In politics, a noble lie is a myth or untruth, often, but not invariably, of a religious nature, knowingly propagated by an elite to maintain social harmony or to advance an agenda. The noble lie is a concept originated by Plato as described in the Republic.
In religion, a pious fiction is a narrative that is presented as true by the author, but is considered by others to be fictional albeit produced with an altruistic motivation. The term is sometimes used pejoratively to suggest that the author of the narrative was deliberately misleading readers for selfish or deceitful reasons. The term is often used in religious contexts, sometimes referring to passages in religious texts.
Plato presented the Noble Lie ( , gennaion pseudos) in the fictional tale known as the myth or parable of the metals. In it, Socrates provides the origin of the three social classes who compose the republic proposed by Plato; Socrates speaks of a socially stratified society, wherein the populace are told "a sort of Phoenician tale":
...the earth, as being their mother, delivered them, and now, as if their land were their mother and their nurse, they ought to take thought for her and defend her against any attack, and regard the other citizens as their brothers and children of the self-same earth...While all of you, in the city, are brothers, we will say in our tale, yet god, in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule, mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious--but in the helpers, silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen. And, as you are all akin, though for the most part you will breed after your kinds, it may sometimes happen that a golden father would beget a silver son, and that a golden offspring would come from a silver sire, and that the rest would, in like manner, be born of one another. So that the first and chief injunction that the god lays upon the rulers is that of nothing else are they to be such careful guardians, and so intently observant as of the intermixture of these metals in the souls of their offspring, and if sons are born to them with an infusion of brass or iron they shall by no means give way to pity in their treatment of them, but shall assign to each the status due to his nature and thrust them out among the artisans or the farmers. And again, if from these there is born a son with unexpected gold or silver in his composition they shall honor such and bid them go up higher, some to the office of guardian, some to the assistanceship, alleging that there is an oracle that the city shall then be overthrown when the man of iron or brass is its guardian.
Socrates proposes and claims that if the people believed "this myth...[it] would have a good effect, making them more inclined to care for the state and one another." This is his noble lie: "a contrivance for one of those falsehoods that come into being in case of need, of which we were just now talking, some noble one..."
Karl Popper accused Plato of trying to base religion on a noble lie as well. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper remarks, "It is hard to understand why those of Plato's commentators who praise him for fighting against the subversive conventionalism of the Sophists, and for establishing a spiritual naturalism ultimately based on religion, fail to censure him for making a convention, or rather an invention, the ultimate basis of religion." Religion for Plato is a noble lie, at least if we assume that Plato meant all of this sincerely, not cynically. Popper finds Plato's conception of religion to have been very influential in subsequent thought.
Strauss noted that thinkers of the first rank, going back to Plato, had raised the problem of whether good and effective politicians could be completely truthful and still achieve the necessary ends of their society. By implication, Strauss asks his readers to consider whether it is true that noble lies have no role at all to play in uniting and guiding the polis. Are myths needed to give people meaning and purpose and to ensure a stable society? Or can men dedicated to relentlessly examining, in Nietzsche's language, those "deadly truths," flourish freely? Thus, is there a limit to the political, and what can be known absolutely? In The City and Man, Strauss discusses the myths outlined in Plato's Republic that are required for all governments. These include a belief that the state's land belongs to it even though it was likely acquired illegitimately and that citizenship is rooted in something more than the accidents of birth. Seymour Hersh also claims that Strauss endorsed noble lies: myths used by political leaders seeking to maintain a cohesive society. In The Power of Nightmares, documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis opines that "Strauss believed it was for politicians to assert powerful and inspiring myths that everyone could believe in. They might not be true, but they were necessary illusions. One of these was religion; the other was the myth of the nation."
"Plato has been criticized for his Foundation Myth as if it were a calculated lie. That is partly because the phrase here translated 'magnificent myth' (p.414b) has been conventionally mistranslated 'noble lie'; and this has been used to support the charge that Plato countenances manipulation by propaganda. But the myth is accepted by all three classes, Guardians included. It is meant to replace the national traditions which any community has, which are intended to express the kind of community it is, or wishes to be, its ideals, rather than to state matters of fact."
Translator Allan Bloom argued for a literal translation and interpretation of Plato's expression:
At Book III 414 Socrates tells of the need for a "noble lie" to be believed in the city he and his companions are founding (in speech). Cornford calls it a "bold flight of invention" and adds the following note: "This phrase is commonly rendered 'noble lie,' a self-contradictory expression no more applicable to Plato's harmless allegory than to a New Testament parable or the Pilgrim's Progress, and liable to suggest that he would countenance the lies, for the most part ignoble, now called propaganda..." (ibid., p. 106). But Socrates calls it a lie. The difference between a parable and this tale is that the man who hears a parable is conscious that it is an invention the truth of which is not in its literal expression, whereas the inhabitants of Socrates' city are to believe the untrue story to be true. His interlocutors are shocked by the notion, but--according to Cornford--we are to believe it is harmless because it might conjure up unpleasant associations. This whole question of lying has been carefully prepared by Plato from the very outset, starting with the discussion with old Cephalus (331 b-c). It recurs again with respect to the lies of the poets (377 d), and in the assertions that gods cannot lie (381 e-382 e) and that rulers may lie (380 b-c). Now, finally, it is baldly stated that the only truly just civil society must be founded on a lie. Socrates prefers to face up to the issue with clarity. A good regime cannot be based on enlightenment; if there is no lie, a number of compromises--among them private property--must be made and hence merely conventional inequalities must be accepted. This is a radical statement about the relationship between truth and justice, one which leads to the paradox that wisdom can rule only in an element dominated by falsehood. It is hardly worth obscuring this issue for the sake of avoiding the crudest of misunderstandings. And perhaps the peculiarly modern phenomenon of propaganda might become clearer to the man who sees that it is somehow related to a certain myth of enlightenment which is itself brought into question by the Platonic analysis.