I am reading through Karl Popper's Open Society right. It got me wondering, assuming the following:

  1. You agree with Popper's critique of Plato's politics.
  2. You support democracy and egalitarianism in some form.
  3. You do not think essentialism is a useful philosophical tool.

Is there anything redeemable (or valuable to the contemporary person) about Plato's writings aside from his historical description of ancient Greek society during his time? Even if you attempt to look at him from a non-anachronistic morality, he is more authoritarian than many people of his time and society.

  • 1
    Westley: "You're that smart?" Vizzini: "let me put it this way. Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?" Westley: "yes." Vizzini: "morons." Westley: "In that case, I challenge you to a battle of wits."
    – causative
    Mar 6 at 2:51
  • 3
    I think mathematical platonism still has plenty of adherents among philosophers (and mathematicians and scientists), and also think there are good arguments for seeing mathematics as having some kind of objective reality independent of what we humans manage to discover, like the indispensability argument. It may also be that the Pythagorean/Platonist tradition of seeing mathematics as a key to understanding the world could have been a factor in why the scientific revolution happened in a part of the world influenced by these philosophies.
    – Hypnosifl
    Mar 6 at 3:51
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    Plato thought on many subjects aside from politics, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, etc., so agreeing with Popper's politics has little relevance to evaluating most of Plato's thinking. Much of Western philosophy is still driven by ideas with roots in Plato, so if a contemporary person wants to make sense of her culture she'll have to deal with Plato. For example, what spread from his ethics is not so much authoritarianism as moral rationalism, that people do bad because they do not know what's good for them.
    – Conifold
    Mar 6 at 5:22
  • @Hypnosifl and Conifold you should make your responses into answers so people can upvote them. (causative I love your answer too but in a different way :)
    – Rozgonyi
    Mar 8 at 3:06
  • Important not on point 3 – don’t confuse Plato’s forms for Aristotle’s essences. May 30 at 7:58

I am wholeheartedly with Popper's judgement of Plato. And I think Plato was deadly serious in his reactionary thinking, as illustrated by his accepting the invitation of The Tyrant Of Syracuse, and his denigration of democracy as then practiced for around a century in his native Athens, as inevitably set to be toppled by 'the electorate delivering themselves largesse from the treasury'. He dismissed poetry and poets from The Republic, based on aesthetic thinking that placed the highest value on representational art, but sees the greatest evil in poetry - perhaps because he so fears satire of his pomposity. I think of Diogenes masterful overawing of Plato, using a plucked chicken, and by biting him.

Plato's arguments were a profound influence on medieval Christianity, once more of his works became more known in Christendom then. His impact was largely opposite to Aristotle's more-or-less scientific rationalism; emphasising instead idealist metaphysics, and the learned to feel smug and above looking at the actual world.

The Symposium shows Plato was very happy to mix serious and humorous, and I am willing to accept he may not have been literally advocating his Republic as utopia. But the core themes Popper identifies are returned to again and again throughout his work. Propaganda. Elitism. Intolerance of criticism. Paternalism. Hallmarks of totatalitarianism, in short.

It's like Levinson's case in 'In Defense of Plato', which argues his explicit statements are defensible. Never-the-less, the shape of the whole, the drift, cannot be defended, and in practice has caused specific harms.

I found Vervaeke's take on Plato forced me into somewhat of a reconsideration of Plato's role. He places Plato firmly between Pythagoras and Socrates, between cult leader and iconoclast. Pythagoras banned his students from talking about irrational numbers. But, was able to make a kind of proto-university for mathematics. Plato was able to carry that forward into creating The Academy, and flatter the elite more than enough not to be forced to drink hemlock. This was the creation of a role beyond rhetorician, speech maker, lawyer, or monk: scientist-mathematician academic; and that has had a profound impact. The exact way that happened, was crucial I think, and a little forgiveness for Plato's reactionary thought can be drawn from remembering his teacher was executed.

For me that's about it: Plato has a role in history, which may even have had some positives in his own time. But now, like Descartes, his work remains only as an exercise for students to argue against, and learn what superficially plausible ideas to avoid.


assuming the following:

You agree with Popper's critique of Plato's politics.

I think Popper's understanding of Plato's politics is based upon a misreading of Plato's Republic. It is a common misreading, but a misreading nonetheless.

When asked directly (in the Republic) what is the ideal society, Socrates responds with a description of a simple agrarian society, not with the complex, controlling society that is developed in the Republic.

Socrates's interlocutor Glaucon is in some disbelief, and asks about luxury goods. Socrates repeats his assertion that he believes that a simple society with modest aims and production is best.

Upon further pressing, Socrates describes a society with an energetic pursuit of luxury goods as a society with a "fever". He immediately points out that to produce and protect these luxury goods or riches will require a number of things. It will inevitably result in war, which Socrates says is responsible for a great evil.

However, Glaucon seems unperturbed by this consequence of a society "with relish" as he puts it. So, Socrates follows Glaucon, and explains more of the consequences of a "feverish" society. Various solutions to problems are proposed. However, as the book proceeds, each solution to previous problems seems to lead to new problems. Ironically, although the original point of Glaucon's rejection of the simple society is based upon an appetite for luxury items, luxury items are denied to the populace as one of the solutions to one of the problems. The whole project of adding solutions to problems, which solutions create new problems, leads to the monstrosity that is described in the Republic.

According to my reading, the society which is elaborated in the Republic is a reductio ad absurdum, or a satire, and not a serious proposal for an ideal society.

Is there anything redeemable (or valuable to the contemporary person) about Plato's writings

Aside from the fact that Plato wrote on many other things than politics, I think there is something quite valuable in Plato's writings on politics. The warning which I read in Plato's republic is a good and valuable one. That is, instead of seeing our happiness in simple and modest society, we see it in ever greater material acquisitions. As a society, we see that there are problems, and we attempt to provide solutions to these problems. But we seem to be unaware that these solutions introduce new problems, and this approach to dealing with symptoms, rather than the root cause (material acquisitiveness), will not come to a nice end. It will not come to a nice end in two ways. One, it involves things that are not "nice", like wars and restrictive laws. Two, it will not come naturally to an end, but society will forever require further reforms. There is no end to it once we accept material acquisitiveness as a goal.


Philosophers are not valuable only if you agree with them ! Philosophy is not about teaching people what to think, but how to think.

Plato has value insofar as it could be argued (Foucault said this) that the whole history of Western philosophy could be characterised -to an extent- as anti-platonism. Regardless of how one engages with his, he is one of the most important philosophers to have existed, and the father of countless concepts still used today.

The most valuable thing I find is plato is the -very famous - quote in the Apology of Socrates, "The only thing I know is that I know nothing" in which I see the first instance of the dialectical nature of philosophy.

(The EGS Badiou lecture on "Beyond positivsm and nihilism" is really interesting and develops this idea)

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