In Plato’s Republic, Socrates broaches the disturbing possibility that it may be necessary to lie to the people for their own good. The “opportune falsehood,” Socrates explains to his pupil, is that everyone’s soul has either gold, silver, or brass in it, and it is because of this admixture that the city’s inhabitants are assigned to their different ranks and responsibilities. You can see the reasoning: If you think that most people will not be able to understand the real justification for the social order, but that they need to accept that order, then your best course is to fool them into complying with it. Best to “deceive the rulers, if that be possible,” Socrates says, “and at any rate the rest of the city.”
Known as the theory of the “noble lie,” this passage is surprisingly relevant to the United States Supreme Court. Fewer and fewer people are buying our own national myth that the court dispenses law and justice without crossing the line into partisanship and politics. For some, this development only makes it the more necessary to hoodwink the people into believing that the Supreme Court soars above politics; this particular noble lie is essential precisely because, having worked so well for so long, it is now under threat. One of the leading proponents of this view sits on the Supreme Court himself—and is refusing to leave.
Stephen Breyer, who turned 83 this year, was born in San Francisco, went to Stanford and Harvard Law School, and taught law for a while. He was, he noted a few years ago, the first Harvard Law professor to have to earn tenure by writing a scholarly article—which he did, on the subject of copyright, before establishing a profile as an administrative law specialist with a technocratic bent and then passing into the judiciary. Appointed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals by Jimmy Carter in 1980, Breyer ascended to the Supreme Court on the nomination of Bill Clinton in 1994—more than 27 years ago.
Read more at The New Republic