Karl Popper’s Critique of Plato’s Philosophy

“The Utopian attempt to realise an ideal state, using a blueprint of society as a whole, is one which demands a strong centralised rule of a few, and which is therefore likely to lead to a dictatorship.”

-Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato


BY HEIGRUJAM PREMKUMAR
the-open-society-and-its-enemies-vol-1
The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato

Popper considers Plato as an enemy of the open society. In his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato, Karl Popper argued that Plato’s philosophy is anti-individualist, anti-democratic, and has the aim of stopping all social change.

Let’s first try to understand Plato and his philosophy and then a detailed analysis of Popper’s arguments can be done.

The Basis of  Plato’s Philosophy

Plato had an organic view of State, by which it means that the State is an organic entity and the individuals its parts. The State is the whole body. Like a hand cannot move alone when it is separated from the whole body, individuals cannot have an interest against the State. According to Plato, whatever the State does is for the good of the community. Individuals have to obey the State.

Plato considered that democracy led to moral corruption and moral degradation. It led to factionalism, extreme violence and cannot tolerate highly-gifted individuals. The later view is in connection to the execution of Socrates. In any way, Plato was not in favour of democracy. According to him, the defeat of Athens to Sparta was due to Athenian democracy. Plato, in this aspect, was an aristocrat by birth and conviction.

Further, Plato was hesitant to changes that take place in his Ideal State. For this, he made a scheme of education that would keep the State as it is. For Plato, the Ideal State was to be eternal. Being influenced by Parmenides, he did not welcome changes in his Ideal State.

Critique of Plato’s Philosophy

I agree with Popper when he says that Plato’s philosophy is anti-individualist, anti-democratic and anti to social changes. Let’s see why.

karl-popper-open-society-and-its-enemies
Karl Popper

Anti-individualist

Plato never considered the rights of the individuals but only their duties towards the State.

Plato’s Ideal State ruled by philosophers is nothing but an authoritarian and totalitarian State. He advocated in his Republic an absolutist and totalitarian type of government. That is why he is regarded as the father of modern authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

Plato’s advocacy of a scheme of education is also a state-controlled and state-regulated one.

He denied owning property by the guardian class. His denial of family and children are against the interest of the individuals.

In Plato’s Ideal State, individuals are like commodities or tools  or instruments of state, or they are just like robots which are always under the command of the one who controls the remote, the State.

Anti-democratic

As already mentioned, Plato’s philosophy advocates a totalitarian and authoritarian system of government. Being an aristocrat, he always wanted to preserve the aristocratic values and lifestyles.

Plato was against popular participation by the average person, because they are not aware of the absolute truth. In this, Popper questions whether the claims of absolute truth are falsified. Besides, the so-called absolute truths (even if there is) may not be true according to particular time and place.

It is necessary to point out here that popular participation and existence of oppositions are essential for the growth and development of the State. Plato was against both. Thus, his philosophy is anti-democratic.

Anti to Social Changes

Plato wanted to maintain his Ideal State as it was originally instituted. He did not like make any changes to his Ideal State. His views on community of wives and property, the way he advocated on eugenics (meaning ‘well born’, which involved the selection of the best mates for child bearing), his scheme of education all reflected his hesitation towards social change.

In later years, in the Laws, Plato shifted his views from anti-individualist and anti-democratic to the opposite. He accepted the prevalence of rule of law, popular participation etc.

However, even though he shifted his views on individuals, democratic values and changes in the society in his Laws, Plato remained still stuck to many of the principles outlined in his Republic. Therefore, it can be said that Plato’s philosophy is anti-individualist, anti-democratic and had the aim of stopping all social changes.

Note: This critique is written taking reference from Karl Popper’s famous work, The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato.

I wrote this piece as an answer in my undergraduate examination while in Ramjas College, University of Delhi.

Reference

Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato (Routledge, 2002)

Plato, The Laws (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Plato, The Republic (translated by Allan Bloom) (Basic Books, 2016).

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