If Plato openly spoke of the Noble Lie proposal, in what he took to be quite an imperfect society whose change he hoped and perhaps even worked towards, would he have himself really thought that the proposal would be apropos in his perfect city? Or would he just assume that the lower classes wouldn't read his work (or hear it recited) anyway, so they wouldn't find out about the policy from the outside (and on account of their own deficiency, then)? But the SEP article on Plato's myths reads:

Schofield (2009) argues that the guards, having to do philosophy from their youth, may eventually find philosophizing “more attractive than doing their patriotic duty” (115). Philosophy, claims Schofield, provides the guards with knowledge, not with love and devotion for their city. The Noble Lie is supposed to engender in them devotion for their city and instill in them the belief that they should “invest their best energies into promoting what they judge to be the city’s best interests” (113).

But if the guards have been philosophizing since childhood, won't they be accustomed to Socratic inquiry into narratives such as "different people are admixed with different metals"?

I am reminded of Matthew 13: "'Why do you speak to the people in parables?' ... 'This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.'" Yet then an explanation of the meanings of various parables is being openly provided by other parts of the text, and distributing the text to just about everyone becomes a prerogative of its followers. So what sounds like elitism from the inside of the words looks like a less undemocratic sentiment from the outside, again, perhaps.


3 Answers 3


I noticed that you mentioned parables in this context — and I don’t think a parable (a.k.a. allegory, a.k.a. metaphor) is meant to deceive. Rather, it’s the opposite — its purpose is to help the listeners/readers understand a certain concept. To that end, the parable emulates some real-world phenomenon — “emulates” as in works in a similar way. The hope is that when listeners understand the parable, they will make parallels and understand the real-world process it meant to describe.

The Plato’s Cave is good example of a parable.

As for the Noble Lie itself, I think it was offered as a solution to a certain problem, and we need to understand that problem in order to understand the solution.

UPDATE: Here is what I think that problem (and Plato's reasoning) could have been.

Like (I'm sure) many people before him, Socrates discovered that an average person's capacity for understanding1 is fairly limited. So much so, in fact, that they cannot understand their own condition even after one tried to point it out to them.2

Until we find a solution to the above problem -- until we find a way to teach everyone to understand -- the majority of people, as lacking this capacity, would have to be governed (Hobbes made a similar proposition in Leviathan). In Plato's ideal, the people who can't understand would be governed by those who can. However, since the people who can't understand cannot be explained the true reason why they cannot be the rulers, we convince them by telling them a Noble Lie -- that they must be laborers or guards because of metallic poisoning or something. Very naive, granted, but those were the early days and we were still coming to terms with the awful truth behind human condition.

1 Understanding should not be confused with learning. Everyone can learn, and most can learn to act as if they understand. However, as Herclaitus pointed out (DK B40), no amount of learning teaches a person to actually understand -- those are two distinct mental faculties, and having one in a good working order does not mean that the other one is properly developed. In fact, one can imagine that if a person excels at learning (i.e. has an excellent intuition) and relied on that faculty to get ahead in life, it might diminish their motivation to develop their capacity to understand -- or to be convinced that this capacity could be useful to them or, indeed, real.

2 Which was the purpose of Socratic inquiry -- to show a person that many of their central ideas are learned (statistical and, as such, unexplainable), rather than understood (rational). For example, ideally, a person's idea of what is right (the so-called moral truths) should be rational, coming from person's own understanding of themselves and the world around them. In reality, many people learn what is right by observing others' behaviour. This can create harmful runaway dynamics -- a bad idea gets regarded as more valid as it gains popularity, leading to further gains.

  • We live in a strange sooooper Victorian age... where gentility trumps everything else
    – Rushi
    Commented Feb 19 at 18:58
  • @YuriZavorotny What do you think was the "certain problem" and why does Plato's justification of lying solve the problem?
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Feb 19 at 19:03
  • I don't think that the parables were deceptive, exactly, but I think that it's ironic that they are accompanied by non-parable explanations in the text, which text was (is) meant to be widely distributed even to "simple folk." At one point, I considered that the real target of the obscurity was the elites of the area, who would fail to grasp both the parables and the explanations, or find the results distasteful (because of Jesus' anti-arrogance stance). Commented Feb 19 at 21:48
  • 1
    @KristianBerry -- I agree that the way Plato proposed it, the implementation of the noble lie is too crude to work. But maybe consider that the principle itself -- that the majority of people have yet to learn to understand and, therefore, must be governed -- endures to this day. Even living in democracy, we think we govern ourselves -- whereas upon a closer examination one might conclude that democracy only works to a certain degree. That there is someone/something else (not necessarily nefarious) pulling strings from the shadows, keeping our societies from tearing themselves apart. Commented Feb 20 at 18:44
  • 1
    ... and working, from the shadows, toward a larger goal -- to create conditions when we will finally figure out how to teach understanding to everyone and, thereby, learn to stand on our own feet. Commented Feb 20 at 18:47

A young mother who was friendly with the late Dr. Einstein wanted her child to become a scientist. She asked Dr. Einstein for his suggestions for the kind of reading the child might do in his school years to prepare him for this career. To her surprise Dr. Einstein recommended: He should read fairy tales.

The mother protested this frivolity and asked for a serious answer. Dr. Einstein said: If you want him to be a scientist read him fairy tales, and if you want him to be a good scientist read him more fairy tales.

He then explained: Creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and fairy tales are the childhood stimulus of this quality!

Fairy Tale about Einstein on Fairy Tales

I think the primary mistake is that we think great philosophers are trying to be great philosophers. But it's more likely they are striving for a better world.

As best as we know, Plato was as much an activist as an intellectual! Reminds me of Chomsky in our time — cut his teeth protesting the Vietnam war. Now has a citation index in the league of Shakespeare, Bible... And Plato!


In his work Republic Plato disccusses and designs a state according to his philosophical and political principles.

The citizens of the polity are divided into three social classes, the reigning class, the soldiers and the laborers. These classes are fixed, there is no social mobility.

  1. As a privilege of the reigning class Plato - speaking through the mouth of Socrates – stipulates (Greek, English):

    τοῖς ἄρχουσιν δὴ τῆς πόλεως, εἴπερ τισὶν ἄλλοις, προσήκει ψεύδεσθαι ἢ πολεμίων ἢ πολιτῶν ἕνεκα ἐπ᾽ ὠφελίᾳ τῆς πόλεως, τοῖς δὲ ἄλλοις πᾶσιν οὐχ ἁπτέον τοῦ τοιούτου: (Rep. Book III, 389b)

    The rulers then of the city may, if anybody, fitly lie on account of enemies or citizens for the benefit of the state; no others may have anything to do with it, […]

  2. Later on Plato gives an example of this type of lying (Greek, English):

    τίς ἂν οὖν ἡμῖν, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, μηχανὴ γένοιτο τῶν ψευδῶν τῶν ἐν δέοντι γιγνομένων, ὧν δὴ νῦν ἐλέγομεν, γενναῖόν τι ἓν ψευδομένους πεῖσαι μάλιστα μὲν καὶ αὐτοὺς τοὺς ἄρχοντας, εἰ δὲ μή, τὴν ἄλλην πόλιν; (Rep. Book III, 414b)

    “How, then,” said I, “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?”

  3. Now Socrates tells the myth about the origin of the three classes: All citizens have been brought up below the earth, where their class has been fixed on the base of different metallic mixtures in their nature. What the citizens remember from their early life and their education in the city were only a dream.

  4. In Plato's later work “The Statesman” one of the speakers, “the stranger” from Elea, recalls the myth and confirms that he believes its truth (Pol. 271a).

    To answer the title question of the OP’s post: It is open who the stranger is and to which degree Plato identifies himself with the truth of the myth.

    Nevertheless, Plato in the Republic openly states that the myth is a lie, but that this lie should be told for the benefit of the city.

  5. This is an early example from the history of propaganda: A political philosopher justifies the official spreading of “fake news” with the national interest. However, his sole goal is to manipulate his fellow citizens to enforce his totalitarian ideology by internalizing his anthropology.

    A classic of ideological critique is Karl Popper: The Open Society and its Enemies: The Spell of Plato.

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