Sense and Nonsense: On the Platonic Lie

The Republic of Plato is paradoxical in so many ways. We are astonished to read it again and again to find it the most up-to-date of books. Perhaps no aspect of this famous work is more curious than Plato’s varied discussion of truth and falsity, of lying to oneself and to one’s polity.

In Book II, the following important discussion occurs:

“What,” I [Socrates] said. ‘Would a god want to lie, either in speech or in deed by presenting an illusion?”

“I don’t know,” he [Adeimantus] said.

“Don’t you know,” I said, “that all gods and human beings hate the true lie, if that expression can be used?” “What do you mean?” he said.

“That surely no one,” I said, “voluntarily wishes to lie about the most sovereign things to what is most sovereign in himself. Rather, he fears holding a lie there more than anything.”

“I still don’t understand,” he said.

“That’s because you suppose I mean something exalted,” I said. “But I mean that to lie and to have lied to the soul about the things that are, and to be unlearned, and to have and to hold a lie there is what everyone would least accept; and that everyone hates a lie in that place most of all.”

A lie in the soul about what reality is all about, Plato suggested, is the thing we should hate most of all. On the other hand, Plato is also concerned about what we read and hear and dance, as if our soul might be corrupted if we do not also sense the truth in sound and motion. For us today, the very idea that we might be affected adversely by what we see, hear, or read is itself the great lie. So much so, that we construct our polities on the premise that nothing will really corrupt us except the idea that some truth exists.

Plato was quite aware that every political society was established on what he also called a “lie.” That is, each society had a description of its order of justice, of what it allowed or did not allow to be presented in the civil order. And this order brooked no alternative. Socrates himself had to remain a private citizen, as he told us in the Apology, because his vocation as a philosopher was seen to be contrary to the sort of liberty that established Athens, the liberty that took no position on the truth of what one held or did. This privacy of philosophic truth meant that it was dangerous to most civil orders.

Gregory Wolfe recently wrote: “The ideologies which gained entry into the academy in the sixties claim that the fundamental intellectual principles of Western culture are illegitimate and must be over-thrown. . . . The Marxists, feminists, and deconstructionists have made it clear that their prime enemy is the Judaeo-Christian tradition of metaphysics. With that destroyed, terms like truth, good, evil, and soul can be discarded.” This observation, that the fundamentals of our civilization are based in a definite tradition which stands for something, stands for truth, is more and more disallowed any presence in word and motion in our public order or schools.

Yet, Plato said, we do not want to be lied to in the sovereignty of our souls, especially by ourselves. We may or may not have the dramatic consequences of the end of Socrates to prove our point, yet there is nothing in the New Testament that says we won’t have a similar end. Indeed, the New Testament seems to suggest that we will be persecuted, that we are not free to lie to ourselves about truth.

Ironically, no political instrument has more brought truth into conflict with polity than that of “human rights,” which have increasingly become the instruments of the denial of objective truth in our civil order. Christians are loathe to recognize this because this expression, at least in some of its forms, such as natural law, has a long and noble background which is not based in relativism. However, ever since “abortion” (or more broadly, any lifestyle) has become a “right” we find that human rights have become in many ways justifications for deformations from natural right and law. It is not merely a question of “tolerating” what others might be or do, but of positively affirming that what they do is “right.” Indeed, we believe that we should restructure political reality to conform to this belief no matter what the classic position might be.

In this sense, then, our public order, seen as guaranteeing these newer “rights” and indeed promoting them, forces orthodoxy into calling the public order a “lie,” while the order of polity in its enthusiasm insists that it is truth because what is enforced is in conformity with whatever the people want.

” ‘All right,’ I [Socrates] said. ‘If we should assert that we have found the just man and city and what justice really is in them, I don’t suppose we’d seem to be telling an utter lie.’ ” What is paradoxical here is that we all argue in terms of our claims to have found the just man and city and what justice really is. Human rights are certainly argued that way today even when the right claimed is in some fundamental sense deviant.

The wars of the world take place over these issues and the ways cities enforce what they claim justice and right to be. Modern polity was undertaken to eliminate the dangers of religious or philosophic truth tearing everyone apart. Modern polities seem to be ending with the proposition that nothing is right but what we say is right. This is why, in our era, truth is called a lie, the possibility of which was already in Plato, that remarkable man who lived so long before our time but whose words seem ever prophetic, even in our own polities.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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