Plato’s Republic and the persistence of the noble lie

It’s long past time to resign the great Greek philosopher’s vision of government to the ash heap of history, and yet the establishment continues to cling to something eerily close to his vision of a guardian class empowered with the noble lie.  Literally everything has changed since Plato’s day, but some things remain the same…

The legendary Greek philosopher and thinker, Plato, wrote one of the world’s most seminal treatises on the nature of government and justice somewhere around 375 BC.  Republic takes the form of what is now known as a Socratic dialogue, where Plato himself engages in a series of hypothetical conversations with the citizens of Athens and other city states.  These conversations are organized into chapters covering a wide variety of topics from the immortality of the soul to whether man is happier in a just or unjust state, ultimately laying out his vision for a successful government.  Considering there was nothing resembling the modern field of the political or social science, statistics, or basic economic concepts like supply and demand at the time, Plato’s theory of how governments arise, their purpose in ensuring justice, and the challenges they face remains incredibly insightful to this day.  Few have written better or more accurately on the topic.  The things he got right are astounding given the era, but alas the one thing he got completely wrong continues haunting us even now.  The pernicious idea of a benevolent ruling class empowered even to deceive the people simply will not go away, however many revolutions in human knowledge and government have occurred in the millennia since.

Plato begins by asserting that a state arises “out of the needs of mankind; no one is self-sufficing, but all of us have many wants. Can any other origin of a State be imagined?”  He initially describes these wants as food, dwelling, clothing, and other needs, which must be provided by a multitude of people, “We may suppose that one man is a husbandman, another a builder, someone else a weaver.”  Next, he asks how such disparate groups might work together successfully, “How will they proceed? Will each bring the result of his labors into a common stock?”  Or “will he have nothing to do with others and not be at the trouble of producing for them, but provide for himself alone a fourth of the food in a fourth of the time, and in the remaining three-fourths of his time be employed in making a house or a coat or a pair of shoes, having no partnership with others, but supplying himself all his own wants?”  This approach Plato immediately recognizes as absurd and inefficient, knowing that “there are diversities of natures among us which are adapted to different occupations,” and the number of possible occupations is far too vast, even in that ancient age, for anyone to do it all. He lands quickly on the concept of the specialization of labor.

The exchange of goods and services among these different people, however, also requires money and a class of traders, merchants, and salespeople to facilitate transactions, or else the artisan will be forced to “leave his calling and sit idle in the market-place.”  Nor is Plato content to consider a government that can provide only basic necessities.  He imagines much more, what he calls a “luxurious state” that offers “sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes,” as well as “the whole tribe of hunters and actors, of whom one large class have to do with forms and colors; another will be the votaries of music — poets and their attendant train of rhapsodists, players, dancers, contractors; also makers of diverse kinds of articles, including women’s dresses. And we shall want more servants. Will not tutors be also in request, and nurses wet and dry, tirewomen and barbers, as well as confectioners and cooks; and swineherds, too, who were not needed and therefore had no place in the former edition of our State, but are needed now? They must not be forgotten: and there will be animals of many other kinds, if people eat them.”  Plato is keenly aware his imagined state is growing quite large, and that eventually the land it occupies will not be enough to support all of the inhabitants.  This means the potential for war with a neighboring government, “a slice of our neighbors’ land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth.”

The question becomes, how can they mount the best defense and maintain an army strong enough to face off against all potential foes?  Can the common people he described, from the artisans to the merchants, band together and secure their own peace, or is something more required?  Plato concludes that the same principle of specialization of labor must also apply to the soldier, for “one man cannot practise many arts with success.”  He imagines a class of “guardians,” schooled in the military arts, the selection of which will “be no easy matter” because anyone granted military power and authority could easily turn it for their own ends, betraying the trust of the people and threatening the safety of the republic. To mitigate that concern, they must be brave and strong, well-trained and also “full of spirit,” “dangerous to their enemies, and gentle to their friends; if not, they will destroy themselves without waiting for their enemies to destroy them.”  Alas, “how shall we find a gentle nature which has also a great spirit, for the one is the contradiction of the other?”  “He will not be a good guardian who is wanting in either of these two qualities; and yet the combination of them appears to be impossible; and hence we must infer that to be a good guardian is impossible.”  At the same time, nature has furnished the world with creatures that seem to combine these disparate traits. A dog, for example, is “perfectly gentle to their familiars and acquaintances, and the reverse to strangers.”  He reasons that this well-bred dog acquires these traits because of an instinctual “love of learning.”

Therefore, a human guardian must do the same, and be a lover of wisdom and knowledge, what Plato calls a philosopher.  Taking advantage of this instinct, however, requires a rearing and an education. The natural gifts must be properly molded into their adult form; pernicious ideas are a threat the same way as guardians without the right gifts.  This makes him wonder how the state ensures everyone is learning the right lessons, when “we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up?”  No, “the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorized ones only. Let them fashion the mind with such tales, even more fondly than they mold the body with their hands; but most of those which are now in use must be discarded.”  Here, Plato gets incredibly close to George Orwell’s dark vision in 1984. The past is a risk to the future, and must be rewritten with the morality and goals of the state as their chief purpose. In his mind, “the founders of a State ought to know the general forms in which poets should cast their tales, and the limits which must be observed by them.”  This censorship includes the radical rewriting of even the greatest poet of that era, Homer.  His epic works like the Iliad and the Odyssey are not safe, because he tells of quarrels and injustices among the gods that could inspire the same bad behavior in the guardians and other citizens, all of which must be expunged, even excessive laughter, for “persons of worth, even if only mortal men, must not be represented as overcome by laughter, and still less must such a representation of the gods be allowed.”

Ironically, yet aptly for anyone recommending a government by permanent ruling class, Plato also insists that truth must be highly valued.  At least among regular citizens because lies can be “useful as a medicine to men,” but the “use of such medicines should be restricted to physicians; private individuals have no business with them.”  Thus, he concludes in one of the most timeless statements about how governments view themselves in all of human history, “If any one at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the State should be the persons; and they, in their dealings either with enemies or with their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good. But nobody else should meddle with anything of the kind; and although the rulers have this privilege, for a private man to lie to them in return is to be deemed a more heinous fault than for the patient or the pupil of a gymnasium not to speak the truth about his own bodily illnesses to the physician or to the trainer, or for a sailor not to tell the captain what is happening about the ship and the rest of the crew, and how things are going with himself or his fellow sailors.”

Since Plato wrote these words, the human race has advanced on almost any and all fronts.  We carried out the Renaissance, described as an age of enlightenment when superstition was replaced by rational thought and ultimately science.  We’ve created new methods of government founded on human freedom and choice, and yet many of us are still trapped in almost 2,500 year old thinking. Today, we refer to the guardians as the establishment, the network of elected officials, government, media, and academic elites, plus corporate executives, primarily in technology, and they wholeheartedly endorse the principles of the need to control information and the noble lie.  Consider the reaction to Elon Musk’s recent purchase of enough Twitter stock to make him the company’s largest shareholder, and potentially offer the ability to influence practices on the platform.  Mr. Musk is unabashedly free speech, embracing the necessity of the fundamental right enshrined in the very first amendment to our system of government.  He has criticized Twitter for limiting speech on their platform, and many observers expect him to push for more free and unfettered dialogue.  The establishment, however, almost universally believes this is a terrible idea, advocating the very same kind of censorship that Plato did over two thousand years ago, albeit in the guise of stopping misinformation and potential harassment.

The Washington Post argues that “Elon Musk’s vision of ‘free speech’ will be bad for Twitter.”  Ellen K. Pao, a tech investor, advocate, and former CEO of reddit, opines, “For those of us who care about equity and accountability, Musk’s appointment to such a prominent role at a platform that serves hundreds of millions of users daily is highly disconcerting — a slap in the face, even.” In her view Mr. Musk “punches down in his tweets,” displaying “very little empathy,” and his flagship company, Tesla, has had common “incidents involving racism and sexism” as if this has anything to do with free speech on Twitter.  Regardless, “There are clearly dangers to creating workplaces in which people feel free to say and do things that demean their co-workers. There are dangers to abetting such abuse on social media platforms, too.”  Besides, other tech leaders, “are turning against ‘free speech’ models that end up letting the loudest, most extreme and hateful voices win, driving others off the platforms.”  Ultimately, Ms. Pao believes the government itself must step in and save us from ourselves, concluding that “Musk’s appointment to Twitter’s board shows that we need regulation of social-media platforms to prevent rich people from controlling our channels of communication.”  The irony here couldn’t be richer given that The Washington Post is owned by the second richest person in the world behind Mr. Musk, Jeff Bezos.  Essentially, her argument is that certain approved rich people, abetted and vetted by the broader establishment, are free to control speech, exactly as Plato described, but Mr. Musk is not because of his unfettered vision.

Coincidentally, Ms. Pao’s article was published on the last day of the much hyped “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy” conference, where the establishment endorses a similar view prompted by their desire to save democracy itself, apparently from too much speech by ordinary people, or at least the ordinary person’s limited ability to separate fact from fiction.  The conference was attended by no less a luminary than former President Barack Obama who claimed that unfettered dialogue on technology platforms are a danger to democracy, something presumably the government and more stringent speech codes could solve.  “It’s very difficult to get out of the reality that is constructed for us,” he explained, also with no sense of irony. “It’s difficult for me to see how we win the contest of ideas, if in fact we are not able to agree on a baseline of facts that allow the marketplace of ideas to work,” he said while failing to note the assumption that “we” means him and the establishment, suggesting that their plan is to rig the game, much as Plato insisted.  The event was hosted at the University of Chicago, which described the overall discussions with “Panelists discussed the threats posed by technological advances, the tools and policies required to neutralize them, and the tension between free expression and the need to combat organized disinformation.”  This begs the obvious question:  What is the material difference between their arguments and Plato’s position, “Let them fashion the mind with such tales, even more fondly than they mold the body with their hands; but most of those which are now in use must be discarded?”

In President Obama’s view, we need to establish a “baseline of facts” to allow the “marketplace of ideas to work.”  How do we do that without someone deciding what this baseline is? In the University’s view, there is a “tension” between free speech and disinformation.  How do we sort out that tension without a censorship layer that enforces speech codes? It is difficult to see how any of their goals could be achieved without some form of censor that’s empowered to determine what is true, what is false, and what we are allowed to see, hear, and read.  They, of course, are the guardians in this warped vision of the world. They will set the rules for the censor, and you and I are there only to be protected from ourselves, not trusted to ascertain what we believe to be the truth based on the free exchange of ideas.  This necessarily leads to the noble lie.  If the government and the establishment can censor ideas they don’t like, or thoughts they deem dangerous, why not lie about them as well?

Overall, the lack of trust in the common people is the same as in Plato. Neither the participants in the conference or the broader establishment have truly accepted the real revolution in thought that has occurred since his day:  The far superior wisdom of crowds, that is individuals acting in their own best interest will collectively make better decisions and ultimately better outcomes than any anointed expert. Incredibly, this idea is also an old one.  It actually dates back to Plato’s student, Aristotle, as part of his theory of collective judgment in Politics.  In it, he noted that a potluck dinner, where every guest brings a dish, would result in a more satisfying feast than any single person could provide.  He wrote, “The principle that the multitude ought to be supreme rather than the few best is one that is maintained, and, though not free from difficulty, yet seems to contain an element of truth. For the many, of whom each individual is but an ordinary person, when they meet together may very likely be better than the few good, if regarded not individually but collectively, just as a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse. For each individual among the many has a share of virtue and prudence, and when they meet together, they become in a manner one man, who has many feet, and hands, and senses; that is a figure of their mind and disposition. Hence the many are better judges than a single man of music and poetry; for some understand one part, and some another, and among them they understand the whole.”  These ideas were codified into economics during the Enlightenment by John Locke in Wealth of Nations, and in government by the United States Constitution.

Taken together, the principles in both have launched the greatest advancements in the history of the world.  We are measurably superior today in every way from health to wealth, convenience to access,  communications to transportation, to all that came before. Putting this another way, we do not rely on Plato’s thinking for anything anymore.  We have advanced in every way, shape, and form imaginable since Ancient Greece.  There are even some who insist he should be cancelled for his whiteness and views on slavery, and yet some of his most backward concepts, privileging the view of an elect few empowered to herd us like sheep, remains prominent in establishment intellectual circles, among those who fancy themselves superior.  Alas, there are no guardians, only wolves at the door, who argue as they need to take away your rights, as Plato did thousands of years ago, so it is today.  The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems.

1 thought on “Plato’s Republic and the persistence of the noble lie”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s