As with all other topics discussed in “The Republic of Plato,” the section in which he discusses the myths of the metals or the “noble lie” is layered with questioning and potential symbolism, possible contradiction, and a significant measure of allusion. In Chapter X of “The Republic,” Plato presents “The Selection of Rulers: The Guardians’ Manner of Living. ” In it, he discusses the necessities of education as they apply to the appropriate selection of and reparation for the community’s leaders.
As in other areas of “The Republic,” Plato carefully outlines the delineations which form the basis for the types of rulers to be installed in the state. “Rulers” (legislative and udicial), “Auxiliaries” (executive), and “Craftsmen” (productive and fficacious) are the titles of the categories and are based, not on birth or wealth, but on natural capacities and aspirations. Plato was convinced that children born into any class should still be moved up or down based on their merits regardless of their connections or heritage.
He believes the citizens of the State will support and benefit from such a system and presents the idea in the form of an allegorical myth. His allegory was based in part on the prevalent belief that some people were literally “autochthonous,” born from the soil, and partly from the stories of the philosopher Hesiod who chronicled the genealogy of the gods and goddesses as well as their accomplishments and exploits. Hesiod’s account of the Golden, Silver, and Bronze races which had succeeded one another before the current to “The Republic’s” age of Iron forms the basis for the myths of the metals.
Since the ancient Greeks were convinced that all myths were primarily the work of even more ancient poets who had been inspired by the Muses, some ther “divine” force, or consciously invented, the lesson in the story of the metals was to be paid attention to in order to learn the important truth (or truths) that form the core of the information to be transferred to the young and untrained mind of the future leaders in training.
“They must have the right sort of intelligence and ability; and also they must look upon the commonwealth as their special concern ? the sort of concern that is felt for something so closely bound up with oneself that its interests and fortunes, for good or ill, are held to be identical with one’s own” (The Republic of Plato X:III-412) Socrates tells Glaucon who naturally agrees.
Socrates goes on to emphasize that the men that are chosen from among the Guardians must be those who are filled with enthusiasm and the determination to do the best they possibly can for the greater good of the people of the commonwealth and for the organization of the commonwealth itself. He asserts that they must never be willing to act against that collective interest. Socrates expands on his metaphor of the metals and explains that the future rulers must be fashioned as precious metals are fashioned by careful artistry and craft.
But first he asks Glaucon: “. . .can we devise something in the way of those convenient fictions we spoke of earlier, a single bold flight of invention, which we may induce the community in general, and if possible the Rulers themselves, to accept? ” (The Republic of Plato X:III-414). Such a tongue-in-cheek question, the reference to “a single bold flight of invention” is what has come to be known as commonly rendered by “noble lie,” a self-contradictory expression which is no more applicable to Plato’s comparatively harmless storytelling than to a 20th century political campaign publication.
Such use of the “noble lie” suggests that he would agree to the use or be unconcerned about correcting the lies, for the most part dishonorable (certainly not “noble”), that are now most commonly thought to be unabashed propaganda. Returning to the metaphor of crafting precious metals, Socrates tells that while all men throughout the land are brothers, the god who was responsible for the creation of individuals chose to mix a certain measure of gold in the substance of those most fit to rule, making them the most precious.
He then explains that silver was the substance added to the “Auxiliaries,” and iron and brass to the people who were to be a part of the commonwealth as farmers or craftsmen. Socrates, in his typical fashion, covers all possible eventualities by noting that “although your children will generally be like their parents, sometimes a golden parent may have a silver child or a silver parent a golden one, and so on with al the other combinations” (The Republic of Plato X:III-415).
Therefore, Socrates asserts, there is nothing as important as the measure and mixture of the metals in the souls of children. He concludes that if a child is born with an strong mixture of iron or brass, it is the responsibility of the parents to assure that he finds aposition and a life that best suits his nature and they are to do so without pity or derision. Naturally, if a child is produced with gold or silver as a part of his nature, it is equally incumbent upon the arents to nurture his leadership qualities and promote him according to his worthiness and value.
Socrates, however, worries aloud whether or not the general population can or will understand such a premise and Glaucon notes that it is unlikely that the idea will be understood in the first generation but that generations following and, ltimately, all of mankind, will come to understand and honor the concept of the metals. Socrates is comforted by such a reassuring thought. He is thoroughly convinced that the commonwealth will not, cannot survive if the state is passed into the dominion of a man of iron or brass.
In fact, Socrates takes the allegory of the metals one step further to explain to Glaucon that the future Guardians must even be kept from concerns or desires for silver and metal since, “Gold and silver, we shall tell them, they will not need, having the divine counterparts of those metals in their souls as a god-given possession” (The Republic of Plato X:III-417). He goes on to say that the Guardians are not to come in contact with gold and silver and lays out a plan by which they will neither need or desire the trappings of glory and wealth since they are always clothed in gold and silver and riches as part of their inner being.
He is convinced that if an individual who is a cobbler or a farmer “goes to the bad and pretends to be what he is not” (The Republic of Plato X:III-420) the entire well-being of the state is not in jeopardy. But such is most certainly not the case if the person is a Guardian or Auxiliary. There is no point, Socrates says, in producing a happiness like that of a “party of peasants feasting at a fair. ” Such a person who would aspire to such a community “has something in mind other than a civic community” (The Republic of Plato X:III-421). Of course, Glaucon agrees.