Noble lie

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Socrates (depicted in this bust) justified the use of noble lies in Plato's Republic.[1]

In politics, a noble lie is a myth or untruth typically of religious nature, knowingly propagated by an elite to maintain social harmony or advance an agenda. The noble lie is a concept originated by Plato as described in The Republic.[2]

In religion, a pious fiction is a narrative that is presented as true by the author, but is considered by others to be fictional albeit produced with an altruistic motivation. The term is sometimes used pejoratively to suggest that the author of the narrative was deliberately misleading readers for selfish or deceitful reasons. The term is often used in religious contexts, sometimes referring to passages in religious texts.

Plato's Republic[edit]

P. Oxy. 3679, a manuscript from the 3rd century AD, containing fragments of Plato's Republic.

Plato presented the noble lie (γενναῖον ψεῦδος, gennaion pseudos)[3] in the fictional tale known as the myth or parable of the metals in Book III. In it, Socrates provides the origin of the three social classes who compose the republic proposed by Plato. Socrates speaks of a socially stratified society as a metaphor for the soul,[citation needed] wherein the populace are told "a sort of Phoenician tale":

...the earth, as being their mother, delivered them, and now, as if their land were their mother and their nurse, they ought to take thought for her and defend her against any attack and regard the other citizens as their brothers and children of the self-same earth...While all of you, in the city, are brothers, we will say in our tale, yet god, in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule, mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious—but in the helpers, silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen. And, as you are all akin, though, for the most part, you will breed after your kinds, it may sometimes happen that a golden father would beget a silver son, and that a golden offspring would come from a silver sire, and that the rest would, in like manner, be born of one another. So that the first and chief injunction that the god lays upon the rulers is that of nothing else are they to be such careful guardians, and so intently observant as of the intermixture of these metals in the souls of their offspring, and if sons are born to them with an infusion of brass or iron they shall by no means give way to pity in their treatment of them, but shall assign to each the status due to his nature and thrust them out among the artisans or the farmers. And again, if from these there is born a son with unexpected gold or silver in his composition they shall honor such and bid them go up higher, some to the office of guardian, some to the assistanceship, alleging that there is an oracle that the city shall then be overthrown when the man of iron or brass is its guardian.[4]

Socrates proposes and claims that if the people believed "this myth...[it] would have a good effect, making them more inclined to care for the state and one another."[5] This is his noble lie: "a contrivance for one of those falsehoods that come into being in case of need, of which we were just now talking, some noble one..."[6]

Modern views[edit]

Karl Popper[edit]

Sir Karl Popper in 1990

Karl Popper accused Plato of trying to base religion on a noble lie as well. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper remarks, "It is hard to understand why those of Plato's commentators who praise him for fighting against the subversive conventionalism of the Sophists, and for establishing a spiritual naturalism ultimately based on religion, fail to censure him for making a convention, or rather an invention, the ultimate basis of religion." Religion for Plato is a noble lie, at least if we assume that Plato meant all of this sincerely, not cynically. Popper finds Plato's conception of religion to have been very influential in subsequent thought.[7]

Leo Strauss[edit]

Strauss noted that thinkers of the first rank, going back to Plato, had raised the problem of whether good and effective politicians could be completely truthful and still achieve the necessary ends of their society. By implication, Strauss asks his readers to consider whether it is true that noble lies have no role at all to play in uniting and guiding the polis. He questions whether myths are needed to give people meaning and purpose and whether they ensure a stable society in contrast to the more skeptical attitude which posits that men dedicated to the relentless examination of, in Nietzschean language, "deadly truths" can flourish freely, all the while concluding with an inquiry into whether there can be a limit to the political and epistemic absolutes. In The City and Man, Strauss discusses the myths outlined in Plato's Republic that are required for all governments. These include a belief that the state's land belongs to it even though it was likely acquired illegitimately and that citizenship is rooted in something more than the accidents of birth. Seymour Hersh also claims that Strauss endorsed noble lies: myths used by political leaders seeking to maintain a cohesive society.[8][9] In The Power of Nightmares, documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis opines that "Strauss believed it was for politicians to assert powerful and inspiring myths that everyone could believe in. They might not be true, but they were necessary illusions. One of these was religion; the other was the myth of the nation."[10]

Desmond Lee[edit]

"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."[11]

Allan Bloom[edit]

Translator Allan Bloom argued for a literal translation and interpretation of Plato's expression:

At Book III 414 Socrates tells of the need for a "noble lie" to be believed in the city he and his companions are founding (in speech). Cornford calls it a "bold flight of invention" and adds the following note: "This phrase is commonly rendered 'noble lie', a self-contradictory expression no more applicable to Plato's harmless allegory than to a New Testament parable or the Pilgrim's Progress, and liable to suggest that he would countenance the lies, for the most part ignoble, now called propaganda..." (ibid., p. 106). But Socrates calls it a lie. The difference between a parable and this tale is that the man who hears a parable is conscious that it is an invention the truth of which is not in its literal expression, whereas the inhabitants of Socrates' city are to believe the untrue story to be true. His interlocutors are shocked by the notion, but—according to Cornford—we are to believe it is harmless because it might conjure up unpleasant associations. This whole question of lying has been carefully prepared by Plato from the very outset, starting with the discussion with old Cephalus (331 b-c). It recurs again with respect to the lies of the poets (377 d), and in the assertions that gods cannot lie (381 e-382 e) and that rulers may lie (380 b-c). Now, finally, it is baldly stated that the only truly just civil society must be founded on a lie. Socrates prefers to face up to the issue with clarity. A good regime cannot be based on enlightenment; if there is no lie, a number of compromises—among them private property—must be made and hence merely conventional inequalities must be accepted. This is a radical statement about the relationship between truth and justice, one which leads to the paradox that wisdom can rule only in an element dominated by falsehood. It is hardly worth obscuring this issue for the sake of avoiding the crudest of misunderstandings. And perhaps the peculiarly modern phenomenon of propaganda might become clearer to the man who sees that it is somehow related to a certain myth of enlightenment which is itself brought into question by the Platonic analysis.[12]

Pious fiction[edit]


Religious context[edit]

A depiction of Joseph Smith's description of receiving the golden plates from the angel Moroni at the Hill Cumorah

Other contexts[edit]

  • Fredrick Pike describes some morale-boosting efforts during the Great Depression as pious fictions.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Aruffo, Madeline. "Problems with the Noble Lie." Archived 2017-05-17 at the Wayback Machine Boston University. Accessed 4 December 2017.
  2. ^ Brown, Eric (2017), "Plato's Ethics and Politics in The Republic", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2019-11-26
  3. ^ Translator Allan Bloom explains, "The word is generation which is, primarily, 'noble' in the sense of 'nobly born' or 'well bred'..." and refers to Plato's Republic 375a and 409c for comparison (p. 455 n. 65, The Republic of Plato, 2nd edition, New York: Basic Books, 1991).
  4. ^ Book 3, 414e–15c
  5. ^ Book 3, 415c–d
  6. ^ 414b–c
  7. ^ "Positive Liberty » Open Society VI: On Religion as a Noble Lie". Archived from the original on 2007-12-09. Retrieved 2019-01-15.
  8. ^ Seymour M. Hersh, "Selective Intelligence", The New Yorker, May 12, 2003, accessed June 1, 2007. Archived October 16, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Brian Doherty, "Origin of the Specious: Why Do Neoconservatives Doubt Darwin?" Archived 2008-07-25 at the Wayback Machine, Reason Online, July 1997, accessed February 16, 2007.
  10. ^ The Rise of the Politics of Fear; Episode 1: "Baby It's Cold Outside"
  11. ^ Plato: The Republic, Penguin Classics, translated by Desmond Lee, p177
  12. ^ pp. xviii-xix, The Republic of Plato, 2nd edition, New York: Basic Books, 1991.
  13. ^ Borras, Judit, Jewish Studies at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, BRILL, 1999, p 117: ".. the overwhelming consensus of modern scholarship is that the conquest tradition of Joshua is a pious fiction composed by the deuteronomistic school …"
  14. ^ Pete Enns. "Briefly, 3 Edgy Things about How the Old Testament Works". Pete Enns. Retrieved 2019-01-15.
  15. ^ Pete Enns. "3 Things I Would Like to See Evangelical Leaders Stop Saying about Biblical Scholarship". Pete Enns. Retrieved 2019-01-15.
  16. ^ Stanley, Christopher, The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach, Fortress Press, 2009, p 123: "Minimalists begin with the fact that the Hebrew Bible did not reach its present form until well after the Babylonian exile … most the that the story was formulated by a group of elites who wanted to justify their claims to dominate … In other words, the narrative [of the Hebrew Bible] is a pious fiction that bears little relation to the actual history of Palestine during the period it purports to narrate."
  17. ^ Carson, D. A. For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God's Word, Good News Publishers, 2006, p 19: "Many critics doubt that the account of Daniel 4 is anything more than pious fiction to encourage the Jews."
  18. ^ Jones, Maurice. New Testament in the Twentieth Century. p. 63.
  19. ^ Skousen, Royal, The Book of Mormon: the earliest text, Yale University Press, 2009, p x: "Outsiders generally consider this book [the Book of Mormon] a nineteenth-century hoax or pious fiction …"
  20. ^ Berkey, Jonathan P. (2008). The formation of Islam : religion and society in the Near East, 600-1800 ([Online-Ausg.] ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 286. ISBN 978-0-521-58813-3.
  21. ^ a b Crone and Cook, Patricia and Michael (1980). Hagarism: the Making of the Islamic World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 277. ISBN 978-0-521-29754-7.
  22. ^ Luxenberg, Christoph (2007). The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: a Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran. Verlag Hans Schiler. p. 349. ISBN 978-3-89930-088-8.
  23. ^ Brown, Jonathan (2011). The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim: the Formation and Function of the Sunni Hadith Canon. Brill Academic Publishers. p. 431. ISBN 978-90-04-21152-0.
  24. ^ Eickelman, Dale, Muslim politics, Princeton University Press, 2004, p 26: "Emendations and additions to purportedly invariant and complete Islamic law (sharia) have occurred throughout Islamic history…. Muslim jurists have rigorously maintained the pious fiction that there can be no change in divinely revealed law, even as they have exercised their independent judgment (ijtihad) to create a kind of de facto legislation."
  25. ^ Michael White, L. (4 May 2010). Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite - L. Michael White - Google Books. ISBN 9780061985379. Retrieved 2011-09-27.
  26. ^ Top 20 football chants (2006-12-21). "How December 25 became Christmas Day... - Features, Unsorted". Retrieved 2011-09-27.
  27. ^[dead link]
  28. ^ Pike, Fredrick, FDR's Good Neighbor Policy: sixty years of generally gentle chaos, University of Texas Press, 1995, p 79:
    "In the Depression era, a great many Americans, north and south of the border, succumbed to the pious fiction that underlay the Krausist-Areilist-Marxist nonmaterial rewards aspect of good neighborliness… Without the occasional seasoning of pious fictions, concocted by intellectuals who in their delusions of grandeur try to introduce elements of dream live into crude reality, might not the real world be a far more vicious jungle than it is?"