Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Thematic—Political Mythologies

The First Authoritarian

Popper’s Plato

Tae-Yeoun Keum

Sir Karl Popper; Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy Stock Photo.

In November of 1945, Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies was published in London. That same month, Charles de Gaulle was elected to lead the provisional government in France, Indonesia proclaimed independence from the Netherlands, the Nuremberg trials began in Germany—and Karl and Hennie Popper were preparing to set sail.

Having spent the war years in exile in New Zealand, the couple was now leaving for England so Karl could take up his new position at the London School of Economics—a job secured in large part on the promise of The Open Society and Its Enemies. Hennie, who had for the last several years been tasked with typing up drafts of the manuscript, had written to friends about leaving “the last nightmare years of typing” behind her.

With some trouble, Popper eventually managed to secure two (nonadjacent) berths on a cargo liner. The long voyage from New Zealand would take just over a month. Not until the following January, when his loyal friend, the art historian Ernst Gombrich, met him on the docks carrying a copy of the first edition, would Popper set eyes on the book that launched his career and sealed his reputation.

He went through the pages, hawk-eyed, on the train and the bus.

The False Prophet of Philosophy

Today, The Open Society and Its Enemies is perhaps best remembered for two things: Karl Popper’s coinage of the terms “open society” and “closed society,” and his scorched-earth attack on Plato as the original architect of the latter. For Popper, Plato was the first and the most influential authoritarian thinker. (Popper’s analogous charges against Aristotle, Marx, and Hegel have not proven as memorable.)

Popper conceived of the difference between open and closed societies as a difference in their respective cultures of knowledge. Open societies were distinguished by their democratic culture of criticism, which made commonly held beliefs available for critique and revision, and in so doing, embraced innovation. Closed societies, by contrast, lacked this “critical attitude.” They were instead sustained by the “dogmatic” power of myths, which preserved existing power structures and stifled social change.11xKarl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1962), 50; Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 2 vols. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013); first published 1945.

The assault on Plato took up the first of the book’s two volumes. Focusing on Plato’s Republic and its blueprint of a city ruled by a handful of elite philosophers, Popper argued that Plato had produced a vision of one such closed society. He pointed to the stratification of the social order in Plato’s ideal city, the strict division of labor between the intellectual and productive classes, the absence of social mobility, state censorship of most culture, and, above all, the promulgation of an openly fraudulent myth, the so-called Noble Lie, to legitimize the status quo. All of this, Popper observed, amounted to nothing less than a dictatorship of philosopher-kings who peddled myths to their subjects in order to suppress free thinking and to lock them into a rigid caste system. The whole business of Plato’s politics boiled down to maintaining this scheme: an effort to “arrest all change.”22xPopper, The Open Society, 86.

Plato’s vision, Popper went on to speculate, was a reaction to the burgeoning of democracy in the philosopher’s contemporary Athens. Traumatized by the trial and execution of his teacher, Socrates, at the hands of his fellow citizens, Plato became an avowed enemy of democracy. The Republic was the philosopher’s antidemocratic manifesto—and a statement of his own ambition to play the role of the philosopher-king.

Through the antidemocratic ideas articulated in the Republic, Popper argued, Plato irrevocably injected a mythic poison into the Western tradition. In the twentieth century, those ideas had found their incarnation in fascism. Popper wrote that the Noble Lie, the foundation myth of Plato’s Republic, was “an exact counterpart” to “the modern myth of Blood and Soil.”33xIbid., 273.

The Making of a Myth

It is difficult to guess from the vitriol of the attack that Popper, in fact, bore no special animosity toward Plato when he started down the path that eventually led to The Open Society. Nor was he especially qualified to articulate such resentment. What Greek he knew he had picked up in school or on his own. His credentials were those of a philosopher of science, not a historian of ideas or a political philosopher.

In his prewar, pre-exile years, the young Popper had made a modest name for himself on the fringes of the Vienna Circle, the birthplace of logical positivism. In the Logik der Forschung—published in 1934, and later rewritten in English as The Logic of Scientific Discovery—Popper defined science as a body of “falsifiable” knowledge, a set of hypotheses capable of being disproved by experiment. The book made the rounds among Vienna’s intellectual elite, as well as among an even more selective handful of British philosophers who were curious about what was happening on the Continent.

In his next major project, Popper developed the ideas of the Logik der Forschung into a sweeping critique of the social sciences. Conceived and written largely in New Zealand, The Poverty of Historicism was an attack on the “historicist” tendency in the social sciences, especially in Marxist economics, to prefer unfalsifiable historical prophecy—the revolution is coming!—to the rigor of the natural sciences. (Years later, even Popper called the book one of his “stodgiest pieces of writing.”44xKarl Popper, Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography (London, England: Routledge, 2002), 130. First published 1976.)

The Open Society and Its Enemies started life as an increasingly bloated digression in this sprawling work. Deep into the text, Popper began an aside on the antecedents of historicism. He singled out Aristotle and Plato (as well as Edmund Husserl), depicting them as hostile to open-ended scientific inquiry and wedded to fixed ideas about the essence of reality. Their theories of epistemology and ontology, Popper argued, had disturbing political implications. He included a few remarks on what he saw as the totalitarianism latent in Plato’s Republic.

He started showing the section to colleagues and friends, including a classics lecturer at his university in New Zealand. They were sufficiently perplexed that he felt it necessary to expand his account, which grew and grew, eventually turning into an entirely separate “companion essay,” as Popper called it, to be titled “Marginal Notes on the History of Historicism.”

It was the onset of World War II, however—the German invasion of his native Austria in 1938, the fall of France in 1940—that apparently jolted Popper into conceiving of his long essay as a political act. The eureka moment appears to have come when he perceived an affinity between Plato and fascism. He soon set aside the Poverty of Historicism to devote himself full-time to his new project. The “Marginal Notes” eventually grew into the two volumes of The Open Society, which he quite explicitly came to regard as his war effort. (He even worried that the war might be over before he finished it.) As he wrote to a friend in 1943, “I consider the destruction of the awe of the Great Names, the Great Intellectual Authorities, one of the necessary prerequisites of a recuperation of mankind.”55xPopper to Fritz Hellin, June 29, 1943, cited in Malachi Haim Hacohen, Karl Popper: The Formative Years: 1902–1945 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 454–55.

Popper’s attack on Plato was the fire at the heart of The Open Society. It was also one reason he had such a hard time finding a publisher for the book. Popper first arranged to have the manuscript—totaling more than seven hundred pages—sent to American publishers. He had heard that the wartime paper shortage in the United States was less severe than in Britain, and hoped, therefore that publishers wouldn’t reject it for purely material reasons. But the efforts of his acquaintances in America to help him find a publisher failed, in part because Popper stubbornly refused to make cuts to the Plato section, or to tone down the polemics more generally. In the United Kingdom, Cambridge declined to publish it on the grounds that “a university press ought not to publish a book that is so disrespectful of Plato.”66xErnst Gombrich to Popper, October 13, 1943 cited in Hacohen, Karl Popper, 457.

“The situation is really rather dreadful,” Popper complained to Gombrich, who had effectively become his unpaid agent and secretary in Britain. “I feel that if one has written a book one ought not to be forced to go begging to have it read, and printed.”77xE.H. Gombrich, “Personal Recollections of the Publication of The Open Society,” in Popper, The Open Society, xxvi.

The stakes were high. Popper desperately wanted a new job. His position in New Zealand had almost certainly saved his life during the war years, but he had little desire to remain there, “halfway to the moon.”88xIbid. A successful English-language book was potentially his ticket back to Earth.

Popper’s academic job search had begun in the thirties. As a Jew in Austria, he had been barred after finishing his doctorate from progressing to the Habilitation, the final postdoctoral qualification required of academics before they could hold professorial posts. He found himself teaching secondary school on the outskirts of Vienna—just as Hennie did before she gave up her career to support his.

As the political climate in Central Europe worsened, Popper began to look for academic positions in England and America. In many ways, he was a dismal candidate for those jobs, which were coveted by so many other Central European intellectuals fleeing fascism. He had never held a proper academic post; he had no publications in English and spoke the language poorly.

But in other ways, Popper also benefited from the impression he had left on his acquaintances in the Vienna Circle—and crucially, on their British admirers—of being smart and promising. He had begun corresponding with Susan Stebbing and, when he met the young A.J. Ayer at a conference in Paris, was also introduced to Isaiah Berlin and Gilbert Ryle.

Hennie mortgaged their house to finance a lecture tour for him in England, at the end of which Popper hoped to have a job offer in hand. It was a miserable experience. Many of the lectures—which he insisted on delivering in halting English, even when invited to speak in German—did not go well.99xOr, as Malachi Haim Hacohen summarizes drily in his magisterial intellectual biography of Popper: “He had now engaged with Einstein, and engaged Schrödinger and Bohr, but still had no job.” Hacohen, Karl Popper, 320. Nonetheless, the trip included a fateful meeting with Friedrich Hayek at the London School of Economics (LSE), who was instantly impressed and saw in Popper (at the time, at least) a potential ally for his own brand of libertarianism.

Years later, living in exile in New Zealand—cut off from the world and struggling to get The Open Society published—Popper contacted Hayek about the book. Hayek liked what he read and began working his connections. When he took the initiative of submitting The Open Society to Routledge on Popper’s behalf, it was, at last, enthusiastically accepted. In the meantime, the manuscript of The Open Society had also enabled Hayek to begin positioning Popper as a contender to fill an opening at the LSE, whose lone philosopher had retired.

The LSE—founded by Fabian socialists at the turn of the century as a social science institute—had decamped to Peterhouse, Cambridge, during the war. It was now making cautious preparations to return to London—and to lift its wartime moratorium on new appointments.

Though Hayek had spotted an opportunity for Popper, he still needed to convince his colleagues that his fellow Austrian, whose handful of publications were all in the philosophy of science, had an “active interest” in the social sciences.1010xFriedrich Hayek to Gombrich, July 12, 1943, cited in Hacohen, Karl Popper, 496. Hayek lobbied enthusiastically, showing the manuscript to his colleagues, including Alexander Carr-Saunders, the LSE’s director, as evidence of Popper’s social-scientific credentials. Hayek managed to convince his boss to convert the part-time position to a full-time readership. Hayek himself was on the search committee, and he continued to provide insider knowledge to Popper and Gombrich.

Hayek succeeded in getting Popper the job, just as he had succeeded in getting The Open Society published. Popper credited him—and poor Gombrich, who had done everything down to the tedious work of correcting the proofs—with having “saved my life.”1111xPopper, Unended Quest, 137.

The Right Critique at the Right Time

Somewhat improbably, The Open Society became an instant success.

Classicists were immediately scandalized by Popper’s portrait of Plato. They took issue with the aggressiveness of the critique (“The author is, it would seem, constitutionally incapable of approaching Plato in an impartial, let alone a sympathetic, spirit”1212xR. Hackforth, “Plato’s Political Philosophy,” Classical Review 61, no. 2 (1947): 55–57, 56.), his frank effort to shoehorn ancient material into modern categories (“He sees Plato all askew because he is always trying to squint round the corner in order to catch a glimpse of the figure of Hitler somewhere in the background”1313xG.C. Field, “The Open Society and Its Enemies. By K.R. Popper,” Philosophy 21, no. 80 (1946): 271–76, 274.), and his speculation about Plato’s own political motives in penning the Republic (“deplorable1414xHackforth, “Plato’s Political Philosophy,” 56.).

But these protestations were also drowned out by an unusual combination of popular approval and the endorsement of a few prominent philosophers from the circles Popper had succeeded, to a small degree, in penetrating. Gilbert Ryle, who had been appointed Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford in 1945, wrote a glowing review in the journal Mind, disparaging the “addicts” of the Republic who were sure to resist the merits of Popper’s reading.1515xGilbert Ryle, “The Open Society and Its Enemies. By K.R. Popper,” Mind 56, no. 222 (1947):167–72, 169. Bertrand Russell, who had helped Popper get his job in New Zealand, wrote approvingly of Popper’s attack on Plato, being quick to note that he had himself had expressed similar misgivings. “That Plato’s Republic should have been admired, on its political side, by decent people,” Russell wrote, “is perhaps the most astonishing example of literary snobbery in all history.”1616xBertrand Russell, “Philosophy and Politics,” in Unpopular Essays (London, England: Routledge, 2009), 7. Essay first published 1947.

Popper’s takedown of Plato evidently had struck a chord, particularly with his popular audience. Readers were tired of the stuffy, marble-bust Plato that scholars like Benjamin Jowett had idealized in Victorian England, and they took immediately to the revisionist notion that the lofty ideas they had been taught to admire were ultimately wrong, misguided, and even outright dangerous.

Popper was, of course, hardly the first to indulge in Plato bashing. There was already a long tradition of that philosophical pastime going back to antiquity, weaving in and out of the early Enlightenment and reaching a recent high-water mark with Nietzsche. Even in Popper’s own generation, plenty of lesser known authors had re-evaluated Plato through the lens of contemporary politics.

But something about Popper’s portrait resonated. It offered a refreshing simplicity and clarity of message in a time when, for once, nuance was not in high demand. Popper’s burn-down-the-house approach suited a public demand for explanations of how the atrocities of the Second World War could have happened at all. What had gone wrong? There was an appetite for large-scale, longue-durée reflection, and a sense that intellectual culture simply could not go on as before. The public was hungry for answers—and for people to blame. Popper’s book told them clearly who their enemies were.

The remarkable story behind the book’s composition also fed the hype. The Open Society joined a pantheon of works by exiled Jewish thinkers offering sweeping accounts of the Western tradition. (Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis—famously written from few resources beyond the author’s own memory and the modest collection of European-language books in the Istanbul University library—was the other prominent example.) Through their personal suffering and their vast distance from their homes, these authors had, like seers, gained a special vantage point from which to contemplate the trajectory of Western civilization. Popper certainly encouraged the mythologizing.

Popper had intended The Open Society as an intervention in the politics of the midcentury. Somewhat unexpectedly, however, its readers also found in it a compass for navigating the emerging Cold War, and it was this that gave the book much of its enduring appeal. What had been written as an idiosyncratic polemic on the original sins of the Western tradition and the causes of the Second World War turned into something greater. For Marx, by way of Hegel, was the most recent false prophet to worship at the altar of Plato, and this intellectual lineage seemed to prescribe viewing the communist regimes of the postwar landscape with skepticism.

As the Cold War set in, The Open Society was embraced both by liberals drawn to Popper’s passionate defense of individual freedoms and conservatives who appreciated the arsenal it supplied for condemning utopian communism. Wherever The Open Society’s influence spread over subsequent decades—from the desks of social democratic party leaders in Western Europe, to the dissident circles in the Soviet bloc and China where samizdat translations passed from hand to hand, to George Soros’s Open Society Foundations—Popper’s Plato also made its way into the minds of readers as a figurehead, an effective and memorable shorthand for the kind of thinking they were being tasked to resist.

The Myths of the Demystifiers

Today, Popper’s totalitarian Plato exists in the popular imagination, uncomfortably and incongruously, alongside the more benevolent Plato he sought to overthrow. To a great degree, Plato continues to be celebrated as the founder of a rational intellectual tradition who wrested philosophy from the uncritical forces of myth and superstition. But Popper also exposed the extent to which it was impossible to subscribe to this triumphalist narrative while also taking the political sketch of the Republic at face value, and, in particular, taking seriously the centrality of Plato’s use of myth to his writings and political thought.

Classicists might insist, sniffily, that no one takes Popper’s Plato seriously these days. The fact remains, however, that The Open Society’s success has put them on the defensive for decades. A great many of the finer details in Popper’s reading, such as the extended speculation on Plato’s own political ambitions, were outlandish then and appear outdated now. But the broader point of this attack—that the city dreamed up in the Republic possesses disturbing political features—remains difficult to deny.

If anything, the extremity of Popper’s position likely had the counterproductive effect of stifling any further, more nuanced scholarship exploring those dimensions of Plato’s politics: The totalitarian point had been made all too thoroughly already. Popper’s account continues to haunt the literature on Plato’s political philosophy—if only as a straw man to be dismissed in the introductory paragraphs of book chapters and journal articles—and it remains a staple on reading lists and syllabuses as a reliably clear counteropinion.

Popper’s achievements were indeed substantial. He shocked the interpretation of Plato into contemporary relevance, demonstrating that it was possible to connect ancient ideas to current events in a powerful way. In so doing, Popper showed that the interpretation of even an author as canonical and revered as Plato need not be monolithic, and he broke open the possibility of new readings. He may not have proved that the emperor had no clothes simply by shouting it at the top of his lungs, but he did convincingly point out that the emperor could plausibly have no clothes—that he was, after all, naked and human beneath the layers of his historical accouterments.

But even if Popper had been earnest in his vision of an intellectual culture cured of its reverence for heroes, his project was ultimately incomplete, and, indeed, flawed from the outset.

For all of Popper’s purported efforts to topple Plato from his pedestal, he still accepted the premise—one might even say philosophy’s foundational myth—that Plato was the founding figure of the Western intellectual tradition. Popper urged his readers to be suspicious of the canon, but Plato’s place in it, whether as the inventor of an original good or an original evil, was left unquestioned.

It was an irony lost on few that his attack on Plato helped elevate Popper into the ranks of a contemporary canon. No doubt, there was no shortage of ways in which Popper failed to live up to the ideals of The Open Society. Colleagues often found him unpleasant and intolerant—hardly a model of the openness to criticism and alternate viewpoints he espoused. His students at the LSE jokingly referred to his book as “The Open Society and Its Enemies, written by one of its enemies.”1717xAlan Ryan, introduction to The Open Society, xxi.

In furthering the narrative of a philosophical tradition launched by a single founding father, Popper did not so much dethrone Plato as end up reinforcing an even deeper narrative about the true essence of philosophy, according to which any recourse to myth would constitute a betrayal of that project. For Popper, as for many of the reverent interpreters of Plato who came before him, one of the crucial tasks of philosophy was to leave behind the murky thinking associated with myth in favor of more transparent, rigorous, and reflective forms of cognition. Popper had simply taken a story about the progress of philosophy—as a linear trajectory moving away from myth—and retold it in a minor key, as a story of ideals betrayed.

Popper’s attachment to that deeper narrative perhaps prevented him from seeing both Plato and his myth making in a more nuanced light. The care with which Plato constructed and incorporated myths into his philosophical dialogues suggests an alternative portrait of the philosopher: one who viewed the contributions of myth as complementary—not antithetical—to the kind of critical reasoning Popper saw as a defining feature of both philosophy and the open society. By borrowing from the Greek mythological tradition to create his own philosophical myths, Plato was likely making a claim about the power of such stories to connect with, and even to reshape, aspects of our worldviews that do not lend themselves so easily to more argumentative forms of rational scrutiny.

Plato’s myths often appear in moments in his dialogues in which the interlocutors find themselves grappling with certain imaginative frameworks that are entrenched in the way they relate to their natural and social environments. To some extent, this was something that Popper knew—what was the Noble Lie of the Republic for him but an effort to reshape an existing set of perceptions about the natural order of things?—but could not see as anything other than manipulative. But Plato’s point in writing his own philosophical myths was that engaging philosophically with the imaginative frameworks undergirding our worldviews could not just be a matter of picking them apart through criticism; it required something more. He saw in his myths the potential to be not only a constructive form of philosophical expression that uniquely complemented logical argumentation, but also a dynamic genre that accommodated perpetual reworking and re-evaluation.

Philosophy’s Origin Stories

More than three-quarters of a century after its publication, The Open Society is perhaps most illuminating today as a demonstration of both the seductiveness and the intractability of the neat origin stories that keep getting told about philosophy. These stories might change color with successive iterations, in much the way Popper’s account serves as a stirring reminder of how long-enshrined canonical figures can end up standing for different things. But it is also on such stories that philosophers seem to fall back in moments of crisis, and the canonical status of those intellectual authorities may be precisely what makes them available to be cast as characters in the narratives that philosophers continue to revisit and reimagine in trying times.

From far-flung Canterbury, New Zealand—more than 11,000 miles from home—Popper reached for a familiar character from a familiar tale to help make sense of the global events that had led him there. Both, arguably, came out transformed. Plato became, for Popper, a catalyst for understanding his predicament, and the predicament helped transform our understanding of Plato.

As Popper grew old and put more years between himself and the publication of The Open Society, he admitted that not all of it had aged entirely well. “Some of its criticism strikes me today as more emotional than I could wish,” he wrote. “But, it was not the time to mince words—at least, this was what I then felt.”1818xPopper, “Preface to the Second Edition,” in The Open Society, xxxix.