On Disagreeing with Plato

David J. Riesbeck
Jun 25 · 21 min read

Reflections on Plato, Popper, and Mill

Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies is a famous and infamous book. First published in 1945, it seeks to defend liberal democracy against fascist and communist ideology by identifying and critiquing a tradition of totalitarian thought whose first major architect was Plato and whose most influential modern proponents were Hegel and Marx. Volume 1, The Spell of Plato, was probably one of the most widely read and influential books on ancient Greek political philosophy in the 20th century. Yet, like many scholars of ancient Greek philosophy, I have not read it. The conventional wisdom among classicists and analytic historians of ancient Greek philosophy takes a dim view of it as extremely bad scholarship, if even as scholarship at all. My one brief examination of it early in graduate school seemed to bear that judgment out, and I quickly set it aside. C.C.W. Taylor, in a deservedly well-known article, “Plato’s Totalitarianism,” appeared to demolish its central claims, firmly supporting the conventional wisdom. The book continues to find readers, but so does plenty of trash. Nobody that I respected seemed to take the book seriously, and so neither did I.

A recent paper by James Kierstead has me reconsidering that assessment. Kierstead, who has written a number of excellent pieces for general readership on Athenian democracy and the continuing value of studying ancient Greece (here, here, here, and here), as well as more traditionally scholarly work in academic journals, revisits Popper in an initially surprising venue: the Journal of New Zealand Studies. Popper wrote the book in New Zealand, and Kierstead aims, among other things, “to reintroduce Popper to the current generation of New Zealanders.” He devotes most of his attention, however, to offering a judicious, balanced, and informed reassessment of The Open Society and its Enemies, especially the first volume on Plato. His ultimate verdict, though by no means free of criticism, is largely positive: Popper’s basic contentions about Plato were correct, and the book helped to reorient discussions of Plato in fruitful ways. Kierstead’s praise for the book is, then, not the ignorant enthusiasm that one sometimes encounters among Popper devotees. It is far more interesting than that.

Popper’s central theses about Plato, says Kierstead, are these: he is an enemy of the open society, his politics are “purely totalitarian,” and his Socrates is “the embodiment of an unmitigated authoritarianism.” These are the claims for which the book is infamous, but there are others as well, which Kierstead sees more as supporting details than as central. First, Plato was, like Hegel and Marx after him, a “historicist,” one who holds that the future course of events is not open to us to change, but fixed in its essentials by immutable laws of historical development. Second, he believed that all social and political change is deterioration, and hence bad. This attitude was bound up with his Theory of Forms and its hostility to change in general as inherently involving imperfection. Yet he also longed to return to the lost tribal unity of the Greek past, where people lived as one in a harmonious and uncritical acceptance of established convention. Despite his historicism, one of his deepest motivations for philosophizing was to halt political change. His totalitarianism was not simply a matter of extreme authoritarianism extending to all areas of life, but a complete subordination of the individual to the good of the state. It should go without saying that these doctrines make Plato a fierce enemy of the open society.

All of this is familiar from standard accounts of the book, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that gives rise to the dismissive contempt for it that I’ve described. Kierstead, in fact, agrees with the standard criticisms. For one thing, Greek society never had a tribal phase, as historians now agree. More to the point, Plato’s rationalistic enthusiasm for theoretical central planning in politics — a feature of his thought that Popper emphasizes in light of similar zeal in 20th century totalitarianism — is hardly consistent with the hope to return to a primitive tribal past of unreflective unity. Worse, Popper offers no good evidence that Plato believed in immutable laws of historical development akin to those of Hegel or Marx, let alone that he regarded all political and social change as bad. Though Kierstead does not note it, there is some potential evidence for theses like these in the dialogues: the account of regime change in Republic VIII-IX could be interpreted as positing general laws of political change (as it was by Aristotle in the Politics), the Statesman presents an argument strongly opposed to political change in the absence of political expertise, and the Laws offers a cyclical theory of civilization that has a ring of inevitability to it. But these passages do not, even so interpreted, add up to anything like an inverted Hegelian historicism or to the thesis that all political change is bad. In fact, the idea of cyclical development and the possibility of political expertise are incompatible with them. Kierstead agrees.

Kierstead also agrees with Taylor’s well-known article on several crucial issues. He endorses Taylor’s general point, which is uncontroversial among serious Platonic scholars, that the metaphysics of Forms not only fails to entail that all change is bad, but is inconsistent with that thesis. Kierstead also finds Taylor’s most important critique of Popper persuasive. Taylor distinguishes between different varieties of totalitarianism. The most extreme variety embraces an organic conception of the state according to which the good of individuals, as its parts, is simply a matter of their contributing to the good of the whole, the state. The most moderate variety instead sees the function and good of the state simply as a matter of its contributing to the well-being of its individual citizens. These are both forms of totalitarianism because they invest the state with authority over every aspect of its citizens’ lives, but the difference between them is hardly trivial. Popper sees Plato as an extreme totalitarian of the organicist sort, but Taylor argues that Plato’s totalitarianism is best understood as only the most moderate sort. Taylor’s case has not convinced everyone, but it has convinced many, Kierstead included.

This does not seem to add up to much of a defense of Popper. Instead, it seems as though Kierstead agrees with Popper’s critics that he got Plato wrong on just about every major point and that his interpretations were not even plausible. There is no good reason to think that Plato was a historicist in Popper’s sense, that he despised all change or wanted to prevent it, or that he dreamed of a return to a primitive tribal past. There is not even especially good reason to think that Plato was an extreme totalitarian as Popper conceives of it. Worse still, Kierstead accepts another part of standard criticisms of Popper: he indulged in excessive psychologizing, supposing that he could reconstruct Plato’s motives and attacking him on that basis. Kierstead’s version of this objection is primarily epistemic: we are not really in a position to know Plato’s motives in much detail. A less moderate version would add that Popper’s strategy risks indulging in the genetic fallacy or in sheer ad hominem. Ultimately, though, if Popper’s interpretations were right he would have good reason to dismiss Plato’s ideas, and hence some justification for seeking the vices and neuroses that gave rise to them. But his psychological speculation is nothing more than that, and it depends on his interpretations even if it does not guide them. The interpretations are mistaken and not grounded in a careful reading of the text. Kierstead may find Popper’s mistakes less blatant and sloppy than other critics do, but he recognizes them as mistakes. How, then, does he manage to arrive at a generally positive assessment of The Open Society and its Enemies as a work about Plato?

This is where Kierstead’s paper is at its most interesting. To assess Popper’s reading of Plato properly, he thinks, we need to set it in the context of debates about Plato and contemporary politics both before and after it. In the years leading up to the writing of The Open Society and its Enemies, Plato had been attacked (and, in Germany, sometimes praised) as a forerunner of fascism if not an outright fascist himself. Bertrand Russell, Richard Crossman, and others saw the similarities as pervasive and the link as direct; the Nazis were inspired by Plato and their program was largely a faithful implementation of his core ideas. H.B. Acton, G.C. Field, and G.R. Morrow responded to charges like these with what most would now recognize as compelling arguments. Whatever the Nazis might have thought, the irrationalism and relativism characteristic of fascism were thoroughly un-Platonic, even anti-Platonic. Fascism’s glorification of war and love of strong leaders unconstrained by the rule of law clash with Plato’s critique of militarism and defense of the rule of law in what is perhaps his most authoritarian work, the Laws. Plato was a harsh critic of democracy, to be sure, but as Field put it — in a line worth quoting for its persisting relevance today — “a critic of democracy is not necessarily a Nazi or a Fascist, and the defenders of democracy would be very ill-advised to dismiss a reasoned criticism of it by a simple reference to one or other of these contemporary views.” Field also observed that Plato’s political philosophy has at least as much, if not more, in common with Marxist communism as with fascism, a fact that might have embarrassed his critics, who came mostly from the Left. In this round of the debate, Plato’s defenders effectively refuted the simple-minded identification of Platonic politics and fascism.

Among the strengths of Popper’s critique, according to Kierstead, are that it moved past that superficial association of Plato with fascism and that it recognized the significance of the resemblance to communism. Popper carefully avoids calling Plato a fascist or a Nazi, and he sees the totalitarian character of his thought as continuous with that of Marxism as well as fascism. Popper’s Plato is not the right wing, fascist totalitarian counterpart to Marx the left-wing, communist totalitarian; they are, as Kierstead has it, “two philosophers who shared ideas that, time and time again, would be taken up by opponents of the open society.” What Popper identified was a common core of totalitarian thought that came to have different manifestations in fascism and communism, and Plato’s significance for modern politics lies in his championing of that common core, not in his fitting into one or another of the modern totalitarian camps. Hence Popper could accept the points made by Plato’s earlier round of defenders dissociating him from fascism, but nonetheless underscore the more fundamental point: Platonic politics is inimical to the open society. Kierstead also thinks that Plato’s defenders effectively conceded this point; they acknowledged that Plato’s thought was highly authoritarian. Even later critics of Popper, like Taylor, accept that Plato was a totalitarian of sorts, albeit a less extreme one than Popper supposed. All totalitarianism, even of the most moderate variety, is deeply at odds with liberal democracy. Popper’s central contention, then, is vindicated even by his critics.

Karl Popper

A further virtue of The Open Society and its Enemies, as Kierstead sees it, was that it helped to redirect discussions about Plato in a better direction both within academia and beyond it. Most importantly, the book contributed to “bursting the bubble of complacent Plato worship,” an excessively charitable veneration for Plato that had led his many admirers to whitewash his thought, reject all criticism of him, and even elevate him to the status of an authoritative guide. After Popper, this Plato worship became untenable, and it was no longer plausible to argue that Plato deserved a central place in a liberal educational curriculum for the “positive value” of his thought rather than its “pedagogic usefulness.” Kierstead also attributes a major role to Popper in influencing the direction of subsequent Platonic scholarship. In the post-war period, various interpretive schools arose that sought to distance Plato from the first-order philosophical content present on the surface of the dialogues in the mouths of its characters. In contrast to what has come to be called “the mouthpiece view,” which takes the main speaker in any given dialogue as straightforwardly expressing Plato’s own philosophical views, these schools emphasized the dramatic element of the dialogues and saw Plato as either expressing no philosophical views at all or as doing so only via indirection and irony, often in tension with the explicit claims of his characters. Kierstead is moderately critical of these approaches, rightly insisting that “Plato’s dialogues tend to have an irreducible (and rather large) core of philosophical content” and that interpreting and critically assessing this content is the fundamental task in reading and understanding Plato. His more ambitious and less familiar claim is that Popper’s critique of Plato played an important role in motivating these ways of reading the dialogues as non-dogmatic. Though Kierstead prefers a version of the dogmatic “mouthpiece” view, he sees the emergence of more literary, non-dogmatic approaches as a revolution in Platonic studies that Popper helped, however unwittingly, to inspire.

Despite his qualified defense of Popper, Kierstead also thinks that his attack on Plato missed an important opportunity by largely ignoring the historical realities of the Athenian democracy that was the target of so much of Plato’s criticism. Defenders of Plato have sometimes gestured in this direction, suggesting that the foibles of ancient democracy justified much of Plato’s opposition to it, while modern liberal democracy gets off unscathed. Kierstead does not take this tack. Though he notes that it is not so clear that Plato would have been as hostile to modern representative democracy as he was to ancient direct democracy, Kierstead wants to champion the Athenian democracy against Plato — and against Popper. Plato’s fundamental objection to democracy is that it puts ultimate authority in the hands of non-experts, people who conspicuously lack the knowledge necessary for making good political decisions. The mass of ordinary people will never be able to acquire this knowledge, and so this feature of democracy is no contingent defect remediable by education. Rather, political authority must be reserved for an elite specially suited for the relevant education and provided with the means to dedicate themselves to the task of governing. This skepticism about genuine popular rule and preference for handing decision-making to an educated elite does not so obviously conflict with Popper’s ideal of the open society. The core of that ideal is liberalism, not democracy; democratic elections serve, in Popper’s view, not as instruments of popular rule, but as a safeguard against tyranny and the abuse of power. Though his commitment to personal freedom puts him at a great distance from Plato, Popper in effect shares Plato’s opposition to popular rule. Yet, as Kierstead puts it, “if democracy has nothing to do with popular participation in politics, but only requires that people can choose elite leaders, why should those elite leaders not be experts?”

Kierstead’s own answer to that question appeals to two general sorts of consideration, one historical and one philosophical. As a historical matter, we can look to the Athenian democracy itself as empirical evidence that direct democracy unconstrained by a ruling elite can succeed and outcompete its rivals. This assessment of democratic Athens goes against the grain of a long tradition emphasizing its shortcomings, but an impressive case for it has emerged in recent decades, especially in the work of Josiah Ober. On the philosophical level, Kierstead points to arguments inspired by the Platonic Protagoras and Aristotle. With Protagoras, he suggests that because political decisions essentially involve moral judgments, politics is not an area that admits of technical expertise, and that insofar as technical expertise becomes relevant, popular rule can incorporate it. With Aristotle, and buttressed by recent empirical studies of collective decision-making, he suggests that large groups of ordinary people can often produce better solutions to problems than smaller groups of experts. It would be unfair to Popper, he thinks, to fault him too strongly for failing to develop these lines of argument. Popper missed an opportunity to defend democracy more powerfully against a strand of Plato’s criticisms that some liberals have shared. But liberal democratic thinkers can still appreciate the contributions of The Open Society and its Enemies.

What Kierstead offers us, then, is a measured, judicious, nuanced, but ultimately positive assessment of Popper’s critique of Plato and its intellectual impact. The most significant flaw he finds in the book is not that it got Plato wrong, but that it did not go far enough in defending genuine democracy against technocratic elitism. Kierstead’s paper thereby gives those of us who have dismissed Popper some grounds to reconsider, while providing little comfort to zealous but philosophically uninformed Popperites. It also helpfully connects our thinking about the relatively trivial question of Popper’s virtues and vices as an interpreter of Plato to far more significant philosophical and practical questions about the role of expertise and education in political decision-making. For all that, I’m ultimately not convinced that the details of Kierstead’s own assessment of Popper tell in favor of the praise he gives him.

To begin with, Kierstead concedes a great deal to Popper’s critics. The only claim of Popper’s that he is able to salvage is that Platonic politics is highly authoritarian and gives virtually unlimited scope to that authority. But to say that is just to say that Plato was not a liberal, and virtually nobody has ever denied that (apart from finding ways to read the dialogues that ask us to see Plato’s real intention as undermining more straightforward interpretations of his main speakers’ claims). On top of that, Kierstead understates his criticism of Popper for ignoring the differences between ancient Greek and modern liberal democracy and for downplaying Plato’s emphasis on the importance of knowledge for politics. It is no exaggeration to say that the most fundamental feature of Plato’s political philosophy is its — to borrow a barbarous Hellenism from David Estlundepistocratic character: political knowledge is both possible and the primary qualification for ruling, and political institutions should be designed to promote decision-making guided by this knowledge. Popper’s neglect of the centrality of epistocracy in Plato is, I think, a more serious problem than Kierstead takes it to be. Kierstead, who is optimistic about the prospects for genuine popular or non-expert rule, thinks that Popper should have gone further in his critique of Plato. To my mind, however, Popper’s skepticism of popular rule and apparent sympathy for a form of epistocracy are highly plausible. As Richard Kraut has recently argued, this aspect of Plato’s critique of democracy remains potent, and not only as applied to direct democracy. Representative democracy remains vulnerable to much the same objections, and responses from contemporary democratic theorists face serious problems. Recent epistocratic critics of democracy like Jason Brennan may not succeed in identifying a viable alternative, but it is hard to resist the conclusion that ignorance and intellectual vice have deleterious effects in politics, are widespread, and are not likely to go away any time soon. Popper’s own apparent sympathy for a moderately epistocratic dimension to liberal democratic politics suggests that he was sensitive to the problems that inspired Plato’s reflections, and that he drew some of the same negative conclusions. It is no minor oversight for Popper to ignore this aspect of Plato’s thought in the interest of representing him as the enemy of everything liberal democracy stands for.

That said, Plato’s epistocracy is only one part of his political philosophy; his illiberal authoritarianism is another. Here too, we might see things differently than Kierstead, precisely because much of liberalism’s typical anti-authoritarianism is overblown. Modern liberal democratic states are already considerably more authoritarian than much liberal rhetoric would lead us to expect liberals to find acceptable. Our laws restrict our freedom in many ways for the sake of the common good, regulating our economic choices and requiring us to pay taxes to support infrastructure, social services, environmental protection, and public health. Progressives and conservatives alike favor policies that would further restrict our choices, whether in the form of taxation and economic regulation or the promotion or protection of other values, from restricting pornography or prostitution to severely limiting gun ownership or prohibiting the hiring of qualified teachers who lack the proper government credentials. A liberal proponent of these laws might object that they all respect the Harm Principle, restricting our liberty only when necessary to prevent harm to others and eschewing paternalistic restrictions for people’s own good. But even if so, we famously have many laws that evidently violate the Harm Principle: laws requiring us to wear seatbelts in cars, prohibiting the use of certain drugs or gambling, mandating a certain level of education. Of course one might think that the harms these laws are aimed to prevent are not harms solely to the individuals whose choices they restrict. It is less plausible, however, to suppose that these laws could be justified exclusively in terms of preventing harm to others, and pushing too hard on the detrimental effects that one person’s harm has on others threatens to weaken the distinction central to the Harm Principle. Citizens disagree widely about these laws and others like them, but few reject all or most of them in principle; mainstream political opinion in liberal democracies is not deeply anti-authoritarian, and is not even resolutely anti-paternalistic. To see what serious anti-authoritarianism looks like, we have to turn to anarchist or minimal state libertarianism. Libertarians reject most or all of these laws — the paternalistic ones, the common good ones, and even the ones that plausibly respect the Harm Principle — precisely on the grounds that they violate people’s autonomy. Of course libertarians believe that their views represent the most consistent application of liberal principles, and they are probably right if liberalism amounts simply to anti-authoritarianism. But if the characteristic ideologies of liberal democracies count as liberal, then liberalism does not amount simply to anti-authoritarianism. To the extent that our own views diverge from libertarianism, we embrace authority in politics.

Moreover, and contrary to some of my libertarian associates, it is not at all apparent that even more authoritarian and paternalistic politics would be unjustified in principle. Especially if we consider the prospect of incentives and disincentives rather than sheer coercion, it is not so obvious that government should not aim to promote certain moral values and virtues and to discourage certain vices. This idea about the legitimate aims of law and government — what many philosophers somewhat misleadingly call ‘perfectionism’ — is not a peculiarly right-wing or left-wing idea, nor is it inherently illiberal. Of course on some views of the value of autonomy, such proposals would be non-starters. But it is far from clear that they are incompatible with any form of autonomy worth wanting. None of us who think of ourselves as liberals could follow Plato’s unlimited extension of the scope of authority, but recognizing the value of liberty and a wide scope for personal choice does not entail anti-perfectionism in politics; liberal perfectionism is not an oxymoron. Even a perfectionist willing to compromise liberalism in principle might, however, insist on liberalism given the unavailability of wise and reliably virtuous people to make and enforce laws, and given the inherent unsuitability of modern bureaucratic political institutions to serve as instruments of moral education. These points are broadly consistent with a basically Platonic political philosophy, not exempting its authoritarianism. After all, the kind of knowledge that justifies the rule of Plato’s philosopher-kings is not simply the technocratic knowledge of modern political elites, but moral wisdom and virtue. Plato does not suppose that the institutions of Kallipolis can operate effectively in the absence of wise rulers, nor that any set of authoritative institutions can do so. In this respect, his thought may be a resource for a critique of contemporary anti-democratic epistocracy, which might be accused of conflating technical prowess in economics with political wisdom. So the point is not simply that modern liberal democracy is less allergic to authority than Popper is, or that paternalistic laws and perfectionist politics are not so obviously illiberal or unjustifiable as Popper’s rhetoric suggests. It is also that Plato, undistorted by torturous hermeneutics designed to prevent our taking the philosophical content of his dialogues seriously at face value, can in fact serve as a resource for liberal political thinking.

Kierstead argues that in the light of Popper’s critique, it became untenable to defend a central place for Plato in our educational curriculum on the grounds that his ideas had positive value rather than mere pedagogical usefulness. I do not doubt that Popper’s critique and others like it motivated many Platonic scholars to find new ways to justify the study of Plato and new ways to read the dialogues. I do doubt that Popper’s critique at all diminishes the positive value of Plato’s ideas. Kierstead himself amply illustrates the serious deficiencies of Popper’s book as a study of Plato; by Kierstead’s own lights, most of what Popper says gets Plato wrong, often wildly so. Popper may have had a salutary effect in deflating certain excessively deferential attitudes toward Plato, but those attitudes were always unreasonable and Popper’s main line of argument provides no genuine grounds for rejecting them that were not already accessible and familiar. More importantly, if what Kierstead has in mind by the ‘positive value’ of Plato’s ideas is their truth, then we should agree that what positive value they have is mixed up with a whole lot of not so positive value. But truth is too narrow a conception of positive value when it comes to philosophy. Philosophy has positive value even when it is false if engaging with it and working through it helps us to appreciate the issues it deals with. This happens most often when falsehood is mixed up with truth, plausibility, and intuitive appeal, as it is in Plato. To come to understand correctly and in detail why Plato’s political philosophy is mistaken would be a positive philosophical achievement, not merely a pedagogically useful exercise. The persistence of non-trivial philosophical disagreements about what exactly is wrong with Platonic politics — in addition to disputes about how to interpret it — bears this out. A well reasoned rejection of a plausible, nuanced interpretation of Plato surely has more value than mere pedagogical usefulness if the paradigm for pedagogical usefulness is something like studying bad arguments to learn how to spot fallacies.

Popper, however, even as Kierstead sympathetically presents him, does not have much or any insight to offer on this score, and certainly none that was not already available in superior form. One would do better to approach Plato from the perspective of John Stuart Mill, who was no less committed to liberalism and democracy, but who was keenly sensitive to the problems of knowledge and ignorance for democratic politics.

John Stuart Mill

Mill’s On Liberty presents one of the liberal tradition’s most powerful cases in favor of personal freedom and individuality against coercive, paternalistic laws. The book mentions Plato only in passing, and without criticism. Yet it offers a far more compelling critique of Platonic authoritarianism than any amount of shoddy scholarship and dogmatic liberal rhetoric could. The incompatibility of Millian democracy with the political regimes of Plato’s Republic or Laws did not await Popper’s illumination; it was clear as day when Mill’s book went to press. Yet Mill, despite his thorough rejection of authoritarianism, paternalism, and social uniformity, also found much to admire in Plato. He studied Plato carefully throughout his life (he had read six dialogues in Greek by the age of seven) and regarded the dialogues as “among the most precious of the intellectual treasures bequeathed to us by antiquity” (“Grote’s Plato”). He worked to make Plato more popularly accessible in translation and to clear away one-sided misconceptions about him. Like his friend and fellow radical George Grote, he interpreted the dialogues in a generally non-doctrinal way (a fact that somewhat complicates Kierstead’s narrative of non-dogmatic readings emerging primarily in light of Popper’s critique, as does the occurrence already in antiquity of similar readings of Plato as a kind of skeptic). Unlike some of the modern scholars that Kierstead plausibly sees as driven to dramatic interpretations of the dialogues in order to avoid taking their philosophical content seriously, Mill took the arguments very seriously, and he did not deploy his non-dogmatic interpretive approach to shield them from criticism. He found plenty to criticize in Plato, yet even in his later years he continued to share his father’s conviction that the dialogues had exceptional educational value: “There is no author to whom my father thought himself more indebted for his own mental culture, than Plato, or whom he more frequently recommended to young students. I can bear similar testimony in regard to myself.” (Autobiography) His appreciation of Plato extended beyond his usefulness for dialectical training to include much of the dialogues’ positive content. Most to the present purpose, Mill thoroughly rejected Plato’s authoritarianism, but he embraced the epistocratic dimension of Plato’s thought:

In the political theory thus conceived by Plato…there are two things specially deserving of remark. First, the vigorous assertion of a truth, of transcendent importance and universal application — that the work of government is a Skilled Employment; that governing is not a thing which can be done at odd times, or by the way, in conjunction with a hundred other pursuits, nor to which a person can be competent without a large and liberal general education, directed to acquiring, not mere practical dexterity, but a scientific mastery of the subject. This is the strong side of the Platonic theory. Its weak side is, that it postulates infallibility, or something near it, in rulers thus prepared; or else ascribes such a depth of comparative imbecillity to the rest of mankind, as to unfit them for any voice whatever in their own government, or any power of calling their scientific ruler to account. The error of Plato, like most of the errors of profound thinkers, consisted in seeing only one half of the truth; and (as is also usual with such thinkers) the half which he asserted, was that which he found neglected and left in the background by the institutions and customs of his country. His doctrine was an exaggerated protest against the notion that any man is fit for any duty, a phrase which is the extreme formula of that indifference to special qualifications, and to the superiority of one mind over another, to which there is more or less tendency in all popular governments, and doubtless at Athens, as well as in the United States and in Great Britain, though it would be a mistake to regard it in any of them as either universal or incurable. (“Grote’s Plato”)

Mill’s interpretations and assessments of Plato are as contestable as his own philosophical views. It may be that we should follow Kierstead in resisting even a moderately epistocratic dimension to politics; few, at any rate, would happily follow Mill’s proposals in Considerations on Representative Government for plural voting, giving more votes to educated citizens than to the uneducated. Yet we have more to learn about the shortcomings of Platonic politics from Mill than from Popper. Just as importantly, Mill’s overall engagement with Plato not only illustrates his superiority to Popper as a philosophical reader of the dialogues. Its measured, subtle, complex, and generous approach to their philosophical arguments also provides an excellent model for how one might think of Plato’s positive educational value — even for liberals.

David J. Riesbeck

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I teach philosophy, literature, Greek, and Latin to bright high school students in the bright state of Arizona. I also write about the history of philosophy.