Philosophy in the Street: Reading #2


Philosopher Kings: Leo Strauss and the Neocons

Gary Leupp


[1] For the neocon cabal running the country, recent news hasn't been entirely good. The successful invasion of Iraq has met with unexpected opposition (from a people with a dignified capacity to resist occupation that the aggressors, in their arrogance, didn't quite anticipate). Paul Wolfowitz, deputy Secretary of "Defense," has stated frankly to Congress that the situation will get "messier as Iraqis sort out their political process" (as though the Iraqis, milling about gun-toting and order-barking foreigners, were free to have their own political process). Meanwhile the reinstitution of the Northern Alliance regime in Afghanistan also remains problematic. The reconfiguration of Southwest Asia just isn't going as smoothly as envisioned by the New American Century Project operators. Richard Perle, who once told the Italian press that the U.S. had "proof" that 9-11 mastermind Mohammed Atta met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad (and who in making such a statement revealed himself to be a shameless liar) has been disgraced due to some financial dealings, and has been obliged to step down from his powerful (but unpaid and unsupervised) position as chair of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board. This is good, although he is still on that board and remains at large and dangerous.


[2] It's also good that Perle's fellow Likudist and career disinformationist Ari Fleischer is stepping down. And that Gen. Tommy Franks, who everybody used to think would be the MacArthur of Iraq, has decided to retire. There is disarray at the top (manifested in the changing appointments for Iraq occupation administration, in policies towards the Mujahadeen Khalq and Iran, etc.) and perhaps a spreading loss of confidence in the neocons' whole imperialist program. Most importantly, the philosopher-kings, with academician Wolfowitz at their head, are increasingly coming under scrutiny in the mainstream press. This is meet, right and salutary, because they are very bad people, with lots of blood on their hands already, and busily planning further crimes against the world, beginning with Syria and Iran. Their badness most notably was revealed in a vitally important New Yorker article (May 6) by veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Not to sound Gandalfian, but this may be the turning of the tide


[3] Hersh reveals the philosophical underpinnings of the neocons' project, and draws attention to their cynical, anti-democratic nature. His piece has stimulated other articles, laying bare the nature of the cabal and its ideological foundations. It will take time for the information to sink in, but if and when the masses come to see what's been going on, they will probably be very angry, as good people should be, under the circumstances. We have been lied to, relentlessly, systematically, fascistically. The Sept. 12 lie was that Sept. 11 was planned in Baghdad. Profoundly untrue and really, really stupid (to any informed person), but profoundly useful to those prepared to draw upon ignorance, fear and racism to effect their goals. This they have done, and they're just at the beginning of their project. But it's possible that their project might get derailed, due in part to the efforts of journalists like Hersh.


[4] Hersh notes the critical influence of the philosopher Leo Strauss (d. 1973) on Wolfowitz's thinking. His article stimulated, among other articles, a substantial piece on Strauss by Jeet Heer in the Boston Globe (May 11), and another by William Pfaff in the International Herald Tribune (May 15), the latter noting that "Strauss's thought is a matter of public interest because his followers are in charge of U.S. foreign policy." Strauss, of German Jewish origins who taught for many years at the University of Chicago, mentoring Wolfowitz among others, was a brilliant man. No question about that. But also a man profoundly hostile to the modern world and to the concept of rule by the people. He believed it was the natural right of the wise and strong to lead societies to the fulfillment of their wise aims, using subterfuge when necessary, because speaking the naked truth won't get the job done.


[5] Strauss's point of departure is Socrates, who in Plato's Republic denounces Athenian democracy (the rule of the untutored masses) and instead promotes government by "philosopher-kings." Strauss had experienced the Weimar Republic (one of the more democratic experiments in modern history) and seen Germany fall into the hands of the Nazis. He understandably opposed the latter, but he derived some lessons from their methodology. The failure of the Weimar regime to prevent the rise of fascism, in his view, resided in its failure to put power into the hands of the strong and good, who inevitably, unable to acquire popular support through honest methods, should (like their Nazi adversaries) have cleverly used Big Lies (towards good ends) to nudge the people towards those ends. Only wise men, acting in secrecy, can do that.


[6] As Hersh points out, the neocons (just about a dozen officials─ including Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, Bolton, Abrams─ operating in concert with the oil-baron contingent in the administration-Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, Bush─ and providing them with intellectual guidance) refer to themselves (with smug amusement) as a "cabal" (a word with an interesting etymology). They have contempt for the masses, and feel utterly justified in wisely misleading those masses into a roadmap for global peace on their terms. That meant, initially, using 9-11 to produce support for the seizure of Iraq. That seizure is still in progress, messily, untidily, brutally and illegally, and with results no cabal, however wise, can really predict. Among the results might be a growing revulsion among the American people themselves at the neocons' misanthropic arrogance, and perhaps (much though it should be regretted and fought) anti-Semitism. The latter might be provoked by the fact that persons inclined to embrace the most extreme factions in the Israeli political apparatus are disproportionately represented in the neocons' cabal, and while the general movement of U.S. foreign policy is driven by broad geopolitical concerns, rather than the alliance with Israel, the neocons' allegiance to what they perceive to be the interests of Sharon's Israel is highly conspicuous.


[7] Maybe the tide will turn. Or, maybe the cabal will triumph, and the world will for some time pay for their wisdom, throughout a whole American Century, 2001-2099, such as they envision and wish their children to celebrate in appreciative psalms and sagas.


[8] In the Buddhist religion, there are esoteric trends. In Japanese, such esoterism is calledhiden ("hidden tradition"). The idea is that wise men pass on directly to their disciples their insights that aren't appropriate to communicate to the masses, those who don't have the capacity to understand and attain enlightenment. I respect that viewpoint, best represented in the Shingon (Chen-yuan) tradition rooted in the Tantrism currently fashionable (if for all the wrong reasons) in Hollywood. There is also in Buddhism a concept (called upaya in Sanskrit and hôben in Japanese) that might be translated as "expedient means." You use truth and falsehood flexibly to produce human happiness. The Buddha, carefully considering the audience, said different things to different people, to help alleviate their suffering. Maybe Strauss was well-motivated in urging the use of cryptic language and lies. As a basically collegial, fellow academic I'll happily give him the benefit of a doubt. I understand he was a good professor. Maybe he was thinking like the Buddha.


[9] But the cabal in Washington is thinking more like Joseph Goebbels, in its eminently wise use of lies. (The "Defense" Department is, by the way, deeply annoyed at the CIA's disinclination to produce more lies; hence Rumsfeld's new "Office of Special Plans" which can generate disinformation on demand.) It is using simplistic language of "good" and "evil," preparing the American people, whom it regards with utilitarian contempt and condescension, to support "regime change" in Syria and Iran and elsewhere. This (in my opinion anyway) is unwise for the world, a world falling victim to the philosopher-kings, who do not know what they're doing, who are totally out of control, who are standing daily in front of the mirror like crazed simians beating their chests and feeling apishly proud and giddy, who should be brought before an objective international tribunal for judgment as soon as possible. We need to (as any good Zen priest will put it) "See things as they REALLY are," and specifically to see what these Straussian neocons are up to, and mount a democratic and moral challenge to their Socratic contempt for ourselves. And we must question their plans for this, our planet, that they want to refashion, in their special dishonest wisdom, in their own image.


Problems with the Noble Lie

Madeline Aruffo


[1] This paper will address the concept of the “noble lie” in Plato’s Repub­lic. It will begin by explaining the justification for the noble lie given by Socrates in the passages of 389b-c, which foreshadow the direct discussion of the lie which appears later in the text. The paper will then recon­struct from passages 415b-d the explanation of the noble lie and its two parts. It will apply Leo Strauss’s interpretation to each part of the lie, through reference to his lectures published in The Origins of Political Science and the Problem of Socrates, [hereafter, Origins] and to his book, The City and Man. Finally, it will raise problems sur­rounding the noble lie, including those Strauss raises.


[2] Before addressing the noble lie specifically, Socrates alludes to it and pro­vides a justification for it. In the midst of a discussion on the poets and how the gods should be portrayed, Socrates notes that a high value must be placed on truth so that citizens will not get the wrong ideas about the gods and em­ulate the gods’ wrongdoing. However, though “falsehood really is of no use to the gods,” it is a “form of medicine” to men (Plato: 389b). This introduces the idea that a lie used properly may benefit patients, that is, the citizens of the Republic. These types of lies are appropriate not only to protect the state from enemies, but, to benefit the state.


[3] However, laymen are not equipped to administer the “medicine” of lies, as they are not the “doctors”— the “doctors” will be the founders, and the first generation of rulers who will perpetuate the medicinal lie in order to benefit the state. Accordingly, “for a layman to lie to such governors . . . is a mistake on the same level, or even greater than a patient not telling his doctor the truth” If a layman tells lies, he must be punished for “introducing a prac­tice that will disrupt and destroy the state.” Disruption or destruc­tion would be the outcome, since he lacks the expertise needed to make good use of lies. The use of lies is forbidden to everyone but the expert “doctors.” When lies are used by the experts, Socrates and Glaucon agree that they would benefit the state, and therefore their use is justified.


[4] Strauss further explains the justification of the noble lie. He argues that the whole scheme of the city can only be possible if the wise philosophers have absolute rule; the noble lie facilitates this. The founders are faced with the ques­tion of how best to achieve absolute rule, and they first decide that force is the way to rule the multitude of the unwise. This is why “the few wise need the sup­port of a fairly large number of loyal auxiliaries” (Origins). But, of course, the auxiliaries are not wise themselves, but it is still necessary that they submit to the absolute rule of the philosopher kings. However, rather than using force to persuade the auxiliaries, they use persuasion. The auxiliaries are “persuaded by means of a noble deception.” The reason for this according to Strauss is that “even the most rational society, the society according to truth and nature, is not possible without a fundamental untruth.” The “medicine” of the lie is really the glue that holds the city together. It is put in place by the wise, to secure the best state, and a just state for the unwise.


[5] A few passages after giving the justification of the lie, Socrates specifically introduces the noble lie, primarily as a way to persuade the rulers, and sec­ondarily, to persuade the rest of the state. This lie would be “fabricated in a moment of need” (Plato 329; 414b). It would be “nothing new”— only a kind of “Phoenician tale” (possibly like those Odysseus tells in the Odyssey). Before stating the specific contents of the lie, Socrates provides further justification for it. He states that the telling of lies at the founding of cities “happened all over the place in the past, as the poets say and have persuaded people” (331; 414c).


[6] Part of the justification is that, apparently, lies had been used recurrently in the past, as Socrates notes. Socrates attempts to portray the lie as a common feature of any society in an effort to justify its existence in the ideal city of The Republic. The lie would consist of the founders telling first the governors and the troops, and second, the rest of the state, that their childhood upbringing and education never took place. The founders would instead tell everyone, that all of this hap­pened “in their imagination, while at the time they themselves, their weapons and the rest of their manufactured equipment were in reality being formed and nurtured down under the ground” (331; 414d). Then, the “earth, which was their mother, released them” from underground, and onto the land which they all live on (331; 414e). This way, the citizens would all treat the land they live on as if it were “their mother and nurse, and defend it themselves if anyone attacks it” (331; 414e). They would all be the earth’s children, and all brothers.


[7] According to Strauss, the function of the first part of the noble lie is to establish the earth as the mother of all men. This means all men are brothers, as stated, but it also “[assigns] the natural status of the human species to a part of the human species, the citizens of a particular city” (Origins). In other words, the lie not only unites the citizens with each other as brothers, it also sets them apart as a populace. Part of the goal of the lie is to cause citizens to prize their status as members of the city and children of the land over their status as people. As Strauss puts it, the people of the city “[become] citizens out of mere human beings or out of what one may call natural human beings” (City and Man). Furthermore, “the fraternity of all human beings is to be replaced by the fraternity of all fellow citizens.” This would foster undying loyalty to the state.


[8] Strauss notes that the lie helps mediate “the tension between the im­possibility of a universal political society on the one hand— universal is meant here literally, embracing all human beings—and the essential defect of the particular or closed political society on the other” (Origins). The defect of the closed soci­ety is that it conflicts with the “natural fraternity of all men.” The lie solves this by switching how men in the city view their heritage. They are no longer children of the earth, but rather, children of this part of the earth— the part of the earth which is under the city. Their natural fraternity with all men is replaced by their natural fraternity with their fellow citizens. This mentality would also establish other states as strong enemies. Such fervent loyalty is neces­sary in order to secure the rulers’ absolute power. Strauss will later ask whether this type of loyalty is achievable.


[9] The second part of the noble lie specifies that, although they are all broth­ers, the citizens’ souls are nonetheless constituted of different materials. When each citizen was created, “the god mixed gold in the production of those . . . who are competent to govern” (333; 415b). The souls of auxiliaries contain sil­ver, and the souls of the farmers and artisans contain iron and bronze. Souls of offspring would usually be of the same constitution as their parents, but occasionally offspring are born bearing the quality of a different metal. In such cases, it is vitally important they be raised according to the material in their soul. So essential is it that the character of these metals be respected, that Soc­rates builds the myth into the noble lie, recommending that an oracle warn that the city will be destroyed on the day when a “guard with iron or bronze in him is on duty.” In view of such consequences, citizens will fear lying about their children’s souls (333; 415c).


[10] Socrates then acknowledges that it will be difficult to convince the first generation to believe this lie, but also notes that the later generations will be more likely to accept the lie if it becomes popular tradition. The second part of the lie needs to become incorporated into the society so that the class system established according to the metal in people’s souls will not be challenged.


[11] Strauss explains that the second part of the noble lie is so powerful because it ascribes the social hierarchy of the city to the divine will of the god. “Identify­ing the existing social hierarchy with the natural hierarchy” makes the class di­visions indisputable (Origins). The second part of the noble lie, “by adding divine sanctions to the natural hierarchy, supplies the required incentive for the soldiers to obey the rulers and thus to serve the city wholeheartedly” (City and Man). If the noble lie is internalized by the society, the auxiliaries will be loyal, and fully able to maintain control over any unwise people who require the use of force because they were not persuaded completely by the lie. The absolute rule of the philosopher kings will be established firmly through the cementation of the class system. However, Strauss notes the implications of the necessity of the lie. If the social hierarchy must be ascribed to a natural hierar­chy in order for this city to be the best, that means “even the polis according to nature is not simply natural, or even the most rational society is not rational” (Origins). Essentially, the necessity of the noble lie means that a just city is incomplete unless it has this artificial, contrived aspect. The most rational society is not rational because it requires more than pure reason to function properly. Strauss notes just how crucial this makes the art of persuasion.


[12] Thrasymachus’s talent of rhetoric becomes the missing piece of the puzzle which the rational society requires to function. The transformation of the city into the best city “would be wholly impossible if the citizens of an actual polis could not be persuaded to bow to the absolute rule of the philosophers,” and the only way they are persuaded is with the noble lie. Strauss also states, “the good city . . . cannot exist in the element of truth, of nature” which is interesting because it implies that the best, just city is not natural or true (City and Man). One question remains— could the rhetoric of the lie really be the glue which holds the city together? It certainly seems that the noble lie is expected to have a great deal of persuasive power— maybe unrealistically so.


[13] There are many problems with the notion of the noble lie. Firstly, the suc­cess of the noble lie depends on how well the founders and philosopher kings can persuade the citizens of it. For this reason, according to Strauss, “the action of the republic turns around the strength and weakness of rhetoric” (Origins). Rhetorical persuasion is expected to be more and more convincing— the “expectation from rhetoric is greatly increased.” First, it is only expected that the citizens who grew up in the city and received the proper education are expected to believe the lie. Then, they are expected to submit to the philoso­pher kings. Furthermore, the philosopher kings must convince the citizens of their ability to rule using persuasion if they want political bliss. But the fact is, it is not likely that the citizens will be persuaded to “undergo what they regard as the greatest misery for the rest of their days so that future generations will be blessed.” The noble lie would require major changes in culture which would not likely be possible unless the founders were starting with a com­pletely new generation of citizens.


[14] As Strauss says, “political bliss will follow, not if the philosophers become kings, but when the philosophers have become kings and if they have rusticated everyone older than ten, and they bring up the children without any influence whatever of the parents on the children.” What would really need to happen for the lie to take effect would be the total erasure of history. The only other conceivable way to change the society so drastically would involve the “sustained effort of every individual by himself”— it would necessitate that “all men . . . become philosophers” and the total transformation of human nature. It is unlikely that the noble lie would have the effect that Socrates thought, for the simple fact that words will not convince people to change their human nature.


Works Cited

Plato. The Republic. Trans. Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1937.

Strauss, Leo. The City and Man. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964.

Strauss, Leo. The Origins of Political Science and the Problem of Socrates, Six Public Lectures


Plato and the "Noble Lie"



[1] For a long time I sought to trace the origin of the insidious but probably necessary concept of the life-lie. . . The life-lie is a falsehood that we embrace because it allows us to keep going.  Something similar is found in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, though he ends up with the counsel that it is best to renounce such fantasies.  Ibsen seems to hold otherwise: cling to the life-lie, because you will be worse off if you don't.


[2] I found the answer to my quest in a most surprising text, the Republic of Plato.  How can that be, one asks, since Plato created such a powerful image of the dangers of ignorance and illusion in the Parable of the Cave?  Wasn’t Plato always firmly opposed to lying? 


[3] Well, not always.  Plato insists that the Guardians, his ideal rulers, must be allowed to promulgate “Noble Lies” among the masses in order to control them.  Indeed, it is their obligation to muster this device in the interest of the overall good of the commonwealth.  The Greek philosopher specifically compares the administration of such falsehoods to a physician giving out medicine. . . Needless to say, this privilege is not universally granted.  The Guardians should not lie among themselves, and of course the lower orders must themselves be taught not to lie.  (See Republic, 382c-d,

389b-d,  459c-e).


[4] Following the example of breeding livestock, Plato advocated eugenics for human beings.  In his ideal state the lower orders must be discouraged from having children by restricting their access to sex.  Publicly, these unfortunates will be told that the right to have intercourse is randomly assigned by lot.  In reality, though, the Guardians control the access by secret conclave.


[5] This is not the only discussion of the Noble Lie (γενναον ψεδος, gennaion pseudos) in Plato’s Republic  In a passage that occurs somewhat later  he presents 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 fed "a sort of Phoenician tale" which goes as follows:

“[T]he 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.” (414e–15c).


[6] The allegory of metals is nothing less than a rationale for maintaining a caste system. Socrates suggests 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” (415c–d).  Thus the Noble Lie is “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.” (414b–c).


[7] One should distinguish the Noble Lie from Plato’s deployment of myth to convey his ideas.  His myths─ such as the story of the Cave in the Republic, the Androgyne in the Symposium, and the Winged Soul in Phaedrus─ are fictions that are meant to make vivid his philosophical points, which they complement.  Such myths are not meant to deceive.


[8] The first volume of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) offers a very broad-range critique of the philosophy of Plato. Even though he indicates the greatest respect for Plato as a thinker, Popper nonetheless sees him as the forerunner of totalitarianism. The Republic he views as a blue-print for an insidious form of social engineering, in which he elite Guardians will use all necessary means, fair or foul, to manipulate the populace─ all for their own good, of course. Among the devices in the armory of this leadership class is the Noble Lie.


[9] Popper’s views have proved controversial and criticism has been leveled on various grounds.  On critic is the English classicist Desmond Lee. In his 1955 translation of The Republic, Lee defended Plato against criticism based on the term Noble Lie, translating gennaion pseudos) somewhat improbably as "magnificent myth.”  He wrote:

“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' 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."


[10] This rendering is a good example of how translations can be used to obscure passages that are deemed offensive in the original. Popper’s contemporary Leo Strauss is known for his argument that serious writers write esoterically, that is, with multiple or layered meanings, often disguised within a carapace of irony or paradox, obscure references, even deliberate self-contradiction. Esoteric writing serves several purposes: protecting the philosopher from the retribution of the regime, and protecting the regime from the corrosion of philosophy; it attracts the right kind of reader and repels the wrong kind; and ferreting out the interior message is in itself an exercise of philosophic reasoning.  (See Persecution and the Art of Writing, 1952).  One implication is whether effective politicians could be completely truthful and still achieve the necessary ends of shaping their society. By implication, Strauss asks whether it is true that noble lies have no role at all to play in uniting and guiding the community.  Are myths needed to give people meaning and purpose, ensuring a stable society?


[11] In The City and Man, Strauss discusses the myths incorporated into Plato’s Republic, principles ostensibly required for the successful functioning of 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. In the light of Strauss’s overall thinking it can scarcely be doubted that he implicitly endorsed the Noble Lie.


[12] In conclusion, it is tempting─ perhaps all-too tempting to extend the Noble Lie analysis in various directions. Clearly, the propaganda of the Nazi and Soviet regimes exemplified the Noble Lie. As is well known, these “information services” practiced not only outright falsehoods, but also simply suppressed information judged unfavorable to the regime.


[13] It has also been asserted that religion is simply another manifestation of the Noble Lie concept. The problem is the word “simply.” Not infrequently, religion has served as the handmaiden of oppressive state regimes. But it may also provide a context for discussions of ethical behavior and human destiny. Oftentimes, religious groups provide social services, including human fellowship, that the state cannot provide, at least not completely. And religion has proved the catalyst and patron for major achievements in art, architecture, and music.