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The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume I:…

The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume I: The Spell of Plato (1945)

by Karl Raimund Popper

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I'm still in some shock from the utter thrashing that Popper perpetrates upon Plato, maybe the most venerated philosopher in the history of the world. For that alone the book is exceedingly welcome, although I'm admittedly no expert on ancient Greek philosophy, so it's not prudent to accept everything Popper says on just his word. Indeed, one of the problems I had with the book is that, despite his various reminders that he means nothing personal, and that he still holds Plato in the highest esteem, Popper seems almost gleeful at times while knocking the old Greek down several notches. So were his disclaimers deceptive, ironic, or just disingenuous?

That said, the man has a capacity for argumentation that I'm not sure I've ever encountered. His arguments are clear, logical, and strong. He uses primarily Plato's Republic to paint Socrates' alum as the originator of totalitarianism, highlighting his proposed class stratification, state propaganda to maintain order, and the suppression of intellectual and all other freedoms. One of his most shocking and damning criticisms is the evidence that Plato actively supported selective breeding as one of the first forms of eugenics, to maintain as pure the "master race." Also quite impressive was the documentation of Plato's perversion of his own mentor's teaching. Socrates comes out of this as a shining beacon of liberalism and humanitarianism.

My main criticisms of the book are incidental to the larger point. The brief discussion in Note 4 of Ch. 7 troubled me. In discussing the "paradox of tolerance," Popper correctly notes that a completely tolerant society will breed intolerance, just because they will tolerate an intolerant person or group to rise to power and begin repression. His solution, that it's therefore necessary to repress intolerance, seems like a very slippery slope. I can respect it, as a hater of ignorance myself, but assuming that some abuse-proof way of controlling intolerance is within our grasp seems awfully idealistic. In his abhorrence of Plato's totalitarianism, he seems to err on the side of Tocqueville's "tyranny of the majority." Who can say which is preferable?

This goes into my larger criticism. As more of a radical than Popper (in his literal sense of the word), I remain skeptical of his deep faith in democratic institutes and the process of reform. Maybe he would have thought differently about our democratic process had he lived a couple of decades longer (i.e. witnessing the rise of FoxNews and the neocon). Or maybe he would have just emphasized the need to repress such hateful intolerance, who knows? But for all the cojones and free-thinking Popper shows in going after the originators of Western thought and civilization as we know them, it's a little surprising that he doesn't take it to the next level, wondering if there isn't some problem with our civilization as a whole. Or if there isn't some compromise between the magical tribalism of his Closed Society and the humanist rationalism of the Open. ( )
1 vote blake.rosser | Jul 28, 2013 |
Straightforward and coldly logical criticism of sociological historicism as seen first in Plato, and later by Hegel and Marx (Vol. 2). Lucid and thorough. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 29, 2013 |
This book about one of the fundamental thinkers of Western Civilization was written in the shadow of the fascist threat to that civilization, from Popper's first conception of the book in 1938 to its publication in 1943. A blurb on its back cover describes the book as "a survey of Greek philosophy... a history of the rise and fall of Athens, a formal philosophical critique of idealism... and a defense of clarity, scientific method, and democratic procedure." I'm not sure if this should be read before or after having read Plato. It's so lucid, that even in his passionate refutation of Plato's totalitarian tendencies, Popper's book nevertheless makes a good introduction to Platonic ideas. Although personally I've always found Plato among the most lucid, accessible, as well as readable, of philosophers. His dialogues are on the whole brilliant philosophical plays, with plenty of personality and wit.

Popper's book however does make sense of a lot that puzzled me in Plato, and I don't mean the content of the ideas themselves, which are far more understandable than, say, Descartes or Kant, but some of their contradictions. Popper suggests that there's a divide between the philosophy of Socrates, Plato's mouthpiece, and that of Plato himself. That especially in the Apology dealing with Socrates trial, after all a recent event in Athens' history, Plato couldn't do much to alter Socrates' expression of belief in the "open society" of free inquiry, debate and democracy. I certainly saw and admired this Socrates and his precepts in such dialogues as Crito, Apology and Gorgias. But then one finds a rather different spirit in for instance Plato's most famous dialogue, The Republic. (The title of which Popper revealingly claims is more accurately translated, The State.) In the end I found Popper's book a stimulating and thought-provoking study of the connections between such abstruse ideas as Plato's Forms and his advocacy of an unchanging, censorious authoritarianism, between the tensions between the individual and society, and trial and error piecemeal reform over utopian schemes. ( )
  LisaMaria_C | Sep 27, 2012 |
Wow. This books gives the kind of insight that's almost impossible to find in more recent books. Popper masterfully combines his interpretation of plato with contemporary political philosophy, philosophy of social science and greek history. Whether he's "right" or "wrong" about plato is not really the relevant question. The value of this book is in that it provides a clearly argued, broad-minded starting point from which you can re-read both plato's works and greek history to reconsider their influence on today's world. I immediately added Popper to my favorite authors after reading this book.
1 vote thcson | Nov 13, 2011 |
Never trust the benigh dictator.
1 vote | mdstarr | Sep 11, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0691019681, Paperback)

Popper was born in 1902 to a Viennese family of Jewish origin. He taught in Austria until 1937, when he emigrated to New Zealand in anticipation of the Nazi annexation of Austria the following year, and he settled in England in 1949. Before the annexation, Popper had written mainly about the philosophy of science, but from 1938 until the end of the Second World War he focused his energies on political philosophy, seeking to diagnose the intellectual origins of German and Soviet totalitarianism. The Open Society and Its Enemies was the result.

In the book, Popper condemned Plato, Marx, and Hegel as "holists" and "historicists"--a holist, according to Popper, believes that individuals are formed entirely by their social groups; historicists believe that social groups evolve according to internal principles that it is the intellectual's task to uncover. Popper, by contrast, held that social affairs are unpredictable, and argued vehemently against social engineering. He also sought to shift the focus of political philosophy away from questions about who ought to rule toward questions about how to minimize the damage done by the powerful. The book was an immediate sensation, and--though it has long been criticized for its portrayals of Plato, Marx, and Hegel--it has remained a landmark on the left and right alike for its defense of freedom and the spirit of critical inquiry.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:49 -0400)

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The book is a profound defence of democracy. It is a criticism of a set of dogmas which underlie the most influential political theories, and in consequence powerfully affect the actual conduct of human affairs.

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