Source of "Canvas-cleaning" is

title:The Open Society and Its Enemies
by Karl R. Popper
ISBN 0-691-01968-1
Volume 1,2

Volume 1
Plato was an artist; and like many of the best
artists, he tried to visualize a model, the 'divine original' of his
work, and to 'copy' it faithfully. A good number of the quotations
given in the last chapter illustrate this point. What Plato
describes as dialectics is, in the main, the intellectual intuition of
the world of pure beauty. His trained philosophers are men
who 'have seen the truth of what is beautiful and just, and
good', and can bring it down from heaven to earth. Politics,
to Plato, is the Royal Art. It is an art-not in a metaphorical
sense in which we may speak about the art of handling men, or
the art of getting things done, but in a more literal sense of the
word. It is an art of composition, like music, painting, or
architecture. The Platonic politician composes cities, for beauty's
But here I must protest. I do not believe that human lives
may be made the means for satisfying an artist's desire for self-
expression. We must demand, rather, that every man should be
given, if he wishes, the right to model his life himself, as far as
this does not interfere too much with others. Much as I may
sympathize with the aesthetic impulse, I suggest that the artist
might seek expression in another material. Politics, I demand,
must uphold equalitarian and individualistic principles; dreams of
beauty have to submit to the necessity of helping men in distress,
and men who suffer injustice; and to the necessity of con-
structing institutions to serve such purposes.
It is interesting to observe the close relationship between
Plato's utter radicalism, the demand for sweeping measures, and
his aestheticism. The following passages are most characteristic.
Plato, speaking about 'the philosopher who has communion with
the divine', mentions first that he will be 'overwhelmed by the
urge to realize his heavenly vision in individuals as well as
in the city',-a city which 'will never know happiness unless its
draughtsmen are artists who have the divine as their model'.
Asked about the details of their draughtsmanship, Plato's
'Socrates' gives the following striking reply: 'They will take as
their canvas a city and the characters of men, and they will, first
of all, make their canvas clean-by no means an easy matter. But
this is just the point, you know, where they will differ from all
others. They will not start work on a city nor on an individual
(nor will they draw up laws) unless they are given a clean canvas,
or have cleaned it themselves.'
The kind of thing Plato has in mind when he speaks of canvas-
cleaning is explained a little later. 'How can that be done?'
asks Glaucon. 'All citizens above the age of ten', Socrates
answers, 'must be expelled from the city and deported some-
where into the country; and the children who are now free from
the influence of the manners and habits of their parents must be
taken over. They must be educated in the ways [of true philo-
sophy], and according to the laws, which we have described.'
(The philosophers are no, of course, among the citizens to be
expelled: they remain as educators, and so do, presumably, those
non-citizens who must keep them going.) In the same spirit,
Plato says in the Statesman of the royal rulers who rule in accord-
ance with the Royal Science of Statesmanship: 'Whether they
happen to rule by law or without law, over willing or unwilling
subjects;...and whether they purge the state for its good,
by killing or by deporting [or 'banishing'] some of its citizens
...-so long as they proceed according to science and justice,
and preserve...the state and make it better than it was, this
form of government must be declared the only one that is right.'
This is the way in which the artist-politician must proceed.
This is what canvas-cleaning means. He must eradicate the
existing institutions and traditions. He must purify, purge,
expel, banish, and kill. ('Liquidate' is the terrible modern
term for it.) Plato's statement is indeed a true description of
the uncompromising attitude of all forms of out-and-out radical-
ism-of the aestheticist's refusal to compromise. The view that
society should be beautiful like a work of art leads only too easily
to violent measures. But all this radicalism and violence is both
unrealistic and futile. (This has been shown by the example of
Russia's development. After the economic breakdown to which
the canvas-cleaning of the so-called 'war communism' had led,
Lenin introduced his 'New Economic Policy', in fact a kind of
piecemeal engineering, though without the conscious formulation
of its principles or of a technology. He started by restoring most
of the features of the picture which had been eradicated with
so much human suffering. Money, markets, differentiation of
income, and private property-for a time even private enterprise
in production-were reintroduced, and only after this basis was
re-established began a new period of reform.)
In order to criticize the foundations of Plato's aesthetic
radicalism, we may distinguish two different points.
The first in this. What some people have in mind who speak
of our 'social system', and of the need to replace it by another
'system', is very similar to a picture painted on a canvas which
has to be wiped clean before one can paint a new one. But there
are some great differences. One of them is that the painter and
those who co-operate with him as well as the institutions which
make their life possible, his dreams and plans for a better world,
and his standards of decency and morality, are all part of the
social system, i.e. of the picture to be wiped out. If they were
really to clean the canvas, they would have to destroy themselves,
and their Utopian plans. (And what follows then would prob-
ably not be a beautiful copy of a Platonic ideal but chaos.) The
political artist clamours, like Archimedes, for a place outside the
social world on which he can take his stand, in order to lever
it off its hinges. But such a place does not exist; and the social
world must continue to function during any reconstruction. This
is the simple reason why we must reform its institutions little by
little, until we have more experience in social engineering.
This leads us to the more important second point, to the
irrationalism which is inherent in radicalism. In all matters,
we can only learn by trial and error, by making mistakes and
improvements; we can never rely on inspiration, although in-
spirations may be most valuable as long as they can be checked by
experience. Accordingly, it is not reasonable to assume that a complete
reconstruction of our social world would lead at once to a workable system.
Rather we should expect that, owing to lack of experience, many
mistakes would be made which could be eliminated only by a
long and laborious process of small adjustments; in other words,
by that rational method of piecemeal engineering whose appli-
cation we advocate. But those who dislike this method as
insufficiently radical would have again to wipe out their freshly
constructed society, in order to start anew with a clean canvas;
and since the new start, for the same reasons, would not lead to
perfection either, they would have to repeat this process without
ever getting anywhere. Those who admit this and are prepared
to adopt our more modest method of piecemeal improvements,
but only after the first radical canvas-cleaning, can hardly escape
the criticism that their first sweeping and violent measures were
quite unnecessary.