Michael Naas, Plato and the Invention of Life. New York: Fordham University Press, 2018; 288 pages. ISBN: 978-0823279678.

Reviewed by Peter Gratton, Southeastern Louisiana University.

Plato and the Invention of Life begins with an audacious title: who would dare suggest that Plato invented life? After all, life is not something invented by a philosopher—not even the most hubristic philosopher would say that—but is something that appeared on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere) billions of years ago. But the question has always been how one draws the line between the inanimate and the animate, the nonliving and the living, and therefore whether one can say with precision where and when life began, e.g., with microorganisms in thermal vents some 3.54 billion years ago. Hence, we would all have to agree that Plato did not invent life. And yet, Naas’s claim that Plato invented a form of life that still hasn’t left us, a life that would be anything but this life and without which neo-Platonic Christianity and much else in the Western philosophical tradition would never have had a beating pulse, is convincing. The book itself is a tour de force of Platonic exegesis, offering, undoubtedly, inventive readings of Plato and giving us means for thinking Plato otherwise.

The book centers on Plato’s Statesman, which is not often considered a pivotal Platonic work. The central question of the Statesman is who the true statesman (politikos) is, given there are many pretenders to the throne: all those who care (epimileomai) for others, but most ominously for Plato, those priests, heralds, and sophists who think their manner of speaking gives them a right to rule. (Statesman, 290a-291c) Thus, the dialogue may appear a strange choice by Naas: the answer to the famous Platonic ti esti… question (what is X?) of the dialogue does not concern life (ti esti ho bios or ti esti hē zōē). Further, it is avowedly concerned less with the question of what is the statesman than using the example as practice for philosophy and dialectics. Nevertheless, the Statesman is essential, Naas argues, for thinking life, life itself, in Plato. Naas provides, despite his focus on the Statesman, an encyclopedic tour of all the kinds of life Plato explores: the divine life of the universe, the quasi-divine life of the philosopher, the unseemly life of pleasure, and so on. He notes early in the book:

I will argue here that almost everything in Plato’s dialogues can and should be read through this question [of life, of what gets called life]. From the question of how best to live a uniquely human life to the question of what distinguishes human life from other kinds of life, whether that of plants, other animals, or the gods, almost all of Plato’s ethical, political, and even epistemological questions revolve around the theme or question of life. (4)

Chapter One focuses on the many lines of division in the Statesman and the Phaedrus, especially the method of diairesis as drawing the line properly of what is in nature. In the Age of Kronos, the Stranger avers, there would be no need for such a cutting, since species would naturally live among their own kind, and so philosophical diaresis is necessary only in the Age of Zeus, this so-called life that we live, since what is separated by nature, automatically in the Age of Kronos, is now all mixed up. The chapter begins with a summary of the Statesman, introducing the two key characters and the major moment, for Naas, of the myth of the Age of Kronos and all that it will mean for his and Plato’s text on the question of life, which will be the focus of Chapters Two and Three.

Naas takes up, in the second and third chapters, Plato’s use of the word automatos as meaning both spontaneity, the freedom to do something, as when the god takes back up the turning of the world, and the more machinic meaning of “automatic,” a passive automatos when the world goes off on its own free of the God in the Age of Zeus, when only a god can save us. This positive and negative valence suggests an indecidability in this or that world between the movement of the living universe as spontaneous or passive, as either a miracle outside of the chain of cause and effect or the machinic happening of come what may, the indecidability of “miracle and machine” that Naas had explored in his earlier book, Miracle and Machine: Jacques Derrida and the Two Sources of Religion, Science, and the Media. Also key in this chapter is the relation of mimēsis between the age of Zeus and the age of Kronos, that is a relation of mimēsis between what we call life (the Age of Zeus) and real life (the Age of Kronos), mimēsis being perhaps the key relation within any opposition: writing imitating speech, sophists imitating the true logos of the philosophers, technics imitating nature, and eventually the statesman imitating in the Age of Zeus the rule of Kronos.

The book wears its readings of Plato and the Statesman lightly: except for obvious references to Derrida in each chapter epigraph, this is not the ancient philosophy monograph that has you combing through a thicket of summaries of previous studies of the Statesman. Chapter Four directly challenges Foucault’s reading of the myth of the Age of Kronos in his 1977-8 lecture course, Security, Territory, Population. Foucault’s claim is that the model of the shepherd, which gives rise to what he dubs pastoral power and ultimately a certain form of sovereignty in the West, arrives only later with the rise of Christianity. His reading, therefore, of the model of the shepherd, no doubt the example of ruling in the Age of Kronos, is definitively replaced by the example of the weaver, once the dialogue commences again after the myth. For Foucault, then, the Greeks, most prominently the Greek named Plato, did not lend credence to the pastoral model. Naas rightly and meticulously shows this to be a misguided reading, one that ignores the way Plato never replaces one model with another in the Statesman, but as with the ship captain, the physician, and so forth, each supplements the other in order to articulate different angles on the type of ruling the statesman does, always differing and deferring any final example that could be given for the eidos or genos of the statesman itself.

Chapter Four looks to passages in the middle of the Statesman, where the Stranger asks after the correct measure of discourses in philosophy and where the Stranger nods at what have often seemed to be long-winded asides and examples, such as that of the weaver. (Statesman, 283b-287a) The Stranger ultimately decides that there is a mean between extremes, though there is no extreme as to the measure of how long a discourse should go in hunting down the true statesman. Chapters Five and Six reread Derrida’s 1968 “Plato’s pharmacy,” especially the myth given by Socrates near the end of the Phaedrus where he describes the invention of writing. Derrida’s reading is well known: Plato needs to at once deny writing as a dead letter, as unworthy of philosophy, since it cannot answer the questions of any dialectician, as opposed to the speech of the philosopher, which emanates from his soul. And yet time and again, Plato uses the “metaphor” of a writing in the soul that more than borrows on writing in the everyday sense. Naas writes:

Derrida is able to show there how the relationship or op­position between speech and writing in the Phaedrus brings along with it Plato’s entire philosophical matrix, from the relationships between unity and multiplicity, being and becoming, presence and absence, and memory and forgetting, to the oppositions between fecundity and sterility, legitimacy and illegitimacy, and life and death. Cut off from the presence of a living speaker, written discourses present only a semblance of life and so threaten the real life that can be found only in living speech. (12-13)

What becomes clear in these chapters is that there is an isonomy between Plato’s privileging of living speech and the depiction of the statesman who is to rule without spoken or written laws, and therefore between all that Derrida deconstructs in “Plato’s Pharmacy” concerning speaking and writing and what Plato does in the Statesman, where both compare one life (one not threatened by writing or the laws, by technique in general) by way of metaphor of the fallen or “bad one.” (122, see also 144)

What, then, is the real life in Plato, or indeed, in Plato and the Invention of Life? This brings Naas onto familiar ground: Giorgio Agamben’s claim in Homo Sacer I that the Greeks made a distinction between bios (a civic life worth living) and bare life (zōē) (Agamben, 1-2), a claim he borrows without attribution from Arendt’s The Human Condition. (Arendt, 97) Agamben’s claim is not some philological exercise, but rather seeks to demonstrate that at least since the Greeks, the West has been ruled over by a sovereignty that distinguishes between bios and zōē, but Naas goes further in highlighting different uses of bios and zōē and their verbal counterparts in Plato’s corpus and hence the differing and deferred meanings of life, of what we call life, in Plato.

There is what we “call life, either zōē or bios,” which marks the period of the ensouled body between life and death in the Age of Zeus. (185) This zōē or bios is at stake from a this worldly reading of Plato, and certainly the “Socratic Plato” who in the Phaedo has his foot planted firmly on the floor, the one who exhorts us to live an examined life, a life of wisdom over pleasure, and certainly a life of philosophy over a life of political or self-tyranny—that is, a life worth living (euzēn). But zōē and zēn, as is known to any Greek reader of Plato, is also reserved for the divine life of the cosmos and God, one that is beyond being (epekeina tēs ousias in The Republic). (Republic, 509b) but is nevertheless “truly living” (alēthōs zōiē [Rep. 590b]). (178) It is this thinking of life that is “truly unique to Plato,” Naas argues.

In the end of Plato and the Invention of Life, Naas argues that the best textual evidence for this “form (eidos) of life” is found not in the Statesman but the Phaedo, the text that makes central a “form of life [zōēs eidos]” (Phaedo, 106d), one that is the telos of all of its arguments over the immortality of the soul and one that has no technicity, is ever self-present, and for whose possibility we owe a cock to Asclepius. Let me cite Naas on what this truly living means:

[T]his is truly unique to Plato—what [we called] real life or life itself, a life over and above everything we call life, a life independent of and transcendent to that life, a life that provides the measure or and gives meaning to all other life forms. It is this particular lie form, this Form of life, as we saw, that seems to become detached in Plato, and particularly in later dialogues, from everything called life, even if everything called life seems to get its meaning and, in some sense, even its name, from that real life that would have preceded it. Real life or life itself gives meaning to everything called life: This is, to be sure, a rather Platonist reading or understanding of the dialogues. (185-6)

As these chapters unfold, Naas allows Plato’s lives to reanimate themselves, as it were, in his own writing, beyond the life and death of its author. Before Plato and the Invention of Life, no text to my mind had made this case so thoroughly and shown it to be as central to all of the dichotomies that Plato’s oeuvre lived on, and through which it survives: the living and the non-living, the human and the animal, the intellectual and the sensible, and so on down the line to the whole matrix of the thought we call Platonism.

In the conclusion to the book, Naas supplements Plato to ask us to take up another thinking of life and another life of thinking, namely Derrida and his 1975-6 lecture course La vie la mort. This life death would evince the structure of différance that makes any distinctions in Plato (including all those made in the divided line or the divisions of diaresis), possible in the first place—and therefore also impossible. This life death would be “not the opposite of death but that which must be thought together with death from the very beginning.” (196) “All of this would be another way of saying,” Naas writes, “that, in Plato, there is at once Platonism, the opposite of Platonism, and that which disrupts—or deconstructs—that Platonism.” (196) The surprise of the event of life itself when one finds a life death at the margins of Plato and Platonism itself. This is why reading Plato, as in this work by Naas, even after so long and after so many commentaries, can catch us by surprise, since the life death of Plato is still to be invented and to come. Having read Naas’s latest, I can’t for the life of me think it otherwise.


Additional Works Cited

Giorgio Agamben (1998), Homo Sacer, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Hannah Arendt (1998), The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jacques Derrida (2019), La vie la mort: Séminaire 1975-1976. Paris: Seuil.

Michel Foucault (2009), Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978, trans. Graham Burchell. New York: Picador.

Michael Naas (2012), Miracle and Machine: Jacques Derrida and the Two Sources of Religion, Science, and the Media. New York: Fordham.

Plato, Laws (1926), trans. R. G. Bury. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Plato, Phaedo (1932), trans. Christopher Emlyn-Jones and William Preddy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Plato, Republic (1932), trans. Christopher Emlyn-Jones and William Preddy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Plato, Statesman (1925), trans. Harold North Fowler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.