in God, are immoral nihilists.
      I have also heard this argument implied in the arguments used in personal discussions of religion. For example, a conversation I had recently with a Christian friend of mine went something like this:
      * Christian friend: [Pascal's Wager]
      * Me: Well, that assumes there are only two choices. There are many religions to choose from. It could, for example, be that Islam is true.
      * CF: But a belief Islam causes people to do all sorts of bad things
      This friend quickly switched from the issue of whether something is true (or, a philosophical gamble on the matter) to the effects of belief. This belief of effects-over-truth is present in variations of Pascal’s Wager that include the occasional, “and you’ll lead a good life” addition to the if-you-falsely-believe-in-God part of the wager.
      I’ve also heard similar arguments from both of my atheist brothers who, separately, have told me that they believe religion isn’t true but its social function is to maintain control of people.

    • Beth

      While Dennett’s article does highlight ministers who do preach and teach religious beliefs without believing themselves, they aren’t doing so for the motivations claimed in the OP. As stated in the article:

      “Several ministers, nowhere near retirement age, said they needed the job to put food on the table. Others said such a step would be devastating to their families….tell yourself that this is for the greater good for the people I care about … you’re doing good in your community;

      This doesn’t seem to me a ‘noble’ lie, but a much more mundane one as it is told primarily for their own personal benefit. They are rationalizing the lie to themselves with the ‘greater good’ argument, but I do not think that this is what Plato or the ‘OP’ was referring to by ‘noble lie’. Perhaps that is all they ever actually are though.

      Your Christian friend is not telling a ‘noble lie’ since he presumably believes his beliefs are true. And unless your atheist brothers are actively supporting the religious beliefs of others as being true, they aren’t telling ‘noble lies’ either.

  • Noble Liar

    This essay is brilliant and cuts to the very heart of the continued prevalence of religion and religiosity in the modern world. Beth is understandably skeptical that the conundrum exhibited in this essay is one prominently grappled with by the managerial elites operating the religious institutions, demanding to know who has actually stated this. The problem is, of course, that the whole thing is about crypsis, about lies–noble or otherwise.

    Religious leaders don’t admit that they’re dealing with this, but an impressive share of former religious leaders admit to having dealt with this.

    There are several great dangers to implementing noble lies, even when it is the wisest people creating them according to their best grasp of the truth and with the most morally approvable of intentions.

    It is indeed fraught with peril, but what of the alternative? I believe Plato’s jaundiced attitude toward the utility of unvarnished truth in the hands of the peasantry has been corroborated time and again. Functional and sustainable populations absolutely require noble lies to provoke the investments and sacrifices necessary to compete against competing populations propelled by such things.

    An example of how this plays out is offered in Europe, where myth-propelled Muslims are steadily displacing and replacing the “undeceived” indigenous populations. The locals (and most of the commenters here) are so secular and limited in their thinking that they can’t even bring themselves to see themselves as an “us” threatened by a “them”. Secular feminists might manage to win an argument against Michele Duggar, but myth-propelled Michele will win in the end.

    If being literally correct results in extinction, then being mythically correct and surviving will have to do. Paradoxically, religion is a Darwinian necessity.

    As for the threat all this deception poses to critical thinking, this damage can be mitigated by compartmentalizing these things. After all, Newton managed to make a tremendous contribution to human knowledge while having bonkers religious beliefs. It’s agreed that many current religious beliefs result in damaging externalities (Creationism, namely), but nobody here is arguing that the religious institutions and beliefs as they’re currently implemented are ideal.

    The question is whether truth and survival is best served by creating a partition within society behind which carefully selected initiates can manage the noble lies or whether literal truth should be entrusted to pope and pauper alike. The latter proposition seems to me to be a disastrous folly for the population treated to it. It will inevitably result in the destruction of the very thing it purports to champion.

    The second problem is that over the course of generations the rational, experimental, and pragmatic virtues of the original reasoners who gave the original myths might be lost.

    This is definitely a risk, and we’re evidently besieged by zombie religions which have suffered the very degeneration you warn about here. But if literal and undeceived populations aren’t viable, then we have little choice but to try harder to deal with noble lies and the infrastructure around those lies necessary to assure their effective management and evolution.

    Is a society which has been presented with the whole truth not also vulnerable to the same degeneration in both knowledge and virtue?

    I do not want to strategically prop up the noble lies any longer. I stand with philosophy and trust reason to make its case publicly and not through subterfuge. I am tired of the unintended consequences of centuries of lies to the average person.

    What’s the point of stripping yourself of all those myths if you’re merely going to substitute them for a new myth: the myth that a society of people who are all haplessly fumbling around for the answer to whether or not life, fertility, and identity are worth living or dying for stands a snowball’s chance against people who’ve been lied to in order to convince them they are?

    • Pat

      I think you’ve gone off the rails at one critical juncture: the idea that Islam is somehow superior to a freethinking or moderately freethinking culture. Pause that for a moment and ask: “in what way?”

      Leaving the (to me) seemingly racist undertones aside for a moment, ideas that are cultish like early Christianity (see Acts for the initial hard control and later franchising operation) do on the surface appear to have a greater degree of control over the will of an individual, and in that way may seem “superior.” I would counter that with the idea that monocultures only survive in an unchanging environment.

      That is, as long as one has a stable economic climate, you can have a monoculture of ideas that takes over. However, to the degree that the monoculture suppresses new ideas and ways of thinking, it will fail to adapt to changes in the environment and will either become so oppressive that it becomes totalitarian or will be forced to change.

      If there is competition from outside, a totalitarian regime will eventually fail to compete especially if it is not self-sufficient, and even to the degree it is, new technologies will be suppressed because they are either against the status quo or from outside, both of which are anathema to a totalitarian monoculture.

      Ultimately, a totalitarian regime can only survive by devaluing the individual, a process which leads to stifling innovation and reducing the overall ability to compete in anything but raw manpower. Loosening this stricture results in penetration of external ideas.

      There is nothing really new to be learned from Islam, or additionally nothing new to be feared. It is a religion which attempts to, like all others, influence behavior and propagate itself while maintaining economic solvency through franchising. And like so many others, it’s fractured into a lot of competing franchises.

    • Enkidum

      Beth, I think, correctly identifies the fundamental problem – dictators aren’t good enough. No one has the wisdom to correctly apply the noble lie in the political sphere, because in order to apply it properly, you have to believe it. And at some point, your beliefs will run up against reality – you can’t compartmentalize forever.

    • Noble Liar

      Pat,

      I think you’ve gone off the rails at one critical juncture: the idea that Islam is somehow superior to a freethinking or moderately freethinking culture. Pause that for a moment and ask: “in what way?”

      Take your pick: Sustainability? Survival? Growth?

      I’m no fan of Islam or of evangelical Christianity, but can you not even compute the fact that freethinkers lack the will necessary to play at and win the game? Do you not see the Bob Dole Paradox, that tolerating a diversity of intolerant tribes and myths will invariably result in the least tolerant one bubbling to the top?

      Population A sees life, fertility, and identity as sacred.

      Population B legitimizes abortion, promotes alternatives to the fertile traditional family, and actually celebrates their own displacement and replacement when people who belong to different tribes with different myths invade their communities.

      Can somebody explain to me how Pop. A stands a chance against Pop. B? Pop. A is obviously a suicide cult which promotes the most unvarnished reality in the most vulgar and unstructured manner to the unfit and undisciplined masses.

    • Hazuki

      Nicely spoken, Noble Liar. But what we’re looking at here is a situation where the truth and the lies have both gotten about equally suicidal and destructive.

      You seem to be playing this as a zero-sum game: either one tells noble lies and society maintains the status quo (which, as mentioned, is still horrible) or one disseminates the truth and causes collapse.

      You know, I’m not sure that collapse isn’t just what we need. But better, why not invest in ourselves? Why not change the way we use resources and think of people so that people, in the main, can handle the truth? The problem these days is that the “noble lies” of the two largest and most powerful sociopoliticoreligious groups (Christians and Muslims) are not noble and are so incoherent they approach “not even wrong,” i.e., might not even be coherent enough to be lies.

      And now the people who spout the ignoble, barely-coherent-enough-to-be-lies lies run the world. That is why I am against the noble lie; because they always, always, always degenerate, and in time lead to this.

  • Enkidum

    I don’t disagree with much that you’ve written here, but I think that one thing Plato’s trying to do is to weave a straight account of the best polis with a an account of the best soul and with an account of the best education. The text is written as if they are all fundamentally similar (although I think he’s definitely expecting people to be suspicious of this). And in the case of education, there is something to be said for noble lies.

    In virtually all education, you start out by telling people things that, strictly speaking, aren’t true. They are kind of true, they point towards the truth, they have aspects of the truth within them, but once you reach a certain level of expertise you realize that they are simply false when viewed carefully. I wrote quite a long paper on this, and I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Plato intends the noble lie to be viewed in much this way. Indeed, there’s a very strong set of hints in Book 3 that The Republic is itself a noble lie of sorts. But it would be more thread-jacking than I’m comfortable with getting into that in detail.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      not at all thread jacking, please go on!

    • Enkidum

      OK, well let me see what I can remember from more than 10 years ago. This is going to be a bit disjointed, but hopefully I can convey the forest for all these trees.

      Gets Bloom’s translation of The Republic off the shelf, coughs pretentiously.

      I think it’s important, when reading Plato, particularly The Republic , to realize that he intends us to be highly critical readers. He is constantly making allusions to the relationship of the readers (or, more appropriately for his time period, audience ) of the dialogue to the dialogue itself, and the author.

      Consider the fact that Plato clearly loves poetry. Socrates quotes them approvingly all the time and the dialogues are highly poetic themselves. Yet in the city described in The Republic , essentially all the poets Socrates quotes would be banned. Furthermore, The Republic itself would be banned. This is alluded to throughout. E.g. from 392c-397c, the discussants ban works that contain portrayals of anything other than decent ways of living, but The Republic is full of descriptions of various kinds of nastiness (e.g. Thrasymachus’ ethics). More tellingly, from 382-383, they ban works that contain descriptions of people lying !

      Ok…. The Republic is, at least on the surface, the beginning of the philosophical education of Adeimantus and Glaucon. Socrates convinces them that the beginning of education requires lies (377a).

      The types of lies he’s talking about might be as simple as the assumption of a frictionless surface in a first-year physics textbook, or as complex as The Republic .

      In the allegory of the cave, the man who is released from his bonds goes up, looks at the sun, sees the truth of everything, then goes back down to the cave and tries to convince his former co-prisoners of this truth. They murder him, a clear reference to Socrates’ own death. One of the things Plato is trying to do in The Republic is to show how philosophical education can actually succeed in the real world without the teachers being forced to take hemlock. It is clear, though, that this will require lies. The prisoners of the cave can only be taught using the language and concepts they understand – the shadow plays. So the successful educator (not Socrates, as he failed) will have to resort to such trickery when he goes back down to the cave. Again, education requires lies.

      Now, what is the first line of The Republic ? “I went down…”.

      Socrates is beginning the education of Adeimantus and Glaucon. To do this he has to go down to the cave where they are imprisoned, but then he is forced to use shadow plays to communicate with them.

      Given all this, what is the status of The Republic ? Clearly, it is not something Plato wants us to take at face value. It needs to lie to us, because we are in a state of ignorance and can only be guided to knowledge through the selective and judicious application of lies.

      I actually think that’s pretty iron-clad, if you go through all the references (and there’s tons of other textual support for this view). Make any sense?

  • laurentweppe

    Thank you for reminding me how much I loathe Plato. Simply reading a summary of his shitty ideas is enough to make me want to punch my appartment walls.
    Even without the tons of people who proudly proclaim that he and his sugar daddy were the founding fathers of the western civilization and the greatest, deepest, most awesomest philosophers to ever live, I don’t think I could stand this despicaple little sophist.
    *
    His noble lie (In fact, the whole ideological content of Plato’s Republic) is nothing more than rationalization of social dominance: Plato presents us a rigidly hierarchical society where an inbred ruling class face neither competition nor balance to its rule and tries to justify it with a reasonning that makes Bush Junior’s “religiously compationnate conservatism” look like the epitome of philosophical genius by comparison:
    Only people like me should be in charge, and of course, We would be so above the vulgum pecus in intellectual prowess and virtuous disposition that the usual trappings of the ruling class, say, nepotism, corruption, endogamy, eventually turning into a parasitic body ensuring its prosperity by harming the rest of society, will never touch us: let’s just invent some convenient fiction that will be used to keep the human cattle under control“. To use nietzschean jargon: Plato is the last man pretending to be an übermensch, claiming that his lust for power and privileges is the most rational principle in existance… Or the Republic is the most brilliant Poe ever written and Plato the grand daddy of all pretentious internet trolls.
    *
    Anyway to be very blunt and borderline godwinny, to claim that noble lies are merely usually tools of self-interested power is akin to claiming that fascism was a fine idea that was merely badly implemented, and any individual fancying herself as both smart AND well-meaning has a duty to avoid the noble lie like the plague.
    *
    That’s why I cannot agree with your idea that theology equals noble lie: I am wholly unconvinced by the idea that any practitioner of the noble lie actually believe sincerly that his lies hide some unapproachable truth dumbed down for the masses. And since I don’t believe in the honest noble liar, I don’t believe in the hidden depths of the noble lie. Saying that religion is always a form of noble lie is like saying that capitalism is always a form of ponzi scheme: while I get why one can be pissed of at religion or at capitalism to the point of using very rough negative metaphores, these two assertions are simply not true and even slanderous since they imply that adepts of capitalism or religion are always dishonest self-serving bandits.
    *
    That’s also why I prefer to use the term “legitimizing myth” instead of noble lie: it make the depravity of the “noble” liars’ intent much more explicit.
    *****
    *****

    Or to the extent that the Tea Partiers are more self-aware and cynical, they are trying to preserve the founders’ own uses of noble lies out of fear that true and complete philosophical honesty and openness would open the floodgates to immorality.

    Or the Teabaggers are merely being deceitful: “Religion is associated with virtue in the mind of millions, the american founding fathers are perceived as paragon of virtues by the common man, We are the collective formed by weakened older white upper-middle class and its Renfields and we do not want to share nor to fairly compete with the lower classes so we’ll be advocating policies which rig the game while pretending to be motivated by our faith and our love for the founding fathers as conjuring names associated with virtue will make the plebs more hesitant to denounce our depravity“-> endless right-wing rhetorical bullshit ensue.
    *
    Same thing for Scalia: you’re afraid “that Scalia himself may reason about the justice of the death penalty on [the] grounds [that] God sorts everything out in the afterlife“: but try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who really believe such things: If God is really going to make everything fairer once we’re dead, what about the magistrates who send innocents to the gallows? Wouldn’t the ultra-nice omniscient allmighty creator and lord-sovereign of the multiverse be pissed at the magistrate who botched his job and murdered an innocent, making any religiously devout magistrate shake in his boots about screwing up and making the Big-Boss angry? I know it is very fashionable nowadays to say that people are good at compartmentalizing their thoughts, but I for one still raise red flags anytime someone’s expressed opinions are blatantly not internatally coherent. To me, Scalia behavior is less likely to be religious belief gone wrong than an improvised attempt at making his callousness appear principled. At which point, the question is not whether better theology can convice Scalia to not do evil, but wether better theology can expose the lack of internal consistency of Scalia’s professed belief, and therefore demonstrate that he is not to be trusted, fancy title notwithstanding.

    • Enkidum

      As may be apparent from my other comments here, I have a lot of time for Plato. At the very least, I think you’re guilty of a few misreadings.

      First of all, why do you think that The Republic is Plato’s utopia? He is quite explicit that (a) it could never exist, and (b) it would be a pretty shit place. Remember, Socrates is a liar . There are numerous hints throughout that Socrates himself would be either killed or expelled from the city.

      Second, the ruling class isn’t inbred at all – indeed, Plato goes to quite a length explaining how he avoids inbreeding.

      And I think there’s some confusion about who knows the noble lie is a lie. In its first formulation, it seems like the whole society, including the guardians is unaware of the lie. So it’s not being “wielded” by anyone. In that sense, I think it is fair to say that modern “capitalism” is a Ponzi scheme – sure, it has plenty of sincere adherents, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s based on lies.

    • laurentweppe

      First of all, why do you think that The Republic is Plato’s utopia?

      I’m not arguing that the Republic is Plato’s Utopia, I’m arguing that The Republic is the sugar coating meant to make his personal power-fantasy palatable. On the other hand, you could ask “Why nearly anyone who ever read or heard of Plato’s Republic are so sure that it is the depiction of an utopia”?
      *

      There are numerous hints throughout that Socrates himself would be either killed or expelled from the city.

      And I’m not denying the possibility that the Republic is a masterpiece of sarcasm like Kipling’s If- and Machiavel’s Prince may be. But if that’s the case, its post-publishing PR is a disaster, considering the number of über-elitist douchebags who conjure Socrates name when they want to justify themselves.
      *

      Second, the ruling class isn’t inbred at all – indeed, Plato goes to quite a length explaining how he avoids inbreeding.

      The problem is that, outside of Plato abstract musings, history shows that the more the ruling class is separated from the plebs, the faster the inbreeding occurs, and Plato’s system is based on the institutionalized division between the ruling class and the rest of the polis.

  • Stacy

    Whenever someone says, in effect, “We must teach people to believe in God, despite the lack of good reason to believe in God, lest there be immorality” Who says this?

    According to Shadia Drury, Leo Strauss advocated this, and he was the political philosopher who most influenced the neoconservatives. Assuming she’s correct in her reading of Strauss, the folks who orchestrated the Iraq War (among other things) were “noble” liars.

    Strauss and the modern neocons weren’t just lying about God, of course (and some of the neocons may actually be theists). But (if I recall Drury’s book correctly) Strauss himself was an atheist who believed that the common folk need religion 1) to keep them moral, 2) to keep them tractable, and 3) to facilitate social cohesiveness by having a shared worldview.

    http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article5010.htm

    • Pat

      Wow… I think this takes a really cynical view of man-as-ape, and the stipulation that some people can only be motivated by fear of punishment is one that saddens me greatly, and I think is argued against by the lack of deterrent effect provided by the death penalty. Providing an inescapable, all-seeing, all-knowing overseer still doesn’t prevent crime as much as education, employment and hope.

    • Beth

      I’m sorry, but since this example isn’t about people lying about god/religious beliefs, it isn’t an answer to my question. As you point out, some neocons may actually be theists. Personally, I think that Pres. Bush was sincere in his religious convictions. I don’t know enough about the others to know whether they even claim to be religious.

      Even so, I would still question whether this example was a ‘noble lie’ told for the ‘greater good’ or a more mundane lie told for their personal benefit. My admittedly biased belief is that they all benefitted personally from getting the U.S. to go to war with IRAQ.

      Atheists, such as Strauss or Ƶ§œš¹ brothers advocating that the society or ‘common folk’ need religion is not the same as telling a ‘noble lie’ as they are not claiming that religion is true, only that it is useful.

      Show me a noble liar who is not expecting to personally benefit from his lies and that will convince me they exist. So far, I have not seen an example of that. I think laurentweppe was right when he/she said:

      That’s why I cannot agree with your idea that theology equals noble lie: I am wholly unconvinced by the idea that any practitioner of the noble lie actually believe sincerly that his lies hide some unapproachable truth dumbed down for the masses. And since I don’t believe in the honest noble liar, I don’t believe in the hidden depths of the noble lie. Saying that religion is always a form of noble lie is like saying that capitalism is always a form of ponzi scheme:

    • Enkidum

      Show me a noble liar who is not expecting to personally benefit from his lies

      Yes, this. Plato is quite open (or at least relatively open) that the noble lie is the only thing which allows the philosophers to conduct their business undisturbed. It’s good for the masses as well, but of course they aren’t aware of this, and it’s clear what Plato’s real interest is.

    • Enkidum

      On the off chance that anyone’s read the novel I posted up above, I should add that I was taught Plato by a Straussian (seriously, Heidegger is my great-great-grandfather!).

      Yes, I think it’s clear that Strauss was an atheist who believed in the necessity of religion. But I think this very much does make it a noble lie for him – in The Republic , it is clear that the philosophers will be aware that the lie is a lie (again, see above).

      Of course Strauss, like Plato, is unsympathetic to the idea that the mass of people can ever be enlightened. I think it’s clear that he had nothing but prejudice to support this, but we have to acknowledge that we don’t have much else to support the opposite view.

    • Beth

      I read it and found it interesting. I’ve not read Plato’s works personally and most of what I know I’ve gleaned from posts like yours, the OP, and other conversations.

      I’m not sure what you mean by religion being a noble lie for Strauss though. Does he claim religious beliefs are true? Does he think religious leaders don’t believe what they are teaching AND that the motivation for lying is for the greater good, not their own personal benefit?

      If the answer to those two questions is no, then I don’t see why it should be considered a noble lie.

    • Enkidum

      It’s not a lie if you believe it’s true! It’s a lie for Strauss precisely because he doesn’t believe it’s true. The religious leaders may believe it, but they’re not the liars here.

      It’s a noble lie because it isn’t true (hence a lie) and because he believes it is good for society (hence noble). Of course “good for society”, as you point out, just happens to coincide with “good for Strauss”.

      I don’t think you’ll ever find any direct textual evidence for this in Strauss (I haven’t read very much, but I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t). It’s something you have to glean from bits and pieces in scattered works (he didn’t write that much), and from seeing the actions of his students.

  • Stacy

    this example isn’t about people lying about god/religious beliefs

    It’s not? How is an atheist saying, in effect, “We must teach people to believe in God, despite the lack of good reason to believe in God, lest there be immorality” (and, for Strauss, lack of social cohesion), not about people lying about religious beliefs? You asked for an example of that very thing. Strauss clearly and unequivocally believed in noble lies, and a great many powerful people have been influenced by him. They are certainly benefiting from their lies, but that does not mean they don’t believe that those lies are for the good of society.

    Does he claim religious beliefs are true?

    He was an atheist, so, no. If he’d thought they were true, then his belief that religion should be supported and encouraged wouldn’t be a lie, would it?

    Does he think religious leaders don’t believe what they are teaching AND that the motivation for lying is for the greater good, not their own personal benefit?

    What has Strauss’s opinion about religious leaders and their beliefs and motivations to do with it? He was a political philosopher, not a theologist. He believed that ruling elites should promote religion even though they, as educated people, would likely find its claims unbelievable. And, yes, he believed that this was for the greater good. That clearly makes him a noble liar.

    It isn’t just religious leaders who promote religion, you know.

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  • Beth

    I’m afraid I’m still not following you. Okay, Strauss didn’t think religious beliefs were true, but was he propagating false religious beliefs? If he was, then I would concur that he would have been lying. But if he wasn’t propagating religious beliefs, why should it be considered a noble lie?

  • Enkidum

    He thinks religious beliefs should be propagated, but doesn’t believe they are true. He doesn’t actually do the propagating, but believes it is necessary.

    In the formulation of the noble lie in The Republic , the guardians aren’t actually aware of the lie. Socrates, the founder of the city in speech, is the one who lies, but they explicitly note that they have no idea how to make any adults actually believe this lie. Indeed, the only way it works is to assume that it’s already in place from childhood, and so it’s a self-perpetuating falsehood (again, this is explicitly noted in the text – it would never work for the first generation in the city).

    You might think of the noble lie as something like the invisible hand – it is a system that operates through individuals, but no individual actually controls it. Or, think of it as an analogy for religious myth, which it clearly is.

  • Beth

    Thanks. It makes more sense to me now.

  • Enkidum

    I’m pretty sure you’ve switched A and B there. Anyways, zzzzzzzzzz….

  • Noble Liar

    Oops…I did switch ‘em.

    My question is so boring it put you to sleep?

    If it’s so obvious to everybody but me, please humor me for a moment and connect the dots for this old fool. I suppose it would be ironically appropriate for you to leave me in the dark on this, but I’m begging you.

    How could a tribe which fails to trick the people into making the necessary investments in the tribe’s survival survive?

  • Enkidum

    Because the tribe no longer matters. The units of cultural replication are no longer tied to any specific genetic inheritance. Societies have changed. Consider that even 100 years ago, the question of whether your parents were, say, Irish or German, actually mattered. Now it’s a matter of polite conversation at parties, nothing more.

    Richer societies have less kids. As other societies get richer, they too have less kids. This does not make them liable to become extinct, especially since we are likely nearing (or have already reached) a threshold in which any additions to the population make the society less stable. Growth is not necessarily good.

    If having more kids was a surefire recipe for group success, then we would have been outcompeted by… christ, salmon, or ants, eons ago. Show me a single meaningful example of a human “tribe”, as you put it, being out-breeded to extinction. I don’t believe it has ever happened in history.

  • Noble Liar

    You’ve offered me some food for thought, which I’ll take some time to ruminate on. However, a few thoughts…

    Because the tribe no longer matters. The units of cultural replication are no longer tied to any specific genetic inheritance.

    Shouldn’t we be wary of a meme which demotes the priority of the survival and replication of the host or the host population? Relying on the viral metaphor, wouldn’t that be a bit like an autoimmune condition?

    Growth is not necessarily good.

    Agreed, but population levels ought to be at least sustainable, no? And if a population does make an informed decision to reduce itself to sustainable levels, must it clearly define and exclude others from its habitat? If it does not do so, then its reduction will only provide an opportunity for the expansion of a population which is not maintaining sustainable rates of replication.

    Show me a single meaningful example of a human “tribe”, as you put it, being out-breeded to extinction. I don’t believe it has ever happened in history.

    Well, there are still some Indigenous Americans hanging around in tiny reservations, but they’ve essentially been genocidally replaced by a population emboldened by a collection of myths to replace them. Tecumseh apparently identified this. His brother, The Prophet, dropped the ball on the Noble Lying thing. Had the scheme worked as planned, the pioneers could have been rolled back.

  • Enkidum

    Native Americans weren’t outbred. They were killed, by guns and disease. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the average family size of Native Americans is larger than average.

    Look, this is standard stuff in biology. One way of ensuring reproductive success is to have lots of kids. Trees often do this. Another way is to have just a few skilled kids. Primates are the extreme version of this (I suppose elephants, actually, are about as extreme as it gets). The lots-of-kids strategy requires far less investment per child, the few-kids strategy requires a lot of investment. The Japanese population is probably shrinking, but Japan is hardly in danger of disappearing as a society – each Japanese is worth about 20 times their weight in Somalians, in terms of ability to survive and reproduce. One of the easiest indexes of how peaceful a society is, is how expensive children are. Anywhere where it costs a million or so to raise a child to an adult is a very peaceful place. And people in such societies don’t tend to have a lot of kids, for economic reasons if nothing else.

    But again, there’s no reason to think of it racially any longer. I live in Vancouver, one of the most multi-racial cities in the world. The survival of the meme-plex that is the city is not in any way tied to racial heritage. We’ve moved beyond that. Seriously, your concerns are more appropriate to the 19th century. White people are in no danger of dying out, although you’ll find a lot less “purebreds” – but who cares?


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