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Noble and not so Noble Lies
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-04-23 08:02:11
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On April 20, there appeared in Ovi magazine an interesting article by Dave Keating originally published in both Newropean magazine and a blog site called Gulf Stream Blues on April 3 2012. It was titled “America and the Lying Problem: Are we Entering the Fact Free Century?”

The title says it all. In it Keating laments the propensity by right-wing Republican candidates for president to simply ignore facts (empirically, or rationally and logically arrived at) and simply manufacture and propagate outright lies with little if any challenge by the media. He also asserts that such an attitude by politicians running for the highest office of the land would not be so easily tolerated in Europe. That may be so, but I reminded Dave Keating, via a comment posted under the article, that Machiavelli who promoted the idea that the end justifies any means by the state, was not an American but a European.

However, in all fairness it bears mentioning here that Keating’s blog has as a subtitle: observations of an American in Europe. That puts him in a unique position to compare and judge and lends him credibility. Nevertheless, as I hinted in the above mentioned comment, lying construed in a Machiavellian mode is ultimately in the eye of the beholder and the intentions of the liar. The rationalization seems to be this: if the ends are noble and worthy, then a lie said for that end and specifically for the love of one’s country is amply justified. In more modern terms such an ethical approach toward lying for political reasons can also be construed as utilitarian, that is to say, the results are what count, never mind intentions and means.

 Such approaches would be rejected as specious by the deontological ethics such proposed by Immanuel Kant. He would insist that categorical imperatives,  such as that of never to lie under any circumstances, are universal and are one’s duty to be considered such at all times. But even within that universalistic approach there are disagreements. Some neo-Kantian philosophers distinguish between prima faciae duties in conflict with each other and suggest that we need to establish and observe priorities when such is the case. They point out that the guidance of ethics is needed exactly when duties and values are in conflict. For example, if one is hiding a Jewish family in one’s attic and the Gestapo knocks at the door to inquire, one may weight the value of duty toward life in general against the value of being truthful at all times and favor the former over the latter. So even as a deontologist one has a loophole available when it comes to lying. Kant would of course counter that to begin down the slippery slope of lying, even that of telling white lies to avoid inconveniences to oneself, is to contribute to the undermining of the general trust and the very foundations of a civilization or a community.

To come down to concrete examples of American politics, I suppose the crux of the problem lies in the now accepted political demonizing of one’s adversary introduced by the Tea Party some two years ago and still going on. In other words, when the lie is told by oneself or one’s party, it is a noble lie, when it is told by one’s opponent then it is slander or pernicious propaganda. Hence the sad spectacle of congressman Wilson from South Carolina yelling “you lie” to President Obama as he delivered a state of the union speech before Congress. It would never have occurred to him to do like-wise to a Republican president; in his mind,  a Republican president would ipso facto be a real bona fide patriotic American and he would only be capable of noble lies concocted  for the common good. One may now begin to wonder what  ever happened to the old myth about George Washington, that he never told a lie. But wait a minute, isn’t that myth too a falsehood or a lie? It appears that we have a real conundrum on our hands, which, if truth be told, goes back to Plato’s Republic, the first philosophical tract to talk about noble lies.

In fact, in The Republic 414 b-415 d, Plato talks about the noble lie, a phony reality given to the people  for their own good. Some have interpreted this function as the very role of Socrates, to corrupt the youth of Athens with a noble lie, thus explaining why he was put to death. So, lo and behold, we find out that Plato precedes Machiavelli in dealing with this conundrum by some 2000 years and a case can be made that Machiavelli is closer to Kant when he unmasks the myth of the noble lie and ideals on paper which are then disregarded in practice, and proceeds to tell things political exoterically and realistically, just as they are, as they have always been; that is to say, from time immemorial might is right and the end justifies the means.

Many have in fact criticized the dissemination of information from ruling body to constituency as mere propaganda, assertions aimed at convincing the target audience of a specific agenda. The prevailing logic seems to be this: governments should keep their citizens ignorant of sensitive data that could potentially distract them from what is paramount: promoting the stability of the state. The public, primarily concerned with following its immediate interests, is ill equipped to dictate the fate of a nation; that is reserved to philosopher kings.

Curiously enough, Platonic thought follows this line of elitist argumentation, claiming common laborers and ordinary people do not possess the training, nor the constitution required to properly rule, nor would they ever. Administering the government is simply not within their nature. What sort of individual would then be qualified to fulfill the role of legislator? Plato is not comfortable to leave such a decision up to chance or even up to a democratic selection; rulers are not found, they are cultivated. Dividing the population into three distinct groups: producers, auxiliaries, and guardian-rulers, Plato outlines the steps necessary to establish the best city imaginable. Most importantly, the founders of this perfect city must convince the inhabitants that they should not strive for more than they are capable, a daunting task given the covetous envious nature of humanity.

How could such a Herculean feat be accomplished? Plato believed his doctrine of the Noble Lie held the answer, persuading the people of a falsehood, so that a greater good than satisfying their immediate desires could be met. To contemporary society, which espouses the belief that all things are possible for the individual willing to apply themselves, the notion of sanctioning a rigid caste system seems counter-intuitive. They prefer Machiavelli’s transparency.  For Plato, on the other hand, for the sake of the common good, individual freedoms must submit to the will of the community. That of course goes against the grain of rugged individualism and self-reliance buttressed by the guns one owns with which to “stand one’s ground even against what one perceives as a tyrannical state. Enter the Tea Party, and the rest is history. Vico would describe such a situation as one of decadence, what he dubbed “the barbarism of the intellect.”

There are in Plato identifiable traditional myths, such as the story of Gyges (Republic 359d–360b), the myth of Phaethon (Timaeus 22c7) or that of the Amazons (Laws 804e4). Sometimes he modifies them, to a greater or lesser extent, while other times he combines them. There are also in Plato myths that are his own, such as the myth of Er (Republic 621b8) or the myth of Atlantis (Timaeus 26e4). Many of the myths Plato invented feature characters and motifs taken from traditional mythology The majority of the myths he invents preface or follow a philosophical argument: the Gorgias myth (523a–527a), the myth of the androgyne (Symposium 189d–193d), the Phaedo myth (107c–115a), the myth of Er (Republic 614a–621d), the myth of the winged soul (Phaedrus 246a–249d), the myth of Theuth (Phaedrus 274c–275e), the cosmological myth of the Statesman (268–274e), the Atlantis myth (Timaeus 21e–26d, Critias), the Laws myth (903b–905b).

The question arises: why did Plato who in many instances in his dialogues expressed the desire to replace Homer and his poetry with rational philosophy, as the teacher of Hellas, then resorts to myths or noble lies? The answer seems to be that as a philosopher he did not believe that philosophy should be an esoteric discipline for the few and the chosen (as a Leo Strauss believed, for example) but that he should share his philosophy with others. But since others may sometimes not follow his arguments, Plato is ready and willing to provide whatever it takes—an image, a simile, or a myth—that will help them grasp what the argument failed to tell them. In some way, he becomes a competitor with Homer whom he recognizes as a poet and a teacher.  The myth or an image, or analogy becomes a good teaching tool, just as it was for Homer. Myth can indeed embody in its narrative an abstract philosophical doctrine as Vico, the one who truly understood the true nature of the myth, has well taught us in his Scienza Nuova. A whole book in that work is dedicated to Homer and poetic thinking.

In the Phaedo, Plato develops the so-called theory of recollection (72e–78b). The theory is there expounded in rather abstract terms. The eschatological myth of the Phaedo depicts the fate of souls in the other world, but it does not “dramatize” the theory of recollection. The Phaedrus myth of the winged soul, however, does. In it we are told how the soul travels in the heavens before reincarnation, attempts to gaze on true reality, forgets what it saw in the heavens once reincarnated, and then recalls the eternal forms it saw in the heavens when looking at their perceptible embodiments. Among other things, the fantastical narrative of the myth helps the less philosophically inclined grasp the main point of Plato's theory of recollection, namely that “knowledge is recollection”.

In conclusion to this cursory examination of the Noble Lie it can perhaps be stated that it will yield various truths concerning American politics. Amongst them, how seemingly “noble falsehoods” are used as a means of meeting dubious ends. It also has implications on how one conceives philosophy, as an esoteric or as an exoteric discipline. The choice one makes in that regard will in turn lead to different implications concerning the future of American and, more generally, Western politics; for indeed both the US and the EU, for better or for worse, are in the same boat called Western Civilization.


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Emanuel Paparella2012-04-23 17:00:58
A footnote if I may: what I find most reprehensible and sad about the current political climate is the facility with which people brand each other as “inveterate liars” and then fail to demand a retraction or an apology for the gratuitous accusation in the light of the facts empirically proven. Which makes one conclude that “noble lies” are considered normal for the achievements of one’s political goals assumed to be for the common good; that is to say, one lie cancels another. At that point the decline of a whole civilization has already begun, as Vico aptly reminds us.

Emanuel Paparella2012-04-23 17:15:17

Footnote n. 2: a concrete example of a noble lie: I just received this morning an e-mail being banded around which claims that welfare mothers in Illinois receive from the state $1,200 per dependent child monthly. It then goes on to narrate a supposedly true event in an hospital emergency room about an unwed mother who is still in her twenties and is there for the birth of her eight child. It then calculates that for eight children she would receive welfare aid of $144,000 per year to then pass to the interpretation that we have plenty of welfare mothers in our country who are motivated to procreate simply to get a bigger check and that it is the Democratic party who makes it all possible. If one bothers to check the facts one immediately notices that the number has simply been tripled: the state of Illinois does not offer $1,200 per dependent child but more like $400 per child a bit more or a bit less depending on their age. So the annual aid to a mother with eight dependent children is more like $38,000 not $144,000 as claimed. That is to say, the numbers have been cooked. I suppose that is called a “noble lie” to assure that the Republican party wins back the White House in November; of course, if it came from the Democratic party it would be reprehensible propaganda. O tempora, o mores, Cicero would exclaim. He must be turning in his grave!

Prof. R.Griffin2012-04-23 19:06:20
Interesting discussion.When political campaigning would chain us all to the cave of opinion and insist we all dance to shadows on the wall; i.e. disconnected symbols, slogans, etc., well, yes, I guess Plato's point is well taken: breaking the chains and seeking a sunny, philosophical alternative can be pretty risky business. The "noble lie?" and is that anything other than trading the chains of the cave for the lies of "the nobility?" What's left to choose? "Choose life," is the best ancient command.

Commoner2012-04-23 19:28:06
>Machiavelli who promoted the idea that the end justifies any means by the state...

In *fact* Machiavelli argued that the *good* end justifies the means *by anyone*.

The article might sound more convincing if it did not reduce the problem of political/exoteric speech to a defense of one political party against another.

Emanuel Paparella2012-04-23 19:46:27
Indeed Mr. Commoner, so would the e-mail I received this morning with an outright "noble lie" on behalf of the Republican party... Moreover, as I read Machiavelli, he advocates one ethics for the individual and one for the state. All that is elucidated in his famous book "The Prince" which is not a tract on individual principles of ethics but one on political science.

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