Plato’s lie in the soul
Joshua J. Mark
A serious obstacle in following after justice and virtue, however, is the lie in the soul which prevents one from recognising what concepts like justice and virtue even mean. In Book II, Plato introduces the concept of this ‘True Lie’. Through a conversation between Socrates and Adeimantus, Plato defines the ‘true lie’ as believing wrongly about the most important things in one’s life. This concept can be understood as Plato’s answer to the sophist Protagoras (l. c. 485-415 BCE) and his famous assertion that “Man is the measure of all things”, that if one believes something to be so, it is so.
When one has a lie in the soul, one is unaware that what they believe to be true is actually false & so they speak untruths constantly without knowing. In Protagoras’ view, all values were subject to individual interpretation based on experience. If two people were sitting in a room and one claimed it was too warm while the other claimed it was too cold, both would be correct. Since the perception of reality was necessarily subjective based on one’s experience and interpretation of that experience, Protagoras suggested, there was no way a person could objectively know what any alleged ‘truth’ was.
Plato strongly objected to this view, arguing that there was an objective truth and a realm, high above the mortal plane, which gave absolute value to those concepts humans claimed as ‘true’ and confirmed others humans recognised as ‘false’. For example, to Plato, it would be true to say that the Parthenon is beautiful because that structure participates in the eternal form of beauty which exists in a higher realm and is reflected in the physical structure in Athens; to Protagoras, the Parthenon is beautiful only if one believes it to be beautiful; there is no such thing as objective beauty. Plato would – and did – regard Protagoras’ view as a dangerous falsehood.
The ‘true lie’ can be explained this way: if one believes, at a certain point, that eating carrots with every meal is the best thing one could do for one’s health and, later, realises that excess in anything can be a bad thing and stops the carrot-eating, that realisation would have no long-term negative consequences on one’s life. If, however, one believes the person one loves is a paragon of virtue and then discovers that person is a lying, conniving thief, this discovery could undermine one’s confidence in oneself, in one’s judgment, in other people, and even in a belief in God, in so far as finding out one is wrong about a person one was so certain of would lead one to question what other important matters in life one might also be wrong about.
Plato, therefore, claims the ‘lie in the soul’ is the worst spiritual affliction one can suffer from and differentiates this condition from the effects of ordinary ‘lying’ or from ‘storytelling’. When one tells a lie, one knows that one is not telling the truth and when one tells a story one understands that the story is not absolute fact. When one has a lie in the soul, however, one is unaware that what they believe to be true is actually false and so they speak untruths constantly without knowing they are doing so. To believe wrongly about the most important things in one’s life renders one incapable of seeing life realistically and so prevents any kind of accurate perception of the truth of any given set of circumstances, of other people’s motivations and intentions, and especially, of one’s self and one’s own personal drives, habits, and behaviour.
In the following conversation from Republic, Plato claims:
No one wants to be wrong about the most important matters in life
An everyday ‘lie’ is not the same thing as having a lie in one’s soul
Lies in words can be useful in helping friends or in the creation of mythologies which provide comfort and stability to people seeking the answer to where they came from and why they exist. In order to recognise the lie in one’s soul, one must be able to tell truth from falsehood at an objective level, not simply at the level of personal opinion. In order to reach this higher level, one needs to attach oneself to a philosopher and pursue wisdom. In this pursuit, one will come to understand what one’s lie is and, once it is realised, will be able to leave the lie behind and move on to live a life of truth, honesty, and clarity.
The following passage from Republic, Book II, 382a-382d, defines the concept (translation by B. Jowett):
Socrates: Do you not know, I said, that the true lie, if such an expression may be allowed, is hated of gods and men?
Adeimantus: What do you mean? He said.
S: I mean that no one is willingly deceived in that which is the truest and highest part of himself, or about the truest and highest matters; there, above all, he is most afraid of a lie having possession of him.
A: Still, he said, I do not comprehend you.
S: The reason is, I replied, that you attribute some profound meaning to my words; but I am only saying that deception, or being deceived or uninformed about the highest realities in the highest part of themselves, which is the soul, and in that part of them to have and to hold the lie, is what mankind least like;--that, I say, is what they utterly detest.
A: There is nothing more hateful to them.
S: And, as I was just now remarking, this ignorance in the soul of him who is deceived may be called the true lie; for the lie in words is only a kind of imitation and shadowy image of a previous affection of the soul, not pure unadulterated falsehood. Am I not right?
A: Perfectly right.
S: The true lie is hated not only by the gods, but also by men?
S: Whereas the lie in words is in certain cases useful and not hateful; in dealing with enemies – that would be an instance; or again, when those whom we call our friends in a fit of madness or illusion are going to do some harm, then it is useful and is a sort of medicine or preventative; also in the tales of mythology, of which we were just now speaking – because we do not know the truth about ancient times, we make falsehood as much like truth as we can, and so turn it to account.
A: Very true, he said.
Plato then goes on from this point to elaborate further on the concept which relates back to the argument concerning justice in Republic Book I and informs the rest of the dialogue through Book X. The ‘true lie’, in fact, could be said to inform all of Plato’s work in that he insists on the existence of an ultimate truth which one needs to recognize to live a meaningful life. In attempting to refute Protagoras’ subjective view of reality, Plato directly influenced the foundational constructs of the great monotheistic religions of the world – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and further shaped these systems indirectly through the works of his student Aristotle.
Plato spent his life trying to prove one could find, and hold up for the rest of the world to see, proof of ultimate truth apparent to all. From his first dialogue to his last, eloquent and penetrating as they may be, he never found a way to conclusively prove his conviction and for a simple reason: even if one accepts that such a truth exists, it must of necessity be interpreted subjectively by each person apprehending it – and it is in that act of interpretation that one risks contracting the ‘lie in the soul’ which distorts that truth. All Plato could finally do was warn people of the danger as he saw it and provide the best advice he could on how to prevent the true lie from warping one’s vision and stunting emotional and spiritual growth. (Concluded)
- Ancient History Encyclopaedia
(Mark is a freelance writer and former part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York)
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