Plato and Sir Karl Popper


In his preface to The Open Society and its Enemies (1950), Karl Popper speaks about ‘what is perhaps the greatest of all moral and spiritual revolutions of history, a movement which began three centuries ago. It is the longing of uncounted unknown men to free themselves and their minds from the tutelage of authority and prejudice. It is their attempt to build up an open society which rejects the absolute authority of the merely established and the merely traditional while trying to preserve, to develop, and to establish traditions, old or new, that measure up to their standards of freedom, of humaneness, and of rational criticism.’

The purpose of his book, he says, is to criticise some of our intellectual leaders, not to belittle them: ‘…we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men may make great mistakes; and as the book tries to show, some of the greatest leaders of the past supported the perennial attack on freedom and reason.’

Plato is one of the great men who come in for criticism, and the main target is the Republic—unacceptable to Popper because the ideal state is, on any showing, totalitarian. Plato’s worst offence is to propose establishing a self-perpetuating caste of rulers, chosen for their genetic qualities and compelled to produce only offspring who are genetically able to succeed them.

All understandable. But Karl Popper, himself a great man, is not immune from error as none of us are, and especially the error that comes from assumptions of one’s own time and ideas present in the circumambient air. His book took shape in the heyday of Nazi Germany. So he is soon referring to Plato’s Guardians as a ‘master race,’ which is not what Plato intends; and one remark is downright misleading:

‘The workers, tradesmen, etc., do not interest him at all, they are only human cattle whose sole function is to provide for the material needs of the ruling class.’

This is untrue: the general population are not discussed. Plato does not talk about them as if they are ‘human cattle’, nor do they have a ‘sole function’; and the ruling class do not have many material needs, because they live in a place like a barracks and are not allowed wealth or property.

It is nearer the truth, reading the Republic, to see the Guardians as servants of the general population, who protect them from enemies within and without. That, Plato says, is the function of people who rule.

There are those who believe that Plato’s main business is to provoke thought rather than dictate it. This is why the Republic remains essential reading in any good politics course at a university. Its virtue is that of containing so many objects of enquiry.

Next post: Plato and democracy.

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