III. The Noble Lie
It was Fall, 2006, with a midterm election just around the corner. According to reports in the Washington Post, the GOP was not taking its “values base” for granted in part because of flagging support for the war, but also because of allegations in “a book by former White House official David Kuo saying that Bush aides dismissed Christian conservatives as ‘nuts.'” Once again, however, the GOP base held firm.
The accusor’s name, David Kuo, strikes a bell today with no one. His book Tempting Faith (2006) was forgotten almost before it was published. In it, David Kuo revealed that several high ranking officials in the Bush White House had ridiculed and poked fun at their evangelical political base. And Kuo would know. No self-promoting, left-wing pundit, Kuo had been appointed by President Bush to no less a position than Special Assistant and Deputy Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Kuo’s right-wing credentials are a mile long, including Deputy Policy Director for Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett’s Empower America.
Like its religious counterpart, Empower America was designed to spread the gospel of anti-Federalism far and wide because, in the end, all that America needed to make it strong again were tax-payer funded communities of faith and private enterprise. It fit perfectly into the conservative agenda to destroy the public sphere and so deliver America back to the private enterprise from which they believed it had sprung and to which it rightly belonged, not as an idea or ideal, but as property rights and hard cash.
Now, however, Kuo was exposing what could have been an election-eve bombshell. “National Christian leaders received hugs and smiles in person and then were dismissed behind their backs and described as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘out of control,’ and just plain ‘goofy,’” explained Kuo. According to Kuo, Karl Rove had once called the leaders of President Bush’s right-wing religious base “the nuts.”
But then the right-wing media rolled up its sleeves and got to work discrediting everything Kuo had ever said, done, or written. Kuo wasn’t a real Christian. He wasn’t a real Republican. Where was his evidence? It was his word against the word of Karl Rove—against the word of the President of the United States. End of story.
And, so it was. The story barely lasted a news cycle. The GOP lost ground, but not a vote was lost from its conservative, white, evangelical base.
What Kuo had witnessed, but had such a hard time wrapping his head around, was what Aristotle’s mentor Plato had called the “noble lie.” In his Republic, Plato explains how the “noble lie” can be used to get rulers to do the right thing, even when they are not so inclined. Plato wrote the Republic well after Socrates’ death, less as a reflection of Socrates’ own philosophy of government than as a post-mortem reflection on how any wise person should respond if he or she found him or herself in Socrates’ position. Plato felt that Socrates had acted unwisely. Socrates should not have publicly displayed such outright contempt for the very people who would be sitting in judgment at his trial. He should, instead, have behaved circumspectly. And, had he behaved wisely, Plato believed, Socrates would have escaped judgment and death.
Here’s how the “noble lie” works. We know that very few people have the time, education, and experience they would need in order for them to govern wisely. And, yet, this widespread lack of competence creates a serious problem wherever a government is composed by and for “the many.” This, of course, is formally true for any democracy. The question then arises: how can the good (though few) maintain the actual reins of government over “the many”?
For Plato, as we know, this was not an academic question. His own teacher, his mentor, the good man Socrates, had been tried and sentenced to death by “the many.” How do we prevent good men like Socrates from falling victim to the well-intentioned, but, nevertheless, incompetent many? The key, according to Plato, is to bring “the many” to feel that you are on their side—that you are just like them, except that you are “a leader.” Was this a lie? No, not exactly. For consider the alternatives.
Let us say that “the many” truly do not have the wherewithal to govern themselves in their own best interests. Let us say that they have not enjoyed sufficient training in civil engineering, medicine, law, biology, economics, city planning, geography, and transportation to make heads or tails of the legislation they have been asked to develop, debate, vote on, implement and enforce. Let us say, furthermore, that they have spent most of their lives in poor health, the victims of personal and collective tragedy, so that they are inclined to use their political power to set right the wrongs that have been done to them. Finally, let us assume that they work so hard and so long that, in any event, they scarcely have the time they would need to pay any more than passing attention to the common weal.
If this truly were the condition of “the many,” then it is likely they would govern themselves poorly and do both themselves and others a great disservice. Plato, therefore, sincerely believed that telling the truth to individuals who are subject to such unfortunate circumstances would not only be meaningless, but outright dangerous. Better to have them believe that you are genuinely on their side and have them grant you the authority to act on their behalf than to have them believe that you are their enemy and have them deprive you of the only means available for them to improve their circumstances.
Plato was almost certainly thinking here about the good man Socrates, whom the Athenians had wrongly tried and sentenced to death. Why had the Athenians abused this good man? In many respects, of course, Socrates was not at all unusual. So, why was he singled out?
Like other instructors, Socrates would normally have been retained by some small number of wealthy families to instruct their young men and prepare them to assume the responsibilities of leadership. A large part of this instruction consisted of helping young boys master civil procedure, law and custom—not only local custom, but also the role played by the Homeric gods in everyday life.
This was in all likelihood the most difficult part of their instruction. It was difficult, however, not because boys from leading families were unfamiliar with the lives and deeds of the Homeric gods, but rather because, perhaps like the well-educated and wealthy in every age, the leading families in Athens held nothing but contempt for the foolishness of the masses and their superstitions about the gods. So the trick for the good instructor was to show the wealthy boys of Athens how to feign reverence for the gods in public discourse and conceal their disdain for the backwardness of the common people. They would have to appear pious, all the while saving their irreverence for moments when they were safely among their own.
This delicate balancing act places the trial of Socrates in a different light. Was he guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens? Almost certainly. Was he guilty of impiety? Without a doubt. Was he guilty of treason? Yes, in all likelihood. Like all good instructors, Socrates too had serious reservations about the popular gods. And, like all good instructors, Socrates would have shared these reservations with his students. Where Socrates erred was in making known publicly what other instructors only whispered in private. Worse still, Socrates did not reserve his instruction solely for the school boys of Athens’ leading families. No, he took his instruction into the streets, where other, not so wealthy boys would surely be exposed to this dirty little secret of Athens’ leaders.
Why? Was it only because Socrates hoped to undermine Periclian democracy and restore oligarchic rule? Surely this was one of his aims. But, it was hardly his only or even principle aim. Socrates was driven by what he believed to be the truth. Athens, in his view, was being erected on a double lie. Not only were Athens’ leaders were not pious. (They were not even good.) But, to top it off, Athens was not a democracy. The people did not rule. Rather, they were deceived by Gorgias’ fine art, by rhetoric, public speaking.
But there is something else. In his all too public criticism of Athens, did not Socrates show himself to be more pious than the whole lot combined? More pious certainly than Athens’ leaders, who had absolutely no interest in the truth; but also more pious and devout than “the many,” who only wanted theater tickets, beautiful monuments, consumer goods and games, not the truth.
And, yet, Plato was not satisfied with his mentor. What, after all, had Socrates gained from his criticism? Did Athens’ leaders recant? Did her citizens demand that the oligarchy be restored?
No. What Socrates gained was, at best, an unjust sentence and a tragic execution, his own.
It is in this light that we have to view Plato’s “noble lie.” How are those who are not rulers to seize power from those who are? How are those who possess wisdom and know the truth to seize power from those who possess and know neither?
They will do so by relying upon one of their most reliable tools: rhetoric. Much as fairy tales told to children convey truths that would otherwise be too hard for them to bear, the wise will tell a story—literally “a falsehood” (pseudon)—whose form is required by the character of their audience. But, in this case the story has a double purpose: among those who lack the skills to see through the falsehood, the story will deceive; and, yet, among those who are sufficiently skilled, the story will reveal the truth. Ironically, Plato has Socrates propose this new use for Gorgias’ fine art.
“Now I wonder if we could contrive one of those convenient stories [pseudon ton en deonti] we were talking about a few minutes ago,” I asked, “some magnificent myth that would in itself carry conviction to our whole community, including, if possible, the Guardians themselves?”
“What sort of story?”
“Nothing new – a fairy story like those the poets tell and have persuaded people to believe about the sort of thing that often happened ‘once upon a time,’ but never does now and is not likely to: indeed it would need a lot of persuasion to get people to believe it.”
“You seem to be hesitating to tell us more,” he said.
“And when I do you will understand my hesitation,” I assured him.
“Never mind,” he replied, “tell us.”
Socrates’ students hesitate perhaps because the suggestion that they devise and spread a falsehood that aims to deceive seems so out of character for Socrates. Why is he asking them to lie? Why does Socrates hope that their lie will deceive “our whole community, including, if possible, the Guardians themselves?”
The answer is simple. If the Guardians are deceived, then, clearly, they are not suited to be guardians. In that case, even though they may still think of themselves as “guardians,” in their deception they in fact join “the many” who, like them, are deceived. Then Socrates (Plato) discloses the “noble lie.”
You are, all of you in this community, brothers. But when god fashioned you, he added gold in the composition of those of you who are qualified to be Rulers (which is why their prestige is greatest); he put silver in the Auxiliaries, and iron and bronze in the farmers and other workers. Now since you are all of the same stock, though your children will commonly resemble their parents, occasionally a silver child will be born of golden parents, or a golden child of silver parents, and so on. Therefore the first and most important of god’s commandments to the Rulers is that in the exercise of their function as Guardians their principal care must be to watch the mixture of metals in the characters of their children. If one of their own children has traces of bronze or iron in its make-up, they must harden their hearts, assign it its proper value, and degrade it to the ranks of the industrial and agricultural class where it properly belongs: similarly, if a child of this class is born with gold or silver in its nature, they will promote it appropriately to be a Guardian or an Auxiliary. And this they must do because there is a prophecy that the State will be ruined when it has Guardians of silver or bronze.
The whole story, from beginning to end, is a lie. But, who is it designed to deceive? Surely the children and their parents. That appears to be its primary audience. However, it is also designed to deceive those whom Plato calls “the Rulers” [archousi] who, for the sake of the public [polin, city], must be willing both to part with their own children and to elevate the status of others’ children.
Plato believes that he can place this deception on Socrates’ lips because its aim—the good of the polis or city, the public—is virtuous. Thus the Rulers, who are not inclined to do good, are made to do good to the extent that they are deceived by the Guardians. And the people are made happy not only because occasionally their own children will rise to the level of Guardians or Auxiliaries, but also because they will be governed well.
But, what happens when a Ruler is not deceived? Will he not take to the streets and expose the lie, just like the real Socrates? He might. And, yet, insofar as most of the people truly are deceived, were the Ruler to expose the deception, he would then bring upon himself the rage of the people. Far more likely then that the Ruler, perceiving the deception, would ally himself with the Guardians. He would protect their secret and become a willing mouthpiece of their deception—for the sake of the good and of the city.
The parallel between Plato’s story and David Kuo’s seems, at first glance, entirely coincidental. Surely no one in the Bush White House knew, much less made use, of Plato’s noble lie. Plato and Aristotle, Rulers, Guardians and Auxiliaries, in today’s America? The whole idea sounds extravagantly fanciful; that is, until we recognize the preponderance of “Straussians” who served as advisors and in cabinet posts in the Bush White House.
And what, pray tell, is a “Straussian”? We will have more to say about Leo Strauss, from whom Straussians take their name, later on. For the moment it is sufficient for us to know that Leo Strauss was a professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Chicago, a member of the Committee on Social Thought, whose belated fame derived from his fierce opposition to progressive social and economic policy and his trenchant criticism of popular democracy. And, yes, among his most cherished passages in Plato’s Republic, whose meaning and significance Strauss carefully laid out for all of his students, was the one quoted a moment ago.
And, who were his students? The full list of students and admirers of Strauss is too long to list here. An abbreviated list will be sufficient: there is, of course, former Bush Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Abram Shulsky, formerly of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans. And then there was Richard Perle, who served on President Bush’s Pentagon advisory board and Elliott Abrams of the Bush National Security Council. Then their were writers, publishers and editors such as Robert Kagan and William Kristol. But, there were also others—Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Justice Thomas—who, though technically not Strauss’s students, either sat in on his lectures or, at second hand, were drawn into his orbit.
Truth, in any sort of obvious sense of the word, was not the strong suit of these men. And, yet, recalling Plato’s tale about the noble lie, any sort of obvious truth would not only fall short of its mark. It would send the republic reeling, out of control, in the opposite direction. Good men would be sentenced to death and executed. The good of the people would be plowed under, a victim of imprudent idealism.
But there is something else that we need to remember about Strauss and about the so-called Straussians. Strauss was at his most productive and prolific in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. At that time, Wolfowitz, Perle, Abrams, Kagan, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and the others stood at outer fringes of a moribund Republican Party. At the time, such men and their ideas were completely out of the mainstream. And, yet, Strauss never for a moment neglected to remind them of how Plato finished his account about the noble lie.
“That is the story,” he told them. And then he asked, “Do you know of any way of making them believe it?” “Not in the first generation,” his student replies. “But you might succeed with the second or later generations.” But, hey, you have to begin somewhere, right? “Even so, it should serve to increase their loyalty to the polis and to each other. For I think I understand what you mean?”
Do we? Does it really matter whether it takes one, two, or three generations? The stakes are so high, the health and well-being of the public, that it hardly really matters. The truth is the truth, even when no one embraces it. Besides, sharing in the deceitful secret pulls all of us together. It may take generations of lying and deception before the public and their rulers are made into true believers.
Lying was not unique to the Bush White House. Nor is pandering to voters whom one secretly (or not so secretly) despises. And, yet, as we have already noted in chapter two, there is a point when lying becomes so much an expected part of public life that truth-telling and truth-seeking are seen as outward signs of inner weakness, signs that one is not really intent upon winning.
Plato came to think of his mentor Socrates as a good, but foolish man lacking in wisdom. Plato therefore spent the rest of his life writing dialogues in which he sought to redeem what he felt he could, placing on Socrates’s lips words that, over time, owed more to Plato’s genius than to his own.
Among those ideas was the idea of the noble lie, the lie that a wise politician is willing to tell to a public that could not bear to hear the truth, but a lie that is fashioned in the public’s best interest. The noble lie is born of the fact that most citizens do not have sufficient learning to know when they are being lied to, and do not have sufficient time, patience, interest or money to acquire that learning. And this simple fact places good men in a dilemma.
Since the many do not have sufficient learning, time, patience, interest or money to discern, pursue, acquire, and know the truth, they are just as likely—and perhaps more likely than not—to choose the lie over the truth. But this means that good men, in order to ensure that the good succeeds, must be more skilled at deceiving the people—for the good of the people—than bad men. And this means that the success of good over evil rests not with the people (as democrats often believe), but with the skill with which good men deceive the public into believing that they are on their side.
As we will see in a moment, this dilemma haunted the men who met in Philadelphia in 1787 to form a more perfect union. These men knew that they—as they immodestly described themselves—were the “best men.” They were the most learned, the most leisured, the wealthiest, as well as the most inclined among their fellow citizens to preserve and protect res publica, the “common weal,” the things they shared in common. And, yet, they also knew that not all men who sought and obtained power shared their republican values. So, in a very real sense, the dilemma Plato had presented two millennia earlier, and the solution he had settled upon, was, for them, as well, not at all academic.
How do you preserve res publica, when the vast majority of men are disinclined to do so?