Socrates proposes a “myth of the metals” the ideal city’s citizens must acknowledge. These citizens accept their respective positions so as to maintain the social and political order, or, as Socrates articulates, to prevent revolution (422a). The “myth of the metals”, or the “noble lie”, emphasizes the importance of each individual fulfilling a specific function, which allows them to practice what Socrates and his peers have defined as justice (346d). Socrates propositions this “necessary falsehood” and “single, grand lie which will be believed by everybody” (414b-c) to promote a sense of unity among the ideal city’s citizens.
This unity serves to advance Socrates’s other aims. The primary purposes of the “myth of the metals” are to preserve the social structure and to quell any suggestion of insurgency. We should evaluate the “myth of the metals” in terms of this purpose. Socrates, hesitant to share the tale (414c), begins with the admission that he and his peers must engage in a significant attempt to apply the lie: he needs to “persuade… the rulers… and the soldiers, and then the rest of the city, that the entire upbringing and education we gave them, their whole experience of it happening to them, was after all merely a dream… (414d).
If the myth is to be successful, every citizen must believe the myth and deny his conscious knowledge of the past. The attempt to convince every citizen, particularly the rulers and the soldiers, is crucial in adherence to the myth; without belief in the myth, no individual can fulfill the myth’s purpose. Socrates elaborates on the myth, stating “that in reality they [all people]… [were] formed and raised deep within the earth…. When the process of making them was complete, the earth their mother released them” (414d-e).
The citizens’ shared origin forms a common beginning. The unifying force will then prompt each man to regard his peer as his kin and his responsibility to defend – this task being the “guardians” of the city’s utmost concern. This group of rulers and “auxiliaries”, otherwise known as soldiers, to which Socrates refers serves at the top of the city’s hierarchical structure. Their projected appearance of unity will permit them to use their position as a means of protecting not only against invaders but also against the city’s classes of lesser skill.
According to Socrates’s plan, the first generation of the guardians will be the only group aware that the myth is a lie; successive generations of guardians will believe the myth along with all other citizens, though they will still be essential in implementing the myth. Their societal rank is consequently one of necessity in maintaining the myth. Unity’s appearance furthermore discourages retaliation, as an individual will be unwilling to attack or to defame those he considers to be his kin. In consequence, the motive to achieve unity serves to avert unrest.
The myth’s description of birth is integral to the purpose and to the application of the myth itself. Socrates will tell the men they are brothers, “[b]ut when god made [them], he used a mixture of gold in the creation of those… who were fit to be rulers, which is why they are the most valuable” (415a). He uses gold’s presence to establish the guardian’s greater inherent worth compared to the other citizens. Socrates then describes the silver used in the auxiliaries’ creation and the iron and bronze for the farmers and skilled workers (415a).
Socrates uses this explanation to place the myth’s listeners in a position of belief. The men participating in this dialogue expect the conceptualized city’s citizens to accept nature, not to argue against its decrees. Socrates’s tale continues with the following assertion: “Most of the time you will father children of the same type as yourselves, but because you are all related, occasionally a silver child may be born from a golden parent… and likewise any type from any other type” (415a-b).
In such deviant cases where an individual’s abilities exceed or prove inferior to his parents’, nature serves as an explanatory method for the anomaly. No one should challenge nature, which Socrates portrays as a preordained placement. Socrates elaborates further on nature’s finality: “If [a ruler’s] own child is born with a mixture of bronze or iron in him, they must feel no kind of pity for him, but give him the position in society his nature deserves, driving him out to join the skilled workers or farmers” (415c).
The principle that nature dictates an appropriate position for an individual is irrefutable to Socrates and to his interlocutors. The citizenry is also made to believe that nature has decided his or her role. If every citizen obeys his or her nature, the city will be prosperous and operate justly. Socrates summarizes this reasoning: “The principle we laid down at the start… is justice. What we laid down – and often repeated, if you remember – was that each individual should follow, out of the occupations available in the city, the one for which his natural character best fitted him” (433a).
Justifying the myth’s usage with the definition of justice is instrumental in the ruling class’s preservation of a social hierarchy. In such a city, each individual feels obligated to fulfill his respective role and will unlikely deviate from his predestined position. The social and political unit Socrates describes in Book III is one dependent on division. Ability primarily divides people, who must join those who share the same skill level. The people’s separation by ability, which is explained by nature, thereby results in the lack of the desire to gain greater influence.
The people’s ignorance of the falsehood that is the “myth of the metals” protects the ideal social order Socrates and his companions defend in order to advance justice’s presence in a city. The alternative is a threat to this societal structure, especially to the ruling class. This class maintains its position via the myth’s use. If applied successfully, the myth will keep the classes distinct with an accepting citizenry unwilling to object. Socrates’s “myth of the metals” is thus a crucial component in founding the socially stratified ideal city.