“How, then...might we contrive one of those opportune falsehoods of which we were just now speaking, so as by one noble lie to persuade if possible the rulers themselves, but failing that the rest of the city?...Nothing unprecedented, but a sort of Phoenician tale, something that has happened ere now in many parts of the world, as the poets aver and have induced men to believe, but that has not happened and perhaps would not be likely to happen in our day and demanding no little persuasion to make it believable....I hardly know how to find the audacity or the words to speak and undertake to persuade first the rulers themselves and the soldiers and then the rest of the city, that in good sooth all our training and educating of them were things that they imagined and that happened to them as it were in a dream; but that in reality at that time they were down within the earth being molded and fostered themselves while their weapons and the rest of their equipment were being fashioned. And when they were quite finished 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.”
“It is not for nothing,” he said, “that you were so bashful about coming out with your lie.” Plato, Republic, 414B-E (Shorey's translation)
In this post I want to reflect on what the doctrine of Noble Lies reveals about Plato's understanding of political philosophy. But before I get to that, I will ignore the controversies about hidden doctrines/esotericism/Straussianism. (Yes really; that's not a coded message!) Perhaps, what follows is also ready well known to students of Plato, but in preparing for class, I realize, that the main point of the Noble Lie is actually explicitly stated in the myth: to get people to sacrifice their lives for others in defense of the polity. That is, the Noble Lie is explicit that the ultimate defense of the state will benefit other citizens. What's remarkable about this, is that it's true. It is also notable that the Noble Lie does not disguise that the patriotic sacrifice benefits others (rather than just the more abstract state).
I want to elaborate on the previous paragraph. But I do not want to disguise some of the peculiarity of the rest of the Noble Lie, which entails that (i) the reality of lived experience is a kind of successful simulation -- there are strange echoes with the cave analogy here -- and (ii) that the truth is that we come preformed into the surface world (a thought that Hobbes exploits in his treatment of the state of nature in De Cive, where he treat people as emerged from the earth, and suddenly, like mushrooms, come to full maturity (De Cive, ch. 8, 1)). I call this 'peculiar' not just because it is so hard to imagine that this would be really believed, but also because (iii) the rulers are also supposed to buy into it. That is, nobody in society is expected to see through the myth, which is, then, de facto, an origin myth in both senses: (a) it tells the story of human origins and (b) it is an ideology that is part of the original founding of the state (derived from Socrates).
Okay, let's return to the main thread here. As I said, the Noble Lie is explicitly aimed at encouraging the ultimate sacrifice on behalf others. In fact, it's pretty clear that the rationale for the Noble Lie is not to encourage the totalitarian use of propaganda for any purpose. Rather, the purpose is to defend the survival of the state when it requires a willingness to sacrifice one's life in the defense of others. (I think here Socrates is also tacitly relying on the thought that one always has the option to flee the battlefield or go into exile.) Of course, the practice of Noble Lying can be abused in practice, and so one wonders why it is introduced at all. In particular, recall, that the whole point of the ship of state analogy is to argue that one of the main problems of a direct/popular democracy is that truthful politics is impossible [recall here].
I think the answer lies in the thought that Socrates clearly insists that this particular end -- the requirement that one is willing to sacrifice one's life to ensure that others can thrive in the state's survival -- justifies the means (some deception). And the underlying thought seems to be, and this is why I mentioned Hobbes already, that without the survival of the state nobody can enjoy any fruits of existence. I think this fits Socrates's/Plato's more general rejection of what I have labeled 'rustic wisdom'--and the clear preference for urbane/city life (Phaedrus, 230D).*
Before I close with Spinoza, just one more point: I call the Noble Lie a species of 'ideology' and not 'civic religion.' I take the latter, which is very important to Socratic political thought, to involve no falsehood. Civic religion provides images of the good/true for the masses, but does not engage in falsehood. The Noble Lie -- while really speaking the most important political truth** -- uses false means.+
In the preface Theological Political Treatise, Spinoza attacks the use of Noble Lies to encourage the ultimate sacrifice:
It may indeed be the highest secret of monarchical government and utterly essential to it, to keep men deceived, and to disguise the fear that sways them with the specious name of religion, so that they will fight for their servitude as if they were fighting for their own deliverance, and will not think it humiliating but supremely glorious to spill their blood and sacrifice their lives for the glorification of a single man. But in a free republic, on the other hand, nothing that can be devised or attempted will be less successful. For it is completely contrary to the common liberty to shackle the free judgment of the individual with prejudices or constraints of any kind. Spinoza, Preface, Theological Political Treatise 7 (Translated by Michael Silverthorne and Jonathan Israel)
I don't mean to ignore the fact that a (Christian) monarchy is not a Platonic Kallipolis. Nor to deny the differences between really existing religions and Socrates's fable. The point is rather that on Spinoza's account the function of religion in a monarchy is to produce the kind of effects of Socratic Noble Lie. But that in a monarchy only one person really benefits--namely the one who is not asked to sacrifice (the monarch). That is to say, for Spinoza a monarchy requires something like religion in order to survive.
I introduce Spinoza not to compare religion to Noble Lies. But rather that Spinoza plainly asserts that one can have a society without the need for such a Noble Lie. His claim is that in a true republic a reign of truth is possible because people will be willing to sacrifice themselves for distant others and do so knowingly without propaganda or ideology.** For all I know Spinoza is right about this possibility (and he surely was influenced by some Roman republican examples). But it is a notable empirical fact that most republican-democratic governments have not trusted Spinoza's advice.
*The contrast is not as it were the country-side as such, but forms of political anarchism. (Of course, the words are spoken outside the city-walls, so there is more to the story than this.)
**Okay, I apologize there are shades of Strauss right here.
+One may object that it is not really ideology if the ruling elites don't really benefit from it (after all they are the ones doing the fighting and in the best city they have no property, etc.).
**This paragraph is compatible with the further thought that he thinks that the masses may well need a providential civic religion that is not knowingly false. (I leave aside here the further question about Spinoza's use of esotericism.)