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The noble lie that takes place in Book III of Plato’s Republic seem to provide a simple explanation of why some people have a higher place in the social hierarchy than others; it also provides an explanation for why certain people are predisposed to do certain jobs. Socrates says it this way, “ All of you in the city are brothers, but the god, when he molded those of you who are competent to be rulers, mixed gold into them at their formation– thats why they’re most honorable– but all the auxiliaries have silver in them, and there’s iron and bronze in the farmers and other skilled workers” (3.415a).
Not only does this make equality impossible, it also shows that being different from what you come from isn’t necessarily the best, “ and if a child of theirs is born with bronze or iron mixed in it, they’ll by no means give way to pity, but paying it the honor appropriate to its nature, they’ll drive it out among the craftsmen or farmers, and if in turn any children are born from those parents with gold or silver mixed in them, they’ll honor them and take them up, some to the guardian group , and the others to the auxiliary, because there’s an oracle foretelling that the city will be destroyed when an iron or bronze guardian had guardianship over it” (3.415c). This lie requires families to be ripped apart, which makes me question if there would be any backlash from the families whose children were being taken. If there was backlash, what would happen to the city as a whole. I would assume that if enough children were torn away from the farmers and craftsmen, they would stop producing goods, and cause a total collapse of the city. The same goes for auxiliaries, if they lost enough children, the city might not have soldiers anymore. The guardians in particular would be an interesting case, since they would be the one in charge of this act, and would likely be fine taking children, until one of their own had to be taken.
Though the city cannot function properly without any one of the groups, without the guardians the city itself could not and likely would not exist. It is for this reason that Glaucon is right to give Socrates at least the first half of this answer when asked if the inhabitants would believe the story, “ there’s no way… at least for these people themselves. There might be one, though, for their sons and the next generation and the rest of humanity after that” (3.415c). As far as later generations being amenable to the practice, I seriously doubt that an act that heinous, whether it is meant in a good way or not, would be forgiven even after a generation or so. In fact, expecting it to be forgiven ever, let alone after only a generation, would likely breed hatred in the city. Not to mention the fact that this would likely be considered grossly unjust by the citizens, and would therefore violate the very thing that the city was founded to find.
Aside from those problems, this type of structure leaves the city without competition, and without competition there is no incentive for the citizens. This may sound elementary, but even with the guarantee of a certain job, lack of incentive gives all levels of the city no reason to want to do their job, or if they want to do their job, it likely won’t be done well. If something like this were to happen, it could result in the collapse of the city. There is also the problem of not being able to advance, which again would cause people on every level of the city to be mediocre. However, Socrates has an answer to all of these problems, “ first, I’ll try my hand at persuading the rulers themselves and the soldiers, and then also the rest of the city, that, after all, the things we nurtured and educated them on were like dreams; they seemed to be experiencing all those things that were happening around them, but in truth they themselves were at the time under the soil inside the earth being molded and cultivated” (3.414d).
It seems that the answer to all of the problems at least for Socrates is to set up some sort of military dictatorship in the city, “ once we’ve armed the offspring of the earth, let’s bring them forth with their rulers in the lead. And when they’ve come, let them look for the most beautifully situated spot in the city to set up a military camp, from which they could most effectively restrain people in the city if any of them were unwilling to obey the laws and defend against those outside it if any enemy, like a wolf, were to attack the flock” (3.415e). If we look at the power structure that has been set up inside the city, it seems like the wolf that attacks the herd will be coming from inside the city rather than outside of it. The noble lie severely limits the potential of the city in more ways than one. These people have no chance to advance,nor do they have any sense of self in this city. Everything belongs to the city, but if the people don’t believe in the city because they are so limited, what will become of the city?

21 Responses to “the not so noble lie”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Lindsey,

    I think you raise some good points re: the difficulty of implementing the best city. As to whether it will be remembered that families will be ripped apart after a generation, we’ll see soon enough what will happen to all of the adults in the city, anyway (or almost all of them). It may be that there won’t really be anyone around to remember the original transgressions (though obviously people will remember later families being dismantled, if and when it occurs).

    I think your point about the lack of incentives is a good one. There might be competition within each class, but one certainly can’t jump from class to class. So that brute fact might dampen one’s ambition dramatically. I think this is connected to your point about the loss of a sense of self. Who are you, really, if what you do makes little difference?

    You may want to look at the beginning of the second book of Aristotle’s Politics for more on these themes. Aristotle worries that the proposals in the Republic do not promote unity in the way that they are advertised; rather, they generate discord. And it’s even worse, as any unity they do generate is of an excessive kind; a city can be *too* unified, Aristotle says. Anyway, it’s worth a look.

    KH

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