The case against Plato

Would you believe it? I actually finished Popper's Open Society and Its Enemies, at least volume 1 thereof. Admittedly, I didn't read it fully, because I dispensed with the scientific apparatus, which amounts to almost half of the book - fortunately, it's endnotes!

As expected, it was highly educational, and only the introductory chapters were slightly tiring. My major takeaway is that the present conflict with islamic fundamentalism is not at all a religious problem - it is the much older strain of civilisation that closed societies under the islamic banner face when confronted with western open societies. I think Popper would agree with that qualification, since those societies are largely tribally organised and hardly recognise the fiat nature of law. If what little I know about islamic law is true, then there are a few key changes necessary for those societies to become open, in my view: a) The attempt at a literal interpretation of the Qur'an as a source of law would have to be abandoned. b) The classification of non-muslim countries as a zone of war where treachery by muslim is permitted, needs to be abandoned. c) The death penalty against apostasy needs to be abandoned.

But I am getting well ahead of myself - that's not at all what the book is about. Popper shows that Plato's highly influential Republic is a very cunningly devised piece of propaganda that Plato has written to antagonise revolutionary changes that were afoot in the Athenian society in his time (classically summarised in Pericles' funeral oration). His aim was to construct an ideal constitution to which every change would be detrimental and thus must be avoided by all means. To cut a very detailed argument extremely short, this requires a totalitarian state which puts the interest of the state above that of the individual, and ultimately, only the philosopher king can know what that interest is, and he may, or even ought to, lie about it to the general public.

Popper shows that when a traditionally closed society with its tribal organisation based on mythical norms comes under stress either by strong growth or external relations (trade), or both, then it cannot survive in its traditional form. Either it opens up by introducing what Popper might call rational political technologies (I haven't seen it put together quite like that), or it has to go down the totalitarian path. Most islamic societies are at this junction today.

What can we do? On top of dealing sensitively with immediate security concerns, we need to understand the islamic mindset and - in the Socratic way - try to nudge its evolution towards openness, thereby returning the favour of those arab scholars who have preserved the texts of the ancient greeks and given them to christianity in the middle ages, thus triggering renaissance and all that followed suit (you'll forgive me my naïve model of history, will you). But by no means must we succumb to the temptation of reducing the openness of our societies because of security concerns, because this would be playing into the hands of the platonic proponents of the closed society. The process that led us to our openness is reversible!

But you'll have to read for yourself. I have just ordered the second volume.

No comments: