During one of the more infamous moments in Plato’s Republic, Socrates suggests that the ideal city needs a founding myth—what he calls “a noble lie”—to ensure its success. The myth has two parts. The first relates that every person in the city comes from the same mother, and thus encourages belief in a common origin and kinship of all the citizens who live in the city. The second relates that every person belongs by birth to a particular class based upon his or her talents and abilities, indicated by a metal gilded upon each soul at birth: gold for the ruling class; silver for ministers, soldiers, and high-ranking servants; bronze and iron for the workers.
Socrates argues that both parts of the myth must be believed by all citizens for the city to succeed. The myth at once seeks to unite and to differentiate, to explain what is common and distinct, to foster civic patriotism amid significant difference. The first part encourages civic commitment, shared sacrifice, and belief in a common good. The second justifies the existence of inequality as a permanent feature of human society.
Socrates is reluctant even to speak the myth aloud, recognizing how repulsive it is likely to sound to his hearers. More, he admits that it will require great acts of persuasion—likely over generations—before it is accepted by denizens of the city, and even then, it is likely not to be persuasive to the ruling class. If anyone is likely to accept the myth, he suggests, it is the uneducated working class.
When I present the noble lie to students in my classes, it rankles—as Socrates predicted it would. They dislike the idea that the just polity must be based upon a deception. But what irritates them even more is the suggestion that the just city must be based upon inequality. As good liberal democratic citizens, they intensely dislike the suggestion that inequality might be perpetuated as a matter of birthright, and they identify with the injustice done to the underclass. Over twenty years teaching at Princeton, Georgetown, and Notre Dame, I can’t recall a single student who regards the myth as anything but troubling. Most find it repugnant.
When pressed on the question of why it will prove more difficult to persuade the ruling class of the truth of the noble lie, most students believe that the ruling class’s superior education and intelligence make them more resistant to propaganda, while the simple working people are likely to succumb to deception because they don’t adequately understand their own interests. My students implicitly side with Marx in believing that the less educated are likely to adopt “false consciousness.”
Plato intends us to understand the myth differently. Unlike Marx, he did not believe that the members of the lower class would be unlikely to know their own interests. The underclass is likely to accept the myth because they realize it works to their advantage. Its members are keenly aware of the fact of inequality. That part of the “lie” hardly seems false to them. What is novel, and what works to their advantage, is the idea that inequalities exist for the benefit of the underclass as well as the rulers. That is, members with noble metals in their souls are to undertake their work for the benefit of everyone, including those whose souls are marked by base metals. By contrast, members of the ruling class are likely to disbelieve the myth out of self-interest. They balk at the claim that every person, regardless of rank, belongs to the same family. They do not want the advantages that might solely benefit their class to be employed for the benefit of the whole.
Only if each group accepts each part of the “lie,” as Socrates explains, is a kind of social contract achieved. Elites and commoners both accept the part of the myth that does not appeal to them for the sake of the part that does. Elites are distinguished in a society that justifies inequality; commoners are best off in a society that compels service of elites for the whole. Instead of acting as warring parties, both sides work for the good of all.
Such a compact is difficult to achieve. Much of the rest of The Republic is taken up with the question of how the ruling class can be persuaded, or even compelled, to throw in their lot with the rest of the city, rather than simply dominating or neglecting the others. Given the brute fact of inequality, Plato sees the great challenge of politics to be the task of persuading the advantaged to see themselves as part of the whole.
Compare Socrates’s expected response of the ruling class to this “noble lie” to the typical reaction of students at elite universities. Today’s elite students tend to focus on the myth’s claims about perpetual and generational inequality as the most objectionable part of the myth. The claim of common kinship seems unproblematic and even uninteresting. What explains the apparent reversal of scandal and resistance among the ruling class in our age?
Elite college campuses are hotbeds of activism against inequality, especially as it touches on race, gender, disability, and sexual orientation. In recent years, students and faculty from UC Berkeley to Yale to Reed College have protested instances of perceived bias, but few incidents have been quite so remarkable as the protests that greeted the social scientist Charles Murray at Middlebury College on March 2, 2017. Before speaking a word, Murray was greeted with twenty minutes of unbroken denunciatory chants by hundreds of students in the audience. In order to hold the planned discussion, he and his host, professor Allison Stanger, had to leave the lecture hall for a private studio. Students followed them and beat on the walls and windows of the room. As they left that secure space, the crowd buffeted and grabbed at Murray and Stanger, leaving Stanger with a neck injury and a concussion.
Murray had been invited to discuss his book Coming Apart, a study of the growing inequality between rich and poor white Americans between 1960 and 2010. Murray’s book focuses on two phenomena. First, he points to the way Americans have been sorted into separate geographic enclaves according to wealth, class, and education. Second, he points to the way poor and uneducated Americans suffer unprecedentedly high rates of social pathology, including divorce, out-of-wedlock childbirth, crime, drug addiction, unemployment, bankruptcy, isolation, and anomie.
The students who prevented Murray from speaking mostly come from, and will settle in, what Murray calls the “HPY” (Harvard, Princeton, Yale) bubble, a place of remarkable ideological, economic, and social homogeneity. Admission and graduation from an institution like Middlebury is the passport into the HPY bubble. This is no mean feat. According to U.S. News and World Report, Middlebury College is tied for sixth with Pomona College, behind Williams, Amherst, Bowdoin, Swarthmore, and Wellesley, in the rankings for best liberal arts colleges in America. It is among the most selective schools in America, accepting only 17 percent of applicants in 2017. Students have an average SAT score of 1450 out of 1600, along with a 3.95 high school GPA. Its cost for tuition plus room and board tops $64,000.
One might have thought that students at such a school would be keenly interested in hearing a lecture by someone who would discuss the evidence, basis, and implications of economic and class divergences in America today. Indeed, one might suspect that if the students were upset about inequality, they would have been inspired by Murray to direct the onus of their discontent against Middlebury College itself as a perpetrator of class division or even against themselves as willing participants in that perpetuation. At the very least, one might have thought that they would be interested in listening to an analysis of the role educational institutions play in creating and maintaining inequality. Instead, they shouted down the man who was going to speak with them about the role they play in perpetuating inequality—in the name of equality itself.
Of course, it wasn’t the subject of Murray’s lecture that was being protested, but the fact that he had discussed statistical differences in IQ among different races in his 1994 book, The Bell Curve. The main point of that book, however, was concern that social sorting would exacerbate class differentiation in America—just the kind of sorting that elite schools like Middlebury help to advance. The violent protests against Murray had the convenient effect of preventing any exploration of the pervasive class divide in America today, and leaving the elite students and faculty of Middlebury self-satisfied in their demonstrative support for equality.
Like so many similar demonstrations against inequality at elite college campuses, the protest against Murray was an echo of resistance of the ruling class to the noble lie. The ruling class denies that they really are a self-perpetuating elite that has not only inherited certain advantages but also seeks to pass them on. To mask this fact, they describe themselves as the vanguard of equality, in effect denying the very fact of their elevated status and the deleterious consequences of their perpetuation of a class divide that has left their less fortunate countrymen in a dire and perilous condition. Indeed, one is tempted to conclude that their insistent defense of equality is a way of freeing themselves from any real duties to the lower classes that are increasingly out of geographical sight and mind. Because they repudiate inequality, they need not consciously consider themselves to be a ruling class. Denying that they are deeply self-interested in maintaining their elite position, they easily assume that they believe in common kinship—so long as their position is unthreatened. The part of the “noble lie” that once would have horrified the elites—the claim of common kinship—is irrelevant; instead, they resist the inegalitarian part of the myth that would then, as now, have seemed self-evident to the elites as well as the underclass. Today’s underclass is as likely to recognize its unequal position as Plato’s. It is elites that seem most prone to the condition of “false consciousness.”
The dominion of this new elite has been long anticipated, discussed most cogently by social critics such as Michael Young, C. Wright Mills, and Christopher Lasch. Among the ablest chroniclers of the new elite has been New York Times columnist David Brooks, who in April of 2001 published “The Organization Kid,” an essay describing the replacement of America’s WASP aristocracy by a “meritocracy.” After spending several weeks with students on Princeton’s campus, Brooks concluded that there had been certain gains and decided losses resulting from this regime change. One loss he bemoaned was abandonment of “noblesse oblige,” or an encouragement of concern among the ruling class for those less fortunate as a consequence of the mere luck of birth and genealogy. Brooks contrasted this with the older WASP ideal based on civic, military, and Protestant values: “The Princeton of that day aimed to take privileged men from their prominent families and toughen them up, teach them a sense of social obligation, based on the code of the gentleman and noblesse oblige. In short, it aimed to instill in them a sense of chivalry.”
Noblesse oblige—“obligations of the nobility”—provided some measure of legitimacy to the older aristocratic order. It allowed the ruling class to claim that their actions weren’t merely self-serving, but instead supported the whole community, especially the poor and powerless. The image of the knight-errant coming to the rescue of the damsel in distress was a romantic and dramatic representation of a much broader ethic, that of the strong protecting and standing for the weak. The ancien régime—premised upon the rule of a hereditary aristocracy that ruled for the good of the whole polity—was overthrown because most people ceased to believe its conceit. Its flattering self-portrait of a paternalistic and caring overclass was increasingly viewed as a self-serving rationalization and a form of societal self-deception in the service of status maintenance. Barbara Tuchman described the crisis of legitimacy of the chivalric code in her book A Distant Mirror:
The ideal was a vision of order maintained by the warrior class and formulated in the image of the Round Table, nature’s perfect shape. King Arthur’s knights adventured for the right against dragons, enchanters, and wicked men, establishing order in a wild world. So their living counterparts were supposed, in theory, to serve as defenders of the Faith, upholders of justice, champions of the oppressed. In practice, they were themselves the oppressors, and by the 14th century the violence and lawlessness of men of the sword had become a major agency of disorder. When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down. Legend and story have always reflected this; in the Arthurian romances the Round Table is shattered from within.
We may be quick to agree that there was a gap between the stated ethic of noblesse oblige and the actual actions of the nobility of the ancien régime. But, much like those who took for granted the naturalness of political arrangements during the medieval ages, today’s elites seldom subject their meritocratic justifications of their status and position to the same skepticism.
While elites may suffer self-inflicted blindness to the nature of their position, the rest of society clearly sees what they are doing. The uprising among the working classes across the developed West arises from a perception of illegitimacy—of a gap between claims of the ruling class and reality as experienced by those who are ruled. It is no coincidence that these rebellions come from the socialist left and authoritarian right, two positions that now share opposition to state capitalism, a managerial ruling class, the financialization of the economy, and globalization. These populist rebellions are a challenge to the liberal order itself.
Our ruling class is more blinkered than that of the ancien régime. Unlike the aristocrats of old, they insist that there are only egalitarians at their exclusive institutions. They loudly proclaim their virtue and redouble their commitment to diversity and inclusion. They cast bigoted rednecks as the great impediment to perfect equality—not the elite institutions from which they benefit. The institutions responsible for winnowing the social and economic winners from the losers are largely immune from questioning, and busy themselves with extensive public displays of their unceasing commitment to equality. Meritocratic ideology disguises the ruling class’s own role in perpetuating inequality from itself, and even fosters a broader social ecology in which those who are not among the ruling class suffer an array of social and economic pathologies that are increasingly the defining feature of America’s underclass. Facing up to reality would require hard questions about the agenda underlying commitments to “diversity and inclusion.” Our stated commitment to “critical thinking” demands no less, but such questions are likely to be put down—at times violently—on contemporary campuses.
Campaigns for equality that focus on the inclusion of identity groups rather than examinations of the class divide permit an extraordinary lack of curiosity about complicity in a system that secures elite status across generations. Concern for diversity and inclusion on the basis of “ascriptive” features—race, gender, disability, or sexual orientation—allows the ruling class to overlook class while focusing on unchosen forms of identity. Diversity and inclusion fit neatly into the meritocratic structure, leaving the structure of the new aristocratic order firmly in place.
This helps explain the strange and often hysterical insistence upon equality emanating from our nation’s most elite and exclusive institutions. The most absurd recent instance was Harvard University’s official effort to eliminate social clubs due to their role in “enacting forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values,” in the words of its president. Harvard’s opposition to exclusion sits comfortably with its admissions rate of 5 percent (2,056 out of 40,000 applicants in 2017). The denial of privilege and exclusion seems to increase in proportion to an institution’s exclusivity.
Highly touted commitments to equity, inclusion, and diversity do not only cloak institutional elitism. They also imply that anyone who is not included deserves his lower status. If elites largely regard their social status, wealth, and position as the result of their own efforts and work (and certainly not of birth or inheritance), then those who remain in the lower classes have, by the same logic, chosen to remain in such a condition. This scornful view is shared by prominent voices on the right and left. For instance, James Stimson—the Raymond Dawson Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina—recently told the New York Times:
When we observe the behavior of those who live in distressed areas, we are not observing the effect of economic decline on the working class, we are observing a highly selected group of people who faced economic adversity and choose to stay at home and accept it when others sought and found opportunity elsewhere. . . . Those who are fearful, conservative, in the social sense, and lack ambition stay and accept decline.
In other words, it’s their own fault. They deserve to lose, just as Harvard’s meritocrats deserve to win.
That the ruling class today is more prone to denounce inequality from its manicured campuses than promote among its own denizens belief in a common civic life is not a sign of its greater enlightenment and progress, but a sign of a new aristocracy that is unconscious of its own position and its concomitant responsibilities. They are deluded by an updated “noble” lie.
From the vantage of nearly 2,500 years, Plato’s noble lie doesn’t appear to be a falsehood after all. For a society to function, two seemingly contradictory beliefs must be simultaneously held: We are radically different and radically alike. We are extensively differentiated yet bound together. We are called to sometimes radically unequal tasks, but those tasks are part of an effort to benefit the whole. Plato thought the “fact of difference” would be easy for people to acknowledge, since it is so evident to our senses, if not always easy for those in a position of lower status to accept. The challenge was how to achieve belief in a common origin and shared kinship. The Republic of Plato was one effort to answer that challenge, if a fairly absurd and implausible one (as Socrates readily admitted). We have two main answers on the table today.
For as long as our nation has been in existence, confused and diverging streams have fed into the American creed. The first of these was political liberalism. It puts a stress upon individual rights and liberty, promising that if we commit to a common project of building a liberal society, our distinct and often irreconcilable differences will be protected. Liberalism affirms political unity as a means to securing our private differences.
Christianity has been the other stream. It approaches the question from the opposite perspective, understanding our differences to serve a deeper unity. This is the resounding message of St. Paul in chapters 12–13 of 1 Corinthians. There, Paul calls upon the squabbling Christians of Corinth to understand that their gifts are not for the glory of any particular person or class of people, but for the body as a whole. John Winthrop echoed this teaching in his seldom-read, oft-misquoted sermon aboard the Arbella, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop begins his speech with the observation that people have in all times and places been born or placed into low and high stations; the poor are always with us, as Christ observed. But this differentiation was not permitted and ordained for the purpose of the degradation of the former and glory of the latter, but for the greater glory of God, that all might know that they have need of each other and a responsibility to share particular gifts for the sake of the common. Differences of talent and circumstance exist to promote a deeper unity.
So long as liberalism was not fully itself—so long as liberalism was corrected and even governed by Christianity—a working social contract was possible. For Christianity, difference is ordered toward unity. For liberalism, unity is valued insofar as it promotes difference. The American experiment blended and confused these two understandings, but just enough to make it a going concern. The balance was always imperfect, leaving out too many, always unstably oscillating between quasi-theological evocation of unity and deracinated individualism. But it seemed viable for nearly 250 years. The recent steep decline of religious faith and Christian moral norms is regarded by many as marking the triumph of liberalism, and so, in a sense, it is. Today our unity is understood almost entirely in the light of our differences. We come together—to celebrate diversity. And today, the celebration of diversity ends up serving as a mask for power and inequality.
In this settlement, the language of rights prevails. But as Simone Weil noted decades ago, the language of rights ultimately cannot build, or even sustain, a common life:
If you say to someone who has ears to hear: ‘What you are doing to me is not just’, you touch and awaken at its source the spirit of attention and love. But it is not the same with words like ‘I have the right . . .’ or ‘you have no right to . . .’ They invoke a latent war and awaken the spirit of contention. To place the notion of rights at the centre of social conflicts is to inhibit any possible impulse of charity of both sides.
Weil predicted what we now experience. After more than two centuries, we can no longer assert the compatibility of Christianity and liberalism. Liberalism is ascendant, but its victory will be pyrrhic. A society solely premised upon a shared belief in individual differentiation will end in a war of all against all. The state of nature lies not in an imagined past; it is plainly visible in a near and all too real future.
The new aristocrats believe we have transcended the need for Christianity, which they regard as a myth no less mendacious than Plato’s noble lie. They believe that by dispelling the old myths, they can become the vanguard of an ever more equal society. They blind themselves to the fact that this claim is a form of status maintenance, allowing denial of a deeper commonality with those they regard as benighted and backward. Elites denounce the “populists” while denying that they have fomented a class war. They deplore the obnoxiousness of Donald Trump, perfectly obtuse of their complicity in his ascent.
We are in uncharted territory. Liberalism coexisted with Christianity for its entire history, with Christianity moderating the harder edges of the regnant political philosophy, supporting forms and practices that demanded from elites the recognition of their elevated status, and hence, corresponding responsibilities and duties to those less fortunate. The thoroughgoing disdain and dismissiveness of today’s elites toward the working class is a reflection of our newfound “enlightenment,” just as is the belief among the lower class that only a strong and equally disdainful leader can constrain the elites. Liberalism has achieved its goal of emptying the public square of the old gods, leaving it a harsh space of contestation among unequals who no longer see any commonality. Whether that square can be filled again with newly rendered stories of old telling us of a common origin and destination, or whether it must simply be dominated by whoever proves the strongest, is the test of our age.
Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.