the Rathouse
Series of Very Abbreviated Versions of Classical Philosophical Works for Very Busy People.
Chapter 10:      The Open Society

“In what follows, the magical or tribal or collectivist society will also be called the closed society, and the society in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions, the open society.” 

The chapter begins with Popper’s quest for some mitigating factor that might have been missing from his analysis of Plato as “a totalitarian party-politician”. He identified this in Plato’s genuine hatred to tyranny and his desire to make the people happy by relieving the strain of social and political change.

The origin of western civilisation in the Greek states is depicted as a transition from a closed or tribal society in the direction of an open society. This transition caused strain and distress which Popper called the “strain of civilisation”, a problem that is liable to intensify at any time of social or political dislocation. Popper suggested that the possibility of reducing this strain by taking refuge in a more settled community is the hook that attracts people to fundamentalism and to cults and sects of all kinds. The believer hopes that this affiliation will eliminate the problems of freedom and individual responsibility that arise in dynamic and multicultural societies.

Sections II and III examine the conditions in the Greek states round about the sixth century BC, leading up to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and the bitter and destructive divisions between democrats and others in Athens itself.

Section IV is an idealized account of the ideals of Pericles and the Great Generation of Athenian democrats.

Section V describes the contribution that the historical Socrates made to the debate on political principles in Athens ending in his trial and his death sentence.

Section VI to VIII address the political events after the death of Socrates with some speculation about the internal tensions in Plato’s mind as he drifted from the principles of the historical Socrates and transformed the Socrates of the later into dialogues into a mouthpiece for Plato’s program to restore the wholeness and stability of the state.

Plato and the happiness of the people

Popper felt that something was missing from his interpretation of Plato as “a totalitarian party-politician, unsuccessful in his immediate and practical undertakings, but in the long run only too successful in his propaganda for the arrest and overthrow of a civilization which he hated.” After a largely unsuccessful search for evidence to refute his interpretation he concluded that Plato was seriously opposed to tyranny, which he regarded as the very lowers form of government and he really cared about the happiness of the people.

"The one point in which I felt that my search for a refutation had succeeded concerned Plato’s hatred of tyranny…I am ready to grant his fundamental benevolence. I also grant that he was right, to a limited extent, in the sociological analysis on which he based his promise of happiness. To put this point more precisely: I believe that Plato, with deep sociological insight, found that his contemporaries were suffering under a severe strain, and that this strain was due to the social revolution which had begun with the rise of democracy and individualism. He succeeded in discovering the main causes of their deeply rooted unhappiness—social change, and social dissension—and he did his utmost to fight them. There is no reason to doubt that one of his most powerful motives was to win back happiness for the citizens."

This points up the danger of adopting the greatest happiness as a major guiding principle for social reform, at the expense of freedom. Aldous Huxley made this point in his futuristic nightmare “Brave New World” where the people lived in an indolent drug-induced fug of contentment.

Closed and open societies

The distinction that Popper made here is practically the same as that advanced by the poet W H Auden in his 1941 essay on ‘Criticism in a mass society’.

1. There are two types of society: closed societies and open.
2. All human societies begin by being of the closed type, but, except when they have stagnated or died, they have always evolved toward an ever more and more open type.
3. Up until the industrial revolution this evolution was so gradual as hardly to be perceptible within the lifespan of an individual.The evolutionary process is complicated by the fact that different sections of the community progress towards the open society at different speeds. At any given point in history there are classes for whom economic, political and cultural advantages make society relatively open, and vice versa, those for whom similar disadvantages make it relatively closed.No human community of course has ever been completely closed, and none probably will ever be completely open, but from the researches of anthropologists and historians, we can construct a Platonic idea of both.

In Popper’s words

"A closed society at its best can be justly compared to an organism. The so-called organic or biological theory of the state can be applied to it to a considerable extent. A closed society resembles a herd or a tribe in being a semi-organic unit whose members are held together by semi-biological ties—kinship, living together, sharing common efforts, common dangers, common joys and common distress. It is still a concrete group of concrete individuals, related to one another not merely by such abstract social relationships as division of labour and exchange of commodities, but by concrete physical relationships such as touch, smell, and sight."

Despite the slow evolution described by Auden, the transition has been uneven, and indeed may never be complete (as he said). That is not a criticism of the concepts because they are “ideal types”, designed to help with the analysis and explanation of phenomena such as the “stain of civilisation” and the very different responses that can be made to it.

Popper went on. "Our own ways of life are still beset with taboos; food taboos, taboos of politeness, and many others. And yet…there is, between the laws of the state on the one hand and the taboos we habitually observe on the other, an ever-widening field of personal decisions, with its problems and responsibilities. As a consequence of its loss of organic character, an open society may become, by degrees, what I should like to term an ‘abstract society’. It may, to a considerable extent, lose the character of a concrete or real group of men, or of a system of such real groups. This point which has been rarely understood may be explained by way of an exaggeration."

He went on to sketch what he called a completely abstract or depersonalised society in which people practically never meet face to face. Business is conducted by individuals in isolation who communicate by typed letters or by telegrams, and travel in closed motor-cars. (Artificial insemination would allow even propagation without a personal element.)

He made the intersting point that our modern society resembles the abstract society in some ways. So without driving in closed cars we may walk in a crowded street and meet a great many people face to face without making any personal contact. "Similarly, membership of a trade union may mean no more than the possession of a membership card and the payment of a contribution to an unknown secretary. There are many people living in a modern society who have no, or extremely few, intimate personal contacts, who live in anonymity and isolation, and consequently in unhappiness. For although society has become abstract, the biological make-up of man has not changed much; men have social needs which they cannot satisfy in an abstract society."

He quickly added some qualifications, first of all the picture of the abstract society is highly exaggerated. "There never will be or can be a completely abstract or even a predominantly abstract society—no more than a completely rational or even a predominantly rational society. People still form real groups and enter into real social contacts of all kinds, and try to satisfy their emotional social needs as well as they can. But most of the social groups of a modern open society (with the exception of some lucky family groups) are poor substitutes, since they do not provide for a common life. And many of them do not have any function in the life of the society at large."

And second, the picture highlights the losses in the (partially) abstract society and misses out on the gains, "Personal relationships of a new kind can arise where they can be freely entered into, instead of being determined by the accidents of birth; and with this, a new individualism arises."

The strain of civilisation and the fear of freedom

"In the light of what has been said, it will be clear that the transition from the closed to the open society can be described as one of the deepest revolutions through which mankind has passed. Owing to what we have described as the biological character of the closed society, this transition must be felt deeply indeed. Thus when we say that our Western civilization derives from the Greeks, we ought to realize what it means. It means that the Greeks started for us that great revolution which, it seems, is still in its beginning—the transition from the closed to the open society."

As soon as one is sensitized to the strain of civilisation it is of course a recurring motif in historical and sociological studies, although it is not usually articulated in a robust theory that provides both an explanation and some pointers for a rational response. Children of the sixties and seventies may recall a book by Erich Fromm called The Fear of Freedom which was a psychological explanation of the appeal of fascism, couched in Marxist and Freudian jargon, without mention of Popper.

The theory of the strain of civilisation in times of culture clash or rapid social transition could have provided a framework for subsequent work on the problems of social change and multicultural societies, however it has never, to my knowledge, been used by any well known or influential anthropologist, historian or sociologist. This may reflect the dominance of people in those professions who were scandalized by Popper’s treatment of Plato and Marx, or it may be, as Roger Sandall has suggested, that it became politically incorrect in progressive circles after WW2 to talk about tribal societies in any way that implied that they are inferior.

This is no part of Popper’s argument but it may be that the strain of civilisation is an example of what biologists call phylogeny mimicking ontogeny – meaning that the evolution of the individual from embryo to adult in some ways resembles the evolution of the species from earlier forms of life. On this account, the “primal” strain of civilisation is the separation of the child from the mother, the disruption of the very first tribe (of two) where the infant lives in blissful union with the other. This is where Suttie’s work on the origins of love and hate and early personality formation have so much more to offer than the theories of Freud which Suttie subjected to devastating criticism in his posthumous book The Origins of Love and Hate.

The Greek situation and Plato’s betrayal of Socrates and the Great Generation

After sketching the theory of tribal transition and the strain of civilisation, Popper returned to the causes and consequences of the breakdown of tribalism and isolationism in the Greek states, leading to a violent class war, and, at the same time, into a war between the two leading cities of Greece.

"Although the ‘patriotic’ movement was partly the expression of the longing to return to more stable forms of life, to religion, decency, law and order, it was itself morally rotten. Its ancient faith was lost, and was largely replaced by a hypocritical and even cynical exploitation of religious sentiments. Nihilism, as painted by Plato in the portraits of Callicles and Thrasymachus, could be found if anywhere among the young ‘patriotic’ aristocrats who, if given the opportunity, became leaders of the democratic party. The clearest exponent of this nihilism was perhaps the oligarchic leader who helped to deal the death-blow at Athens, Plato’s uncle Critias, the leader of the Thirty Tyrants."

"But at this time, in the same generation to which Thucydides belonged, there rose a new faith in reason, freedom and the brotherhood of all men—the new faith, and, as I believe, the only possible faith, of the open society."

"This generation which marks a turning point in the history of mankind, I should like to call the Great Generation; it is the generation which lived in Athens just before, and during, the Peloponnesian war. There were great conservatives among them, like Sophocles, or Thucydides. There were men among them who represent the period of transition; who were wavering, like Euripides, or sceptical, like Aristophanes. But there was also the great leader of democracy, Pericles, who formulated the principle of equality before the law and of political individualism, and Herodotus, who was welcomed and hailed in Pericles’ city as the author of a work that glorified these principles."

"Protagoras, a native of Abdera who became influential in Athens, and his ountryman Democritus must also be counted among the Great Generation. They formulated the doctrine that human institutions of language, custom, and law are not of the magical character of taboos but man-made, not natural but conventional, insisting, at the same time, that we are responsible for them. Then there was the school of Gorgias—Alcidamas, Lycophron and Antisthenes, who developed the fundamental tenets of anti-slavery, of a rational protectionism, and of anti-nationalism, i.e. the creed of the universal empire of men. And there was, perhaps the greatest of all, Socrates, who taught the lesson that we must have faith in human reason, but at the same time beware of dogmatism; that we must keep away both from misology, the distrust of theory and of reason, and from the magical attitude of those who make an idol of wisdom; who taught, in other words, that the spirit of science is criticism."

"Socrates was not a leader of Athenian democracy, like Pericles, or a theorist of the open society, like Protagoras. He was, rather, a critic of Athens and of her democratic institutions, and in this he may have borne a superficial resemblance to some of the leaders of the reaction against the open society. But there is no need for a man who criticizes democracy and democratic institutions to be their enemy, although both the democrats he criticizes, and the totalitarians who hope to profit from any disunion in the democratic camp, are likely to brand him as such. There is a fundamental difference between a democratic and a totalitarian criticism of democracy. Socrates’ criticism was a democratic one, and indeed of the kind that is the very life of democracy. (Democrats who do not see the difference between a friendly and a hostile criticism of democracy are themselves imbued with the totalitarian spirit. Totalitarianism, of course, cannot consider any criticism as riendly, since every criticism of such an authority must challenge the principle of authority itself.)"

"Plato’s strongest argument in this struggle was, I believe, sincere: According to the humanitarian creed, he argued, we should be ready to help our neighbours. The people need help badly, they are unhappy, they labour under a severe strain, a sense of drift. There is no certainty, no security in life, when everything is in flux. I am ready to help them. But I cannot make them happy without going to the root of the evil."

"Socrates had refused to compromise his personal integrity. Plato, with all his uncompromising canvas-cleaning, was led along a path on which he compromised his integrity with every step he took. He was forced to combat free thought, and the pursuit of truth. He was led to defend lying, political miracles, tabooistic superstition, the suppression of truth, and ultimately, brutal violence. In spite of Socrates’ warning against misanthropy and misology, he was led to distrust man and to fear argument."

Popper ended the chapter with a call for courage and persistence in pressing on against the intellectual and psychological temptations to return to the tribal “womb”.

"If we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society. We must go into the unknown, the uncertain and the insecure, using what reason we may have to plan as well as we can for both security and freedom." Or as Auden wrote "We have to adapt ourselves to an open society or perish".

And (Auden again) "What is holding us back is the failure of totalitarians and democrats alike to realize how open society has already become, so that we continue to apply habits of mind which were more or less adequate to the relatively closed society of the eighteenth century to an open society which demands completely new ones."

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The Open Society and its Enemies
Karl Popper