Back    All discussions

Hello...and Karl Popper

I've recently discovered this site and I think it's superb. I've been reading philosophy for a few years now, and some of it is beginning to make sense. I read the two volumes of Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies a while ago and I'd like to ask anybody who might be interested a couple of things. Does anybody agree with Popper's attack on Plato - an attack that boils down to claiming that Plato set out the blueprint for totalitarianism? If not, has anyone any thoughts on Popper's motivations for attacking Plato in this way? Does anybody think that the attack is grossly unfair? I don't know enough about Plato or Popper to draw anything like a satisfactory conclusion, so I'd be very interested to know what other people think.


Hello...and Karl Popper
Reply to Mik Black
Hi Mik,
Well I've read the first volume on Plato - a number of years ago - and though by no means am I an expert on these matters, I have given them some thought. I think Popper waged his attack on no other than Plato because the latter is so central to Western civilization, and Popper wanted to show that a "closed society" is a dangerous option all Western societies face - and should take the necessary precautions against. Remember that he was writing during WWII, when Germany, a nation considered at the forefront of Western progress at the turn of the 20th century, culturally, philosophically, technologically, was attempting to enslave and/or destroy the rest of Europe and the world, under the ultra-closed society of the "Third Reich". Its major enemy? The Soviet Union under Stalin, which would not have existed without Marx's writings, who was so indebted to Hegel. Times were Orwellian, scary. Popper traced the disease back to Plato, whose "Republic" shaped so much of Western thought about the relations between the individual and the collective. If you ask me, Popper's claims have merit. In the "Republic", philosopher-kings rule the docile masses, a warrior class stands on guard, and poets have been banished lest they corrupt the warrior class, which should be brainwashed. (The text of the dialogue is way richer and much more nuanced than what I say here; Plato is a great writer and thinker and is open to interpretation - which is why an attack on him may seem unfair to you). 


Hello...and Karl Popper
Reply to Mik Black

Since you are asking what people think, i will give you my opinion which is not uncontroversial:

I think that Popper's disagreements with Plato go beyond this one case. They simply thought differently. Popper relied on empirical falsification whereas Plato relied on intuitive cognition. They would even disagree, i feel, on the definitions of cognition and falsification (in their respective languages of course). So when you get into politics, these fundamental disagreements magnify. Popper was an extreme supporter of liberal democracy. Having read Plato's Republic several times, i am well aware of all of the items in it that would cause someone like Popper utter disgust.

Do I feel that Popper was justified in this disgust? No, I do not. But I must add historical investigations to philosophical ones (with philosophical relevance) to back my opinion up.

Put yourself into Plato's shoes in the 4th Century BCE. What was the paragon of political perfection? Egypt of course, which was ancient even to Plato. Egypt was ruled by philosopher kings of a sort. The priest-class was said to have had tremendous influence over the Pharaohs. Who was the Pharaoh, but the highest of the philosopher/priests (a god even perhaps to them). It is my belief that Plato's ideal state was based on Egypt. Several times during the Platonic works, references to Egypt are made and all paint the ancient kingdom in the light of a wise and mature state. As he writes in the Timaeus from the Egyptian perspective, "You Hellenes are ever children". Keep in mind that Egypt had been around for thousands when Plato was writing this. A remarkable feat for any culture. And even more remarkable was the fact that Egypt remained conservative and traditional throughout this time. Egypt was the place to go for learning and spiritual initiation. Plato must have believed that Egypt’s longevity was because of their love of wisdom (Greek: philosophos). Alexander the Great choose Egypt as the location for Alexandria for good reason.

Plato was said to have visited Egypt seeking knowledge [McEvoy, James (1984). "Plato and The Wisdom of Egypt" Irish Philosophical Journal (Belfast: Dept. of Scholastic Philosophy, Queen's University of Belfast)  ] and then returned to Athens many years before writing the Republic. So you can imagine a critical view of the Athenian democracy (that voted to execute Socrates).

In Jasnow and Zauzich’s The Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth (Otto Harrasswitz GmbH&Co. KG Wiesbaden 2005),“The-one-who-loves-knowledge” and Thoth (the god of learning and writing) engage in a dialogue. In fact the entire work is a dialogue. To me that sounds very familiar. This is one of many examples of possible arguments for the Egyptian influence on Plato. This “Book of Thoth” is argued by Jasnow and Zauzich to be the legendary Book that played a role in initiating the highest scribe/priests into what they refer to as “mysteries”. Their lengthy introduction argues this point. They even mention the striking parallels with the Greek “philosophos” but do not make any parallels to Plato specifically.

When you look at the sections of the Republic that are so unappealing to the modern American political taste, I encourage you to keep an open mind in this light. Plato's goal was the development of philosophy. He saw it achieved to quite an extent in Egypt. I feel that when we try-as Popper did-to apply our zeitgeist on to The Republic we are misunderstanding Plato’s goal.

All of the above is very much my opinion (and it is highly debated), but it’s one based on years of studying Egypt and Plato. Which is what you asked for. I also do not think that a philosopher-king/queen (beneficent dictator) could exist today because there is no philosophical infrastructure to guide this king that would result in the longevity that Egypt proved. Unlike philosophy today, Egyptian philosphy must have been far more homogenous as well as popular and effective and perhaps even very wise. Unfortunatley, almost all research into these areas is highly speculative due to the lack of historical documents, but after many years of study you can feel some confidence in your opinions, so i encourage you to explore these topics for the answer.


Hello...and Karl Popper
Reply to Gary Geck

After posting the above, I came across a paper by Dr. Greg Moses titled By the Dog of Egypt! (1996, Presented at SUNY-Binghamtom) which is in a pre-publication form on the professor’s personal website. “By the dog of Egypt!” is a quote from Socrates in The Republic meaning to swear by the (jackal-headed) Egyptian god of judgment, Anubis.

I was not aware of this paper, but he seems to have made a lot of the same points I did. Of particular interest are these three points that Guy Schultz correctly abstracts from Plato’s ideal state:

  1.  “philosopher-kings rule the docile masses"
  2.  “a warrior class stands on guard”
  3. “and poets have been banished lest they corrupt the warrior class…”

I would like to use Guy Schultz’s (3) points above to stengthen my Egyptian thesis especially where Dr. Moses’s paper specifically connects (2) and (3) to Egypt like so:

  1.  I have already connected this to Egypt, but it’s interesting that Dr. Charles Finch in his paper Still Out of Africa (1996) echoes my claim that the philospher-king of The Republic is based on the pharoah.
  2. Dr. Moses cites how in the Timeaus, the Egyptian priest explains to Solon how the Egyptian society is divided into castes [quoting Plato]: “'In the first place, there is the caste of priests, which is separated from all the others; …[other castes listed out]… and you will observe, too, that the warriors in Egypt are distinct from all the other classes, and are commanded by the law to devote themselves solely to military pursuits.'”
  3. Dr. Moses cites how in Plato’s Laws, the poets and musicians of Athens have complete freedom to compose however they like, which leads to an art (poetry, music, paintig, etc.) that is not based on truth and virtue (thus defeating the very purpose of art to Plato). Instead, Plato paints the art of Egypt as being both lawfull and as immutable over millenia. It is not allowed to deteriorate. Plato paints ideal art (based on true principles) as a social good, but lawless art as one of the greatest social ills. Again, Egypt seems to be the origin of Plato’s aestetchics. Cited by Dr. Moses, Plato’s Laws explains that the Egyptians could not teach their young the advanced principles of their highest virtues and metaphysics directly so they made a fun form of play of them which was their music, poetry and art. This art, which had been th same for millenia taught them the patterns of virtue without them even knowing it. So the poetry, music and art of Egypt served as one’s earliest spiritual and philosphical development, in fun and graspable vehicle. [I’m reminded of Leibniz’s notion that music is the mind’s way of counting without knowing it.]

Both Dr. Moses and Dr. Finch were responding to Dr. Mary Lefkowitz’s arguments against Egyptian influence on Plato and, more generally, on the roots of Western Civilization. 

Dr. Moses also describes some Platonic passages critical of Egypt as being ironic. This is a common quality of Plato’s complex writing style and all the more reason to avoid any hasty judgements of his dialogues. We should expect irony from the same author who offers the theory of forms in the Timeaus and offers the excellent attack on this same theory in the Parmenides [and it’s been debated which work was written first].

In defense of the open society, just because something is Egyptian does not make it right or best. I certainly do enjoy and defend intellectual and artistic freedom. But I must admit that it seems odd how “progress” in western philosophy, art and science has been marked by tearing down the systems of the past (postmodern philosophy, literature and painting come to mind). This is in stark contrast to Plato’s unchanging utopia which I have argued is heavily modeled after Egypt. The theme of a perfect (and therefore unchanging) soul as the model of the perfect state is a common theme in all three works (Republic, Timeaus, Laws), in a sense necessary laws versus material contigencies.

Plato’s (often misunderstood) criticism of free (lawless?) culture is probably the best you’ll find. So one can see why Popper went after it so viciously. Egypt achieved greatness, but it was far from being an “open society”.

As a side-note: The Republic is given so much attention, but I find Laws under-appreciated as it relates to understanding Plato’s ideal state and mature philosophy.