Friday, April 20, 2007

Book Review on The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 1: The Spell of Plato

Well, as I promised my (almost non-existent) readers, I’ll give a fuller commentary on The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 1: The Spell of Plato. This book was written by Karl Popper, a philosopher, during the onset of World War II. As Popper notifies in the book’s preface, it was written in a time when fascism seemed as though it could prevail, and stern critique of its progenitor ideologies was necessary.

At the start of the book, Popper attacks a view he labels historicism. This is the view that history proceeds following strict historical laws or “laws of cosmic development”. This means that history’s course is predetermined and can be predicted by a select few, dialecticians, with knowledge of these laws.

Popper’s critique, in brevity, is that no such laws are discoverable and that these generalizations have lead to immense harm and destruction. Or, that the general attitude of historicists regarding the predetermined nature of social change has led to the evils of authoritarianism, communism, and fascism.

Popper then goes after Plato. He seems to think Plato was insecure about the change going on as the Athenian City-State became increasingly democratic and humanitarian. Plato, coming from an aristocratic background, saw this as a threat. He saw the change as historical corruption. Thus, he formulated a historicist law, that “over time, the corruptibility of the state increases and it degenerates away from its perfect form”. At the top was his ideal “form” of the state (based on his theory of forms), next in line was a Spartan-style state, then democracy, and finally, the worst variety, most distant from the “perfect form” of the state, was tyranny.

Popper than discusses another side of Plato, that of the Utopian Social Engineer. Plato wanted to reconstruct the state, starting anew, into a Spartan-style oligarchy. It would be ruled by Philosopher-Kings, with a strong warrior class, and with a lower class of slaves and labourers. I’ve done some further research and found out that the Philosopher-King parallels Sparta’s Kings, the warrior class Sparta’s Hoplites, and lower class parallels the Helot slaves. Popper details how Plato’s utopia is utterly authoritarian, anti-humanitarian, and collectivist. He furthers that Plato’s utopian ambitions influenced other ideologues with authoritarian agendas over the years.

While I haven’t read Plato’s Republic, I can say this doesn’t paint a good picture of it. The book is very well written, clear, and convincing. Nearly every argument is substantiated with a quote from one of Plato’s dialogues, and detailed further in the “Notes” section. I didn’t like, however, that he forgot to mention Sparta’s one strong point; their high status of women in comparison with Athens.

I first read "Open Society and it's Enemies" in 1983 and have held onto my copy. I do not believe that this book was an effective refutation of socialism. It affected my thought, anchouring me more to the right of the NDP.

Marx, as you may know, also favoured Aristotle over Plato and rejected all forms of Utopianism and social engineering. His criticism of rival leftists like Owen and Bakunin had its roots in this.

You may like to know that one of Popper's students was billionaire George Soros. People like to attack Soros for his successful manipulation the currencies of Thailand and Mexico but also keep in mind that alot of East European social democrats can thank George for his support.

Always a Popper-style pragmatist Soros backed social democrats especially in Hungary and the Ukraine because he saw them as most able to hold power and direct their countries away from Stalinism (mid-20th century Plato-ism).

That's as deep as I can get. All the philosophizing I am capable of now is figuring out how to raise money for the next election.

Dave Mann
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