Lies, Myths and Regimes of Truth

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An Analysis of the Myth of the Metals in Plato's Republic

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Akiva Mattenson

8Akiva MattensonLies, Myths, and Regimes of Truth: An Exploration of the Political Implications of The Myth of the Metals in Platos Republic

The end of Book III of Platos Republic introduces the reader to one of the more famous images in the book namely the Myth of the Metals. After a lengthy discourse transpires between Socrates and his interlocutors about how best to educate those citizens of the kallipolis that will be charged with eagerly pursu[ing] what is advantageous to the city (3.411e), Socrates broaches the challenge of convincing the public to conform to the political and social scheme they have devised. His bold suggestion is to develop a myth that will inspire commitment to the projects of the city and reinforce the social structures they have set in place. Briefly stated, the myth explains how the citizens upbringing and education were but a dream, when in fact during that time they were being fashioned underground by their earth mother. Furthermore, during that time the god fused them each with a precious metal gold for those fit to rule, silver for those in the guardian class, and iron and bronze for the farmers and other craftsmen. Though there is much to say about the content of the myth with respect to Socrates understanding of the formative power of education over and above ones ancestry and descent, here we will focus on Socratess choice of myth as a vehicle for developing a unified cultural and political identity. Myth as a political tool is not uncomplicated, and as such Socratess use of myth here deserves careful attention. We are often wary of myth in the political sphere, and not unjustifiably so. Though myths may provide a sense of shared purpose or identity, they can often legitimize and reinforce unequal and oppressive regimes. Furthermore, as myth is often synonymous with lie, we find it morally reprehensible that certain powerful individuals would lie to their citizenry just for the social benefits to be accrued. Do we not have a responsibility to be sincere with one another? The Republic falls prey to these very critiques and fears. Certainly the very explicit and unabashed use of the language of falsehood to describe the project should give the reader pause about the justifiability of Socratess enterprise. As well, he seems confident that such a fantastical tale will require sophisticated and cunning modes of transmission, as it would certainly take a lot of persuasion to get people to believe it (3.413c). Even Socratess friends are incredulous exclaiming that it isnt for nothing that you were so shy about telling your falsehood (3.413e). Socrates ultimately concedes that convincing the first generation of their citizens will be impossible, and that they will have to cultivate belief in the myth from a young age, essentially brainwashing the population into believing their tall-tale. If such is the nature of their deliberation, the critique goes, the myth is certainly implausible to them, and their use of a lie to maintain social order some might even say an unequal and oppressive order is morally repugnant as discussed above.Yet the text is not so simple. First, the language of falsehood in The Republic cannot be regarded as simply synonymous with deceitful fabrication. Throughout Book II of The Republic, the nature of the complex relationship between falsehood and truth recurs again and again as Socrates and his interlocutors discuss what sorts of poems and stories ought to be taught to the guardian class. At the very beginning of the discussion about storytelling, the reader finds the following piece of dialogue: Those that Homer, Hesiod, and other poets tell us for, surely they composed false stories, told them to people, and are still telling them.Which stories do you mean, and what fault do you find in them?The fault one ought to find first and foremost, especially if the falsehood isnt well told. For example?When a story gives a bad image of what the gods and heroes are like, the way a painter does whose picture is not at all like the things he trying to paint. (2.376d-e)

Though it is clear that Socrates considers the stories of Homer and Hesiod to be false, he also demands from them a certain level of truth or correspondence to reality. Using the analogy of the picture, what is false about the picture is not that it doesnt conform to the thing he is trying to paint. That would be a loathsome fault in the painting! What is false about the painting is that it is not in fact the thing he is trying to paint, and is instead an image of it. So too, stories ought to authentically describe that which they are trying to paint, though they remain false insofar as they are not the thing itself. This demand for truthfulness in stories bears itself out in the dialogue as Socrates repeatedly investigates what the truth of the matter is concerning the gods, heroes and the virtues of men so that the folklore can accurately capture what is fundamentally true. Furthermore, Socrates is utterly convinced that the most socially useful and beneficial stories are those that closely resemble the truth. Throughout Books II and III Socrates talks about truth and social efficacy as though they are intimately related to each other saying such things as such stories blaspheme the gods and, at the same time, make children more cowardly (2.381e),what they now say is neither true nor beneficial to future warriors (3.386b), and these things are both impious and untrue (3.391e). However, Socrates makes this point most clearly during a discussion about the use of falsehoods by God and men. After listing a number of the ways that falsehoods can be useful to people in their social interactions and military engagements, Socrates rhetorically asks: By making a falsehood as much like the truth as we can, dont we also make it useful? (2.382d). Though perhaps a surprising claim, it becomes more sensible if one focuses on the relationship Socrates imagines between truth and the good. Nevertheless, however surprising his assertion, it is clear that Socrates is wholly convinced. Lastly, for Socrates falsehoods are not always meant to be taken literally. In a passage wherein Socrates describes the general pattern of stories to be told in the kallipolis, we read: We wont admit stories into our city whether allegorical or not about Hera being chained by her son. The young cant distinguish what is allegorical from what isnt, and the opinions they absorb at that age are hard to erase and apt to become unalterable. For these reasons, then, we should probably take the utmost care to insure that the first stories they hear about virtue are the best ones for them to hear. (2.378d-e)

Here, Socrates clearly admits of the possibility of allegorical narratives, determining that the stories told to young children must be the best and most virtuous both narratively and ethically, as the young have difficulty distinguishing what is allegorical from what isnt. Note that Socrates does not demand the elimination of the allegorical from the curriculum. Merely that if the children are told such tales, that they be the best ones for them to hear.With all of this in mind, we find that some of our earlier critiques of The Myth of the Metals were unfounded. That Socrates refers to the story as a falsehood does not itself mean that he intends to deceive the people. In fact, since he describes this falsehood as akin to one of those useful falsehoods we were talking about a while ago (3.414b), one would have good reason to think that he will make every effort to have this story be as truthful as possible. Socratess hesitation and his interlocutors skepticism cannot then simply be chalked up to the fact that the story is a blatant lie no one would believe. As well, as we just saw, stories can often be allegorical. As such, there is no reason to assume that the incredulousness stems from the fantastical character of the story. Socratess myth is no more fantastical than any tale about the gods, and certainly if understood allegorically, would not be unduly difficult to accept. Furthermore, the myth is not Socratess creation. As he says, it is nothing new, but a Phoenician story which describes something that happens in many places (3.414c). As such, it would be wrong to attribute the hesitancy of the group to the novelty of the myth and the difficulty of convincing the public of a wholly new story; this myth is familiar territory. At this juncture, it is not at all clear that Socrates does not find the myth compelling. In fact, it seems likely that he does given his high demand for authenticity and truthfulness in storytelling and mythology. So convinced is he of the truth of this myth that ideally he desires to persuade even the rulers (3.413c)! Why would Socrates desire the one class trained in seeing the truth of the matter to believe something he knows to be patently false? Instead, we can only conclude that Socrates sees much truth and value in this allegorical tale about mankind and desires all members of the kallipolis including in some sense himself to internalize its message and to guide their lives by the light of virtue. That this is his aim is made clear in his description of the reasons education in music and poetry is so important for the guardian class: since he has the right distastes, hell praise fine things, be pleased by them, receive them into his soul, and, being nurtured by them, become fine and good. Hell rightly object to what is shameful, hating it while hes still young and unable to grasp the reason, but, having been educated in this way, he will welcome the reason when it comes and recognize it easily because of its kinship with himself. (3.401d-402a)

This account could apply equally well to the education in poetry received by the city at large through the Myth of the Metals learned by all. Though perhaps for Socrates, only the guardian class will ultimately be able to grasp the reason for its ideals, all members of the kallipolis will feel a kinship between themselves and the Good. For Socrates then, myth is not a political tool of deceit and duplicity wielded by the powerful to mollify and corral the public. Instead, myth is a powerful way of expressing and sharing our own highest ideals and ends, a way of structuring cultural and civic identity. The myth is not a lie, not an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the public. Instead it is an attempt to open their eyes to the truth through the viscerally engaging mode of storytelling. As Christopher Gill puts the point with reference to another Platonic myth:Plato seems to be indicating that he is about to experiment with the kind of consciously invented narrative that he envisages [] in the Republic (382c-d, 389b). This narrative will be a representation of a morally good subject by an author who knows the real nature of his subject. This narrative will be true to its good subject, and hence useful, morally educative, for its audience, even if, judged by factual standards, this story will be a falsehood []. But the falsehood is not intended to deceive: for, by his introduction, with its allusions to his earlier discussions, Plato indicates, from the start, that his story is an invention. (Gill 74)

Yet, while this picture resolves the critique of myth we raised above namely, the moral repugnance of lying for political gain it also engenders a new problem: isnt there a disturbing paternalism in the idea of opening someones eyes to the truth, that evades the difficult and importantly public task of deliberation about what is and isnt true?Myths become frightening once again when the possibility for critical engagement with their content and open discourse about their ethical claims is stifled. When the powerful determine which ethical claims and truth claims are valid and which are not, truth and the good become politically entangled in ways that make us deeply uncomfortable. Michel Foucault in his work, Power/Knowledge, pointedly describes this politicization of truth:Each society has its regime of truth, its general politics of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true. (Foucault 131)

When we are faced with this disturbing picture, we immediately find ourselves asking: Who has the authority to say what counts as true and what does not? As Elizabeth Markovitz notes, Myths are often told with pedagogic intent; but whohas the authority to teach his or her fellow citizens? Are there figures in whom we place so much trust that we are willing to give them that kind of power (Markovitz 127)? Ultimately, Socratess hegemonic demand for control of political mythology runs afoul of our deep-seated democratic commitments, for the narrative imagination of the political or intellectual elite is always in danger of being myopically blind to the contours of marginalized communities theirs ideals, their visions and their stories. Only through carefully cultivated practices of dialogue and public discourse, can we subject our ideals and our stories to ever-new voices and critiques. It is the illusory finality of the Socratic myth that cuts against the core of a deliberative democracy. Political myth and narrative is not dogmatic or doctrinal; it is dialogical. It is the practice of constant construction and deconstruction, revision and re-imagination that widens our horizons and emboldens our ideals. This democratic spirit is captured in Arash Abizadehs comments on national myth: When sociopolitical power relies on a putatively shared collective identity, disciplining and legitimizing its exercise according to liberal democratic standards requires that the individuals who make up this identity and/or are subject to its power be able to contest its character. This implies that insofar as the identity is shaped and constituted by its central myths and historical narratives, everyone must have an equal opportunity to express their needs, interests, and perspectives in shaping and contesting the validity of the criteria of significance reflected in these narratives. (Abizadeh 311)

To struggle with Platos Republic is to struggle with these very political issues of political narrative, the politicization of truth and the relevance of democratic practices. Rather than a simple example of deceit that raises the relatively uninteresting question of lying for political ends, Plato presents us with a sophisticated and challenging account of the way in which truth whether expressed prosaically or through the mode of storytelling has deeply political implications, and invites us to consider carefully whom we invest with the power t...