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Noble Lies & The Laws

It has been said on more than one occasion that “The Laws” represent Plato’s practical, worldly application of philosophy to the immanent domain of human politics. In making such an assertion, the speaker most often uses “The Republic” as an image of contrast, comparing the two dialogues in such a way so as to present the latter as the description of an ideal political order - a utopia - which contrasts with the earthy, pragmatic civil order described in the former.

Leaving aside the question of whether “The Republic” is most properly interpreted as a political work of institution building or as a text concerning the metaphysical, one subject that is brought to light by virtue of this comparison is the fundamental tension that exists between human perception and truth - particularly with regards to the use of one of the most infamous rhetorical devices implemented in Platonic dialectics, the Noble Lie.

The tension, if we might say that there is one, is brought to the audience’s awareness only through the unraveling of the Platonic conception of the nature of truth. This unraveling occurs only gradually, and primarily through the device of the Socratic method, by which the philosopher - the Athenian Stranger within “The Laws”, Diotima in “The Symposium”, and Socrates himself in the instance of “The Republic” - systematically questions and probes the perceptions of those with whom conversation is engaged. Through the process of this dialogue, the philosopher slowly reveals weaknesses in the beliefs of the dialectical partner by revealing the psychic and logical inconsistencies that have allowed them to maintain a perception of reality that is in conflict with itself. Most famously, it is Socrates’ challenge of Thrasymachus’ assertion that ‘justice is the interest of the stronger’ that may be used as an example; for in that case the companions whom were gathered in the house of Cephalus were treated to the thorough dismantling of an argument [“The Republic”, 338c-357a] as the older philosopher observed:

“[Thrasymachus,] Then you must also have acknowledged justice not to be for the interest of the stronger, when the rulers unintentionally command things to be done which are to their own injury. For if, as you say, justice is the obedience which the subject renders to their commands, in that case, O wisest of men, is there any escape from the conclusion that the weaker are commanded to do, not what is for the interest, but what is for the injury of the stronger?”

What is most deeply interesting about such Socratic exchanges, however, is not simply the rhetorical games of logical one-upmanship, whereby one speaker attempts to triumph over the other for the sake of honours by way of ‘making the strong argument look weak, and the weak look strong’. Rather, it is the strikingly different goal of the philosophical dialogue that distinguishes it from the practice of Sophistic rhetoric - a goal which is not triumph over an adversary, but rather the illumination of a matter in the light of the truth. By setting the goal of the dialogue on a plane that is outside of the psychic or somatic persons of the dialectical participants, the truth is liberated from a status as the possession of the winner of a dispute, and the dynamic tension is shifted away from the arguers and towards a transcendent pole. The tension of the dialogue, in other words, is not created by the pushing and pulling between the participants, but is rather created by their unfathomable distance from the truth; it is the truth which tethers the philosopher, and the Socratic method is only a means by which one may untangle oneself from the host of other such tethers which bind the temporal to the absolute.

This conception of the truth does not come without its difficulties however. As slowly becomes apparent through the Platonic dialogues, and particularly within “The Laws”, the philosopher, the statesman, and the theologian are continuously confronted with the impossibility of expressing the truth through words. The difficulty comes from two essential Platonic positions: i) that the truth - as conceived as an absolute, transcendent Form or ideal - is of unbelievable complexity and size, and ii) that human beings can - by their nature of being only participants within a larger reality - not contain, let alone express, the truth in its entirety. Humans are limited, while the truth is potentially unlimited; this is the essential tragedy of philosophy - that the philosopher can forever love Sophia (Wisdom), but will never possess her. Moreover, by virtue, in part, of the never-ending nature of the chase for Sophia, the philosopher will never actually obtain the transforming knowledge that would allow for the expression of the truth as it truly is; no matter how great the ardor one may express for Wisdom, one will never know her well enough to describe her charms and possessions - truth being among them [“The Apology”, 21a-23c].

If this is the nature of the human condition, then the statesman is then left with the quandary of determining how to orient the psyches of humanity towards the greatest good. How might one perform such a feat when the good itself is described as coeval with the truth - a divine possession that is beyond containment in a human vessel [“Laws”, 730c]? This then leads to a further quandary, how may one inspire friendship within a city when truth-speaking becomes a manifest impossibility? Furthermore, if the laws of the city are meant to inspire an awe for the good and the true [“The Laws”, 762e], what are the lawgivers to do in the face of the unattainability of truth? After all, given that the truth is beyond human possession, it is consequently beyond transmission from one person to another; in the context of Platonic understanding, the truth itself cannot be spoken, written-down, or demonstrated in any way. What humanity is left with - by consequence - is only the ability to speak with regards to things that partake of the truth; one may speak of something that is more or less truthful in nature, but the absolute truth of a particular thing is beyond expression due to its being merely an attribute of a much larger entity - the cosmos itself. But, if truth-speaking becomes an impossibility, what recourse is left to the statesman who wishes to provide a path to the good for the people of the city? How may one avoid unending conflict within a polity if daily life becomes subject to endless equivocations about the truth of one matter or another? When one man might stand in court and declare that he is not a liar, that he was only partaking in ‘a lesser portion of truth’ when he promised payment to a carpenter who was only ‘partially truthful’ in expressing a desire to be paid, what becomes of the political order?

These questions bring us once again to the subject of the Noble Lie, for its mere utterance would seem to be most grievously at odds with the psychic disposition of the philosopher. How then, do we make sense of such a thing? One might argue that Socrates and the Athenian Stranger - or perhaps their ‘stenographer’, Plato - were upset by fits of madness when they spoke the lies, or else that their arguments were as self-serving as those of the Sophists, and merely ‘prettied-up’ with high talk of truth and goodness. Another perspective presents itself however, and it might be described thusly: that all things spoken are ‘lies’ in the sense of only partaking in a greater or lesser portion of the truth, but that the virtue of a lie - as good or bad, just or unjust - comes from the intent of the speaker, and that it is the virtue of an act that is of greatest import, not its status as either perfect or imperfect [“The Laws”, 730c].

Since all acts - including acts of speech - are imperfect by nature, it is the virtue or invirtue that motivates an act that is of keenest importance. This is due to the Platonic understanding of the truth, which is in essence a fusion of Truth and Goodness. And because virtue is a thing which partakes of Goodness, by orienting one’s actions virtuously, one necessarily orients one’s actions towards Truth as well. Thus, when the philosopher speaks virtuously, though hamartia - hitting the mark - might be impossible, the arrow is at least being shot in the right direction. The invirtuous statement, however, not only stands no chance of striking within the vicinity of the target, it leaves the arrow stuck in the ground at a distance further into the hinterland than ever - and pity the individual who volunteers to go fetch it.

What is the Noble Lie then? If anything, we might say that it is a comedic, and self-conscious epithet. For, knowing that the truth cannot be spoken, the philosopher would know that all statements are in some sense lies - but that the nobility of a statement is its saving grace, for its virtue allows the arrow-fetcher to remain oriented towards the light of truth, and move perhaps a little closer to it.

Thus, armed with this perspective, we might analyze the passage:

“Athenian: Then the unjust life must not only be more base and depraved, but also more unpleasant than the just and holy life?

Kleinias: That seems to be implied in the present argument.

Athenian: And even supposing this were otherwise, and not as the argument has proven, still the lawgiver, who is worth anything, if he ever ventures to tell a lie to the young for their good, could not invent a more useful lie than this, or one which will have a better effect in making them do what is right, not on compulsion but voluntarily.” [‘The Laws’, 663d-663e]

We then might say to ourselves ‘Of course the lawgiver is lying! How could he possibly do otherwise? His heart, however, is in the right place, and thus he is at least orienting the children in the direction of goodness, and therefor truth.’; and there is the final caveat. For, even granted the noble intent of the lawgiver, it remains to the young to take-up the chase for the fallen arrow - an act of volition; not only must the will for the chase exist, but the missile must be close enough for their small eyes to spy, and then they must have the opportunity to propel themselves into action. The child’s act of searching is the experience that they require in order to inculcate themselves with some portion of goodness; they cannot be given it, but only begin grasping it through the experiential chase.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 16th, 2006 05:41 pm (UTC)
I've tended to translate "noble lie" as "whopper" in my own dialect, along with other "good of its kind" or "best of its kind" designations.

That said, I recently enjoyed this short book, and suggest that as perhaps a better translation: here, Plato is giving up on language to convey truth, and has decided to see if it can merely make people act in a certain way. Judging by intention is not judging in accordance with truth. And I'd point out that Socrates has more than a propositional relationship to truth: see particularly the short piece "Gorgias" and its ending, where myths are deliberately advanced as a better formulation of the good.
Nov. 17th, 2006 12:01 am (UTC)
Heheh. I'm not certain the Plato was 'B.S.ing' per se, but I would tend to agree with the point that he had given-up on language as a medium for Truth. If anything, he never seems to have thought that words were terribly adequate; why else subject yourself to penning a dialogue when a treatise is so much easier, unless there is a deeper point that's being made between the lines?

The Platonic dialogue is useful in a similar way to the Christian 'Mirror for Princes'-type volume was meant to be useful. While the 'Mirror for Princes' was meant to contrast the Prince to the authour's approximation of the revelations, the Platonic dialogues seem to be intended to convey the need for orientation towards the Truth though the experiential act of contrasting oneself to another philosophic spirit. For Plato, even knowledge gained via revelation can only be a shadow of God, for the true touch of divine Truth is beyond the capacity of mortals to withstand. Thus, even post-revelation (and Plato does seem to believe that he existed in a world guided by revelation, albeit misinterpreted revelation) there would remain a need to constantly contrast oneself against others in order to keep one's bearings in the quest towards the divine.

Socrates, on the other hand, seems to have been more accepting of the idea of revelation as a personal guide; he just didn't think everyone could expect to recieve it; philosophy was a reasonable compromise to that state-of-affairs. :-)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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