Samson 1 Aaron Samson Pol.

4-A02 Professor Scott 1 February 2007

Justice and the Noble Lie
In Plato’s The Republic several interpretations of justice are given in the first book, each followed by a relevant discussion. The discussion of the idea that justice is “telling the truth and giving back what’s owed” establishes the idea there are circumstances where a man can and must be lied to for his own good. This idea of the “noble lie” informs the discussion of the class system of the city through the establishment of several lies that attempt to place each person in the class that he will do the most benefit to the society. In book one Cephalus gives his view that justice is not cheating or lying to any man and having no debts to the Gods or man (331b). What Cephalus means is that to live a just life one must not attempt to lie to any man for the purpose of doing wrong to him or withhold any debt for the specific purpose of. Socrates changes Cephalus’ definition, however, and interprets instead that Cephalus means justice is “…the truth and giving back what a man has taken from another…” (331c). This is a straight example of Socrates changing a person’s words for the benefit of his own argument, and as a result offers a contradiction to Cephalus’ argument: “If a man takes weapons from a friend when the latter is of sound mind, and the friend demands them back when he is mad, one shouldn’t give back such things, and the man who gave them back would not be just, and moreover, one should not be willing to tell someone in this state the whole truth” (331c).

Samson 2 Here Socrates gives the idea of the “noble lie,” or that it is perfectly ok and sometimes necessary to lie to someone to protect their well-being. Socrates attempts to prove that Cephalus’ idea of justice is invalid because such a counter-example could be offered. This definition is not wrong however, it is simply incomplete, and Socrates eventually guides the argument to the broader definition that justice is “Giving benefits and harms to friends and enemies” (332d). These definitions of justice illuminate the discussion of the city’s protection through the idea that it is ok to lie to the city to placate them against turning on one another. The first lie that Socrates proposes is that they convince the city that they have all been sent up from mother earth and are all brothers, so that if anyone attacks them the guardians will defend their land as if it were their mother and protect the citizens as brothers (414d). There is a difference between this scenario and the one Socrates proposes in book one, however. In book one Socrates proposes a case where it is necessary to lie for the good of the insane man. This “noble lie”, however is completely unnecessary for the maintenance of justice. There is a discrepancy between what Socrates originally proposed, that is, it is ok to lie in certain situations where it is necessary, and what he says now which is, it is ok to lie if it will make things better. Socrates continues his idea by proposing that they tell the people that each of them has had a different metal (gold, silver, or bronze) mixed in at their birth by the gods, and this is why they are honored differently (415a). This establishes a class system that is to be uncontested because it is desired by the gods, and also emphasizes the point that children may end up in a different class than their parents. Socrates’ intention is to make it easier to spot where children should end up and how each will do the most good to the

Samson 3 society by forcing the leaders to watch all the children carefully; however he inadvertently establishes that each person’s class is the will of the gods. This essentially eliminates the need for class competition if these ideas are accepted. Socrates is using this lie for the betterment of society, but he is again contradicting himself by setting up a lie that is both unnecessary and flawed. While one can be sure that lying to a madman about where his weapon is holds as an act of protection and prevention, this “noble lie” is unnecessary. It is perfectly reasonable to expect that people will naturally fall into the class that they are best fitted for. With the establishment of this permanent class system a heavy responsibility falls on the citizens to be realists and philosophers, instead of self-interested. Because the citizens cannot be expected to shoulder this burden, this creates the need for a wise leader; a philosopher king. It is expected that the leaders should ignore class differences by sending their own incompetent children to be farmers if that should be the case, while further making sure that the lower classes ignore their parental ideas of success for their children by holding them back if they are not seen as fit to be rulers. There is also the issue that even in a perfectly watchful society, children’s natures are not completely known until they are adults, and mistakes can be made. A child who shows promise at the beginning can be educated to be a guardian, though he is completely incapable. Through Socrates’ clever interpretations and arguments he establishes in book one that a lie to help a person when there is no other option is necessary, for it is done for a noble cause and a last resort. The idea premise is forgotten when the city in speech is being discussed, except for the fact that it is ok to lie if it doesn’t cause a person harm. The idea of the noble lie becomes skewed to establish the more Machiavellian idea that it

Samson 4 is ok to lie as long as it does more good than harm. The noble lie as it pertains to the city in speech is used in a way that compels people to obey, instead of the initial idea that it must be used as a last resort. This establishes the idea that in order to obtain the ultimate justice, certain freedoms must be sacrificed including the freedom to the truth.

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