Contemporary Political Theory

, Volume 15, Issue 4, pp 339–357 | Cite as

Plato’s open secret

  • Demetra Kasimis


The Republic’s noble lie is widely read as an endorsement of political difference that opposes the democratic ideals of its Athenian setting. Once the text’s exclusionary political realities and rhetorical structure are attended to, however, the passages no longer appear as the template for an essentialist politics or the act of political deception they are typically taken to be. What they do is lay bare the ‘artifice’ (mēchanē) by which regimes – including classical Athens – produce membership status as a ‘natural’ category. Plato presents the regulatory fiction that one’s political ‘kind’ (genos) expresses a pre-given status as an open secret. Given the privileged awareness he affords the reader, the noble lie may be fruitfully read as revealing – not concealing – that the ‘natural’ distinctions of an exclusionary citizenship politics are the effects of willful political power. This narrative strategy takes on specific significance in the context of the blood-based membership politics of Athens, which had its own noble lie. Accordingly, Plato’s text is shown to provoke insights into questions of democratic difference usually assumed beyond its purview. The Republic is read as exposing the workings of an essentialist politics it is typically thought instead to originate and prescribe.


Plato noble lie difference nature democracy citizenship 



The author wishes to thank the editors of Contemporary Political Theory, especially Lisa Disch and Samuel Chambers, and two anonymous reviewers for their extremely helpful feedback. Previous versions benefited from presentations at the University of Chicago, Princeton University, Georgetown University and Yale University. The author owes special thanks to Mark Bauer, Mary Dietz, Jill Frank, Larry George, Adom Getachew, Emily Greenwood, Melissa Lane, John Lombardini, Nino Luraghi, Patchen Markell, John McCormick, Sara Monoson, Ella Myers, Paul North, Tracey Rosen, Claudio Sansone, Joel Schlosser, Christopher Skeaff, Christine Smallwood, Christina Tarnopolsky and Linda Zerilli for reading or talking about this article with her. For his wonderful insights into and unwavering belief in this reading, she is especially grateful to Philip Baker.


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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Demetra Kasimis
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Political Science, University of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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