The reception of Plato in China

Enjoyed this episode of Mindscape on my lunch walk today. Strongly recommended. One of the items they discuss is how Plato is received in China and how the Chinese scholars have read Plato’s Republic. There is an interesting bit about how the Noble Lie in Plato should be understood – since it seems deeply self-defeating to reveal that your ideal plan for a state rests on a myth or lie about its origins. Why would you not assume that people will read what you write and call you on the lie? This, at least, is the purported paradox.

Now, there can be several explanations for this – not least the fact that the people who read Plato all were people who thought they would be in the ruling class (sort of a reverse of Rawl’s veil of ignorance – how would you design society if you knew you would come out top 1%?), but there is also the chance that we are misreading the whole thing.

Plato is reporting on Socrates saying that the republic needs to rest on a noble lie – and he also reports that Socrates had little faith in writing. Here, somewhere, we start to understand that maybe these texts were kept under close control by the Academy – esoteric not in meaning but in access.

Noble lies and esoteric readings – Plato in China


Still – it is an intriguing question, and as pointed out in the podcast: when the Chinese scholars refer to the noble lie as an obvious need in any reasonably ordered society, they, also, both reveal and affirm it. Maybe there is something about that – knowing it is a lie, but a necessary one – that makes it noble? We all acknowledge the lie and see it but still act as if we believe it, and in that lies a certain tragic nobility?

In any case – the importance of the classics is not to be denied, and nicely defended here.

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