γενναῖον ψεῦδος

In politics, a noble lie is a myth or untruth, often, but not invariably, of a religious nature, knowingly told 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 (γενναῖον ψεῦδος, gennaion pseudos) in a fictional tale, wherein 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.[1]

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.”[2] 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. . . .”[3]

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.[4]

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