Plato’s Political Ends

Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies:

“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; 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.”

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