Popper on Plato: ‘Open Society’ and ‘Closed Society’

In November of 1945, Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies was published in London. That same month, Charles de Gaulle was elected to lead the provisional government in France, the Indonesian campaign for independence from British occupation came to a head, the Nuremberg trials began in Germany—and Karl and Hennie Popper were preparing to set sail to London so Karl could take up his new position at the London School of Economics—a job secured in large part on the promise of The Open Society and Its Enemies.

The eureka moment came when Popper perceived an affinity between Plato and fascism.

Today, The Open Society and Its Enemies is perhaps best remembered for two things: Popper’s coinage of the terms “open society” and “closed society,” and his scorched-earth attack on Plato as the original architect of the latter. For Popper, Plato was the first and the most influential authoritarian thinker. (Popper’s analogous charges against Aristotle, Marx, and Hegel have not proven as memorable.)

Popper conceived of the difference between open and closed societies as a difference in their respective cultures of knowledge. Open societies were distinguished by their democratic culture of criticism, which made commonly held beliefs available for critique and revision, and in so doing, embraced innovation. Closed societies, by contrast, lacked this “critical attitude.” They were instead sustained by the “dogmatic” power of myths, which preserved existing power structures and stifled social change.

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