Photo Credit: Soham Banerjee, "Socrates, Plato and Aristotle" (CC BY 2.0)

The Noble Lie

Scholars need to lie

In my last essay, I told the parable of Hayy ibn Yaqzan by ibn Tufayl. In the parable, Hayy lived in isolation and was able to study and learn the truth. He traveled to the land of the true religion and found that the people there did not know the truth. They were taught what they could understand and accept, but not the truth. Hayy decided to teach them the truth. The people became excited and wanted to kill Hayy. Recognizing the danger, Hayy lied. He told the people that he had been mistaken and that they are right, not him.

In this parable, ibn Tufayl is teaching what many others taught before him and what Maimonides taught after him (in his Introduction to his Guide of the Perplexed)[1] that people who understand the truth need to hide the truth from the general population, and even lie about it.

 

The Noble Lie

Let’s examine Ibn Tufayl’s revelation in more detail. The ancient Greeks were the first people who wrote about philosophy, and the greatest of these Greeks were Plato (428/427–348/347 BCE) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE). They wrote in Greek, but the civilizations that followed did not understand Greek. If it had not been for the Islamic writers who understood Greek and translated their writings into Arabic, Jews and Christians would have had no knowledge of these great men or of their philosophy.

One of the first of these Islamic writers was al-Farabi. In his Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, al-Farabi tells us that Plato couldn’t reveal the truth to everyone because they would not understand it and would feel threatened by ideas that conflict with what they felt was true:

“The wise Plato did not feel free to reveal and uncover every kind of knowledge for all people. Therefore he followed the practice of using symbols, riddles, obscurity, and difficulty, so that knowledge would not fall into the hands of those who do not deserve it and be deformed, or into the hands of someone who does not know its worth or who uses it improperly. In this he was right.”

Al-Farabi states that Plato could not teach the general population that spending one’s life developing one’s mind is the only true fulfillment of human existence. This development of the mind, this thinking, must focus on the practical and political, the sciences that benefit the individual and society, for humans have a responsibility to improve themselves and society.[2] Thus, rather than teaching the truth to the general population, Plato and others resorted to the “noble lie,” a version of the truth that people could accept. The teachings were noble because, while untrue, they helped people.[3]

Plato, al-Farabi writes, was not speaking of religious knowledge when he spoke of the truth, another idea that the general population could not accept. Religious thinking “is not sufficient.” Religion is “an imitation of philosophy.” It supplies an imaginative, unexamined account of nature that the general population needs to know, but not the truth. But the perfect person, according to Plato, is one who learns the real truth and lives a life that reflects it. This was the problem faced by Plato’s teacher:

“For when he [Socrates] knew that he could not survive except by conforming to false opinions and leading a base way of life, he preferred death to life.”

Thus, scholars recognize that al-Farabi also hid the truth from the general population by brazenly and frequently using contradictions between passages, books, and even, at least once, within the same sentence. He, too, taught the noble lie. He hoped that wise people could siphon out the lies intended for the masses and see the truth he meant for them to see.

According to al-Farabi, Aristotle, Plato’s student, had the same understanding as Plato “and more.” Aristotle investigated and described the causes of everything that he could see and think about—practical and theoretical science. He divided what he found into classes. He gave an account of all he saw. He spoke of logic, drama, poetry, and other subjects and described how they should work.

Al-Farabi portrays Aristotle as taking some of Plato’s ideas, as well as others that Plato did not discuss, and examining them as a scientist would probe them today. For example, while Plato speaks about the soul, Aristotle, as a philosophical scientist, defines it as the various parts of the body that sustain it, such as the nutritive and respiratory systems, as well as the intellect. This intellect, he wrote, is the true and only aspect of humans that differentiates them from animals and inanimate objects. In short, Aristotle denied the existence of a soul and did so by redefining it. The general population would think that Aristotle also believed there is a soul since he spoke about it, but thinkers would realize that he did not.

 

Notes:

[1] Maimonides called the lie an “essential truth.” He explains in his introduction how he hid his true ideas within the Guide so that the general masses would not see them.

[2]     Maimonides also taught: the purpose of the Torah is three-fold, to teach some truths and to help individuals and society improve.

[3]       There is a similarity in the discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, Kesubot 16b–17a, whether it is proper to lie to an unpretty bride and praise her as being beautiful rather than not lying and disturbing her. The discussion outcome is the rule that one should lie.