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Scott’s Column: The Strain

Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
October 3 2018

In his magisterial work The Open Society and Its Enemies philosopher Karl Popper contrasts closed societies with open ones.  Closed societies are more collectivist.  A key feature is that an individual rarely struggles to understand what the right thing to do is, as social custom has made that clear.  Identity, meaning, and purpose are clear.

Open societies are ones in which individuals are “confronted with personal decisions.”  One must create one’s identity and social relations rather than having them created for oneself.

While the shift from more traditional, closed societies to more modern, open ones has created benefits, it has also come with losses.  In modern societies many people are lonely and they feel the strain of having to make personal decisions.

It is the concept of the strain, that most fascinated me as I read Popper this summer.  He wrote, “the strain [is] created by the effort which life in an open and partially abstract society continually demands from us–by the endeavour to be rational, to forgo at least some of our emotional social needs, to look after ourselves, and to accept responsibilities.”

He continued:

It is part of the strain that we are becoming more and more painfully aware of the gross imperfections in our life, of personal as well as of institutional imperfection; of avoidable suffering, of waste and unnecessary ugliness; and at the same time of the fact that it is not impossible for us to do something about all this, but that such improvements would be just as hard to achieve as they are important.  This awareness increases the strain of personal responsibility, of carrying the cross of being human. 

Popper claimed that this strain explained the appeal of totalitarian states at the time of his writing in the 1940’s.  It might explain the current reactions against immigrants and refugees and advances in women’s and LGBT equality.

Popper contends that our destiny as humans means we must move forward into the open society.  He writes that we can never return to the closed society without becoming like beasts.  He concludes:

But if we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society.  We must go on into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure, using what reason we may have to plan as well as we can for both security and freedom.