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Reviewed by:
  • Plato and the Invention of Life by Michael Naas
  • Andrea Falcon
NAAS, Michael. Plato and the Invention of Life. New York: Fordham University Press. 2018. 155 pp. Paper, $32.00

The question of life as such is not the explicit focus of any Platonic dialogue. However, Naas thinks that the use of ideas and words related to life is prominent in Plato and thinks that this use warrants a careful study. Although he quotes and discusses passages from many dialogues, most notably, Phaedrus, Theaetetus, Sophist, Philebus, Timaeus, and Laws, he concentrates on the Statesman. As he himself admits, his choice is far from obvious. Why not start this investigation from the Timaeus? After all, the Timaeus is the text in which Plato engages with the previous tradition of natural philosophy. It is also the text in which Plato offers his own account of the origin of our world, which is understood as a living being containing all living beings. More to the point: a question for any book on what Plato means by "life," including the one under review, is how Plato is entitled to speak of life in connection [End Page 621] with things as different as the world, the heavenly bodies (by Plato's lights, they are alive), humans, animals, and plants. Instead of approaching the topic of life from the Timaeus, and using the results reached in the study of the Timaeus to shed light on how the vocabulary of life is used by Plato elsewhere, Naas prefers to concentrate, at least initially, on the Statesman because "the theme and vocabulary of life are woven through the entirety of the Statesman even if this may not be so evident at first sight." Six (out of the eight) chapters in the book are concerned with the Statesman or promote a certain reading of the Statesman. The methodology adopted in the critical engagment with the Statesman, and Plato's work in general, merits some discussion. Plato is approached through the lens of Derrida—mostly, but not exclusively, his famous essay entitled "Plato's Pharmacy." As a result, the book as a whole has two goals. While these goals need not conflict with one another, they are clearly distinct. On the one hand, the book aims to offer an interpretation of the question of life in Plato. On the other, it aspires to contribute, through a certain reading of Plato, to a discussion about life in contemporary continental philosophy.

Other reviewers are better qualified to speak about the second goal. I will concentrate on the first. The final chapter, entitled "Plato and the Invention of Life Itself," is arguably the most important and ambitious. It also seems to contain one of the main lessons that the reader is expected to take away from the book as a whole, which is captured by the following question: In what sense did Plato invent life? To begin with, Naas finds in Plato's works a distinction between a certain way or type of life (bios) and bare life (zoê). With the word zoê, Plato would attempt to capture an activity—the activity of being alive (zên). Naas observes that for Plato the soul is that which gives life (zoê), the presence of which enables us to call something or someone a living thing (zôon). Insofar as it is the source of life the soul does not simply have life but rather is life. Naas refers to the life of the soul as real life or life itself—that is, a life beyond what we call life. This is the sort of life that Plato would have invented. In his conclusion to the chapter, Naas suggests that this particular conception of life and being alive may explain how Plato applies the word zôon not only to the world as a whole but also to the different kinds of creatures that inhabit it. I am not sure that this suggestion really helps us. Recall, in particular, that our world is just a copy of an intelligible living world. As a result, it does not take long to realize that not only what we call life but also life itself takes...


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pp. 621-622
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