Republic Outline XI, Book II
Prof. Bill Long 9/9/05
Finishing Book II
S has just explained the first "law" of guardian education: stories about gods and heroes must present a pattern that is imitable and wholesome for the young. Because the gods are good, and nothing good is harmful, the stories showing that gods harm people must be censored. "He alone (a god) is responsible for the good things, but we must find some other cause for the bad ones, not a god" (379c). But then S seems to relent just a bit. His basic principle is that stories of harm visited upon a person are not the work of a god. "Or, if they are, then poets must look for the kind of account of them that we are now seeking, and say that the actions of the gods are good and just, and that those they punish are benefited thereby" (380b).
S then turns to the "second law" (380d). The gods are simple and least likely to step out of their form. They are least liable to alteration or change because the good and the strong are least likely to change. Hence, all those stories of gods appearing in the likeness of strangers or apearing in every sort of shape to visit humanity must also be excised (381d). "Nor must mothers, believing bad stories about the gods wandering at night in the shapes of strangers from foreign lands, terrify their children with them" (381e). These stories both blaspheme the gods and make children more cowardly.
Truth and the Role of Falsehood, 382a-383c
By the time we get to this point in the account, the concept of truth is beginning to take it on the chin. Or, to put it differently, truth or falsity of the stories poets relate is secondary to the moral lesson the stories teach. They cannot teach that gods bring harm on humans or that gods are changeable. The issue is the moral health of the next generation and, hence, the society as a whole. Stories must be told, whether they are "true" in the strict sense or not, that make sure the society continues. We don't want to bring confusion to our children, and allegories telling unworthy stories about the gods confuse children. So, paradoxically speaking, the poets can't tell "falsehoods" of the gods, even if they are "true" stories, but we, in our society now, can tell "falsehoods" if it leads to "truth." At least that is what S is going to say in the final section of Book II.
In the remainder of the book S introduces a concept that will be picked up in Book III--the utility of falsehood. Though he says that what he is trying to say is not something "deep" (382b), I find the text nearly impenetrable here. S talks about a true falsehood, and I think what he is trying to do is to come up with a defense for his statement in 382d that falsehood can be useful for people in dealing with each other. That is, you would think that Plato, for all his emphasis on virtue and justice and moral living would consider truth-telling to be rather central to this endeavor. But, as we will see further in Book III, he doesn't. I think he has to try to come up with a rationale of why he doesn't consider truth-telling so central to his enterprise. Here is what I think he is saying in 382a-c.
1) To be false in one's soul about the way things are is what we least want. But sometimes we are ignorant about the fact that falsehood reigns within. That is, we simply don't see that we are controlled by falsehood.
2) This falsehood is a "true falsehood" because even though we are clinging to something false, we don't recognize it as being false. So, it really doesn't "damage" us, I suppose. This is what I think S is trying to say, and it fits in with the explanation of the "noble lie" in Book III.
3) Falsehood in words, then, is simply an "imitation" of the falsehood of the soul and therefore is not so damaging (? I am not sure of this point). Thus, falsehood in words might possibly be permissible. Then, when it is combined with the next point, that falsehood actually can be useful, we see that falsehood has its uses.*
[*Am I being a little false in this explanation by not using the word "lie" instead of the softer word "falsehood"?]
The Useful Lie
Thus, S has tried to show that a "true falsehood" is not so bad because the person suffering under the delusion of truth (when something in fact is false) is not suffering a "pure falsehood" (382c). The logic seems strained, but it leads to his clear statement that sometimes falsehoods are useful and proper.
"Isn't it (falsehood) useful against one's enemies? And when any of our so-called friends are attempting, through madness or ingorance, to do something bad, isn't it a useful drug for preventing them?...By making a falsehood as much like truth as we can, don't we also make it useful?" (382d).
However, confusing us more, S then finishes the book by saying that the gods have no truck with falsehood. "Then there is no reason for a god to speak falsely? None" (382c). Thus, whenever a poet says about a god that he wishes the god's mouth to be free of falsehood, "we'll be angry with him, refuse him a chorus, and not allow his poetry to be used in education of the young" (383c).
Plato has provoked lots of debate because of what he says in Book II. What is the nature of censorship a society should impose on its writers? Even if they are free to write what they want, to what extent should the education of the children be monitored? What should be withheld from them, and what taught them? And then, what about the "true falsehood" at the end of the book. If the gods are true and don't lie, how can humans get away with it in the conduct of their business? The examples S gives of permissible lies seem to be the extreme cases (e.g., giving the gun to the madman if it belongs to him; telling the whereabouts of Jews to Nazis in WWII)--cases that don't come up every day. But Plato wants to use the concept of falsehood as basic to the definition of the city--which we will see through the Noble Lie in Book III. Surely this doesn't sit easily with us, though we are grateful to Plato for broaching the topic so plainly.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long