For a long time I sought to trace the origin of the insidious but probably necessary concept of the life-lie, as expounded in Ibsen's "The Wild Duck." The life-lie is a falsehood that we embrace because it allows us to keep going. Something similar is found in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, though he ends up with the counsel that it is best to renounce such fantasies. Ibsen seems to hold otherwise: cling to the life-lie, because you will be worse off if you don't.
I found the answer to my quest in a most surprising text, the Republic of Plato. How can that be, one asks, since Plato created such a powerful image of the dangers of ignorance and illusion in the Parable of the Cave? Wasn’t Plato always firmly opposed to lying?
Well, not always. Plato insists that the Guardians, his ideal rulers, must be allowed to promulgate “Noble Lies” among the masses in order to control them. Indeed, it is their obligation to muster this device in the interest of the overall good of the commonwealth. The Greek philosopher specifically compares the administration of such falsehoods to a physician giving out medicine (compare Dr. Relling in Ibsen’s play). Needless to say, this privilege is not universally granted. The Guardians should not lie among themselves, and of course the lower orders must themselves be taught not to lie. (See Republic, 382c-d, 389b-d, 459c-e).
Following the example of breeding livestock, Plato advocated eugenics for human beings. In his ideal state the lower orders must be discouraged from having children by restricting their access to sex. Publicly, these unfortunates will be told that the right to have intercourse is randomly assigned by lot. In reality, though, the Guardians control the access by secret conclave.
This is not the only discussion of the Noble Lie (γενναῖον ψεῦδος, gennaion pseudos) in Plato’s Republic In a passage that occurs somewhat later he presents a fictional tale, wherein Socrates provides the origin of the three social classes who compose the republic proposed by Plato. Socrates speaks of a socially stratified society, wherein the populace are fed "a sort of Phoenician tale" which goes as follows:
“[T]he 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.” (414e–15c).
The allegory of metals is nothing less than a rationale for maintaining a caste system.
Socrates suggests 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” (415c–d). Thus the Noble Lie is “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.” (414b–c).
One should distinguish the Noble Lie from Plato’s deployment of myth to convey his ideas. His myths - such as the story of the Cave in the Republic, the Androgyne in the Symposium, and the Winged Soul in Phaedrus - are fictions that are meant to make vivid his philosophical points, which they complement. Such myths are not meant to deceive.
The first volume of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) offers a very broad-range critique of the philosophy of Plato. Even though he indicates the greatest respect for Plato as a thinker, Popper nonetheless sees him as the forerunner of totalitarianism. The Republic he views as a blue-print for an insidious form of social engineering, in which he elite Guardians will use all necessary means, fair or fowl, to manipulate the populace - all for their own good, of course. Among the devices in the armory of this leadership class is the Noble Lie.
Popper’s views have proved controversial and criticism has been leveled on various grounds. On critic is the English classicist Desmond Lee. In his 1955 translation of The Republic, Lee defended Plato against criticism based on the term Noble Lie, translating gennaion pseudos) somewhat improbably as "magnificent myth.” He wrote:
“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' has been conventionally mistranslated [sic] '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."
This rendering is a good example of how translations can be used to obscure passages that are deemed offensive in the original.
Popper’s contemporary Leo Strauss is known for his argument that serious writers write esoterically, that is, with multiple or layered meanings, often disguised within a carapace of irony or paradox, obscure references, even deliberate self-contradiction. Esoteric writing serves several purposes: protecting the philosopher from the retribution of the regime, and protecting the regime from the corrosion of philosophy; it attracts the right kind of reader and repels the wrong kind; and ferreting out the interior message is in itself an exercise of philosophic reasoning. (See Persecution and the Art of Writing, 1952). One implication is whether effective politicians could be completely truthful and still achieve the necessary ends of shaping their society. By implication, Strauss asks whether it is true that noble lies have no role at all to play in uniting and guiding the community. Are myths needed to give people meaning and purpose, ensuring a stable society?
In The City and Man, Strauss discusses the myths incorporated into Plato’s Republic, principles ostensibly required for the successful functioning of 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. In the light of Strauss’s overall thinking it can scarcely be doubted that he implicitly endorsed the Noble Lie.
In conclusion, it is tempting - perhaps all-too tempting to extend the Noble Lie analysis in various directions. Clearly, the propaganda of the Nazi and Soviet regimes exemplified the Noble Lie. As is well known, these “information services” practiced not only outright falsehoods, but also simply suppressed information judged unfavorable to the regime.
It has also been asserted that religion is simply another manifestation of the Noble Lie concept. The problem is the word “simply.” Not infrequently, religion has served as the handmaiden of oppressive state regimes. But it may also provide a context for discussions of ethical behavior and human destiny. Oftentimes, religious groups provide social services, including human fellowship, that the state cannot provide, at least not completely. And religion has proved the catalyst and patron for major achievements in art, architecture, and music.