The Open Society condensed, Chapter 11

The condensed version of The Open Society and its Enemies continues with chapters 11 to 24 in volume 2. The first volume had ten chapters on Plato and this volume moves on to Aristotle, Hegel and Marx, with chapters on Reason and the Meaning of History.

Chapter 11, “The Aristotelian Roots of Hegelianism” has three sections after a short introduction explaining that the full history of historical determinism and related intellectual errors would need more than two volumes. 

Section I contains a brief sketch of Aristotle’s political philosophy and some other aspects of his work.

Section II is an extended critique of the methodology and epistemology that involves the quest for true definitions and detailed conceptual analysis which Popper labeled essentialism. The notes attached to this section contain full-fledged essays on a range of topics, including Wittgenstein’s earlier philosophy.

Section III consists of brief notes on some episodes in the ancient battle between authoritarian rule and the relatively democratic spirit of Pericles and the Great Generation of Athens.

Essentialism will be examined in a separate post and this piece will deal with the first and third sections of the chapter.Section I describes Aristotle’s ambivalent attitude to democracy and his apparent resignation to the need to compromise with a system that he found distasteful. He followed Plato in endorsing the idea that some men are slaves by nature and his theory of the best state combines elements of Platonic aristocracy, feudalism and some elements of democracy. With the revival of interest in Alexander the Great it may be important to note that Aristotle was a courtier (hanger-on) at the Macedonian court and he was a tutor to the young Alexander. Apparently Alexander was a very apt pupil although the friendship of the two men became strained as time went by and it is likely that Aristotle’s life would have been in grave danger if Alexander himself had lived longer.

Aristotle’s thought is entirely dominated by Plato’s. Somewhat grudgingly, he followed his great teacher as closely as his temperament permitted, not only in his general political outlook but practically everywhere. So he endorsed, and systematized, Plato’s naturalistic theory of slavery: ‘Some men are by nature free, and others slaves; and for the latter, slavery is fitting as well as just … A man who is by nature not his own, but another’s, is by nature a slave … Hellenes do not like to call themselves slaves, but confine this term to barbarians … The slave is totally devoid of any faculty of reasoning’, while free women have just a very little of it. (We owe to Aristotle’s criticisms and denunciations most of our knowledge of the Athenian movement against slavery. By arguing against the fighters for freedom, he preserved some of their utterances.) In some minor points Aristotle slightly mitigates Plato’s theory of slavery, and duly censures his teacher for being too harsh. He could neither resist an opportunity for criticizing Plato, nor one for a compromise, not even if it was a compromise with the liberal tendencies of his time.

Thus he teaches with Plato that the working classes must not rule and the ruling classes must not work, nor earn any money. (But they are supposed to have plenty.) They own the land, but must not work it themselves. Only hunting, war, and similar hobbies are considered worthy of the feudal rulers. Aristotle’s fear of any form of money earning, i.e. of all professional activities, goes perhaps even further than Plato’s. Plato had used the term ‘banausic’ to describe a plebeian, abject, or depraved state of mind. Aristotle extends the disparaging use of the term so as to cover all interests which are not pure hobbies. In fact, his use of the term is very near to our use of the term ‘professional’, more especially in the sense in which it disqualifies in an amateur competition, but also in the sense in which it applies to any specialized expert, such as a physician. For Aristotle, every form of professionalism means a loss of caste. A feudal gentleman, he insists5, must never take too much interest in ‘any occupation, art or science … There are also some liberal arts, that is to say, arts which a gentleman may acquire, but always only to a certain degree. For if he takes too much interest in them, then these evil effects will follow’, namely, he will become proficient, like a professional, and lose caste.

One of Aristotle’s legacies is the idea of the Final Cause which is associated with his biological interests and also with the notion of teleology, that is, action with a purpose. One of the great achievements of modern science was to shed the idea of teleology in nature, including biology (the plant root does not grow towards the water, but the roots that reach water live while those in dry soil die).

Stones and earth fall because they strive to be where most stones and earth are, and where they belong, in the just order of nature; air and fire rise because they strive to be where air and fire (the heavenly bodies) are, and where they belong, in the just order of nature. This theory of motion appealed to the zoologist Aristotle; it combines easily with the theory of final causes, and it allows an explanation of all motion as being analogous with the canter of horses keen to return to their stables. He developed it as his famous theory of natural places. Everything if removed from its own natural place has a natural tendency to return to it.

Aristotle modified Plato’s theory of ideal forms or essences to eliminate the idea that they live in a world of their own and exist prior to their earthly copies. For Aristotle the forms are internal to the objects of perception and instead of being perceived by intellectual intuition they are found by observation and classification of the objects in the world.

For the purpose of Popper’s criticism of historical determinism, Aristotle is important because Hegel took up his doctrine that movement, change or evolution reveal the essence of the object. Thus it follows that social events can only be understood by applying the historical method in order to penetrate beneath the surface of things to locate their hidden essence.

Change, by revealing what is hidden in the undeveloped essence, can make apparent the essence, the potentialities, the seeds, which from the beginning have inhered in the changing object. This doctrine leads to the historicist idea of an historical fate or an inescapable essential destiny.

On the face of it, the historical approach would appear to be far from dangerous and indeed it could be regarded as essential to avoid the repetition of past mistakes, however the devil is in the detail of the methods used by Hegel, and after him, by Marx, as explained later.

Moving on to the third section.

The conflict between the Platonic-Aristotelian speculation and the spirit of the Great Generation, of Pericles, of Socrates, and of Democritus, can be traced throughout the ages. This spirit was preserved, more or less purely, in the movement of the Cynics who, like the early Christians, preached the brotherhood of man, which they connected with a monotheistic belief in the fatherhood of God. Alexander’s empire as well as that of Augustus was influenced by these ideas which had first taken shape in the imperialist Athens of Pericles, and which had always been stimulated by the contact between West and East. It is very likely that these ideas, and perhaps the Cynic movement itself, influenced the rise of Christianity also.

The early Christians achieved moral authority when they resisted persecution and stood firm in their faith and their mission to help the poor, the suffering and the downtrodden. However their credibility and indeed the very morality of the church were undermined when Christianity became the official religion of Rome and then most of the west. Popper was especially scornful of the nostalgic yearning for the “lost unity” of the Middle Ages.

It is one of the characteristic reactions to the strain of civilization in our own time that the allegedly ‘Christian’ authoritarianism of the Middle Ages has, in certain intellectualist circles, become one of the latest fashions of the day [citing Aldous Huxley]. This, no doubt, is due not only to the idealization of an indeed more ‘organic’ and ‘integrated’ past, but also to an understandable revulsion against modern agnosticism which has increased this strain beyond measure.Men believed God to rule the world. This belief limited their responsibility. The new belief that they had to rule it themselves created for many a well nigh intolerable burden of responsibility. All this has to be admitted. But I do not doubt that the Middle Ages were, even from the point of view of Christianity, not better ruled than our Western democracies. For we can read in the Gospels that the founder of Christianity was questioned by a certain ‘doctor of the law’ about a criterion by which to distinguish between a true and a false interpretation of His words. To this He replied by telling the parable of the priest and the Levite who both, seeing a wounded man in great distress,’ passed by on the other side’, while the Samaritan bound up his wounds, and looked after his material needs. This parable, I think, should be remembered by those ‘Christians’ who long not only for a time when the Church suppressed freedom and conscience, but also for a time in which, under the eye and with the authority of the Church, untold oppression drove the people to despair. As a moving comment upon the suffering of the people in those days and, at the same time, upon the ‘Christianity’ of the now so fashionable romantic medievalism which wants to bring these days back, a passage may be quoted here from H. Zinsser’s book, Rats, Lice, and History, in which he speaks about epidemics of dancing mania in the Middle Ages, known as ‘St. John’s dance’, ‘St. Vitus’ dance’, etc. (I do not wish to invoke Zinsser as an authority on the Middle Ages—there is no need to do so since the facts at issue are hardly controversial. But his comments have the rare and peculiar touch of the practical Samaritan—of a great and humane physician.) ‘These strange seizures, though not unheard of in earlier times, became common during and immediately after the dreadful miseries of the Black Death. For the most part, the dancing manias present none of the characteristics which we associate with epidemic infectious diseases of the nervous system. They seem, rather, like mass hysterias, brought on by terror and despair, in populations oppressed, famished, and wretched to a degree almost unimaginable to-day. To the miseries of constant war, political and social disintegration, there was added the dreadful affliction of inescapable, mysterious, and deadly disease. Mankind stood helpless as though trapped in a world of terror and peril against which there was no defence. God and the devil were living conceptions to the men of those days who cowered under the afflictions which they believed imposed by supernatural forces. For those who broke down under the strain there was no road of escape except to the inward refuge of mental derangement which, under the circumstances of the times, took the direction of religious fanaticism.’ Zinsser then goes on to draw some parallels between these events and certain reactions of our time in which, he says, ‘economic and political hysterias are substituted for the religious ones of the earlier times’; and after this, he sums up his characterization of the people who lived in those days of authoritarianism as ‘a terror-stricken and wretched population, which had broken down under the stress of almost incredible hardship and danger’. Is it necessary to ask which attitude is more Christian, one that longs to return to the ‘unbroken harmony and unity’ of the Middle Ages, or one that wishes to use reason in order to free mankind from pestilence and oppression?


Introduction to the condensed Open Society series.

Open Society – the architecture of the two volumes.

Introduction, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

Chapter 3 Plato’s theory of forms.

Chapter 4 Plato’s program to arrest social change.

Chapter 5 Moral philosophy, nature and convention.

Chapter 6 Totalitarian justice.

Chapters 7 and 8 on leadership.

Chapter 9 The disasters of utopian “canvas cleaning” social reform.

Chapter 10 The concept of the open society and the strain of civilisation.

2 thoughts on “The Open Society condensed, Chapter 11

  1. The synopsis fails to mention a key point made by Popper:
    Plato wrongly equates individualism to selfishness and egotism; also Plato wrongly equates altruism to collectivism. Popper states that the correct relations are: individualism is opposed to collectivism; egotism is opposed to altruism.

    A key point that Popper stresses is that the confusion about idividualism and selfishness has caused much harm throughout history — even to the present day.

    Chapter 4 of ‘Bye-Bye Sweet Liberty’ (an ebook) is a summary ofPopper’s book,’Plato’s Spell,’ and further discusses the point made here, above, about individualism.

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