This was definitely a book to have read after Donald Kagan’s work on the Peloponnesian War. Popper attacks the ‘historicism’ and totalitarian elements within Plato’s work. This involves a certain amount of biographical speculation about the Greek philosopher and his teacher Socrates. We know that there was a struggle between the populist democrats and the exclusive aristocrats in Athens (as in many other Greek cities), and that Plato had an aristocratic background and many aristocratic connections. For Popper, Plato over the course of his career changed from the democratic, compassionate views that he had learned from Socrates back to the aristocratic authoritarianism he was brought up in, and brought in some lessons from Sparta with it.
For Popper the philosopher king that Plato proposes in the Republic is a method to arrest change and promote stability at any cost, to establish and keep a hierarchical system that Plato sees himself at the top of. In seeing history as a constant process of decline from an earlier, better, tribal society, he tries to reconstruct that society and reverse the course of history. I’m still to read part two, but as Popper presents it this does seem to mirror the historical theories of Marxism and Nazism (history as a process of racial decline).
It’s not even handed – it’s not meant to be. Popper wrote this during the war, when he was in little mood for compromise. If you are willing to go with some of his assumptions about Plato’s motivations, this is a compelling book. But despite any regrets he may have had on tone, the core idea of the book is interesting. The same ideas and criticism have come up elsewhere in my recent reading but not quite with the same focus and force (Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism; Black Mass by John Gray targeting modern neo-liberals). Karl Popper is a very good writer, you just have to beware of being swept along by his polemic and missing some of the holes in it.