The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper

‘Equality before the law’ is not a fact but a political demand based upon a moral decision; and it is quite independent of the theory – which is probably false – that ‘all men are born equal.’

I am A Man of Letters. I’ve been reading lately, and I have found some words I would like to share. Today, selections from The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper. Popper was born in 1902 and died in 1994. He was a philosopher. The Open Society and Its Enemies was first published in 1945.

Though truth is not self-revealing […], though certainty may be unattainable, the human situation with respect to knowledge is far from desperate. On the contrary, it is exhilarating: here we are, with the immensely difficult task before us of getting to know the beautiful world we live in, and ourselves; and fallible though we are we nevertheless find that our powers of understanding, surprisingly, are almost adequate for the task – more so than we ever dreamt in our wildest dreams. We really do learn from our mistakes, by trial and error. And at the same time we learn how little we know – as when, in climbing a mountain, every step upwards opens some new vista into the unknown, and new worlds unfold themselves of whose existence we knew nothing when we began our climb.

Thus we can learn, we can grow in knowledge, even if we can never know – that is, know for certain. Since we can learn, there is no reason for despair of reason; and since we can never know, there are no grounds here for smugness, or for conceit over the growth of our knowledge.

It may be said that this new way of knowing is too abstract and too sophisticated to replace the loss of authoritarian religion. This may be true. But we must not underrate the power of the intellect and the intellectuals. It was the intellectuals – the ‘second-hand dealers in ideas,’ as F. A. Hayek calls them – who spread relativism, nihilism, and intellectual despair. There is no reason why some intellectuals – some more enlightened intellectuals – should not eventually succeed in spreading the good news that the nihilist ado was indeed about nothing. […]

Let us examine the consequences of irrationalism […] The irrationalist insists that emotions and passions rather than reason are the mainsprings of human action. To the rationalist’s reply that, though this may be so, we should do what we can to remedy it, and should try to make reason play as large a part as it possibly can, the irrationalist would rejoin (if he condescends to a discussion) that this attitude is hopelessly unrealistic. For it does not consider the weakness of ‘human nature,’ the feeble intellectual endowment of most men and their obvious dependence upon emotions and passions.

It is my firm conviction that this irrational emphasis upon emotion and passion leads ultimately to what I can only describe as crime. One reason for this opinion is that this attitude, which is at best one of resignation towards the irrational nature of human beings, at worst one of scorn for human reason, must lead to an appeal to violence and brutal force as the ultimate arbiter in any dispute. For if a dispute arises, then this means that those more constructive emotions and passions which might in principle help to get over it, reverence, love, devotion to a common cause, etc., have shown themselves incapable of solving the problem. But if that is so, then what is left to the irrationalist except the appeal to other and less constructive emotions and passions, to fear, hatred, envy, and ultimately, to violence? This tendency is very much strengthened by another and perhaps even more important attitude which also is in my opinion inherent in irrationalism, namely, the stress on the inequality of men.

It cannot, of course, be denied that human individuals are, like all other things in our world, in very many respects very unequal. Nor can it be doubted that this inequality is of great importance and even in many respects highly desirable. (The fear that the development of mass production and collectivization may react upon men by destroying their inequality or individuality is one of the nightmares of our times.) But all this simply has no bearing upon the question whether or not we should decide to treat men, especially in political issues, as equals, or as much like equals as is possible; that is to say, as possessing equal rights, and equal claims to equal treatment; and it has no bearing upon the question whether we ought to construct political institutions accordingly. ‘Equality before the law’ is not a fact but a political demand based upon a moral decision; and it is quite independent of the theory – which is probably false – that ‘all men are born equal.’ Now I do not intend to say that the adoption of this humanitarian attitude of impartiality is a direct consequence of a decision in favor of rationalism. But a tendency towards impartiality is closely related to rationalism, and can hardly be excluded from the rationalist creed. Again, I do not intend to say that an irrationalist could not consistently adopt an equalitarian or impartial attitude; and even if he could not do so consistently, he is not bound to be consistent. But I do wish to stress the fact that the irrationalist attitude can hardly avoid becoming entangled with the attitude that is opposed to equalitarianism. This fact is connected with its emphasis upon emotions and passions; for we cannot feel the same emotions towards everybody. Emotionally, we all divide men into those who are near to us, and those who are far from us. The division of mankind into friend and foe is a most obvious emotional division; and this division is even recognized in the Christian commandment, ‘Love thy enemies!’ Even the best Christian who really lives up to this commandment (there are not many, as is shown by the attitude of the average good Christian towards ‘materialists’ and ‘atheists’), even he cannot feel equal love for all men. We cannot really love ‘in the abstract;’ we can love only those whom we know. Thus the appeal even to our best emotions, love and compassion, can only tend to divide mankind into different categories. And this will be more true if the appeal is made to lesser emotions and passions. Our ‘natural’ reaction will be to divide mankind into friend and foe; into those who belong to our tribe, to our emotional community, and those who stand outside it; into believers and unbelievers; into compatriots and aliens; into class comrades and class enemies; and into leaders and led.

Thank you for listening. For more information about the words I have read and the music to follow, please visit A Man of Letters.

Until I return, I am… A Man of Letters.

Dajos Bela Dance Orchestra – Die Manner der Manon (c1927)
The Rhythmic Eight – Umtcha, Umtcha, Da Da Da (Zonophone 5323 1929)

Episode 1526