Written in political exile during the Second World War and first published in 1945, Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies is one of the most influential books of the twentieth century. Hailed by Bertrand Russell as a 'vigorous and profound defence of democracy', its now legendary attack on the philosophies of Plato, Hegel and Marx exposed the dangers inherent in centrally planned political systems. Popper's highly accessible style, his erudite and lucid explanations of the thought of great philosophers and the recent resurgence of totalitarian regimes around the world are just three of the reasons for the enduring popularity ofThe Open Society and Its Enemies, and for why it demands to be read both today and in years to come.This is the first of two volumes of The Open Society and Its Enemies.
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.
When Popper was writing, the targets of the second volume – Hegel and Marx – were perhaps considered the more pressing enemies, but it is Plato, the root, who is more so now and in the longer term.
Recently I read a book published in 2001 that discussed Popper as a thinker fading into history because of his success, who would only need to be re-discovered in the event of resurgence in communism, fascism, or religious fundamentalism. Safe to say we could use him now!
Popper's book however does make sense of a lot that puzzled me in Plato, and I don't mean the content of the ideas themselves, which are far more understandable than, say, Descartes or Kant, but some of their contradictions. Popper suggests that there's a divide between the philosophy of Socrates, Plato's mouthpiece, and that of Plato himself. That especially in the Apology dealing with Socrates trial, after all a recent event in Athens' history, Plato couldn't do much to alter Socrates' expression of belief in the "open society" of free inquiry, debate and democracy. I certainly saw and admired this Socrates and his precepts in such dialogues as Crito, Apology and Gorgias. But then one finds a rather different spirit in for instance Plato's most famous dialogue, The Republic. (The title of which Popper revealingly claims is more accurately translated, The State.) In the end I found Popper's book a stimulating and thought-provoking study of the connections between such abstruse ideas as Plato's Forms and his advocacy of an unchanging, censorious authoritarianism, between the tensions between the individual and society, and trial and error piecemeal reform over utopian schemes.
Sure, this book isn't flawless.
He vehemently attacks Plato for the use that has been made through time of his cultural inheritance, in a kind of out of proportion Nuremberg trial; he despises Plato for not being liberal, when liberalism didn't even exist back then. He depicts ancient Athens' history like a spy story tale and there's a persistent and nasty hint that the open society, the truly good and selfrighteous one, is just our liberal-market-free-non communist one (and goodbye to free thinking. What free thought is supposed to do when you are already in the nearly perfect society?).
Still, keeping in mind these faults, Popper's insights on reason, ethics, relativism and science are good.
Throw away the economist, politic, historian Popper, but hold on to the philosopher one.