Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 1

by Karl Popper


I’m still in some shock from the utter thrashing that Popper perpetrates upon Plato, maybe the most venerated philosopher in the history of the world.  For that alone the book is exceedingly welcome, although I’m admittedly no expert on ancient Greek philosophy, so it’s not prudent to accept everything Popper says on just his word.  Indeed, one of the problems I had with the book is that, despite his various reminders that he means nothing personal, and that he still holds Plato in the highest esteem, Popper seems almost gleeful at times while knocking the old Greek down several notches.  So were his disclaimers deceptive, ironic, or just disingenuous?

That said, the man has a capacity for argumentation that I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered.  His arguments are clear, logical, and strong.  He uses primarily Plato’s Republic to paint Socrates’ alum as the originator of totalitarianism, highlighting his proposed class stratification, state propaganda to maintain order, and the suppression of intellectual and all other freedoms.  One of his most shocking and damning criticisms is the evidence that Plato actively supported selective breeding as one of the first forms of eugenics, to maintain as pure the “master race.”  Also quite impressive was the documentation of Plato’s perversion of his own mentor’s teaching.  Socrates comes out of this as a shining beacon of liberalism and humanitarianism.

My main criticisms of the book are incidental to the larger point.  The brief discussion in Note 4 of Ch. 7 troubled me.  In discussing the “paradox of tolerance,” Popper correctly notes that a completely tolerant society will breed intolerance, just because they will tolerate an intolerant person or group to rise to power and begin repression.  His solution, that it’s therefore necessary to repress intolerance, seems like a very slippery slope.  I can respect it, as a hater of ignorance myself, but assuming that some abuse-proof way of controlling intolerance is within our grasp seems awfully idealistic.  In his abhorrence of Plato’s totalitarianism, he seems to err on the side of Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority.”  Who can say which is preferable?

This goes into my larger criticism.  As more of a radical than Popper (in his literal sense of the word), I remain skeptical of his deep faith in democratic institutes and the process of reform.  Maybe he would have thought differently about our democratic process had he lived a couple of decades longer (i.e. witnessing the rise of FoxNews and the neocon).  Or maybe he would have just emphasized the need to repress such hateful intolerance, who knows?  But for all the cojones and free-thinking Popper shows in going after the originators of Western thought and civilization as we know them, it’s a little surprising that he doesn’t take it to the next level, wondering if there isn’t some problem with our civilization as a whole.  Or if there isn’t some compromise between the magical tribalism of his Closed Society and the humanist rationalism of the Open.

Original Review


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