Cultures and Cultural Production

“The Necessity of the ‘Useful Lies’ in Plato’s Republic”

Kaklamanou Eleni

Research ProposalConferenceResearch ResultsShort BioPublications

Summary of the Research Proposal

This project is concerned with the concept of lying in the Platonic corpus and, in particular, on the “useful” instances of lies in Plato’s Republic. Towards the end of Book II of the Republic, Plato draws a distinction between what he calls “lies in the soul” and “lies in words” (282b-e). The former represent “ignorance about the most important things” and should be hated by everyone (382B). But “lies in words”, he goes on to say, may be useful and, as such, are not deserving of hatred (382c). He lists three cases of “useful lies in words” a. lies to enemies, b. lies to deranged or depressed friends, which aim at preventing them from doing something bad and c. stories about events long ago, which make a falsehood as much like the truth as possible (382c-d). Later, he lists the Noble Lie (414b-415d) among the ‘useful lies’. Elsewhere in the Republic lies are called “drugs” (459c).
The debate surrounding the place of lying in Plato’s Republic has, for the last century, been dominated by Karl Popper’s (1966) fierce criticism of Plato’s willingness to include a lie of any sort, within the foundational structure of the ideal city. Recently, Schofield (2006) has recognized the nuance of Plato’s thought and provides a thorough examination of the motivation behind the Noble Lie. Schofield points out that Plato challenges the norms of truth-telling prevalent within his own society as well as considering issues based in contemporary Kantian views.

This research project was funded by the Research Centre for the Humanities (RCH), with the support of the John S. Latsis Public Benefit Foundation.

 

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Research: “The necessity of the ‘useful lies’ in Plato’s Republic”

Researcher: Dr. Eleni Kaklamanou

The research project The necessity of the ‘useful lies’ in Plato’s Republic” was funded by the Research Centre for the Humanities (RCH) for the year 2018, with the support of the John S. Latsis Public Benefit Foundation.

 
The current research project examines the concept of lying in Plato’s Republic, in particular the “useful” instances of lies.  Towards the end of Book II of the Republic, Plato draws a distinction between what he calls “lies in the soul” and “lies in words” (282b-e). The former represents “ignorance about the most important things” and should be hated by everyone (382B). But “lies in words”, he goes on to say, may be useful and, as such, are not deserving of hatred (382c). He lists three cases of “useful lies in words” a. lies to enemies, b. lies to deranged or depressed friends, which aim at preventing them from doing something bad and c. stories about events long ago, which make a falsehood as much like the truth as possible (382c-d). Later, he lists the Noble Lie (414b-415d) among the ‘useful lies’. The pharmacological character o of lying is prominent in the case of the procreation of the guardians, “pharmakon” (459c).

By posing the definitional question “what is lie?”, I argue, Plato forms and introduces a new conceptual category of lies, namely the lies in words. These lies are acceptable to the extent that they are useful for the city as a whole. The citizens of the kallipolis are forbidden from lie to their rules because such actions jeopardize the rulers’ ability to govern well. Only the possessor of the truth is allowed to employ this new category of lies. The reason is that there is crucial difference between violating the norm of truthfulness accidentally, and violating it with the knowledge that what one is saying is false.

With respect to the question of whether lying can useful and just, Plato sets out two conditions: (1) the liar must know, and (2) the lie must have, as its aim, the benefit of the lied to. The employment of lying t in the formation  and everyday life of the ideal city is not only a moral issue but primary epistemological. Yet, attempts to understand the role of lying in the Platonic corpus often fail to appreciate the subtle distinction between these two, focusing solely on the moral component of it.

 At the same time, this acceptable form of lies is in full agreement with the political, cultural and legal discourses which defined Athenian democracy during Plato’s time. Ι  call  them “common sense” lies. A prime example is Thucydides’ Funeral Oration via the inclusion of a myth of autocthony.

Eleni Kaklamanou received her Ph.D in  Ancient Philosophy at Trinity College, University of Dublin. She is adjunct lecturer at the Open University of Cyprus. She has formerly taught philosophy at the Universities of Crete and Cyprus. Her main research includes Plato and Platonism, political philosophy, ancient political theories, aesthetics, theories of knowledge.

 

 

 

 

Selected Publications

  • “An Old Academic on Rhetoric: The Example of Xenocrates”, Dionysius  XVIII 2011: 7-18.
  • ‘‘Speusippus on Cognitive Sense-perception: Sextus Empiricus M 7.145-6” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 20 (6) 2012: 1183-93.
  • “Reading the Proemium of Plato’s Theaetetus: Euclides in Action”, Greek Roman and Byzantine Studies 36 2016: 410-437 (co-author M. Pavlou).i
  • ‘Φυσική Φιλοσοφία και Κοσμολογία’ στο  Γ. Καραμανώλης (επ.) Εισαγωγή στην Αρχαί Φιλοσοφία, Πανεπιστημιακές Εκδόσεις Κρήτης  2017: 181-216
  • ‘Philosophy and Mathematics in Antiquity’, Hermathena, vols 190-1 2011 (co-editor P. Larsen)
  • Framing the Dialogues: How to Read Openings and Closures in Plato’s Dialogues’ Brill 2018 (co-edtors A. Tsakmakis, M. Pavlou)
  • Review in  Thomas L. Carson, Lying and Deception, Theory and Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010, The Journal of Applied Philosophy 28.2, 2011