The 'noble lie': An attractive option, but a bad idea

September 18, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

There is a story worthy of attention reported in "The Family" that gives the history of a brand of fundamentalism with a distinctive, elitist approach to evangelism. Surprisingly, one of the leading proponents of this style of saving souls is Charles Colson of Watergate fame, who now heads a very successful prison ministry.

According to Jeff Sharlet, the author, Colson uses a version of Plato's (or Socrates') "noble lie" to turn prisoners into new -- born-again -- creatures. To get results, Colson argues that churches should use a Marine Corps-like model to prepare believers for spiritual combat. They are, it is claimed, engaged in a war and must be trained as rigorously as soldiers in the fight against sin and darkness.

Colson's war-scare approach to evangelism might not be quite on the same level as a "noble lie," but it is an exaggeration of questionable choice. Plato -- through Socrates, in the third book of the Republic -- suggests that one way to maintain order in an ideal city-state is to use a form of deceit or useful lie to achieve this goal.


The theory put forward in the allegory of the three metals was that the ideal structure was based upon three classes of people symbolized by gold, silver and bronze. The gold were the rulers, the silver protected the city and the bronze were responsible for all of the needed crafts and labor. There was a problem in this arrangement. How do you convince everybody to accept this plan and cooperate harmoniously in such a structured system?

The solution proposed by Socrates was the "noble lie." This useful fiction was to be taught by the gold leadership to each generation until it became the warp and woof of social thought. Colson is just another minor player in the use of contrived thought control to accomplish supposed higher purposes.

This old idea is a bad idea as sadly, Socrates himself would learn. In Athens, the government changed dramatically and a democracy took charge. Socrates was accused of corrupting the minds of the young and charged in 399 B.C. by a popular jury of 501 members as guilty. Socrates had a choice of exile or death by hemlock poisoning. A democracy was thereby responsible for the death of one of the world's most provocative thinkers.

The "noble lie," or variants of such a theory of social control or social action, seems to raise its ugly face more frequently than desirable and always accompanied by tragic consequences. The silly and totally unfounded notion of "supermen" and "superior race" was made popular in Germany with the publication of "Mein Kampf" by Adolf Hitler. How such nonsense could become acceptable, to such a learned population, is still a mystery.

Another "noble lie" that became commonplace in Russia during Soviet control was equally seductive. According to Marxist ideology, communism was the wave of the future -- indeed -- part of the process of history itself and therefore unstoppable. The idea that a social process could claim the same force as a law of nature surely must have seemed arrogant even through useful. Hitler's "noble lie" survived less than one generation. Marx's Soviet experiment in the useful lie survived about two generations.   We need, at this point, to ponder if we, too, are not overtaken by the use of the "noble lie." Our subtle acceptance -- even pride -- in the use of "Manifest Destiny" (obvious fate) to dispossess Native Americans and Mexicans of their land is still downplayed as though it never happened. And, at this juncture, we are overly accepting of our temptation to continue to fight "wars of choice" and suppose that our pretentions to empire are not only excusable, but free of consequences.

Since its introduction in ancient Athens, the "noble lie" is still an attractive option. Worldwide, the leaders who have resorted to this fiction have met disaster and yet they are not deterred by historical experience from using such a flawed idea. The "noble lie" has never changed its character. It is still an old -- but bad -- idea.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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