Republic 382a-d: On the Dangers and Benefits of Falsehood

Classical Philology 112 (1):1-19 (2017)
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Socrates' attitude towards falsehood is quite puzzling in the Republic. Although Socrates is clearly committed to truth, at several points he discusses the benefits of falsehood. This occurs most notably in Book 3 with the "noble lie" (414d-415c) and most disturbingly in Book 5 with the "rigged sexual lottery" (459d-460c). This raises the question: What kinds of falsehoods does Socrates think are beneficial, and what kinds of falsehoods does he think are harmful? And more broadly: What can this tell us about the relationship between ethics and epistemology? The key to answering these questions lies in an obscure and paradoxical passage in Book II; at 382a-d Socrates distinguishes between "true falsehoods" and "impure lies." True falsehoods are always bad, but impure lies are sometimes beneficial. Despite Socrates' insistence that he is not saying anything deep, his distinction is far from straightforward. Nevertheless, in order to determine why some falsehoods are beneficial and why some are always harmful, we must understand what exactly true falsehoods are and how they differ from impure lies. In this paper, I argue that true falsehoods are a restricted class of false beliefs about ethics; they are false beliefs about how one should live and what one should pursue. I refer to these beliefs as "normative commitments." False normative commitments are always pernicious because they create and sustain psychological disharmony. Unlike true falsehoods, impure lies can be about anything. Nevertheless, they are only beneficial when they help produce and sustain true normative commitments. I argue that the upshot of this is that practical concerns have a kind of primacy over theoretical concerns.
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