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Popper's rich and convincing indictment against state religion and limitless power caught in the vacuum of historicist prophecy is unsparing, lucid and enlightening. Plato, Hegel and Marx represent the historicist tradition of social engineering, and their philosophical contributions, though of great importance, have collectively served to undermine the transparency of the open society; that is, real democracy. Of the three, Popper strikes an intriguing affection and pity for Marx, whom he distinguishes from Plato and Hegel as utterly sincere and well intentioned, but a failed prophet nonetheless. Of Plato's logical aptitude and sociological ingenuity, Popper pays due credit. Hegel, however, is a different story altogether. To Popper, Hegel was an arcane and mendacious state philosopher, one who cloaked his philosophy in impenetrable mysticism and specious reasoning. He is given the briefest analysis out of the three, but his worst tendencies echo in the impoverished corners of Marx's epistemology.
Plato's legacy and intellectual foundations are not assessed on their terms, but are reviewed in context of preceding historical ideas and institutions. This is fitting for the historical and philosophical conceit of the book, for Plato, like Hegel and Marx, would stake the condition of the present moment as the natural heir to the past. At first sight this claim is perfectly reasonable; however, Plato did not conceive progression as a mere product of linear continuity, but as a thing in itself; history is a kind of living entity implicit in its tradition of chaos. In light of the travesty of Athenian democracy, of Socrates’ fate, and the Tyranny of Thirty, Plato resigns himself to the role of reformer. He achieves this by continuing the Socratic tradition of the dialectic and by mounting a damning charge against and lucid alternative to democracy. Surveying the classes, Plato ascribes qualities to each as the motivation for their existence. His understanding of class and politics suffices for the development of his Republic. Plato’s Republic is a utopian state, but it is by no means, as many have been mistaken in their estimation of it, a unique concept. Plato’s universalism and definition of flux owe themselves to the thought of Heraclitus, and his admiration of asceticism and defence are, by his own admission, qualities unique to Spartan culture. The theoretical aspect of this formula is embedded in Euclidean geometry, with a particular emphasis given to symmetry; hence Plato’s ability to resist change. The Republic is already perfect; any further change is a negative. It is unquestionable and unalterable in its finality. This is Popper’s bone of contention: piecemeal social engineering is natural, utopian engineering is not. Plato has no illusions about the imperfection of human culture, but the Republic on its own terms is a flawless construct; it therefore supersedes and tames the baser attitudes of the undesirable enclaves that live in it. The classes are categorically distributed according to their virtues and desires. By stratifying society in such a way, Plato hoped to remove the corruptive elements of self-interest and political upheaval. To Popper, this brand of social engineering is as absurd as it is dangerous. Popper’s interpretation of Plato’s closed society is the essence of his critique against historicism and a so-called perfect society.
Given that Plato and Hegel are distanced by 2000 years of history, it may well appear that Popper’s undertaking of establishing intellectual continuity between the two is as ambitious as it is unlikely, but the enduring qualities of Plato’s epistemology lie in the roots of Aristotelian philosophy. Platonism was briefly rehabilitated in the neo-Platonist movement in Ancient Rome, but his body of work did not have the same effect upon Christians and the Middle Ages the way Aristotle did. Of course, Aristotle was a student of Plato in Ancient Greece, and he impressed his master’s more admirable traits; that is, his treatment of aesthetics, logic and reason, if not his political and moral philosophy. Aristotle, too, synthesized his formula for a stable polity, which manifested in his sexpartite model. Continuing that great Grecian tradition of the dialectic, Aristotle juxtaposed the valuable systems of governance against their natural evils, for example: Kingship is virtuous, a dictatorship is not; Politeia is admirable, democracy is corrupt. Once the optimal system of rulership has been established, it is an ultimate good. Proceeding from this theme, Hegel wrests Platonism from ancient history and distils it through the filter of 19th century governance. How do we qualify the best system, Hegel asks? What it is it shall be. The validity of ruling lies in its actual sources and operations, not in its normative aims. This forms of the basis of what’s known as moral positivism. This is deeply troubling, as this brand of moral positivism is an exercise in power enjoyed by the few, the privileged, and the ruling. This state of mind allows for a preponderance of the worst elements of state abuse, particularly the emphasis on war among as nations, which Hegel warmly endorses as an endearing trait of a nation’s character. Hegel’s historicist outputs assume a similar form to that of Marx, namely the dialectical triad – a crude plagiarism of Kant’s brilliant work on reason. With the totalitarian logic laid down by Plato and refined by the state philosopher Hegel, Popper brings us to the final prophet of historicism: Marx.
Marx, Popper claims, is unusual in the annals of the historicist school of thinking. It is undoubtedly true that Marx was a classical adherent of its core tendencies, and he, like Plato and Hegel, prophesied that the essence and meaning of human existence could be traced back to a single concept, but he was, unlike his predecessors, his own man. While Plato and Hegel were unequivocally servants to and expositors of formal power, Marx was quite the opposite. For Marx the terminus of capitalism was nearing its end; it had governed in human affairs since time immemorial and was the driving force behind the impression of power and oppression of the masses. Despite his persona sharing the same lofty historical quarters as Smith, Ricardo and Keynes, Marx’s economism was thin gruel. This was particularly self-evident to Lenin, who declared that proceeding from a Marxian framework would be a road to nowhere. Marx’s system of economics was polemical and reactionary, but despite his epistemological contributions to the social sciences, Marx had not developed a logically consistent manifesto of economics. His theory on market value, which included production and consumption, was terribly inconsistent, as was his critique of labour and consumption. It is true, Popper notes, that Marx’s critique of industry and capitalism more broadly had substance, but his alternatives were wrought with errors of empiricism and historicism. The factory line was microcosmic in its composition of all that was wrong in civilization, and Marx propped up the perils of the downtrodden working class as victims, but, eventually, beneficiaries. Far from being the scourge of mankind and freedom, as conservative populists contend, he was an intelligent and intuitive man, but a terribly misguided one. Unlike his forefathers, Marx believed in the common will of the people; a quality Popper obviously admired in him.
The Open Society and its Enemies is, in short, an absolute masterwork written by an eminently moral thinker. Please buy this book.