The redoubtable Fr. Robert Barron, in one of his regular (and regularly illuminating) forays into film criticism (when does this guy have time to go to the movies?), reviewed the new Superman movie Man of Steel at RealClearReligion. I recommend the review—not sure about the movie, on the other hand—but I was struck by Fr. Barron’s reliance on Karl Popper for his interpretation of Plato’s Republic , in an essay otherwise pretty sensible.
Popper, hitherto known chiefly for his work in philosophy of science, ventured into political theory with The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1945, and identified Plato as one of the “enemies” for the alleged teaching of his Republic , with its famous abolition of private property, censorship and tight control of education, and its abolition of the natural family and eugenic breeding among the guardian class. Popper’s book has remained perennially in print. But what really is the teaching of the Republic ? Perhaps under the influence of Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom, I have always read it (and frequently taught it) as a comedy, which gets funnier every time I reread it. Like the best comedies, it has a very serious teaching to impart to us, in this case about political life and much else besides. And that teaching is not the wonderfulness of philosopher-kings, selective breeding, the employment of women as soldiers, and so on. Plato, in short, was not an idiot.
As for Karl Popper, some smart people thought he was one. In 1950 he gave a lecture at the University of Chicago, evidently a kind of audition for an appointment there. This prospect alarmed Leo Strauss, who had arrived on the faculty there just a year before. He wrote to Eric Voegelin, at LSU, to solicit his view of Popper, whose Chicago lecture on “social philosophy,” Strauss said,
was beneath contempt: it was the most washed-out lifeless positivism trying to whistle in the dark, linked to a complete inability to think “rationally,” although it passed itself off as “rationalism”—it was very bad. I cannot imagine that such a man ever wrote something that was worthwhile reading, and yet it appears to be a professional duty to become familiar with his production.
Voegelin replied just eight days later, with a letter that would be framed and displayed with a dedicated spotlight if there were a Museum of Academic Smackdowns. Herewith just some of the choicer parts of it (these excerpts are from Peter Emberley and Barry Cooper’s compilation of the Strauss-Voegelin correspondence, published twenty years ago as Faith and Political Philosophy ):
The opportunity to speak a few deeply felt words about Karl Popper to a kindred soul is too golden to endure a long delay. This Popper has been for years, not exactly a stone against which one stumbles, but a troublesome pebble that I must continually nudge from the path, in that he is constantly pushed upon me by people who insist that his work on the “open society and its enemies” is one of the social science masterpieces of our times. This insistence persuaded me to read the work even though I would otherwise not have touched it. You are quite right that it is a vocational duty to make ourselves familiar with the ideas of such a work when they lie in our field; I would hold out against this duty the other vocational duty, not to write and publish such a work. In that Popper violated this elementary vocational duty and stole several hours of my lifetime, which I devoted in fulfilling my vocational duty, I feel completely justified in saying without reservation that this book is impudent, dilettantish crap. Every single sentence is a scandal, but it is still possible to lift out a few main annoyances.
Voegelin proceeds to do just that, in some detail, remarking along the way that “Popper is philosophically so uncultured, so fully a primitive ideological brawler, that he is not able even approximately to reproduce correctly the contents of one page of Plato.” He concludes his judgment thus:
Briefly and in sum: Popper’s book is a scandal without extenuating circumstances; in its intellectual attitude it is the typical product of a failed intellectual; spiritually one would have to use expressions like rascally, impertinent, loutish; in terms of technical competence, as a piece in the history of thought, it is dilettantish, and as a result is worthless.
A few months later Strauss belatedly thanked him for this letter, saying he had shown it to a trusted and influential colleague, “who was thereby encouraged to throw his not inconsiderable influence into the balance against Popper’s probable appointment here [at Chicago]. You thereby helped to prevent a scandal.”
And that, gentle readers, is apparently why Karl Popper did not wind up teaching at the University of Chicago. And why I have resolved never to read The Open Society and Its Enemies for any light it attempts to shed on Plato’s Republic . Life is too short for impudent, dilettantish crap. For Plato, on the other hand, one must make some time.