The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl R. Popper

"Science," the Greek word for knowledge, when appended to the word "political," creates what seems like an oxymoron. For who could claim to know politics? More complicated than any game, most people who play it become addicts and die without understanding what they were addicted to. The rest of us suffer under their malpractice as our "leaders." A truer case of the blind leading the blind could not be found. Plumb the depths of confusion here.

The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl R. Popper

Postby admin » Mon Aug 03, 2015 4:10 am

The Open Society and Its Enemies
by Karl R. Popper
Complete: Volumes I and II
Fifth edition (revised) 1966



Table of Contents

Preface To The First Edition
Preface To The Second Edition


Volume I: The Spell Of Plato
The Myth Of Origin And Destiny
Chapter 1: Historicism And The Myth Of Destiny
Chapter 2: Heraclitus
Chapter 3: Plato’s Theory Of Forms Or Ideas
Plato’s Descriptive Sociology
Chapter 4: Change And Rest
Chapter 5: Nature And Convention
Plato’s Political Programme
Chapter 6: Totalitarian Justice
Chapter 7: The Principle Of Leadership
Chapter 8: The Philosopher King
Chapter 9: Aestheticism, Perfectionism, Utopianism
The Background Of Plato’s Attack
Chapter 10: The Open Society And Its Enemies


Volume II: The High Tide of Prophecy
The Rise Of Oracular Philosophy
Chapter 11: The Aristotelian Roots Of Hegelianism
Chapter 12: Hegel And The New Tribalism
Marx’s Method
Chapter 13: Marx’s Sociological Determinism
Chapter 14: The Autonomy Of Sociology
Chapter 15: Economic Historicism
Chapter 16: The Classes
Chapter 17: The Legal And The Social System
Chapter 18: The Coming Of Socialism
Chapter 19: The Social Revolution
Chapter 20: Capitalism And Its Fate
Chapter 21: An Evaluation Of The Prophecy
Chapter 22: The Moral Theory Of Historicism
The Aftermath
Chapter 23: The Sociology Of Knowledge
Chapter 24: Oracular Philosophy And The Revolt Against Reason
Chapter 25: Has History Any Meaning?
Addenda to Volume I
• I. Plato And Geometry (1957)
• II. The Dating Of The Theaetetus (1961)
• III. Reply To A Critic (1961)
• IV. (1965)
Addenda to Volume II
• I. Facts, Standards, And Truth: A Further Criticism Of Relativism (1961)
• II. Note On Schwarzschild’s Book On Marx (1965)
Index Of Names
Index Of Subjects
Index Of Platonic Passages

It will be seen ... that the Erewhonians are a meek and long-suffering people, easily led by the nose, and quick to offer up common sense at the shrine of logic, when a philosopher arises among them who carries them away ... by convincing them that their existing institutions are not based on the strictest principles of morality.


In my course I have known and, according to my measure, have co-operated with great men; and I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observations of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business.

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Re: The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl R. Popper

Postby admin » Fri Oct 26, 2018 9:16 pm

Preface To The First Edition

If in this book harsh words are spoken about some of the greatest among the intellectual leaders of mankind, my motive is not, I hope, the wish to belittle them. It springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilization is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men may make great mistakes; and as the book tries to show, some of the greatest leaders of the past supported the perennial attack on freedom and reason. Their influence, too rarely challenged, continues to mislead those on whose defence civilization depends, and to divide them. The responsibility for this tragic and possibly fatal division becomes ours if we hesitate to be outspoken in our criticism of what admittedly is a part of our intellectual heritage. By our reluctance to criticize some of it, we may help to destroy it all.

The book is a critical introduction to the philosophy of politics and of history, and an examination of some of the principles of social reconstruction. Its aim and the line of approach are indicated in the Introduction. Even where it looks back into the past, its problems are the problems of our own time; and I have tried hard to state them as simply as I could, in the hope of clarifying matters which concern us all.

Although the book presupposes nothing but open-mindedness in the reader, its object is not so much to popularize the questions treated as to solve them. In an attempt, however, to serve both of these purposes, I have confined all matters of more specialized interest to Notes which have been collected at the end of the book.

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Re: The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl R. Popper

Postby admin » Fri Oct 26, 2018 9:26 pm

Preface To The Second Edition

Although much of what is contained in this book took shape at an earlier date, the final decision to write it was made in March 1938, on the day I received the news of the invasion of Austria. The writing extended into 1943; and the fact that most of the book was written during the grave years when the outcome of the war was uncertain may help to explain why some of its criticism strikes me to-day as more emotional and harsher in tone than I could wish. But it was not the time to mince words—or at least, this was what I then felt. Neither the war nor any other contemporary event was explicitly mentioned in the book; but it was an attempt to understand those events and their background, and some of the issues which were likely to arise after the war was won. The expectation that Marxism would become a major problem was the reason for treating it at some length.

Seen in the darkness of the present world situation, the criticism of Marxism which it attempts is liable to stand out as the main point of the book. This view of it is not wholly wrong and perhaps unavoidable, although the aims of the book are much wider. Marxism is only an episode—one of the many mistakes we have made in the perennial and dangerous struggle for building a better and freer world.

Not unexpectedly, I have been blamed by some for being too severe in my treatment of Marx, while others contrasted my leniency towards him with the violence of my attack upon Plato. But I still feel the need for looking at Plato with highly critical eyes, just because the general adoration of the ‘divine philosopher’ has a real foundation in his overwhelming intellectual achievement. Marx, on the other hand, has too often been attacked on personal and moral grounds, so that here the need is, rather, for a severe rational criticism of his theories combined with a sympathetic understanding of their astonishing moral and intellectual appeal. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that my criticism was devastating, and that I could therefore afford to search for Marx’s real contributions, and to give his motives the benefit of the doubt. In any case, it is obvious that we must try to appreciate the strength of an opponent if we wish to fight him successfully. (I have added in 1965 a new note on this subject as Addendum II to my second volume.)

No book can ever be finished. While working on it we learn just enough to find it immature the moment we turn away from it. As to my criticism of Plato and Marx, this inevitable experience was not more disturbing than usual. But most of my positive suggestions and, above all, the strong feeling of optimism which pervades the whole book struck me more and more as naive, as the years after the war went by. My own voice began to sound to me as if it came from the distant past—like the voice of one of the hopeful social reformers of the eighteenth or even the seventeenth century.

But my mood of depression has passed, largely as the result of a visit to the United States; and I am now glad that, in revising the book, I confined myself to the addition of new material and to the correction of mistakes of matter and style, and that I resisted the temptation to subdue its tenor. For in spite of the present world situation I feel as hopeful as I ever did. I see now more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous -- from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows. For these troubles are the by-products of what is perhaps the greatest of all moral and spiritual revolutions of history, a movement which began three centuries ago. It is the longing of uncounted unknown men to free themselves and their minds from the tutelage of authority and prejudice. It is their attempt to build up an open society which rejects the absolute authority of the merely established and the merely traditional while trying to preserve, to develop, and to establish traditions, old or new, that measure up to their standards of freedom, of humaneness, and of rational criticism. It is their unwillingness to sit back and leave the entire responsibility for ruling the world to human or superhuman authority, and their readiness to share the burden of responsibility for avoidable suffering, and to work for its avoidance. This revolution has created powers of appalling destructiveness; but they may yet be conquered.

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Re: The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl R. Popper

Postby admin » Fri Oct 26, 2018 9:29 pm


I wish to express my gratitude to all my friends who have made it possible for me to write this book. Professor C.G.F. Simkin has not only helped me with an earlier version, but has given me the opportunity of clarifying many problems in detailed discussions over a period of nearly four years. Dr. Margaret Dalziel has assisted me in the preparation of various drafts and of the final manuscript. Her untiring help has been invaluable. Dr. H. Larsen’s interest in the problem of historicism was a great encouragement. Professor T. K. Ewer has read the manuscript and has made many suggestions for its improvement.

I am deeply indebted to Professor F. A. von Hayek. Without his interest and support the book would not have been published. Professor E. Gombrich has undertaken to see the book through the press, a burden to which was added the strain of an exacting correspondence between England and New Zealand, He has been so helpful that I can hardly say how much I owe to him.

CHRISTCHURCH, N.Z., April 1944.

In preparing the revised edition, I have received great help from detailed critical annotations to the first edition kindly put at my disposal by Professor Jacob Viner and by Mr. J.D. Mabbott.

LONDON, August 1951.

In the third edition an Index of Subjects and an Index of Platonic Passages have been added, both prepared by Dr. J. Agassi. He has also drawn my attention to a number of mistakes which I have corrected. I am very grateful for his help. In six places I have tried to improve and correct quotations from Plato, or references to his text, in the light of Mr. Richard Robinson's stimulating and most welcome criticism (The Philosophical Review, vol. 60) of the American edition of this book.


Most of the improvements in the fourth edition I owe to Dr. William W. Hartley and to Mr. Bryan Magee.


The fifth edition contains some new historical material (especially on page 312 of volume I and in the Addenda) and also a brief new Addendum in each volume. Additional material will be found in my Conjectures and Refutations, especially in the second edition (1965). Mr. David Miller has discovered, and corrected, many mistakes.


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Re: The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl R. Popper

Postby admin » Fri Oct 26, 2018 10:12 pm


I do not wish to hide the fact that I can only look with repugnance upon the puffed-up pretentiousness of all these volumes filled with wisdom, such as are fashionable nowadays. For I am fully satisfied that the accepted methods must endlessly increase these follies and blunders, and that even the complete annihilation of all these fanciful achievements could not possibly be as harmful as this fictitious science with its accursed fertility.—KANT.

This book raises issues which may not be apparent from the table of contents.

It sketches some of the difficulties faced by our civilization—a civilization which might be perhaps described as aiming at humaneness and reasonableness, at equality and freedom; a civilization which is still in its infancy, as it were, and which continues to grow in spite of the fact that it has been so often betrayed by so many of the intellectual leaders of mankind. It attempts to show that this civilization has not yet fully recovered from the shock of its birth—the transition from the tribal or ‘closed society’, with its submission to magical forces, to the ‘open society’ which sets free the critical powers of man. It attempts to show that the shock of this transition is one of the factors that have made possible the rise of those reactionary movements which have tried, and still try, to overthrow civilization and to return to tribalism. And it suggests that what we call nowadays totalitarianism belongs to a tradition which is just as old or just as young as our civilization itself.

It tries thereby to contribute to our understanding of totalitarianism, and of the significance of the perennial fight against it.

It further tries to examine the application of the critical and rational methods of science to the problems of the open society. It analyses the principles of democratic social reconstruction, the principles of what I may term ‘piecemeal social engineering’ in opposition to ‘Utopian social engineering’ (as explained in Chapter 9). And it tries to clear away some of the obstacles impeding a rational approach to the problems of social reconstruction. It does so by criticizing those social philosophies which are responsible for the widespread prejudice against the possibilities of democratic reform. The most powerful of these philosophies is one which I have called historicism. The story of the rise and influence of some important forms of historicism is one of the main topics of the book, which might even be described as a collection of marginal notes on the development of certain historicist philosophies. A few remarks on the origin of the book will indicate what is meant by historicism and how it is connected with the other issues mentioned.

Although I am mainly interested in the methods of physics (and consequently in certain technical problems which are far removed from those treated in this book), I have also been interested for many years in the problem of the somewhat unsatisfactory state of some of the social sciences and especially of social philosophy. This, of course, raises the problem of their methods. My interest in this problem was greatly stimulated by the rise of totalitarianism, and by the failure of the various social sciences and social philosophies to make sense of it.

In this connection, one point appeared to me particularly urgent.

One hears too often the suggestion that some form or other of totalitarianism is inevitable. Many who because of their intelligence and training should be held responsible for what they say, announce that there is no escape from it. They ask us whether we are really naive enough to believe that democracy can be permanent; whether we do not see that it is just one of the many forms of government that come and go in the course of history. They argue that democracy, in order to fight totalitarianism, is forced to copy its methods and thus to become totalitarian itself. Or they assert that our industrial system cannot continue to function without adopting the methods of collectivist planning, and they infer from the inevitability of a collectivist economic system that the adoption of totalitarian forms of social life is also inevitable.

Such arguments may sound plausible enough. But plausibility is not a reliable guide in such matters. In fact, one should not enter into a discussion of these specious arguments before having considered the following question of method: Is it within the power of any social science to make such sweeping historical prophecies? Can we expect to get more than the irresponsible reply of the soothsayer if we ask a man what the future has in store for mankind? This is a question of the method of the social sciences. It is clearly more fundamental than any criticism of any particular argument offered in support of any historical prophecy.

A careful examination of this question has led me to the conviction that such sweeping historical prophecies are entirely beyond the scope of scientific method. The future depends on ourselves, and we do not depend on any historical necessity. There are, however, influential social philosophies which hold the opposite view. They claim that everybody tries to use his brains to predict impending events; that it is certainly legitimate for a strategist to try to foresee the outcome of a battle; and that the boundaries between such a prediction and more sweeping historical prophecies are fluid. They assert that it is the task of science in general to make predictions, or rather, to improve upon our everyday predictions, and to put them upon a more secure basis; and that it is, in particular, the task of the social sciences to furnish us with long-term historical prophecies. They also believe that they have discovered laws of history which enable them to prophesy the course of historical events. The various social philosophies which raise claims of this kind, I have grouped together under the name historicism. Elsewhere, in The Poverty of Historicism, I have tried to argue against these claims, and to show that in spite of their plausibility they are based on a gross misunderstanding of the method of science, and especially on the neglect of the distinction between scientific prediction and historical prophecy. While engaged in the systematic analysis and criticism of the claims of historicism, I also tried to collect some material to illustrate its development. The notes collected for that purpose became the basis of this book.

The systematic analysis of historicism aims at something like scientific status. This book does not. Many of the opinions expressed are personal. What it owes to scientific method is largely the awareness of its limitations: it does not offer proofs where nothing can be proved, nor does it pretend to be scientific where it cannot give more than a personal point of view. It does not try to replace the old systems of philosophy by a new system. It does not try to add to all these volumes filled with wisdom, to the metaphysics of history and destiny, such as are fashionable nowadays. It rather tries to show that this prophetic wisdom is harmful, that the metaphysics of history impede the application of the piecemeal methods of science to the problems of social reform. And it further tries to show that we may become the makers of our fate when we have ceased to pose as its prophets. In tracing the development of historicism, I found that the dangerous habit of historical prophecy, so widespread among our intellectual leaders, has various functions. It is always flattering to belong to the inner circle of the initiated, and to possess the unusual power of predicting the course of history. Besides, there is a tradition that intellectual leaders are gifted with such powers, and not to possess them may lead to loss of caste. The danger, on the other hand, of their being unmasked as charlatans is very small, since they can always point out that it is certainly permissible to make less sweeping predictions; and the boundaries between these and augury are fluid.

But there are sometimes further and perhaps deeper motives for holding historicist beliefs. The prophets who prophesy the coming of a millennium may give expression to a deep-seated feeling of dissatisfaction; and their dreams may indeed give hope and encouragement to some who can hardly do without them. But we must also realize that their influence is liable to prevent us from facing the daily tasks of social life. And those minor prophets who announce that certain events, such as a lapse into totalitarianism (or perhaps into 'managerialism'), are bound to happen may, whether they like it or not, be instrumental in bringing these events about. Their story that democracy is not to last for ever is as true, and as little to the point, as the assertion that human reason is not to last for ever, since only democracy provides an institutional framework that permits reform without violence, and so the use of reason in political matters. But their story tends to discourage those who fight totalitarianism; its motive is to support the revolt against civilization. A further motive, it seems, can be found if we consider that historicist metaphysics are apt to relieve men from the strain of their responsibilities. If you know that things are bound to happen whatever you do, then you may feel free to give up the fight against them. You may, more especially, give up the attempt to control those things which most people agree to be social evils, such as war; or, to mention a smaller but nevertheless important thing, the tyranny of the petty official.

I do not wish to suggest that historicism must always have such effects. There are historicists—especially the Marxists—who do not wish to relieve men from the strain of their responsibilities. On the other hand, there are some social philosophies which may or may not be historicistic but which preach the impotence of reason in social life, and which, by this anti-rationalism, propagate the attitude: ‘either follow the Leader, the Great Statesman, or become a Leader yourself; an attitude which for most people must mean passive submission to the forces, personal or anonymous, that rule society.

Now it is interesting to see that some of those who denounce reason, and even blame it for the social evils of our time, do so on the one hand because they realize the fact that historical prophecy goes beyond the power of reason, and on the other hand because they cannot conceive of a social science, or of reason in society, having another function but that of historical prophecy. In other words, they are disappointed historicists; they are men who, in spite of realizing the poverty of historicism, are unaware that they retain the fundamental historicistic prejudice — the doctrine that the social sciences, if they are to be of any use at all, must be prophetic. It is clear that this attitude must lead to a rejection of the applicability of science or of reason to the problems of social life — and ultimately, to a doctrine of power, of domination and submission.

Why do all these social philosophies support the revolt against civilization? And what is the secret of their popularity? Why do they attract and seduce so many intellectuals? I am inclined to think that the reason is that they give expression to a deepfelt dissatisfaction with a world which does not, and cannot, live up to our moral ideals and to our dreams of perfection. The tendency of historicism (and of related views) to support the revolt against civilization may be due to the fact that historicism itself is, largely, a reaction against the strain of our civilization and its demand for personal responsibility.

These last allusions are somewhat vague, but they must suffice for this introduction. They will later be substantiated by historical material, especially in the chapter 'The Open Society and Its Enemies'. I was tempted to place this chapter at the beginning of the book; with its topical interest it would certainly have made a more inviting introduction. But I found that the full weight of this historical interpretation cannot be felt unless it is preceded by the material discussed earlier in the book. It seems that one has first to be disturbed by the similarity between the Platonic theory of justice and the theory and practice of modern totalitarianism before one can feel how urgent it is to interpret these matters.
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Re: The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl R. Popper

Postby admin » Fri Oct 26, 2018 10:28 pm

Volume I : The Spell of Plato

For the Open Society (about 430 B.C.):

Although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it.


Against the Open Society (about 80 years later):

The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace — to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.


The Myth of Origin and Destiny

Chapter 1: Historicism and the Myth of Destiny

It is widely believed that a truly scientific or philosophical attitude towards politics, and a deeper understanding of social life in general, must be based upon a contemplation and interpretation of human history. While the ordinary man takes the setting of his life and the importance of his personal experiences and petty struggles for granted, it is said that the social scientist or philosopher has to survey things from a higher plane. He sees the individual as a pawn, as a somewhat insignificant instrument in the general development of mankind. And he finds that the really important actors on the Stage of History are either the Great Nations and their Great Leaders, or perhaps the Great Classes, or the Great Ideas. However this may be, he will try to understand the meaning of the play which is performed on the Historical Stage; he will try to understand the laws of historical development. If he succeeds in this, he will, of course, be able to predict future developments. He might then put politics upon a solid basis, and give us practical advice by telling us which political actions are likely to succeed or likely to fail.

This is a brief description of an attitude which I call historicism. It is an old idea, or rather, a loosely connected set of ideas which have become, unfortunately, so much a part of our spiritual atmosphere that they are usually taken for granted, and hardly ever questioned.

I have tried elsewhere to show that the historicist approach to the social sciences gives poor results. I have also tried to outline a method which, I believe, would yield better results.

But if historicism is a faulty method that produces worthless results, then it may be useful to see how it originated, and how it succeeded in entrenching itself so successfully. An historical sketch undertaken with this aim can, at the same time, serve to analyse the variety of ideas which have gradually accumulated around the central historicist doctrine — the doctrine that history is controlled by specific historical or evolutionary laws whose discovery would enable us to prophesy the destiny of man.

Historicism, which I have so far characterized only in a rather abstract way, can be well illustrated by one of the simplest and oldest of its forms, the doctrine of the chosen people. This doctrine is one of the attempts to make history understandable by a theistic interpretation, i.e. by recognizing God as the author of the play performed on the Historical Stage. The theory of the chosen people, more specifically, assumes that God has chosen one people to function as the selected instrument of His will, and that this people will inherit the earth.

In this doctrine, the law of historical development is laid down by the Will of God. This is the specific difference which distinguishes the theistic form from other forms of historicism. A naturalistic historicism, for instance, might treat the developmental law as a law of nature; a spiritual historicism would treat it as a law of spiritual development; an economic historicism, again, as a law of economic development. Theistic historicism shares with these other forms the doctrine that there are specific historical laws which can be discovered, and upon which predictions regarding the future of mankind can be based.

There is no doubt that the doctrine of the chosen people grew out of the tribal form of social life. Tribalism, i.e. the emphasis on the supreme importance of the tribe without which the individual is nothing at all, is an element which we shall find in many forms of historicist theories. Other forms which are no longer tribalist may still retain an element of collectivism [1]; they may still emphasize the significance of some group or collective — for example, a class — without which the individual is nothing at all. Another aspect of the doctrine of the chosen people is the remoteness of what it proffers as the end of history. For although it may describe this end with some degree of definiteness, we have to go a long way before we reach it. And the way is not only long, but winding, leading up and down, right and left. Accordingly, it will be possible to bring every conceivable historical event well within the scheme of the interpretation. No conceivable experience can refute it. [2] But to those who believe in it, it gives certainty regarding the ultimate outcome of human history.

A criticism of the theistic interpretation of history will be attempted in the last chapter of this book, where it will also be shown that some of the greatest Christian thinkers have repudiated this theory as idolatry. An attack upon this form of historicism should therefore not be interpreted as an attack upon religion. In the present chapter, the doctrine of the chosen people serves only as an illustration. Its value as such can be seen from the fact that its chief characteristics [3] are shared by the two most important modern versions of historicism, whose analysis will form the major part of this book — the historical philosophy of racialism or fascism on the one (the right) hand and the Marxian historical philosophy on the other (the left). For the chosen people racialism substitutes the chosen race (of Gobineau's choice), selected as the instrument of destiny, ultimately to inherit the earth. Marx's historical philosophy substitutes for it the chosen class, the instrument for the creation of the classless society, and at the same time, the class destined to inherit the earth. Both theories base their historical forecasts on an interpretation of history which leads to the discovery of a law of its development. In the case of racialism, this is thought of as a kind of natural law; the biological superiority of the blood of the chosen race explains the course of history, past, present, and future; it is nothing but the struggle of races for mastery. In the case of Marx's philosophy of history, the law is economic; all history has to be interpreted as a struggle of classes for economic supremacy.
The historicist character of these two movements makes our investigation topical. We shall return to them in later parts of this book. Each of them goes back directly to the philosophy of Hegel. We must, therefore, deal with that philosophy as well. And since Hegel [4] in the main follows certain ancient philosophers, it will be necessary to discuss the theories of Heraclitus, Plato and Aristotle, before returning to the more modern forms of historicism.
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Re: The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl R. Popper

Postby admin » Fri Oct 26, 2018 11:31 pm

Chapter 2: Heraclitus

It is not until Heraclitus that we find in Greece theories which could be compared in their historicist character with the doctrine of the chosen people. In Homer's theistic or rather polytheistic interpretation, history is the product of divine will. But the Homeric gods do not lay down general laws for its development. What Homer tries to stress and to explain is not the unity of history, but rather its lack of unity. The author of the play on the Stage of History is not one God; a whole variety of gods dabble in it. What the Homeric interpretation shares with the Jewish is a certain vague feeling of destiny, and the idea of powers behind the scenes. But ultimate destiny, according to Homer, is not disclosed; unlike its Jewish counterpart, it remains mysterious.

The first Greek to introduce a more markedly historicist doctrine was Hesiod, who was probably influenced by oriental sources. He made use of the idea of a general trend or tendency in historical development. His interpretation of history is pessimistic. He believes that mankind, in their development down from the Golden Age, are destined to degenerate, both physically and morally. The culmination of the various historicist ideas proffered by the early Greek philosophers came with Plato, who, in an attempt to interpret the history and social life of the Greek tribes, and especially of the Athenians, painted a grandiose philosophical picture of the world. He was strongly influenced in his historicism by various forerunners, especially by Hesiod; but the most important influence came from Heraclitus.

Heraclitus was the philosopher who discovered the idea of change. Down to this time, the Greek philosophers, influenced by oriental ideas, had viewed the world as a huge edifice of which the material things were the building material. [1] It was the totality of things — the cosmos (which originally seems to have been an oriental tent or mantle). The questions which the philosophers asked themselves were, 'What stuff is the world made of?' or 'How is it constructed, what is its true ground-plan?'. They considered philosophy, or physics (the two were indistinguishable for a long time), as the investigation of 'nature', i.e. of the original material out of which this edifice, the world, had been built. As far as any processes were considered, they were thought of either as going on within the edifice, or else as constructing or maintaining it, disturbing and restoring the stability or balance of a structure which was considered to be fundamentally static. They were cyclic processes (apart from the processes connected with the origin of the edifice; the question 'Who has made it?' was discussed by the orientals, by Hesiod, and by others). This very natural approach, natural even to many of us to-day, was superseded by the genius of Heraclitus. The view he introduced was that there was no such edifice, no stable structure, no cosmos. 'The cosmos, at best, is like a rubbish heap scattered at random', is one of his sayings. [2] He visualized the world not as an edifice, but rather as one colossal process; not as the sum-total of all things, but rather as the totality of all events, or changes, or facts. 'Everything is in flux and nothing is at rest', is the motto of his philosophy.

Heraclitus' discovery influenced the development of Greek philosophy for a long time. The philosophies of Parmenides, Democritus, Plato, and Aristotle can all be appropriately described as attempts to solve the problems of that changing world which Heraclitus had discovered. The greatness of this discovery can hardly be overrated. It has been described as a terrifying one, and its effect has been compared with that of 'an earthquake, in which everything ... seems to sway' [3]. And I do not doubt that this discovery was impressed upon Heraclitus by terrifying personal experiences suffered as a result of the social and political disturbances of his day. Heraclitus, the first philosopher to deal not only with 'nature' but even more with ethico-political problems, lived in an age of social revolution. It was in his time that the Greek tribal aristocracies were beginning to yield to the new force of democracy.

In order to understand the effect of this revolution, we must remember the stability and rigidity of social life in a tribal aristocracy. Social life is determined by social and religious taboos; everybody has his assigned place within the whole of the social structure; everyone feels that his place is the proper, the 'natural' place, assigned to him by the forces which rule the world; everyone 'knows his place'.

According to tradition, Heraclitus' own place was that of heir to the royal family of priest kings of Ephesus, but he resigned his claims in favour of his brother. In spite of his proud refusal to take part in the political life of his city, he supported the cause of the aristocrats who tried in vain to stem the rising tide of the new revolutionary forces. These experiences, in the social or political field are reflected in the remaining fragments of his work. [4] 'The Ephesians ought to hang themselves man by man, all the adults, and leave the city to be ruled by infants ...', is one of his outbursts, occasioned by the people's decision to banish Hermodorus, one of Heraclitus 's aristocratic friends. His interpretation of the people's motives is most interesting, for it shows that the stock-in-trade of anti- democratic argument has not changed much since the earliest days of democracy. 'They said: nobody shall be the best among us; and if someone is outstanding, then let him be so elsewhere, and among others.' This hostility towards democracy breaks through everywhere in the fragments: '... the mob fill their bellies like the beasts ... They take the bards and popular belief as their guides, unaware that the many are bad and that only the few are good ... In Priene lived Bias, son of Teutames, whose word counts more than that of other men. (He said: "Most men are wicked.") ... The mob does not care, not even about the things they stumble upon; nor can they grasp a lesson — though they think they do.' In the same vein he says: 'The law can demand, too, that the will of One Man must be obeyed.' Another expression of Heraclitus' conservative and anti-democratic outlook is, incidentally, quite acceptable to democrats in its wording, though probably not in its intention: 'A people ought to fight for the laws of the city as if they were its walls.'

But Heraclitus' fight for the ancient laws of his city was in vain, and the transitoriness of all things impressed itself strongly upon him. His theory of change gives expression to this feeling [5]: 'Everything is in flux', he said; and 'You cannot step twice into the same river.' Disillusioned, he argued against the belief that the existing social order would remain for ever: 'We must not act like children reared with the narrow outlook "As it has been handed down to us".'

This emphasis on change, and especially on change in social life, is an important characteristic not only of Heraclitus' philosophy but of historicism in general. That things, and even kings, change, is a truth which needs to be impressed especially upon those who take their social environment for granted. So much is to be admitted. But in the Heraclitean philosophy one of the less commendable characteristics of historicism manifests itself, namely, an over-emphasis upon change, combined with the complementary belief in an inexorable and immutable law of destiny.

In this belief we are confronted with an attitude which, although at first sight contradictory to the historicist's over-emphasis upon change, is characteristic of most, if not all, historicists. We can explain this attitude, perhaps, if we interpret the historicist's over-emphasis on change as a symptom of an effort needed to overcome his unconscious resistance to the idea of change. This would also explain the emotional tension which leads so many historicists (even in our day) to stress the novelty of the unheard-of revelation which they have to make. Such considerations suggest the possibility that these historicists are afraid of change, and that they cannot accept the idea of change without serious inward struggle. It often seems as if they were trying to comfort themselves for the loss of a stable world by clinging to the view that change is ruled by an unchanging law. (In Parmenides and in Plato, we shall even find the theory that the changing world in which we live is an illusion and that there exists a more real world which does not change.)

In the case of Heraclitus, the emphasis upon change leads him to the theory that all material things, whether solid, liquid, or gaseous, are like flames — that they are processes rather than things, and that they are all transformations of fire; the apparently solid earth (which consists of ashes) is only a fire in a state of transformation, and even liquids (water, the sea) are transformed fire (and may become fuel, perhaps in the form of oil). 'The first transformation of fire is the sea; but of the sea, half is earth, and half hot air.' [6] Thus all the other 'elements' — earth, water, and air — are transformed fire: 'Everything is an exchange for fire, and fire for everything; just as gold for wares, and wares for gold.'

But having reduced all things to flames, to processes, like combustion, Heraclitus discerns in the processes a law, a measure, a reason, a wisdom; and having destroyed the cosmos as an edifice, and declared it to be a rubbish heap, he re-introduces it as the destined order of events in the world-process.

Every process in the world, and especially fire itself, develops according to a definite law, its 'measure' [7]. It is an inexorable and irresistible law, and to this extent it resembles our modern conception of natural law as well as the conception of historical or evolutionary laws of modern historicists. But it differs from these conceptions in so far as it is the decree of reason, enforced by punishment, just as is the law imposed by the state. This failure to distinguish between legal laws or norms on the one hand and natural laws or regularities on the other is characteristic of tribal tabooism: both kinds of law alike are treated as magical, which makes a rational criticism of the man-made taboos as inconceivable as an attempt to improve upon the ultimate wisdom and reason of the laws or regularities of the natural world: 'All events proceed with the necessity of fate . . . The sun will not outstep the measure of his path; or else the goddesses of Fate, the handmaids of Justice, will know how to find him.' But the sun does not only obey the law; the Fire, in the shape of the sun and (as we shall see) of Zeus' thunderbolt, watches over the law, and gives judgement according to it. 'The sun is the keeper and guardian of the periods, limiting and judging and heralding and manifesting the changes and seasons which bring forth all things ... This cosmic order which is the same for all things has not been created, neither by gods nor by men; it always was, and is, and will be, an ever living Fire, flaring up according to measure, and dying down according to measure ... In its advance, the Fire will seize, judge, and execute, everything.'

Combined with the historicist idea of a relentless destiny we frequently find an element of mysticism. A critical analysis of mysticism will be given in chapter 24.
Here I wish only to show the role of anti-rationalism and mysticism in Heraclitus' philosophy [8]: 'Nature loves to hide', he writes, and 'The Lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals, but he indicates his meaning through hints.' Heraclitus' contempt of the more empirically minded scientists is typical of those who adopt this attitude: 'Who knows many things need not have many brains; for otherwise Hesiod and Pythagoras would have had more, and also Xenophanes ... Pythagoras is the grandfather of all impostors.' Along with this scorn of scientists goes the mystical theory of an intuitive understanding. Heraclitus' theory of reason takes as its starting point the fact that, if we are awake, we live in a common world. We can communicate, control, and check one another; and herein lies the assurance that we are not victims of illusion. But this theory is given a second, a symbolic, a mystical meaning. It is the theory of a mystical intuition which is given to the chosen, to those who are awake, who have the power to see, hear, and speak: 'One must not act and talk as if asleep . . . Those who are awake have One common world; those who are asleep, turn to their private worlds . . . They are incapable both of listening and of talking . . . Even if they do hear they are like the deaf. The saying applies to them: They are present yet they are not present ... One thing alone is wisdom: to understand the thought which steers everything through everything.' The world whose experience is common to those who are awake is the mystical unity, the oneness of all things which can be apprehended only by reason: 'One must follow what is common to all ... Reason is common to all ... All becomes One and One becomes All . . . The One which alone is wisdom wishes and does not wish to be called by the name of Zeus ... It is the thunderbolt which steers all things.'

So much for the more general features of the Heraclitean philosophy of universal change and hidden destiny. From this philosophy springs a theory of the driving force behind all change; a theory which exhibits its historicist character by its emphasis upon the importance of 'social dynamics' as opposed to 'social statics'. Heraclitus' dynamics of nature in general and especially of social life confirms the view that his philosophy was inspired by the social and political disturbances he had experienced. For he declares that strife or war is the dynamic as well as the creative principle of all change, and especially of all differences between men. And being a typical historicist, he accepts the judgement of history as a moral one [9]; for he holds that the outcome of war is always just [10]: 'War is the father and the king of all things. It proves some to be gods and others to be mere men, turning these into slaves and the former into masters . . . One must know that war is universal, and that justice — the lawsuit — is strife, and that all things develop through strife and by necessity.'

But if justice is strife or war; if 'the goddesses of Fate' are at the same time 'the handmaids of Justice'; if history, or more precisely, if success, i.e. success in war, is the criterion of merit, then the standard of merit must itself be 'in flux'. Heraclitus meets this problem by his relativism, and by his doctrine of the identity of opposites. This springs from his theory of change (which remains the basis of Plato's and even more of Aristotle's theory). A changing thing must give up some property and acquire the opposite property. It is not so much a thing as a process of transition from one state to an opposite state, and thereby a unification of the opposite states [11]: 'Cold things become warm and warm things become cold; what is moist becomes dry and what is dry becomes moist . . . Disease enables us to appreciate health . . . Life and death, being awake and being asleep, youth and old age, all this is identical; for the one turns into the other and the other turns into the one ... What struggles with itself becomes committed to itself: there is a link or harmony due to recoil and tension, as in the bow or the lyre . . . The opposites belong to each other, the best harmony results from discord, and everything develops by strife . . . The path that leads up and the path that leads down are identical . . . The straight path and the crooked path are one and the same ... For gods, all things are beautiful and good and just; men, however, have adopted some things as just, others as unjust . . . The good and the bad are identical.'

But the relativism of values (it might even be described as an ethical relativism) expressed in the last fragment does not prevent Heraclitus from developing upon the background of his theory of the justice of war and the verdict of history a tribalist and romantic ethic of Fame, Fate, and the superiority of the Great Man, all strangely similar to some very modern ideas [12]: 'Who falls fighting will be glorified by gods and by men . . . The greater the fall the more glorious the fate . . . The best seek one thing above all others: eternal fame ... One man is worth more than ten thousand, if he is Great.'

It is surprising to find in these early fragments, dating from about 500 B.C., so much that is characteristic of modern historicist and anti- democratic tendencies. But apart from the fact that Heraclitus was a thinker of unsurpassed power and originality, and that, in consequence, many of his ideas have (through the medium of Plato) become part of the main body of philosophic tradition, the similarity of doctrine can perhaps be explained, to some extent, by the similarity of social conditions in the relevant periods. It seems as if historicist ideas easily become prominent in times of great social change. They appeared when Greek tribal life broke up, as well as when that of the Jews was shattered by the impact of the Babylonian conquest [13]. There can be little doubt, I believe, that Heraclitus' philosophy is an expression of a feeling of drift; a feeling which seems to be a typical reaction to the dissolution of the ancient tribal forms of social life. In modern Europe, historicist ideas were revived during the industrial revolution, and especially through the impact of the political revolutions in America and France [14]. It appears to be more than a mere coincidence that Hegel, who adopted so much of Heraclitus' thought and passed it on to all modern historicist movements, was a mouthpiece of the reaction against the French Revolution.
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Re: The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl R. Popper

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Chapter 3: Plato's Theory of Forms or Ideas

Plato lived in a period of wars and of political strife which was, for all we know, even more unsettled than that which had troubled Heraclitus. While he grew up, the breakdown of the tribal life of the Greeks had led in Athens, his native city, to a period of tyranny, and later to the establishment of a democracy which tried jealously to guard itself against any attempts to reintroduce either a tyranny or an oligarchy, i.e. a rule of the leading aristocratic families [1]. During his youth, democratic Athens was involved in a deadly war against Sparta, the leading city-state of the Peloponnese, which had preserved many of the laws and customs of the ancient tribal aristocracy. The Peloponnesian war lasted, with an interruption, for twenty-eight years. (In chapter 10, where the historical background is reviewed in more detail, it will be shown that the war did not end with the fall of Athens in 404 B.C., as is sometimes asserted [2].) Plato was born during the war, and he was about twenty-four when it ended. It brought terrible epidemics, and, in its last year, famine, the fall of the city of Athens, civil war, and a rule of terror, usually called the rule of the Thirty Tyrants; these were led by two of Plato's uncles, who both lost their lives in the unsuccessful attempt to uphold their regime against the democrats. The re-establishment of the democracy and of peace meant no respite for Plato. His beloved teacher Socrates, whom he later made the main speaker of most of his dialogues, was tried and executed. Plato himself seems to have been in danger; together with other companions of Socrates he left Athens.

Later, on the occasion of his first visit to Sicily, Plato became entangled in the political intrigues which were spun at the court of the older Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, and even after his return to Athens and the foundation of the Academy, Plato continued, along with some of his pupils, to take an active and ultimately fateful part in the conspiracies and revolutions [3] that constituted Syracusan politics.

This brief outline of political events may help to explain why we find in the work of Plato, as in that of Heraclitus, indications that he suffered desperately under the political instability and insecurity of his time. Like Heraclitus, Plato was of royal blood; at least, the tradition claims that his father's family traced its descent from Godrus, the last of the tribal kings of Attica [4]. Plato was very proud of his mother's family which, as he explains in his dialogues (in the Charmides and the Timaeus), was related to that of Solon, the lawgiver of Athens. His uncles, Critias and Charmides, the leading men of the Thirty Tyrants, also belonged to his mother's family. With such a family tradition, Plato could be expected to take a deep interest in public affairs; and indeed, most of his works fulfil this expectation.
He himself relates (if the Seventh Letter is genuine) that he was [5] 'from the beginning most anxious for political activity', but that he was deterred by the stirring experiences of his youth. 'Seeing that everything swayed and shifted aimlessly, I felt giddy and desperate.' From the feeling that society, and indeed 'everything', was in flux, arose, I believe, the fundamental impulse of his philosophy as well as of the philosophy of Heraclitus; and Plato summed up his social experience, exactly as his historicist predecessor had done, by proffering a law of historical development. According to this law, which will be more fully discussed in the next chapter, all social change is corruption or decay or degeneration.

This fundamental historical law forms, in Plato's view, part of a cosmic law — of a law which holds for all created or generated things. All things in flux, all generated things, are destined to decay. Plato, like Heraclitus, felt that the forces which are at work in history are cosmic forces.

It is nearly certain, however, that Plato believed that this law of degeneration was not the whole story. We have found, in Heraclitus, a tendency to visualize the laws of development as cyclic laws; they are conceived after the law which determines the cyclic succession of the seasons. Similarly we can find, in some of Plato's works, the suggestion of a Great Year (its length appears to be 36,000 ordinary years), with a period of improvement or generation, presumably corresponding to Spring and Summer, and one of degeneration and decay, corresponding to Autumn and Winter. According to one of Plato's dialogues (the Statesman), a Golden Age, the age of Cronos — an age in which Cronos himself rules the world, and in which men spring from the earth — is followed by our own age, the age of Zeus, an age in which the world is abandoned by the gods and left to its own resources, and which consequently is one of increasing corruption. And in the story of the Statesman there is also a suggestion that, after the lowest point of complete corruption has been reached, the god will again take the helm of the cosmic ship, and things will start to improve.

It is not certain how far Plato believed in the story of the Statesman. He made it quite clear that he did not believe that all of it was literally true. On the other hand, there can be little doubt that he visualized human history in a cosmic setting; that he believed his own age to be one of deep depravity — possibly of the deepest that can be reached — and the whole preceding historical period to be governed by an inherent tendency toward decay, a tendency shared by both the historical and the cosmical development. [6] Whether or not he also believed that this tendency must necessarily come to an end once the point of extreme depravity has been reached seems to me uncertain. But he certainly believed that it is possible for us, by a human, or rather by a superhuman effort, to break through the fatal historical trend, and to put an end to the process of decay.


Great as the similarities are between Plato and Heraclitus, we have struck here an important difference. Plato believed that the law of historical destiny, the law of decay, can be broken by the moral will of man, supported by the power of human reason.

It is not quite clear how Plato reconciled this view with his belief in a law of destiny. But there are some indications which may explain the matter.

Plato believed that the law of degeneration involved moral degeneration. Political degeneration at any rate depends in his view mainly upon moral degeneration (and lack of knowledge); and moral degeneration, in its turn, is due mainly to racial degeneration. This is the way in which the general cosmic law of decay manifests itself in the field of human affairs.

It is therefore understandable that the great cosmic turning-point may coincide with a turning-point in the field of human affairs — the moral and intellectual field — and that it may, therefore, appear to us to be brought about by a moral and intellectual human effort. Plato may well have believed that, just as the general law of decay did manifest itself in moral decay leading to political decay, so the advent of the cosmic turning-point would manifest itself in the coming of a great law-giver whose powers of reasoning and whose moral will are capable of bringing this period of political decay to a close. It seems likely that the prophecy, in the Statesman, of the return of the Golden Age, of a new millennium, is the expression of such a belief in the form of a myth. However this may be, he certainly believed in both — in a general historical tendency towards corruption, and in the possibility that we may stop further corruption in the political field by arresting all political change. This, accordingly, is the aim he strives for. [7] He tries to realize it by the establishment of a state which is free from the evils of all other states because it does not degenerate, because it does not change. The state which is free from the evil of change and corruption is the best, the perfect state. It is the state of the Golden Age which knew no change. It is the arrested state.


In believing in such an ideal state which does not change, Plato deviates radically from the tenets of historicism which we found in Heraclitus. But important as this difference is, it gives rise to further points of similarity between Plato and Heraclitus.

Heraclitus, despite the boldness of his reasoning, seems to have shrunk from the idea of replacing the cosmos by chaos. He seems to have comforted himself, we said, for the loss of a stable world by clinging to the view that change is ruled by an unchanging law. This tendency to shrink back from the last consequences of historicism is characteristic of many historicists. In Plato, this tendency becomes paramount. (He was here under the influence of the philosophy of Parmenides, the great critic of Heraclitus.) Heraclitus had generalized his experience of social flux by extending it to the world of 'all things', and Plato, I have hinted, did the same. But Plato also extended his belief in a perfect state that does not change to the realm of 'all things'. He believed that to every kind of ordinary or decaying thing there corresponds also a perfect thing that does not decay. This belief in perfect and unchanging things, usually called the Theory of Forms or Ideas [8], became the central doctrine of his philosophy.

Plato's belief that it is possible for us to break the iron law of destiny, and to avoid decay by arresting all change, shows that his historicist tendencies had definite limitations. An uncompromising and fully developed historicism would hesitate to admit that man, by any effort, can alter the laws of historical destiny even after he has discovered them. It would hold that he cannot work against them, since all his plans and actions are means by which the inexorable laws of development realize his historical destiny; just as Oedipus met his fate because of the prophecy, and the measures taken by his father for avoiding it, and not in spite of them. In order to gain a better understanding of this out-and-out historicist attitude, and to analyse the opposite tendency inherent in Plato's belief that he could influence fate, I shall contrast historicism, as we find it in Plato, with a diametrically opposite approach, also to be found in Plato, which may be called the attitude of social engineering [9]. IV The social engineer does not ask any questions about historical tendencies or the destiny of man. He believes that man is the master of his own destiny and that, in accordance with our aims, we can influence or change the history of man just as we have changed the face of the earth. He does not believe that these ends are imposed upon us by our historical background or by the trends of history, but rather that they are chosen, or even created, by ourselves, just as we create new thoughts or new works of art or new houses or new machinery. As opposed to the historicist who believes that intelligent political action is possible only if the future course of history is first determined, the social engineer believes that a scientific basis of politics would be a very different thing; it would consist of the factual information necessary for the construction or alteration of social institutions, in accordance with our wishes and aims. Such a science would have to tell us what steps we must take if we wish, for instance, to avoid depressions, or else to produce depressions; or if we wish to make the distribution of wealth more even, or less even. In other words, the social engineer conceives as the scientific basis of politics something like a social technology (Plato, as we shall see, compares it with the scientific background of medicine), as opposed to the historicist who understands it as a science of immutable historical tendencies.

From what I have said about the attitude of the social engineer, it must not be inferred that there are no important differences within the camp of the social engineers. On the contrary, the difference between what I call 'piecemeal social engineering' and 'Utopian social engineering' is one of the main themes of this book. (Cp. especially chapter 9, where I shall give my reasons for advocating the former and rejecting the latter.) But for the time being, I am concerned only with the opposition between historicism and social engineering. This opposition can perhaps be further clarified if we consider the attitudes taken up by the historicist and by the social engineer towards social institutions, i.e. such things as an insurance company, or a police force, or a government, or perhaps a grocer's shop.

The historicist is inclined to look upon social institutions mainly from the point of view of their history, i.e. their origin, their development, and their present and future significance. He may perhaps insist that their origin is due to a definite plan or design and to the pursuit of definite ends, either human or divine; or he may assert that they are not designed to serve any clearly conceived ends, but are rather the immediate expression of certain instincts and passions; or he may assert that they have once served as means to definite ends, but that they have lost this character. The social engineer and technologist, on the other hand, will hardly take much interest in the origin of institutions, or in the original intentions of their founders (although there is no reason why he should not recognize the fact that 'only a minority of social institutions are consciously designed, while the vast majority have just "grown", as the undesigned results of human actions' [10]). Rather, he will put his problem like this. If such and such are our aims, is this institution well designed and organized to serve them? As an example we may consider the institution of insurance. The social engineer or technologist will not worry much about the question whether insurance originated as a profit- seeking business; or whether its historical mission is to serve the common weal. But he may offer a criticism of certain institutions of insurances, showing, perhaps, how to increase their profits, or, which is a very different thing, how to increase the benefit they render to the public; and he will suggest ways in which they could be made more efficient in serving the one end or the other. As another example of a social institution, we may consider a police force. Some historicists may describe it as an instrument for the protection of freedom and security, others as an instrument of class rule and oppression. The social engineer or technologist, however, would perhaps suggest measures that would make it a suitable instrument for the protection of freedom and security, and he might also devise measures by which it could be turned into a powerful weapon of class rule. (In his function as a citizen who pursues certain ends in which he believes, he may demand that these ends, and the appropriate measures, should be adopted. But as a technologist, he would carefully distinguish between the question of the ends and their choice and questions concerning the facts, i.e. the social effects of any measure which might be taken [11].)

Speaking more generally, we can say that the engineer or the technologist approaches institutions rationally as means that serve certain ends, and that as a technologist he judges them wholly according to their appropriateness, efficiency, simplicity, etc. The historicist, on the other hand, would rather attempt to find out the origin and destiny of these institutions in order to assess the 'true role' played by them in the development of history — evaluating them, for instance, as 'willed by God', or as 'willed by Fate', or as 'serving important historical trends', etc. All this does not mean that the social engineer or technologist will be committed to the assertion that institutions are means to ends, or instruments; he may be well aware of the fact that they are, in many important respects, very different from mechanical instruments or machines. He will not forget, for example, that they 'grow' in a way which is similar (although by no means equal) to the growth of organisms, and that this fact is of great importance for social engineering. He is not committed to an 'instrumentalist' philosophy of social institutions. (Nobody will say that an orange is an instrument, or a means to an end; but we often look upon oranges as means to ends, for example, if we wish to eat them, or, perhaps, to make our living by selling them.)

The two attitudes, historicism and social engineering, occur sometimes in typical combinations. The earliest and probably the most influential example of these is the social and political philosophy of Plato. It combines, as it were, some fairly obvious technological elements in the foreground, with a background dominated by an elaborate display of typically historicist features. The combination is representative of quite a number of social and political philosophers who produced what have been later described as Utopian systems. All these systems recommend some kind of social engineering, since they demand the adoption of certain institutional means, though not always very realistic ones, for the achievement of their ends. But when we proceed to a consideration of these ends, then we frequently find that they are determined by historicism. Plato's political ends, especially, depend to a considerable extent on his historicist doctrines. First, it is his aim to escape the Heraclitean flux, manifested in social revolution and historical decay. Secondly, he believes that this can be done by establishing a state which is so perfect that it does not participate in the general trend of historical development. Thirdly, he believes that the model or original of his perfect state can be found in the distant past, in a Golden Age which existed in the dawn of history; for if the world decays in time, then we must find increasing perfection the further we go back into the past. The perfect state is something like the first ancestor, the primogenitor, of the later states, which are, as it were, the degenerate offspring of this perfect, or best, or 'ideal' state [12]; an ideal state which is not a mere phantasm, nor a dream, nor an 'idea in our mind', but which is, in view of its stability, more real than all those decaying societies which are in flux, and liable to pass away at any moment. Thus even Plato's political end, the best state, is largely dependent on his historicism; and what is true of his philosophy of the state can be extended, as already indicated, to his general philosophy of 'all things', to his Theory of Forms or Ideas. V The things in flux, the degenerate and decaying things, are (like the state) the offspring, the children, as it were, of perfect things. And like children, they are copies of their original primogenitors. The father or original of a thing in flux is what Plato calls its 'Form' or its 'Pattern' or its 'Idea'. As before, we must insist that the Form or Idea, in spite of its name, is no 'idea in our mind'; it is not a phantasm, nor a dream, but a real thing. It is, indeed, more real than all the ordinary things which are in flux, and which, in spite of their apparent solidity, are doomed to decay; for the Form or Idea is a thing that is perfect, and does not perish.

The Forms or Ideas must not be thought to dwell, like perishable things, in space and time. They are outside space, and also outside time (because they are eternal). But they are in contact with space and time; for since they are the primogenitors or models of the things which are generated, and which develop and decay in space and time, they must have been in contact with space, at the beginning of time. Since they are not with us in our space and time, they cannot be perceived by our senses, as can the ordinary changing things which interact with our senses and are therefore called 'sensible things'. Those sensible things, which are copies or children of the same model or original, resemble not only this original, their Form or Idea, but also one another, as do children of the same family; and as children are called by the name of their father, so are the sensible things, which bear the name of their Forms or Ideas; 'They are all called after them', as Aristotle says [13].

As a child may look upon his father, seeing in him an ideal, a unique model, a god-like personification of his own aspiration; the embodiment of perfection, of wisdom, of stability, glory, and virtue; the power which created him before his world began; which now preserves and sustains him; and in 'virtue' of which he exists; so Plato looks upon the Forms or Ideas. The Platonic Idea is the original and the origin of the thing; it is the rationale of the thing, the reason of its existence — the stable, sustaining principle in 'virtue' of which it exists. It is the virtue of the thing, its ideal, its perfection.

The comparison between the Form or Idea of a class of sensible things and the father of a family of children is developed by Plato in the Timaeus, one of his latest dialogues. It is in close agreement [14] with much of his earlier writing, on which it throws considerable light. But in the Timaeus, Plato goes one step beyond his earlier teaching when he represents the contact of the Form or Idea with the world of space and time by an extension of his simile. He describes the abstract 'space' in which the sensible things move (originally the space or gap between heaven and earth) as a receptacle, and compares it with the mother of things, in which at the beginning of time the sensible things are created by the Forms which stamp or impress themselves upon pure space, and thereby give the offspring their shape. 'We must conceive', writes Plato, 'three kinds of things: first, those which undergo generation; secondly, that in which generation takes place; and thirdly, the model in whose likeness the generated things are born. And we may compare the receiving principle to a mother, and the model to a father, and their product to a child.' And he goes on to describe first more fully the models — the fathers, the unchanging Forms or Ideas: 'There is first the unchanging Form which is uncreated and indestructible, . . . invisible and imperceptible by any sense, and which can be contemplated only by pure thought.' To any single one of these Forms or Ideas belongs its offspring or race of sensible things, 'another kind of things, bearing the name of their Form and resembling it, but perceptible to sense, created, always in flux, generated in a place and again vanishing from that place, and apprehended by opinion based upon perception'. And the abstract space, which is likened to the mother, is described thus: 'There is a third kind, which is space, and is eternal, and cannot be destroyed, and which provides a home for all generated things . . . ' [15]

It may contribute to the understanding of Plato's theory of Forms or Ideas if we compare it with certain Greek religious beliefs. As in many primitive religions, some at least of the Greek gods are nothing but idealized tribal primogenitors and heroes — personifications of the 'virtue' or 'perfection' of the tribe. Accordingly, certain tribes and families traced their ancestry to one or other of the gods. (Plato's own family is reported to have traced its descent from the god Poseidon [16].) We have only to consider that these gods are immortal or eternal, and perfect — or very nearly so — while ordinary men are involved in the flux of all things, and subject to decay (which indeed is the ultimate destiny of every human individual), in order to see that these gods are related to ordinary men in the same way as Plato's Forms or Ideas are related to those sensible things which are their copies [17] (or his perfect state to the various states now existing). There is, however, an important difference between Greek mythology and Plato's Theory of Forms or Ideas. While the Greeks venerated many gods as the ancestors of various tribes or families, the Theory of Ideas demands that there should be only one Form or Idea of man [18]; for it is one of the central doctrines of the Theory of Forms that there is only one Form of every 'race' or 'kind' of things. The uniqueness of the Form which corresponds to the uniqueness of the primogenitor is a necessary element of the theory if it is to perform one of its most important functions, namely, to explain the similarity of sensible things, by proposing that the similar things are copies or imprints of one Form. Thus if there were two equal or similar Forms, their similarity would force us to assume that both are copies of a third original which thereby would turn out to be the only true and single Form. Or, as Plato puts it in the Timaeus: 'The resemblance would thus be explained, more precisely, not as one between these two things, but in reference to that superior thing which is their prototype.' [19] In the Republic, which is earlier than the Timaeus, Plato had explained his point even more clearly, using as his example the 'essential bed', i.e. the Form or Idea of a bed: 'God ... has made one essential bed, and only one; two or more he did not produce, and never will . . . For . . . even if God were to make two, and no more, then another would be brought to light, namely the Form exhibited by those two; this, and not those two, would then be the essential bed.' [20]

This argument shows that the Forms or Ideas provide Plato not only with an origin or starting point for all developments in space and time (and especially for human history) but also with an explanation of the similarities between sensible things of the same kind. If things are similar because of some virtue or property which they share, for instance, whiteness, or hardness, or goodness, then this virtue or property must be one and the same in all of them; otherwise it would not make them similar. According to Plato, they all participate in the one Form or Idea of whiteness, if they are white; of hardness, if they are hard. They participate in the sense in which children participate in their father's possessions and gifts; just as the many particular reproductions of an etching which are all impressions from one and the same plate, and hence similar to one another, may participate in the beauty of the original.

The fact that this theory is designed to explain the similarities in sensible things does not seem at first sight to be in any way connected with historicism. But it is; and as Aristotle tells us, it was just this connection which induced Plato to develop the Theory of Ideas. I shall attempt to give an outline of this development, using Aristotle's account together with some indications in Plato's own writings.

If all things are in continuous flux, then it is impossible to say anything definite about them. We can have no real knowledge of them, but, at the best, vague and delusive 'opinions'. This point, as we know from Plato and Aristotle [21], worried many followers of Heraclitus. Parmenides, one of Plato's predecessors who influenced him greatly, had taught that the pure knowledge of reason, as opposed to the delusive opinion of experience, could have as its object only a world which did not change, and that the pure knowledge of reason did in fact reveal such a world. But the unchanging and undivided reality which Parmenides thought he had discovered behind the world of perishable things— was entirely unrelated to this world in which we live and die. It was therefore incapable of explaining it.

With this, Plato could not be satisfied. Much as he disliked and despised this empirical world of flux, he was, at bottom, most deeply interested in it. He wanted to unveil the secret of its decay, of its violent changes, and of its unhappiness. He hoped to discover the means of its salvation. He was deeply impressed by Parmenides' doctrine of an unchanging, real, solid, and perfect world behind this ghostly world in which he suffered; but this conception did not solve his problems as long as it remained unrelated to the world of sensible things. What he was looking for was knowledge, not opinion; the pure rational knowledge of a world that does not change; but, at the same time, knowledge that could be used to investigate this changing world, and especially, this changing society; political change, with its strange historical laws. Plato aimed at discovering the secret of the royal knowledge of politics, of the art of ruling men.

But an exact science of politics seemed as impossible as any exact knowledge of a world in flux; there were no fixed objects in the political field. How could one discuss any political questions when the meaning of words like 'government' or 'state' or 'city' changed with every new phase in the historical development? Political theory must have seemed to Plato in his Heraclitean period to be just as elusive, fluctuating, and unfathomable as political practice.

In this situation Plato obtained, as Aristotle tells us, a most important hint from Socrates. Socrates was interested in ethical matters; he was an ethical reformer, a moralist who pestered all kinds of people, forcing them to think, to explain, and to account for the principles of their actions. He used to question them and was not easily satisfied by their answers. The typical reply which he received — that we act in a certain way because it is 'wise' to act in this way or perhaps 'efficient', or 'just', or 'pious', etc. — only incited him to continue his questions by asking what is wisdom; or efficiency; or justice; or piety. In other words, he was led to enquire into the 'virtue' of a thing. So he discussed, for instance, the wisdom displayed in various trades and professions, in order to find out what is common to all these various and changing 'wise' ways of behaviour, and so to find out what wisdom really is, or what 'wisdom' really means, or (using Aristotle's way of putting it) what its essence is. 'It was natural', says Aristotle, 'that Socrates should search for the essence' [23], i.e. for the virtue or rationale of a thing and for the real, the unchanging or essential meanings of the terms. 'In this connection he became the first to raise the problem of universal definitions.'

These attempts of Socrates to discuss ethical terms like 'justice' or 'modesty' or 'piety' have been rightly compared with modern discussions on Liberty (by Mill—, for instance), or on Authority, or on the Individual and Society (by Catlin, for instance). There is no need to assume that Socrates, in his search for the unchanging or essential meaning of such terms, personified them, or that he treated them like things. Aristotle's report at least suggests that he did not, and that it was Plato who developed Socrates' method of searching for the meaning or essence into a method of determining the real nature, the Form or Idea of a thing. Plato retained 'the Heraclitean doctrines that all sensible things are ever in a state of flux, and that there is no knowledge about them', but he found in Socrates' method a way out of these difficulties. Though there 'could be no definition of any sensible thing, as they were always changing', there could be definitions and true knowledge of things of a different kind — of the virtues of the sensible things. 'If knowledge or thought were to have an object, there would have to be some different, some unchanging entities, apart from those which are sensible', says Aristotle [25], and he reports of Plato that 'things of this other sort, then, he called Forms or Ideas, and the sensible things, he said, were distinct from them, and all called after them. And the many things which have the same name as a certain Form or Idea exist by participating in it'.

This account of Aristotle's corresponds closely to Plato's own arguments proffered in the Timaeus [26], and it shows that Plato's fundamental problem was to find a scientific method of dealing with sensible things. He wanted to obtain purely rational knowledge, and not merely opinion; and since pure knowledge of sensible things could not be obtained, he insisted, as mentioned before, on obtaining at least such pure knowledge as was in some way related, and applicable, to sensible things. Knowledge of the Forms or Ideas fulfilled this demand, since the Form was related to its sensible things like a father to his children who are under age. The Form was the accountable representative of the sensible things, and could therefore be consulted in important questions concerning the world of flux.

According to our analysis, the theory of Forms or Ideas has at least three different functions in Plato's philosophy. (1) It is a most important methodological device, for it makes possible pure scientific knowledge, and even knowledge which could be applied to the world of changing things of which we cannot immediately obtain any knowledge, but only opinion. Thus it becomes possible to enquire into the problems of a changing society, and to build up a political science. (2) It provides the clue to the urgently needed theory of change, and of decay, to a theory of generation and degeneration, and especially, the clue to history. (3) It opens a way, in the social realm, towards some kind of social engineering; and it makes possible the forging of instruments for arresting social change, since it suggests designing a 'best state' which so closely resembles the Form or Idea of a state that it cannot decay.

Problem (2), the theory of change and of history, will be dealt with in the next two chapters, 4 and 5, where Plato's descriptive sociology is treated, i.e. his description and explanation of the changing social world in which he lived. Problem (3), the arresting of social change, will be dealt with in chapters 6 to 9, treating Plato's political programme. Problem (1), that of Plato's methodology, has with the help of Aristotle's account of the history of Plato's theory been briefly outlined in the present chapter. To this discussion, I wish to add here a few more remarks.


I use the name methodological essentialism to characterize the view, held by Plato and many of his followers, that it is the task of pure knowledge or 'science' to discover and to describe the true nature of things, i.e. their hidden reality or essence. It was Plato's peculiar belief that the essence of sensible things can be found in other and more real things — in their primogenitors or Forms. Many of the later methodological essentialists, for instance Aristotle, did not altogether follow him in this; but they all agreed with him in determining the task of pure knowledge as the discovery of the hidden nature or Form or essence of things. All these methodological essentialists also agreed with Plato in holding that these essences may be discovered and discerned with the help of intellectual intuition; that every essence has a name proper to it, the name after which the sensible things are called; and that it may be described in words. And a description of the essence of a thing they all called a 'definition'. According to methodological essentialism, there can be three ways of knowing a thing: 'I mean that we can know its unchanging reality or essence; and that we can know the definition of the essence; and that we can know its name. Accordingly, two questions may be formulated about any real thing . . . : A person may give the name and ask for the definition; or he may give the definition and ask for the name.' As an example of this method, Plato uses the essence of 'even' (as opposed to 'odd'): 'Number . . . may be a thing capable of division into equal parts. If it is so divisible, number is named "even"; and the definition of the name "even" is "a number divisible into equal parts"... And when we are given the name and asked about the definition, or when we are given the definition and asked about the name, we speak, in both cases, of one and the same essence, whether we call it now "even" or "a number divisible into equal parts".' After this example, Plato proceeds to apply this method to a 'proof concerning the real nature of the soul, about which we shall hear more later [27].

Methodological essentialism, i.e. the theory that it is the aim of science to reveal essences and to describe them by means of definitions, can be better understood when contrasted with its opposite, methodological nominalism. Instead of aiming at finding out what a thing really is, and at defining its true nature, methodological nominalism aims at describing how a thing behaves in various circumstances, and especially, whether there are any regularities in its behaviour. In other words, methodological nominalism sees the aim of science in the description of the things and events of our experience, and in an 'explanation' of these events, i.e. their description with the help of universal laws [28]. And it sees in our language, and especially in those of its rules which distinguish properly constructed sentences and inferences from a mere heap of words, the great instrument of scientific description [29]; words it considers rather as subsidiary tools for this task, and not as names of essences. The methodological nominalist will never think that a question like 'What is energy?' or 'What is movement?' or ' What is an atom?' is an important question for physics; but he will attach importance to a question like: 'How can the energy of the sun be made useful?' or 'How does a planet move?' or 'Under what condition does an atom radiate light?' And to those philosophers who tell him that before having answered the 'what is' question he cannot hope to give exact answers to any of the 'how' questions, he will reply, if at all, by pointing out that he much prefers that modest degree of exactness which he can achieve by his methods to the pretentious muddle which they have achieved by theirs.

As indicated by our example, methodological nominalism is nowadays fairly generally accepted in the natural sciences. The problems of the social sciences, on the other hand, are still for the most part treated by essentialist methods. This is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons for their backwardness. But many who have noticed this situation [30] judge it differently. They believe that the difference in method is necessary, and that it reflects an 'essential' difference between the 'natures' of these two fields of research.

The arguments usually offered in support of this view emphasize the importance of change in society, and exhibit other aspects of historicism. The physicist, so runs a typical argument, deals with objects like energy or atoms which, though changing, retain a certain degree of constancy. He can describe the changes encountered by these relatively unchanging entities, and does not have to construct or detect essences or Forms or similar unchanging entities in order to obtain something permanent on which he can make definite pronouncements. The social scientist, however, is in a very different position. His whole field of interest is changing. There are no permanent entities in the social realm, where everything is under the sway of historical flux. How, for instance, can we study government? How could we identify it in the diversity of governmental institutions, found in different states at different historical periods, without assuming that they have something essentially in common? We call an institution a government if we think that it is essentially a government, i.e. if it complies with our intuition of what a government is, an intuition which we can formulate in a definition. The same would hold good for other sociological entities, such as 'civilization'. We must grasp their essence, so the historicist argument concludes, and lay it down in the form of a definition.

These modern arguments are, I think, very similar to those reported above which, according to Aristotle, led Plato to his doctrine of Forms or Ideas. The only difference is that Plato (who did not accept the atomic theory and knew nothing about energy) applied his doctrine to the realm of physics also, and thus to the world as a whole. We have here an indication of the fact that, in the social sciences, a discussion of Plato's methods may be topical even to-day.

Before proceeding to Plato's sociology and to the use he made of his methodological essentialism in that field, I wish to make it quite clear that I am confining my treatment of Plato to his historicism, and to his 'best state'. I must therefore warn the reader not to expect a representation of the whole of Plato's philosophy, or what may be called a 'fair and just' treatment of Platonism. My attitude towards historicism is one of frank hostility, based upon the conviction that historicism is futile, and worse than that. My survey of the historicist features of Platonism is therefore strongly critical. Although I admire much in Plato's philosophy, far beyond those parts which I believe to be Socratic, I do not take it as my task to add to the countless tributes to his genius. I am, rather, bent on destroying what is in my opinion mischievous in this philosophy. It is the totalitarian tendency of Plato's political philosophy which I shall try to analyse, and to criticize. [31]
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Part 1 of 2

Plato's Descriptive Sociology

Chapter 4: Change and Rest

Plato was one of the first social scientists and undoubtedly by far the most influential. In the sense in which the term 'sociology' was understood by Comte, Mill, and Spencer, he was a sociologist; that is to say, he successfully applied his idealist method to an analysis of the social life of man, and of the laws of its development as well as the laws and conditions of its stability. In spite of Plato's great influence, this side of his teaching has been little noticed. This seems to be due to two factors. First of all, much of Plato's sociology is presented by him in such close connection with his ethical and political demands that the descriptive elements have been largely overlooked. Secondly, many of his thoughts were taken so much for granted that they were simply absorbed unconsciously and therefore uncritically. It is mainly in this way that his sociological theories became so influential.

Plato's sociology is an ingenious blend of speculation with acute observation of facts. Its speculative setting is, of course, the theory of Forms and of universal flux and decay, of generation and degeneration. But on this idealist foundation Plato constructs an astonishingly realistic theory of society, capable of explaining the main trends in the historical development of the Greek city-states as well as the social and political forces at work in his own day.


The speculative or metaphysical setting of Plato's theory of social change has already been sketched. It is the world of unchanging Forms or Ideas, of which the world of changing things in space and time is the offspring. The Forms or Ideas are not only unchanging, indestructible, and incorruptible, but also perfect, true, real, and good; in fact, 'good' is once, in the Republic [1], explained as 'everything that preserves', and 'evil' as 'everything that destroys or corrupts'. The perfect and good Forms or Ideas are prior to the copies, the sensible things, and they are something like primogenitors or starting points [2] of all the changes in the world of flux. This view is used for evaluating the general trend and main direction of all changes in the world of sensible things. For if the starting point of all change is perfect and good, then change can only be a movement that leads away from the perfect and good; it must be directed towards the imperfect and the evil, towards corruption.

This theory can be developed in detail. The more closely a sensible thing resembles its Form or Idea, the less corruptible it must be, since the Forms themselves are incorruptible. But sensible or generated things are not perfect copies; indeed, no copy can be perfect, since it is only an imitation of the true reality, only appearance and illusion, not the truth. Accordingly, no sensible things (except perhaps the most excellent ones) resemble their Forms sufficiently closely to be unchangeable. 'Absolute and eternal immutability is assigned only to the most divine of all things, and bodies do not belong to this order' [3], says Plato. A sensible or generated thing — such as a physical body, or a human soul — if it is a good copy, may change only very little at first; and the most ancient change or motion — the motion of the soul — is still 'divine' (as opposed to secondary and tertiary changes). But every change, however small, must make it different, and thus less perfect, by reducing its resemblance to its Form. In this way, the thing becomes more changeable with every change, and more corruptible, since it becomes further removed from its Form which is its 'cause of immobility and of being at rest', as Aristotle says, who paraphrases Plato's doctrine as follows: 'Things are generated by participating in the Form, and they decay by losing the Form.' This process of degeneration, slow at first and more rapid afterwards — this law of decline and fall — is dramatically described by Plato in the Laws, the last of his great dialogues. The passage deals primarily with the destiny of the human soul, but Plato makes it clear that it holds for all things that 'share in soul', by which he means all living things. 'All things that share in soul change', he writes, '... and while they change, they are carried along by the order and law of destiny. The smaller the change in their character, the less significant is the beginning decline in their level of rank. But when the change increases, and with it the iniquity, then they fall — down into the abyss and what is known as the infernal regions.' (In the continuation of the passage, Plato mentions the possibility that 'soul gifted with an exceptionally large share of virtue can, by force of its own will if it is in communion with the divine virtue, become supremely virtuous and move to an exalted region'. The problem of the exceptional soul which can save itself — and perhaps others — from the general law of destiny will be discussed in chapter 8.) Earlier in the Laws, Plato summarizes his doctrine of change: 'Any change whatever, except the change of an evil thing, is the gravest of all the treacherous dangers that can befall a thing — whether it is now a change of season, or of wind, or of the diet of the body, or of the character of the soul.' And he adds, for the sake of emphasis: 'This statement applies to everything, with the sole exception, as I said just now, of something evil.' In brief, Plato teaches that change is evil, and that rest is divine. We see now that Plato's theory of Forms or Ideas implies a certain trend in the development of the world in flux. It leads to the law that the corruptibility of all things in that world must continually increase. It is not so much a rigid law of universally increasing corruption, but rather a law of increasing corruptibility; that is to say, the danger or the likelihood of corruption increases, but exceptional developments in the other direction are not excluded. Thus it is possible, as the last quotations indicate, that a very good soul may defy change and decay, and that a very evil thing, for instance a very evil city, may be improved by changing it. (In order that such an improvement should be of any value, we would have to try to make it permanent, i.e. to arrest all further change.)

In full accordance with this general theory is Plato's story, in the Timaeus, of the origin of species. According to this story, man, the highest of animals, is generated by the gods; the other species originate from him by a process of corruption and degeneration. First, certain men — the cowards and villains — degenerate into women. Those who are lacking wisdom degenerate step by step into the lower animals. Birds, we hear, came into being through the transformation of harmless but too easy-going people who would trust their senses too much; 'land animals came from men who had no interest in philosophy' ; and fishes, including shell-fish, 'degenerated from the most foolish, stupid, and ... unworthy' of all men [4].

It is clear that this theory can be applied to human society, and to its history. It then explains Hesiod's [5] pessimistic law of development, the law of historical decay. If we are to believe Aristotle's report (outlined in the last chapter), then the theory of Forms or Ideas was originally introduced in order to meet a methodological demand, the demand for pure or rational knowledge which is impossible in the case of sensible things in flux. We now see that the theory does more than that. Over and above meeting these methodological demands, it provides a theory of change. It explains the general direction of the flux of all sensible things, and thereby the historical tendency to degenerate shown by man and human society. (And it does still more; as we shall see in chapter 6, the theory of Forms determines the trend of Plato's political demands also, and even the means for their realization.) If, as I believe, the philosophies of Plato as well as Heraclitus sprang from their social experience, especially from the experience of class war and from the abject feeling that their social world was going to pieces, then we can understand why the theory of Forms came to play such an important part in Plato's philosophy when he found that it was capable of explaining the trend towards degeneration. He must have welcomed it as the solution of a most mystifying riddle. While Heraclitus had been unable to pass a direct ethical condemnation upon the trend of the political development, Plato found, in his theory of Forms, the theoretical basis for a pessimistic judgement in Hesiod's vein.

But Plato's greatness as a sociologist does not lie in his general and abstract speculations about the law of social decay. It lies rather in the wealth and detail of his observations, and in the amazing acuteness of his sociological intuition. He saw things which had not been seen before him, and which were rediscovered only in our own time. As an example I may mention his theory of the primitive beginnings of society, of tribal patriarchy, and, in general, his attempt to outline the typical periods in the development of social life. Another example is Plato's sociological and economic historicism, his emphasis upon the economic background of the political life and the historical development; a theory revived by Marx under the name 'historical materialism'. A third example is Plato's most interesting law of political revolutions, according to which all revolutions presuppose a disunited ruling class (or 'elite'); a law which forms the basis of his analysis of the means of arresting political change and creating a social equilibrium, and which has been recently rediscovered by the theoreticians of totalitarianism, especially by Pareto.

I shall now proceed to a more detailed discussion of these points, especially the third, the theory of revolution and of equilibrium.


The dialogues in which Plato discusses these questions are, in chronological order, the Republic, a dialogue of much later date called the Statesman (or the Politicus), and the Laws, the latest and longest of his works. In spite of certain minor differences, there is much agreement between these dialogues, which are in some respects parallel, in others complementary, to one another. The Laws [6], for instance, present the story of the decline and fall of human society as an account of Greek prehistory merging without any break into history; while the parallel passages of the Republic give, in a more abstract way, a systematic outline of the development of government; the Statesman, still more abstract, gives a logical classification of types of government, with only a few allusions to historical events. Similarly, the Laws formulate the historicist aspect of the investigation very clearly. 'What is the archetype or origin of a state?' asks Plato there, linking this question with the other: 'Is not the best method of looking for an answer to this question that of contemplating the growth of states as they change either towards the good or towards the evil?' But within the sociological doctrines, the only major difference appears to be due to a purely speculative difficulty which seems to have worried Plato. Assuming as the starting point of the development a perfect and therefore incorruptible state, he found it difficult to explain the first change, the Fall of Man, as it were, which sets everything going [7]. We shall hear, in the next chapter, of Plato's attempt to solve this problem; but first I shall give a general survey of his theory of social development.

According to the Republic, the original or primitive form of society, and at the same time, the one that resembles the Form or Idea of a state most closely, the 'best state', is a kingship of the wisest and most godlike of men. This ideal city-state is so near perfection that it is hard to understand how it can ever change. Still, a change does take place; and with it enters Heraclitus' strife, the driving force of all movement. According to Plato, internal strife, class war, fomented by self-interest and especially material or economic self-interest, is the main force of 'social dynamics'. The Marxian formula 'The history of all hitherto existing societies is a history of class struggle' [8] fits Plato's historicism nearly as well as that of Marx. The four most conspicuous periods or 'landmarks in the history of political degeneration', and, at the same time, 'the most important ... varieties of existing states' [9], are described by Plato in the following order. First after the perfect state comes 'timarchy' or 'timocracy', the rule of the noble who seek honour and fame; secondly, oligarchy, the rule of the rich families; 'next in order, democracy is born', the rule of liberty which means lawlessness; and last comes 'tyranny . . . the fourth and final sickness of the city' [10].

As can be seen from the last remark, Plato looks upon history, which to him is a history of social decay, as if it were the history of an illness: the patient is society; and, as we shall see later, the statesman ought to be a physician (and vice versa) — a healer, a saviour. Just as the description of the typical course of an illness is not always applicable to every individual patient, so is Plato's historical theory of social decay not intended to apply to the development of every individual city. But it is intended to describe both the original course of development by which the main forms of constitutional decay were first generated, and the typical course of social change [11]. We see that Plato aimed at setting out a system of historical periods, governed by a law of evolution; in other words, he aimed at a historicist theory of society. This attempt was revived by Rousseau, and was made fashionable by Comte and Mill, and by Hegel and Marx; but considering the historical evidence then available, Plato's system of historical periods was just as good as that of any of these modern historicists. (The main difference lies in the evaluation of the course taken by history. While the aristocrat Plato condemned the development he described, these modern authors applauded it, believing as they did in a law of historical progress.)

Before discussing Plato's perfect state in any detail, I shall give a brief sketch of his analysis of the role played by economic motives and the class struggle in the process of transition between the four decaying forms of the state. The first form into which the perfect state degenerates, timocracy, the rule of the ambitious noblemen, is said to be in nearly all respects similar to the perfect state itself. It is important to note that Plato explicitly identified this best and oldest among the existing states with the Dorian constitution of Sparta and Crete, and that these two tribal aristocracies did in fact represent the oldest existing forms of political life within Greece. Most of Plato's excellent description of their institutions is given in certain parts of his description of the best or perfect state, to which timocracy is so similar. (Through his doctrine of the similarity between Sparta and the perfect state, Plato became one of the most successful propagators of what I should like to call 'the Great Myth of Sparta' — the perennial and influential myth of the supremacy of the Spartan constitution and way of life.)

The main difference between the best or ideal state and timocracy is that the latter contains an element of instability; the once united patriarchal ruling class is now disunited, and it is this disunity which leads to the next step, to its degeneration into oligarchy. Disunion is brought about by ambition. 'First', says Plato, speaking of the young timocrat, 'he hears his mother complaining that her husband is not one of the rulers.' [12] Thus he becomes ambitious and longs for distinction. But decisive in bringing about the next change are competitive and acquisitive social tendencies. 'We must describe', says Plato, 'how timocracy changes into oligarchy . . . Even a blind man must see how it changes ... It is the treasure house that ruins this constitution. They' (the timocrats) 'begin by creating opportunities for showing off and spending money, and to this end they twist the laws, and they and their wives disobey them and they try to outrival one another.' In this way arises the first class conflict: that between virtue and money, or between the old-established ways of feudal simplicity and the new ways of wealth. The transition to oligarchy is completed when the rich establish a law that 'disqualifies from public office all those whose means do not reach the stipulated amount. This change is imposed by force of arms, should threats and blackmail not succeed . . . '

With the establishment of the oligarchy, a state of potential civil war between the oligarchs and the poorer classes is reached: 'just as a sick body ... is sometimes at strife with itself . . ., so is this sick city. It falls ill and makes war on itself on the slightest pretext, whenever the one party or the other manages to obtain help from outside, the one from an oligarchic city, or the other from a democracy. And does not this sick state break out at times into civil war, even without any such help from outside?' [13] This civil war begets democracy: 'Democracy is born ... when the poor win the day, killing some . . ., banishing others, and sharing with the rest the rights of citizenship and of public offices, on terms of equality . . . '

Plato's description of democracy is a vivid but intensely hostile and unjust parody of the political life of Athens, and of the democratic creed which Pericles had formulated in a manner which has never been surpassed, about three years before Plato was born. (Pericles' programme is discussed in chapter 10, below [14].) Plato's description is a brilliant piece of political propaganda, and we can appreciate what harm it must have done if we consider, for instance, that a man like Adam, an excellent scholar and editor of the Republic, is unable to resist the rhetoric of Plato's denunciation of his native city. 'Plato's description of the genesis of the democratic man', Adam [15] writes, 'is one of the most royal and magnificent pieces of writing in the whole range of literature, whether ancient or modern.' And when the same writer continues: 'the description of the democratic man as the chameleon of the human society paints him for all time,' then we see that Plato has succeeded at least in turning this thinker against democracy, and we may wonder how much damage his poisonous writing has done when presented, unopposed, to lesser minds.

It seems that often when Plato's style, to use a phrase of Adam's [16], becomes a 'full tide of lofty thoughts and images and words', he is in urgent need of a cloak to cover up the rags and tatters of his argumentation, or even, as in the present case, the complete absence of rational arguments. In their stead he uses invective, identifying liberty with lawlessness, freedom with licence, and equality before the law with disorder. Democrats are described as profligate and niggardly, as insolent, lawless, and shameless, as fierce and as terrible beasts of prey, as gratifying every whim, as living solely for pleasure, and for unnecessary and unclean desires. ('They fill their bellies like the beasts', was Heraclitus' way of putting it.) They are accused of calling 'reverence a folly; temperance they call cowardice; moderation and orderly expenditure they call meanness and boorishness'— [17], etc. '
And there are more trifles of this kind', says Plato, when the flood of his rhetorical abuse begins to abate, 'the schoolmaster fears and flatters his pupils and old men condescend to the young ... in order to avoid the appearance of being sour and despotic.' (It is Plato the Master of the Academy who puts this into the mouth of Socrates, forgetting that the latter had never been a schoolmaster, and that even as an old man he had never appeared to be sour or despotic. He had always loved, not to 'condescend' to the young, but to treat them, for instance the young Plato, as his companions and friends. Plato himself, we have reason to believe, was less ready to 'condescend', and to discuss matters with his pupils.) 'But the height of all this abundance of freedom ... is reached', Plato continues, 'when slaves, male as well as female, who have been bought on the market, are every whit as free as those whose property they are . . . And what is the cumulative effect of all this? That the citizens' hearts become so very tender that they get irritated at the mere sight of anything like slavery and do not suffer anybody to submit to its presence ... so that they may have no master over them.' Here, after all, Plato pays homage to his native city, even though he does it unwittingly. It will forever remain one of the greatest triumphs of Athenian democracy that it treated slaves humanely, and that in spite of the inhuman propaganda of philosophers like Plato himself and Aristotle it came, as he witnesses, very close to abolishing slavery. [18]

Of much greater merit, although it too is inspired by hatred, is Plato's description of tyranny and especially of the transition to it. He insists that he describes things which he has seen himself [19]; no doubt, the allusion is to his experiences at the court of the older Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse. The transition from democracy to tyranny, Plato says, is most easily brought about by a popular leader who knows how to exploit the class antagonism between the rich and the poor within the democratic state, and who succeeds in building up a bodyguard or a private army of his own. The people who have hailed him first as the champion of freedom are soon enslaved; and then they must fight for him, in 'one war after another which he must stir up . . . because he must make the people feel the need of a general' [20]. With tyranny, the most abject state is reached.

A very similar survey of the various forms of government can be found in the Statesman, where Plato discusses 'the origin of the tyrant and king, of oligarchies and aristocracies, and of democracies' [21]. Again we find that the various forms of existing governments are explained as debased copies of the true model or Form of the state, of the perfect state, the standard of all imitations, which is said to have existed in the ancient times of Cronos, father of Zeus. One difference is that Plato here distinguishes six types of debased states; but this difference is unimportant, especially if we remember that Plato says in the Republic [22] that the four types discussed are not exhaustive, and that there are some intermediate stages. The six types are arrived at, in the Statesman, by first distinguishing between three forms of government, the rule of one man, of a few, and of the many. Each of these is then subdivided into two types, of which one is comparatively good and the other bad, according to whether or not they imitate 'the only true original' by copying and preserving its ancient laws [23]. In this way, three conservative or lawful and three utterly depraved or lawless forms are distinguished; monarchy, aristocracy, and a conservative form of democracy are the lawful imitations, in order of merit. But democracy changes into its lawless form, and deteriorates further, through oligarchy, the lawless rule of the few, into a lawless rule of the one, tyranny, which, just as Plato has said in the Republic, is the worst of all.

That tyranny, the most evil state, need not be the end of the development is indicated in a passage in the Laws which partly repeats, and partly [24] connects with, the story of the Statesman. 'Give me a state governed by a young tyrant', exclaims Plato there, '... who has the good fortune to be the contemporary of a great legislator, and to meet him by some happy accident. What more could a god do for a city which he wants to make happy?' Tyranny, the most evil state, may be reformed in this way. (This agrees with the remark in the Laws, quoted above, that all change is evil, 'except the change of an evil thing'. There is little doubt that Plato, when speaking of the great lawgiver and the young tyrant, must have been thinking of himself and his various experiments with young tyrants, and especially of his attempts at reforming the younger Dionysius' tyranny over Syracuse. These ill-fated experiments will be discussed later.)

One of the main objects of Plato's analysis of political developments is to ascertain the driving force of all historical change. In the Laws, the historical survey is explicitly undertaken with this aim in view: 'Have not uncounted thousands of cities been born during this time . . . and has not each of them been under all kinds of government? . . . Let us, if we can, get hold of the cause of so much change. I hope that we may thus reveal the secret both of the birth of constitutions, and also of their changes.' [25] As the result of these investigations he discovers the sociological law that internal disunion, class war fomented by the antagonism of economic class interests, is the driving force of all political revolutions. But Plato's formulation of this fundamental law goes even further. He insists that only internal sedition within the ruling class itself can weaken it so much that its rule can be overthrown. 'Changes in any constitution originate, without exception, within the ruling class itself, and only when this class becomes the seat of disunion' [26], is his formula in the Republic, and in the Laws he says (possibly referring to this passage of the Republic): 'How can a kingship, or any other form of government, ever be destroyed by anybody but the rulers themselves? Have we forgotten what we said a while ago, when dealing with this subject, as we did the other day?' This sociological law, together with the observation that economic interests are the most likely causes of disunion, is Plato's clue to history. But it is more. It is also the clue to his analysis of the conditions necessary for the establishment of political equilibrium, i.e. for arresting political change. He assumes that these conditions were realized in the best or perfect state of ancient times. III Plato's description of the perfect or best state has usually been interpreted as the Utopian programme of a progressivist. In spite of his repeated assertions, in the Republic, Timaeus, and Critias, that he is describing the distant past, and in spite of the parallel passages in the Laws whose historical intention is manifest, it is often assumed that it was his intention to give a veiled description of the future. But I think that Plato meant what he said, and that many characteristics of his best state, especially as described in Books Two to Four of the Republic, are intended (like his accounts of primitive society in the Statesman and the Laws) to be historical [27], or perhaps prehistorical. This may not apply to all characteristics of the best state. Concerning, for example, the kingship of the philosophers (described in Books Five to Seven of the Republic), Plato indicates himself that it may be a characteristic only of the timeless world of Forms or Ideas, of the 'City in Heaven'. These intentionally unhistorical elements of his description will be discussed later, together with Plato's ethico-political demands. It must, of course, be admitted that he did not intend, in his description of the primitive or ancient constitutions, to give an exact historical account; he certainly knew that he did not possess the necessary data for achieving anything like that. I believe, however, that he made a serious attempt to reconstruct the ancient tribal forms of social life as well as he could. There is no reason to doubt this, especially since the attempt was, in a good number of its details, very successful. It could hardly be otherwise, since Plato arrived at his picture by an idealized description of the ancient tribal aristocracies of Crete and Sparta. With his acute sociological intuition he had seen that these forms were not only old, but petrified, arrested; that they were relics of a still older form. And he concluded that this still older form had been even more stable, more securely arrested. This very ancient and accordingly very good and very stable state he tried to reconstruct in such a way as to make clear how it had been kept free from disunion; how class war had been avoided, and how the influence of economic interests had been reduced to a minimum, and kept well under control. These are the main problems of Plato's reconstruction of the best state.

How does Plato solve the problem of avoiding class war? Had he been a progressivist, he might have hit on the idea of a classless, equalitarian society; for, as we can see for instance from his own parody of Athenian democracy, there were strong equalitarian tendencies at work in Athens. But he was not out to construct a state that might come, but a state that had been — the father of the Spartan state, which was certainly not a classless society. It was a slave state, and accordingly Plato's best state is based on the most rigid class distinctions. It is a caste state. The problem of avoiding class war is solved, not by abolishing classes, but by giving the ruling class a superiority which cannot be challenged. As in Sparta, the ruling class alone is permitted to carry arms, it alone has any political or other rights, and it alone receives education, i.e. a specialized training in the art of keeping down its human sheep or its human cattle.
(In fact, its overwhelming superiority disturbs Plato a little; he fears that its members 'may worry the sheep', instead of merely shearing them, and 'act as wolves rather than dogs' [28]. This problem is considered later in the chapter.) As long as the ruling class is united, there can be no challenge to their authority, and consequently no class war.

Plato distinguishes three classes in his best state, the guardians, their armed auxiliaries or warriors, and the working class. But actually there are only two castes, the military caste — the armed and educated rulers — and the unarmed and uneducated ruled, the human sheep; for the guardians are no separate caste, but merely old and wise warriors who have been promoted from the ranks of the auxiliaries. That Plato divides his ruling caste into two classes, the guardians and the auxiliaries, without elaborating similar subdivisions within the working class, is largely due to the fact that he is interested only in the rulers. The workers, tradesmen, etc., do not interest him at all, they are only human cattle whose sole function is to provide for the material needs of the ruling class. Plato even goes so far as to forbid his rulers to legislate for people of this class, and for their petty problems. [29] This is why our information about the lower classes is so scanty. But Plato's silence is not wholly uninterrupted. 'Are there not drudges', he asks once, 'who do not possess a spark of intelligence and are unworthy to be admitted into the community, but who have strong bodies for hard labour?' Since this nasty remark has given rise to the soothing comment that Plato does not admit slaves into his city, I may here point out that this view is mistaken. It is true that Plato discusses nowhere explicitly the status of slaves in his best state, and it is even true that he says that the name 'slave' should better be avoided, and that we should call the workers 'supporters' or even 'employers'. But this is done for propagandist reasons. Nowhere is the slightest suggestion to be found that the institution of slavery is to be abolished, or to be mitigated. On the contrary, Plato has only scorn for those 'tenderhearted' Athenian democrats who supported the abolitionist movement. And he makes his view quite clear, for example, in his description of timocracy, the second-best state, and the one directly following the best. There he says of the timocratic man: 'He will be inclined to treat slaves cruelly, for he does not despise them as much as a well-educated man would.' But since only in the best city can education be found which is superior to that of timocracy, we are bound to conclude that there are slaves in Plato's best city, and that they are not treated with cruelty, but are properly despised. In his righteous contempt for them, Plato does not elaborate the point. This conclusion is fully corroborated by the fact that a passage in the Republic which criticizes the current practice of Greeks enslaving Greeks ends up with the explicit endorsement of the enslaving of barbarians, and even with a recommendation to 'our citizens' — i.e. those of the best city — to 'do unto barbarians as Greeks now do unto Greeks'. And it is further corroborated by the contents of the Laws, and the most inhuman attitude towards slaves adopted there.

Since the ruling class alone has political power, including the power of keeping the number of the human cattle within such limits as to prevent them from becoming a danger, the whole problem of preserving the state is reduced to that of preserving the internal unity of the master class. How is this unity of the rulers preserved? By training and other psychological influences, but otherwise mainly by the elimination of economic interests which may lead to disunion. This economic abstinence is achieved and controlled by the introduction of communism, i.e. by the abolition of private property, especially of precious metals. (The possession of precious metals was forbidden in Sparta.) This communism is confined to the ruling class, which alone must be kept free from disunion; quarrels among the ruled are not worthy of consideration. Since all property is common property, there must also be a common ownership of women and children. No member of the ruling class must be able to identify his children, or his parents. The family must be destroyed, or rather, extended to cover the whole warrior class. Family loyalties might otherwise become a possible source of disunion; therefore 'each should look upon all as if belonging to one family' [30]. (This suggestion was neither so novel nor so revolutionary as it sounds; we must remember such Spartan restrictions on the privacy of family life as the ban on private meals, constantly referred to by Plato as the institution of 'common meals'.) But even the common ownership of women and children is not quite sufficient to guard the ruling class from all economic dangers. It is important to avoid prosperity as well as poverty. Both are dangers to unity: poverty, because it drives people to adopt desperate means to satisfy their needs; prosperity, because most change arises from abundance, from an accumulation of wealth which makes dangerous experiments possible. Only a communist system which has room neither for great want nor for great wealth can reduce economic interests to a minimum, and guarantee the unity of the ruling class.

I should like to ask you a question.

What is it?

Would you say that all men are equal in excellence, or is one man better than another?

The latter.

And in the commonwealth which we were founding do you conceive the guardians who have been brought up on our model system to be more perfect men, or the cobblers whose education has been cobbling?

What a ridiculous question!

You have answered me, I replied: Well, and may we not further say that our guardians are the best of our citizens?

By far the best.

And will not their wives be the best women?

Yes, by far the best.

And can there be anything better for the interests of the State than that the men and women of a State should be as good as possible?

There can be nothing better.  

And this is what the arts of music and gymnastic, when present in such manner as we have described, will accomplish?


Then we have made an enactment not only possible but in the highest degree beneficial to the State?


Then let the wives of our guardians strip, for their virtue will be their robe, and let them share in the toils of war and the defence of their country; only in the distribution of labours the lighter are to be assigned to the women, who are the weaker natures, but in other respects their duties are to be the same. And as for the man who laughs at naked women exercising their bodies from the best of motives, in his laughter he is plucking

A fruit of unripe wisdom,

and he himself is ignorant of what he is laughing at, or what he is about; — for that is, and ever will be, the best of sayings,

That the useful is the noble and the hurtful is the base.

Very true.  

Here, then, is one difficulty in our law about women, which we may say that we have now escaped; the wave has not swallowed us up alive for enacting that the guardians of either sex should have all their pursuits in common; to the utility and also to the possibility of this arrangement the consistency of the argument with itself bears witness.

Yes, that was a mighty wave which you have escaped.

Yes, I said, but a greater is coming; you will of this when you see the next.

Go on; let me see.

The law, I said, which is the sequel of this and of all that has preceded, is to the following effect, — "that the wives of our guardians are to be common, and their children are to be common, and no parent is to know his own child, nor any child his parent."

Yes, he said, that is a much greater wave than the other; and the possibility as well as the utility of such a law are far more questionable.

I do not think, I said, that there can be any dispute about the very great utility of having wives and children in common; the possibility is quite another matter, and will be very much disputed.

I think that a good many doubts may be raised about both.

You imply that the two questions must be combined, I replied. Now I meant that you should admit the utility; and in this way, as I thought; I should escape from one of them, and then there would remain only the possibility.

But that little attempt is detected, and therefore you will please to give a defence of both.

Well, I said, I submit to my fate. Yet grant me a little favour: let me feast my mind with the dream as day dreamers are in the habit of feasting themselves when they are walking alone; for before they have discovered any means of effecting their wishes — that is a matter which never troubles them — they would rather not tire themselves by thinking about possibilities; but assuming that what they desire is already granted to them, they proceed with their plan, and delight in detailing what they mean to do when their wish has come true — that is a way which they have of not doing much good to a capacity which was never good for much. Now I myself am beginning to lose heart, and I should like, with your permission, to pass over the question of possibility at present. Assuming therefore the possibility of the proposal, I shall now proceed to enquire how the rulers will carry out these arrangements, and I shall demonstrate that our plan, if executed, will be of the greatest benefit to the State and to the guardians. First of all, then, if you have no objection, I will endeavour with your help to consider the advantages of the measure; and hereafter the question of possibility.

I have no objection; proceed.

First, I think that if our rulers and their auxiliaries are to be worthy of the name which they bear, there must be willingness to obey in the one and the power of command in the other; the guardians must themselves obey the laws, and they must also imitate the spirit of them in any details which are entrusted to their care.

That is right, he said.

You, I said, who are their legislator, having selected the men, will now select the women and give them to them; — they must be as far as possible of like natures with them; and they must live in common houses and meet at common meals, None of them will have anything specially his or her own; they will be together, and will be brought up together, and will associate at gymnastic exercises. And so they will be drawn by a necessity of their natures to have intercourse with each other — necessity is not too strong a word, I think?

Yes, he said; — necessity, not geometrical, but another sort of necessity which lovers know, and which is far more convincing and constraining to the mass of mankind.

True, I said; and this, Glaucon, like all the rest, must proceed after an orderly fashion; in a city of the blessed, licentiousness is an unholy thing which the rulers will forbid.

Yes, he said, and it ought not to be permitted.

Then clearly the next thing will be to make matrimony sacred in the highest degree, and what is most beneficial will be deemed sacred?  


And how can marriages be made most beneficial? — that is a question which I put to you, because I see in your house dogs for hunting, and of the nobler sort of birds not a few. Now, I beseech you, do tell me, have you ever attended to their pairing and breeding?

In what particulars?

Why, in the first place, although they are all of a good sort, are not some better than others?


And do you breed from them all indifferently, or do you take care to breed from the best only?

From the best.

And do you take the oldest or the youngest, or only those of ripe age?

I choose only those of ripe age.

And if care was not taken in the breeding, your dogs and birds would greatly deteriorate?


And the same of horses and animals in general?


Good heavens! my dear friend, I said, what consummate skill will our rulers need if the same principle holds of the human species!

Certainly, the same principle holds; but why does this involve any particular skill?

Because, I said, our rulers will often have to practise upon the body corporate with medicines. Now you know that when patients do not require medicines, but have only to be put under a regimen, the inferior sort of practitioner is deemed to be good enough; but when medicine has to be given, then the doctor should be more of a man.

That is quite true, he said; but to what are you alluding?  

I mean, I replied, that our rulers will find a considerable dose of falsehood and deceit necessary for the good of their subjects: we were saying that the use of all these things regarded as medicines might be of advantage.

And we were very right.

And this lawful use of them seems likely to be often needed in the regulations of marriages and births.

How so?

Why, I said, the principle has been already laid down that the best of either sex should be united with the best as often, and the inferior with the inferior, as seldom as possible; and that they should rear the offspring of the one sort of union, but not of the other, if the flock is to be maintained in first-rate condition. Now these goings on must be a secret which the rulers only know, or there will be a further danger of our herd, as the guardians may be termed, breaking out into rebellion.

Very true.

Had we not better appoint certain festivals at which we will bring together the brides and bridegrooms, and sacrifices will be offered and suitable hymeneal songs composed by our poets: the number of weddings is a matter which must be left to the discretion of the rulers, whose aim will be to preserve the average of population? There are many other things which they will have to consider, such as the effects of wars and diseases and any similar agencies, in order as far as this is possible to prevent the State from becoming either too large or too small.

Certainly, he replied.  

We shall have to invent some ingenious kind of lots which the less worthy may draw on each occasion of our bringing them together, and then they will accuse their own ill-luck and not the rulers.

To be sure, he said.

And I think that our braver and better youth, besides their other honours and rewards, might have greater facilities of intercourse with women given them; their bravery will be a reason, and such fathers ought to have as many sons as possible.


And the proper officers, whether male or female or both, for offices are to be held by women as well as by men —

Yes —

The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and there they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter; but the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be.

Yes, he said, that must be done if the breed of the guardians is to be kept pure.

They will provide for their nurture, and will bring the mothers to the fold when they are full of milk, taking the greatest possible care that no mother recognizes her own child; and other wet-nurses may be engaged if more are required. Care will also be taken that the process of suckling shall not be protracted too long; and the mothers will have no getting up at night or other trouble, but will hand over all this sort of thing to the nurses and attendants.

You suppose the wives of our guardians to have a fine easy time of it when they are having children.

Why, said I, and so they ought. Let us, however, proceed with our scheme. We were saying that the parents should be in the prime of life?

Very true.

And what is the prime of life? May it not be defined as a period of about twenty years in a woman's life, and thirty in a man's?

Which years do you mean to include?

A woman, I said, at twenty years of age may begin to bear children to the State, and continue to bear them until forty; a man may begin at five-and-twenty, when he has passed the point at which the pulse of life beats quickest, and continue to beget children until he be fifty-five.

Certainly, he said, both in men and women those years are the prime of physical as well as of intellectual vigour.

Any one above or below the prescribed ages who takes part in the public hymeneals shall be said to have done an unholy and unrighteous thing; the child of which he is the father, if it steals into life, will have been conceived under auspices very unlike the sacrifices and prayers, which at each hymeneal priestesses and priest and the whole city will offer, that the new generation may be better and more useful than their good and useful parents, whereas his child will be the offspring of darkness and strange lust.

Very true, he replied.

And the same law will apply to any one of those within the prescribed age who forms a connection with any woman in the prime of life without the sanction of the rulers; for we shall say that he is raising up a bastard to the State, uncertified and unconsecrated.

Very true, he replied.

This applies, however, only to those who are within the specified age: after that we allow them to range at will, except that a man may not marry his daughter or his daughter's daughter, or his mother or his mother's mother; and women, on the other hand, are prohibited from marrying their sons or fathers, or son's son or father's father, and so on in either direction. And we grant all this, accompanying the permission with strict orders to prevent any embryo which may come into being from seeing the light; and if any force a way to the birth, the parents must understand that the offspring of such an union cannot be maintained, and arrange accordingly.

That also, he said, is a reasonable proposition. But how will they know who are fathers and daughters, and so on?

They will never know. The way will be this: — dating from the day of the hymeneal, the bridegroom who was then married will call all the male children who are born in the seventh and tenth month afterwards his sons, and the female children his daughters, and they will call him father, and he will call their children his grandchildren, and they will call the elder generation grandfathers and grandmothers. All who were begotten at the time when their fathers and mothers came together will be called their brothers and sisters, and these, as I was saying, will be forbidden to inter-marry. This, however, is not to be understood as an absolute prohibition of the marriage of brothers and sisters; if the lot favours them, and they receive the sanction of the Pythian oracle, the law will allow them.

Quite right, he replied.

Such is the scheme, Glaucon, according to which the guardians of our State are to have their wives and families in common.

-- "The Republic," by Plato

The communism of the ruling caste of his best city can thus be derived from Plato's fundamental sociological law of change; it is a necessary condition of the political stability which is its fundamental characteristic. But although an important condition, it is not a sufficient one. In order that the ruling class may feel really united, that it should feel like one tribe, i.e. like one big family, pressure from without the class is as necessary as are the ties between the members of the class. This pressure can be secured by emphasizing and widening the gulf between the rulers and the ruled. The stronger the feeling that the ruled are a different and an altogether inferior race, the stronger will be the sense of unity among the rulers. We arrive in this way at the fundamental principle, announced only after some hesitation, that there must be no mingling between the classes [31]: 'Any meddling or changing over from one class to another', says Plato, 'is a great crime against the city and may rightly be denounced as the basest wickedness.' But such a rigid division of the classes must be justified, and an attempt to justify it can only proceed from the claim that the rulers are superior to the ruled. Accordingly, Plato tries to justify his class division by the threefold claim that the rulers are vastly superior in three respects — in race, in education, and in their scale of values. Plato's moral valuations, which are, of course, identical with those of the rulers of his best state, will be discussed in chapters 6 to 8; I may therefore confine myself here to describing some of his ideas concerning the origin, the breeding, and the education of his ruling class. (Before proceeding to this description, I wish to express my belief that personal superiority, whether racial or intellectual or moral or educational, can never establish a claim to political prerogatives, even if such superiority could be ascertained. Most people in civilized countries nowadays admit racial superiority to be a myth; but even if it were an established fact, it should not create special political rights, though it might create special moral responsibilities for the superior persons. Analogous demands should be made of those who are intellectually and morally and educationally superior; and I cannot help feeling that the opposite claims of certain intellectualists and moralists only show how little successful their education has been, since it failed to make them aware of their own limitations, and of their Pharisaism.)
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Re: The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl R. Popper

Postby admin » Sat Oct 27, 2018 10:46 pm

Part 2 of 2


If we want to understand Plato's views about the origin, breeding, and education of his ruling class, we must not lose sight of the two main points of our analysis. We must keep in mind, first of all, that Plato is reconstructing a city of the past, although one connected with the present in such a way that certain of its features are still discernible in existing states, for instance, in Sparta; and secondly, that he is reconstructing his city with a view to the conditions of its stability, and that he seeks the guarantees for this stability solely within the ruling class itself, and more especially, in its unity and strength.

Regarding the origin of the ruling class, it may be mentioned that Plato speaks in the Statesman of a time, prior even to that of his best state, when 'God himself was the shepherd of men, ruling over them exactly as man ... still rules over the beasts. There was ... no ownership of women and children' [32]. This is not merely the simile of the good shepherd; in the light of what Plato says in the Laws, it must be interpreted more literally than that. For there we are told that this primitive society, which is prior even to the first and best city, is one of nomad hill shepherds under a patriarch: 'Government originated', says Plato there of the period prior to the first settlement, '... as the rule of the eldest who inherited his authority from his father or mother; all the others followed him like a flock of birds, thus forming one single horde ruled by that patriarchal authority and kingship which of all kingships is the most just.' These nomad tribes, we hear, settled in the cities of the Peloponnese, especially in Sparta, under the name of 'Dorians'. How this happened is not very clearly explained, but we understand Plato's reluctance when we get a hint that the 'settlement' was in fact a violent subjugation. This, for all we know, is the true story of the Dorian settlement in the Peloponnese. We therefore have every reason to believe that Plato intended his story as a serious description of prehistoric events; as a description not only of the origin of the Dorian master race but also of the origin of their human cattle, i.e. the original inhabitants. In a parallel passage in the Republic, Plato gives us a mythological yet very pointed description of the conquest itself, when dealing with the origin of the 'earthborn', the ruling class of the best city. (The Myth of the Earthborn will be discussed from a different point of view in chapter 8.) Their victorious march into the city, previously founded by the tradesmen and workers, is described as follows: 'After having armed and trained the earthborn, let us now make them advance, under the command of the guardians, till they arrive in the city. Then let them look round to find out the best place for their camp — the spot that is most suitable for keeping down the inhabitants, should anyone show unwillingness to obey the law, and for holding back external enemies who may come down like wolves on the fold.' This short but triumphant tale of the subjugation of a sedentary population by a conquering war horde (who are identified, in the Statesman, with the nomad hill shepherds of the period before the settlement) must be kept in mind when we interpret Plato's reiterated insistence that good rulers, whether gods or demigods or guardians, are patriarchal shepherds of men, and that the true political art, the art of ruling, is a kind of herdsmanship, i.e. the art of managing and keeping down the human cattle. And it is in this light that we must consider his description of the breeding and training of 'the auxiliaries who are subject to the rulers like sheep-dogs to the shepherds of the state'.

The breeding and the education of the auxiliaries and thereby of the ruling class of Plato's best state is, like their carrying of arms, a class symbol and therefore a class prerogative [33]. And breeding and education are not empty symbols but, like arms, instruments of class rule, and necessary for ensuring the stability of this rule. They are treated by Plato solely from this point of view, i.e. as powerful political weapons, as means which are useful for herding the human cattle, and for unifying the ruling class.

To this end, it is important that the master class should feel as one superior master race. 'The race of the guardians must be kept pure' [34], says Plato (in defence of infanticide), when developing the racialist argument that we breed animals with great care while neglecting our own race, an argument which has been repeated ever since. (Infanticide was not an Athenian institution; Plato, seeing that it was practised at Sparta for eugenic reasons, concluded that it must be ancient and therefore good.) He demands that the same principles be applied to the breeding of the master race as are applied, by an experienced breeder, to dogs, horses, or birds. 'If you did not breed them in this way, don't you think that the race of your birds or dogs would quickly degenerate?' Plato argues; and he draws the conclusion that 'the same principles apply to the race of men'. The racial qualities demanded from a guardian or from an auxiliary are, more specifically, those of a sheep-dog. 'Our warrior-athletes ... must be vigilant like watch-dogs', demands Plato, and he asks: 'Surely, there is no difference, so far as their natural fitness for keeping guard is concerned, between a gallant youth and a well-bred dog?' In his enthusiasm and admiration for the dog, Plato goes so far as to discern in him a 'genuine philosophical nature'; for 'is not the love of learning identical with the philosophical attitude?'

The main difficulty which besets Plato is that guardians and auxiliaries must be endowed with a character that is fierce and gentle at the same time. It is clear that they must be bred to be fierce, since they must 'meet any danger in a fearless and unconquerable spirit'. Yet 'if their nature is to be like that, how are they to be kept from being violent against one another, or against the rest of the citizens?' [35] Indeed, it would be 'simply monstrous if the shepherds should keep dogs ... who would worry the sheep, behaving like wolves rather than dogs'. The problem is important from the point of view of the political equilibrium, or rather, of the stability of the state, for Plato does not rely on an equilibrium of the forces of the various classes, since that would be unstable. A control of the master class, its arbitrary powers, and its fierceness, through the opposing force of the ruled, is out of the question, for the superiority of the master class must remain unchallenged. The only admissible control of the master class is therefore self-control. Just as the ruling class must exercise economic abstinence, i.e. refrain from an excessive economic exploitation of the ruled, so it must also be able to refrain from too much fierceness in its dealings with the ruled. But this can only be achieved if the fierceness of its nature is balanced by its gentleness. Plato finds this a very serious problem, since 'the fierce nature is the exact opposite of the gentle nature'. His speaker, Socrates, reports that he is perplexed, until he remembers the dog again. 'Well-bred dogs are by nature most gentle to their friends and acquaintances, but the very opposite to strangers', he says. It is therefore proved 'that the character we try to give our guardians is not contrary to nature'. The aim of breeding the master race is thus established, and shown to be attainable. It has been derived from an analysis of the conditions which are necessary for keeping the state stable.

Plato's educational aim is exactly the same. It is the purely political aim of stabilizing the state by blending a fierce and a gentle element in the character of the rulers. The two disciplines in which children of the Greek upper class were educated, gymnastics and music (the latter, in the wider sense of the word, included all literary studies), are correlated by Plato with the two elements of character, fierceness and gentleness. 'Have you not observed', asks Plato [36], 'how the character is affected by an exclusive training in gymnastics without music, and how it is affected by the opposite training? ... Exclusive preoccupation with gymnastics produces men who are fiercer than they ought to be, while an analogous preoccupation with music makes them too soft . . . But we maintain that our guardians must combine both of these natures ... This is why I say that some god must have given man these two arts, music and gymnastics; and their purpose is not so much to serve soul and body respectively, but rather to tune properly the two main strings', i.e. to bring into harmony the two elements of the soul, gentleness and fierceness. 'These are the outlines of our system of education and training', Plato concludes in his analysis.

In spite of the fact that Plato identifies the gentle element of the soul with her philosophic disposition, and in spite of the fact that philosophy is going to play such a dominant role in the later parts of the Republic, he is not at all biased in favour of the gentle element of the soul, or of musical, i.e. literary, education. The impartiality in balancing the two elements is the more remarkable as it leads him to impose the most severe restrictions on literary education, compared with what was, in his time, customary in Athens. This, of course, is only part of his general tendency to prefer Spartan customs to Athenian ones. (Crete, his other model, was even more anti-musical than Sparta [37].) Plato's political principles of literary education are based upon a simple comparison. Sparta, he saw, treated its human cattle just a little too harshly; this is a symptom or even an admission of a feeling of weakness [38], and therefore a symptom of the incipient degeneration of the master class. Athens, on the other hand, was altogether too liberal and slack in her treatment of slaves. Plato took this as proof that Sparta insisted just a little too much on gymnastics, and Athens, of course, far too much on music. This simple estimate enabled him readily to reconstruct what in his opinion must have been the true measure or the true blend of the two elements in the education of the best state, and to lay down the principles of his educational policy. Judged from the Athenian viewpoint, it is nothing less than the demand that all literary education be strangled [39] by a close adherence to the example of Sparta with its strict state control of all literary matters. Not only poetry but also music in the ordinary sense of the term are to be controlled by a rigid censorship, and both are to be devoted entirely to strengthening the stability of the state by making the young more conscious of class discipline [40], and thus more ready to serve class interests. Plato even forgets that it is the function of music to make the young more gentle, for he demands such forms of music as will make them braver, i.e. fiercer. (Considering that Plato was an Athenian, his arguments concerning music proper appear to me almost incredible in their superstitious intolerance, especially if compared with a more enlightened contemporary criticism [41]. But even now he has many musicians on his side, possibly because they are flattered by his high opinion of the importance of music, i.e. of its political power. The same is true of educationists, and even more of philosophers, since Plato demands that they should rule; a demand which will be discussed in chapter 8.)

The political principle that determines the education of the soul, namely, the preservation of the stability of the state, determines also that of the body. The aim is simply that of Sparta. While the Athenian citizen was educated to a general versatility, Plato demands that the ruling class shall be trained as a class of professional warriors, ready to strike against enemies from without or from within the state. Children of both sexes, we are told twice, 'must be taken on horseback within the sight of actual war; and provided it can be done safely, they must be brought into battle, and made to taste blood; just as one does with young hounds' [42]. The description of a modern writer, who characterizes contemporary totalitarian education as 'an intensified and continual form of mobilization', fits Plato's whole system of education very well indeed.

This is an outline of Plato's theory of the best or most ancient state, of the city which treats its human cattle exactly as a wise but hardened shepherd treats his sheep; not too cruelly, but with the proper contempt ... As an analysis both of Spartan social institutions and of the conditions of their stability and instability, and as an attempt at reconstructing more rigid and primitive forms of tribal life, this description is excellent indeed. (Only the descriptive aspect is dealt with in this chapter. The ethical aspects will be discussed later.) I believe that much in Plato's writings that has been usually considered as mere mythological or Utopian speculation can in this way be interpreted as sociological description and analysis. If we look, for instance, at his myth of the triumphant war hordes subjugating a settled population, then we must admit that from the point of view of descriptive sociology it is most successful. In fact, it could even claim to be an anticipation of an interesting (though possibly too sweeping) modern theory of the origin of the state, according to which centralized and organized political power generally originates in such a conquest [43]. There may be more descriptions of this kind in Plato's writings than we can at present estimate.

It is impossible that such governments as have hitherto existed in the world, could have commenced by any other means than a total violation of every principle sacred and moral. The obscurity in which the origin of all the present old governments is buried, implies the iniquity and disgrace with which they began. The origin of the present government of America and France will ever be remembered, because it is honourable to record it; but with respect to the rest, even Flattery has consigned them to the tomb of time, without an inscription.

It could have been no difficult thing in the early and solitary ages of the world, while the chief employment of men was that of attending flocks and herds, for a banditti of ruffians to overrun a country, and lay it under contributions. Their power being thus established, the chief of the band contrived to lose the name of Robber in that of Monarch; and hence the origin of Monarchy and Kings.

The origin of the Government of England, so far as relates to what is called its line of monarchy, being one of the latest, is perhaps the best recorded. The hatred which the Norman invasion and tyranny begat, must have been deeply rooted in the nation, to have outlived the contrivance to obliterate it. Though not a courtier will talk of the curfew-bell, not a village in England has forgotten it.

Those bands of robbers having parcelled out the world, and divided it into dominions, began, as is naturally the case, to quarrel with each other. What at first was obtained by violence was considered by others as lawful to be taken, and a second plunderer succeeded the first. They alternately invaded the dominions which each had assigned to himself, and the brutality with which they treated each other explains the original character of monarchy. It was ruffian torturing ruffian. The conqueror considered the conquered, not as his prisoner, but his property. He led him in triumph rattling in chains, and doomed him, at pleasure, to slavery or death. As time obliterated the history of their beginning, their successors assumed new appearances, to cut off the entail of their disgrace, but their principles and objects remained the same. What at first was plunder, assumed the softer name of revenue; and the power originally usurped, they affected to inherit.

From such beginning of governments, what could be expected but a continued system of war and extortion? It has established itself into a trade. The vice is not peculiar to one more than to another, but is the common principle of all. There does not exist within such governments sufficient stamina whereon to engraft reformation; and the shortest and most effectual remedy is to begin anew on the ground of the nation.  

What scenes of horror, what perfection of iniquity, present themselves in contemplating the character and reviewing the history of such governments! If we would delineate human nature with a baseness of heart and hypocrisy of countenance that reflection would shudder at and humanity disown, it is kings, courts and cabinets that must sit for the portrait. Man, naturally as he is, with all his faults about him, is not up to the character.

Can we possibly suppose that if governments had originated in a right principle, and had not an interest in pursuing a wrong one, the world could have been in the wretched and quarrelsome condition we have seen it? What inducement has the farmer, while following the plough, to lay aside his peaceful pursuit, and go to war with the farmer of another country? or what inducement has the manufacturer? What is dominion to them, or to any class of men in a nation? Does it add an acre to any man's estate, or raise its value? Are not conquest and defeat each of the same price, and taxes the never-failing consequence? -- Though this reasoning may be good to a nation, it is not so to a government. War is the Pharo-table of governments, and nations the dupes of the game.

If there is anything to wonder at in this miserable scene of governments more than might be expected, it is the progress which the peaceful arts of agriculture, manufacture and commerce have made beneath such a long accumulating load of discouragement and oppression. It serves to show that instinct in animals does not act with stronger impulse than the principles of society and civilisation operate in man. Under all discouragements, he pursues his object, and yields to nothing but impossibilities.

-- The Rights of Man, by Thomas Paine


To sum up. In an attempt to understand and to interpret the changing social world as he experienced it, Plato was led to develop a systematic historicist sociology in great detail. He thought of existing states as decaying copies of an unchanging Form or Idea. He tried to reconstruct this Form or Idea of a state, or at least to describe a society which resembled it as closely as possible. Along with ancient traditions, he used as material for his reconstruction the results of his analysis of the social institutions of Sparta and Crete — the most ancient forms of social life he could find in Greece — in which he recognized arrested forms of even older tribal societies. But in order to make a proper use of this material, he needed a principle for distinguishing between the good or original or ancient traits of the existing institutions and their symptoms of decay. This principle he found in his law of political revolutions, according to which disunion in the ruling class, and their preoccupation with economic affairs, are the origin of all social change. His best state was therefore to be reconstructed in such a way as to eliminate all the germs and elements of disunion and decay as radically as this could be done; that is to say, it was to be constructed out of the Spartan state with an eye to the conditions necessary for the unbroken unity of the master class, guaranteed by its economic abstinence, its breeding, and its training.

Interpreting existing societies as decadent copies of an ideal state, Plato furnished Hesiod's somewhat crude views of human history at once with a theoretical background and with a wealth of practical application. He developed a remarkably realistic historicist theory which found the cause of social change in Heraclitus' disunion, and in the strife of classes in which he recognized the driving as well as the corrupting forces of history. He applied these historicist principles to the story of the Decline and Fall of the Greek city-states, and especially to a criticism of democracy, which he described as effeminate and degenerate. And we may add that later, in the Laws [44], he applied them also to a story of the Decline and Fall of the Persian Empire, thus making the beginning of a long series of Decline-and-Fall dramatizations of the histories of empires and civilizations. (O. Spengler's notorious Decline of the West is perhaps the worst but not the last— of them.) All this, I think, can be interpreted as an attempt, and a most impressive one, to explain, and to rationalize, his experience of the breakdown of the tribal society; an experience analogous to that which had led Heraclitus to develop the first philosophy of change.

But our analysis of Plato's descriptive sociology is still incomplete. His stories of the Decline and Fall, and with it nearly all the later stories, exhibit at least two characteristics which we have not discussed so far. He conceived these declining societies as some kind of organism, and the decline as a process similar to ageing. And he believed that the decline is well deserved, in the sense that moral decay, a fall and decline of the soul, goes hand in hand with that of the social body. All this plays an important role in Plato's theory of the first change — in the Story of the Number and of the Fall of Man. This theory, and its connection with the doctrine of Forms or Ideas, will be discussed in the next chapter.
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