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date: 21 November 2019

Greek Philosophy in the Twenty-first Century

Abstract and Keywords

This article addresses contemporary efforts to understand how the earliest practitioners of philosophy conceived of the philosophic life. It argues that, for Plato, the concept of bios was a central, animating, and structuring object of philosophic inquiry. Concentration on the imagery Plato employed to draw bios into the purview of philosophic contemplation and choice points to interpretative avenues that further the aim of treating the dialogues as complex, integrated wholes, and offers a new approach to the question of the status of image-making in them. The article concludes with thoughts on how an exploration of bios might extend beyond Plato to Aristotle, via an examination of his treatment of the range of human and animal bioi, suggesting that such an examination clarifies the relationship between his analysis of the polis-dwelling animal and his broader investigation of living beings as such.

Keywords: Greek philosophy, Plato, Aristotle, imagery, manner of life, bios

Gadflies and Gatekeepers

In the confessional preface to his self-described “hypertranslation” of Plato’s Republic, Alain Badiou presents his efforts as combining, “a constant proximity to the original text with a radical distancing from it, but a distancing on which the text, as it might function today, generously confers its legitimacy.”1 This play between proximity and a “generously legitimated” distance strikes a chord with much of contemporary engagement with ancient Greek philosophy. If dominant currents in scholarship in the nineteenth century sought to emphasize its affinity with ancient Greek thought (we too are Greeks), and scholarship in the twentieth century sought to offer a corrective by marking significant lines of distance (the Greeks are strangers), the early years of the twenty-first century have seen an effort to query philosophic origins for the purpose of a critical self-estrangement (we are strangers).

This turn to reflect on what an interpretation of an ancient text reveals about the perspective of the interpreter is not unrelated to the status of philosophy in higher education. Indeed, this is a soul-searching time for professional philosophy. In the face of several public and shameful controversies in American and European departments, shifting institutional priorities in higher education in general, and a cross-continental public discourse that rarely strays from emphasis on hire-ability, the discipline has found itself justifying its place in the academy with increasing urgency.2 This is not always an easy task for a field whose most famous practitioner compared his actions to those of a small, stinging insect.

Nevertheless, the figure of Socrates presented in the Platonic dialogues continues to grip contemporary philosophers’ and theorists’ conceptions of their own practice, from Michel Foucault’s fearless parrhesiast to Gilles Deleuze’s description of philosophy as the shaming of ignorance. It should come as no surprise that this figure and those whom he most immediately inspired should receive increased attention, in a reflexive turn remarkable even for a discipline that has often defined itself by its inquiry into inquiry. Indeed, while philosophy may be beleaguered, work in ancient philosophy is very much alive. In addition to the many monographs, edited volumes, and articles on the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, and Hellenistic philosophy by classicists and specialists in ancient philosophy, lively debates about its figures and texts are found in almost every strand of contemporary theory, and a wide variety of theorists see ancient Greek philosophy as providing an occasion to advance their own speculative and critical projects.3

If we set aside disciplinary differences for a moment and look at the array of scholars who are captured by the work of Plato, Aristotle, and others, we see a shared concern about what philosophy is and who is entitled to do it. This line of inquiry is reflected in contemporary work on pre-Socratic and Hellenistic philosophy as well.4 And, pleading finitude, if we limit our focus to work in English on Plato and Aristotle, we see this concern expressed along several familiar trajectories. In this article I focus on how the question concerning the nature of philosophy, as Plato and Aristotle raise and respond to it, is taken up in contemporary scholarship, and suggest a few ways in which these conversations might be moved forward.

Socratic Practice, Platonic Writing

Inquiry into Plato’s conception of the nature and practice of philosophy has tended to follow two broad and interconnected lines: a study of the enigmatic character of Plato’s Socrates and a study of the character of Platonic writing itself, especially Plato’s choice of writing dialogues and the dramatic and figurative elements contained therein. Both of these strands of thought have received renewed interest recently. Regarding Socrates, several recent monographs have provided inroads to re-evaluating Socratic practice as Plato depicts it.5 Extended consideration of what Plato takes philosophy to be via a study of his Socrates can also be found in recent work on the one thing Socrates claims he did know (τὰ ἐρωτικά, Symposium 177d), while another strand of inquiry approaches philosophy from the perspective of what Aristotle claimed Socrates knew: the pursuit and formation of definitions.6

With respect to the question of Platonic writing, the debate in the 1990s and early 2000s about what to do with the dramatic and literary dimensions of the dialogues has largely been resolved on the side of taking these dimensions seriously as essential features of whatever it is Plato believes philosophizing to be, to the extent that this can be gleaned from the dialogues.7 Christopher Rowe’s work, especially his Plato and the Art of Philosophical Writing, has done much to bring the significance of the dialogic and dramatic character of Platonic writing into the purview of specialists in ancient philosophy trained in the analytic tradition and to move the study of Plato beyond the developmentalist versus unitarian debate.8

Within the continental tradition, a long-standing emphasis on the literary dimensions of the dialogues grew out of the work of a number of thinkers who saw in the early stages and subsequent development of phenomenology a philosophical enterprise resonant with Platonic and Aristotelian thought,9 and lives on in a range of phenomenologically inflected approaches to Plato that share an emphasis on the autonomy of the text, the value of polysemy, and the positive force of aporia, emphases which have tended to steer away from engagement with the developmentalist versus unitarian debates.10

The growing consensus about the importance of literary and dramatic elements of Plato’s dialogues has produced something of a sea change in Plato scholarship. Concepts that fifty years ago would have been attributed to Plato without the blink of an eye are undergoing renewed scrutiny. It is now possible to consider, in the careful and rigorous manner in which Debra Nails does, for instance, whether Plato has a two-world metaphysics, or to assert, as Dimitri El Murr does, that, “Plato was never so confused as to make the form of the good an entity disconnected from human practice.”11 Greater attention is also being paid to the variety of discursive forms by means of which Plato approaches the phenomena that most inspire his philosophic reflection: love, beauty, the excellences, the desire for learning, the inadequacy of the senses to resolve certain experiences, the good and its expression in human life, and so forth.

Certainly there are pitfalls here, and the further away such approaches go from paying some attention to how Plato was read and interpreted by his more immediate predecessors, the less traction they have as generative readings of Plato. There can be a tendency, identifiable in all the main strains of approaches to Plato, to treat his dialogues as being sent into an abyss, waiting timelessly for more contemporary eyes. Fortunately the work of a number of scholars to contextualize various ancient approaches to reading and interpreting Plato has gone a long way toward providing ways of correcting for this, and one ignores this work only at one’s own risk.12 But there is another risk that must be navigated, that is, the danger of overlooking the extent to which any engagement with Plato has already been formed and directed by certain interpretations of Plato, and I take a significant strand of research on Plato in contemporary continental philosophy to follow in the wake of the effort, inspired by Nietzsche, to reveal implicit Platonisms, an effort well-documented by classicists working in reception studies.13 This strand of research is filled with a long-running debate, crossing continental and analytical lines, about the extent to which Plato was a Platonist.14 Indeed, the division between continental and analytic philosophy does not map neatly onto many of the most recent studies of Plato, and a call for more integrative engagements with the dialogues, once a hallmark of a continental approach, can now be heard from all quarters. The question germane to more recent scholarship is how to do so, and while there is hardly consensus on this issue, there is growing agreement that the individual dialogue is the determining unit of interpretation. This is not at all to say that one should not draw connection between dialogues, but only that in understanding a claim made by any of Plato’s interlocutors, there is a burden to discern its meaning within the dialogic context in which it was raised and to which it responds and to ground one’s comparisons in this understanding.15 Certainly there continues to be work done along analytic, Straussian, and Tuebingen school lines, to which I would add the phenomenologically inflected approach described above as sufficiently distinct to merit its own line. But in searching for strategies for integrated readings of the dialogues, a more robust pluralist approach to the secondary literature, rather than a demarcation along lines that often do a disservice to the range and variety of careful, searching work on Plato, is likely to be the more useful. In evaluating Plato scholarship, as with any scholarship, the best standard by which one should judge is whether one learns anything from it, and from this perspective the variety of approaches to Plato offers a rich field of resources.

The collective sense of the need for approaches to Plato that take into account the full range of discursive forms he employs has inspired recent work on Plato’s myths and his use of imagery more broadly.16 There is much further work to be done in mapping, to borrow a phrase from Michele Le Doueff, Plato’s “philosophical imaginary,” and I take this to be a particularly rich arena of research, for reasons I elaborate below.17

Platonic Imagery, Gadfly Philosophy, and the Philosophic Bios

There is perhaps no more widely known philosophic claim than the one Plato’s Socrates makes in the course of defending his life: the unexamined life is not worth living (ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς) (38a5). But the lengths to which Plato will go in illustrating the difficulty and risks of examining one’s manner of life (bios)—that is, his mobilization of elenchus, demonstration, and imagery in the service of making bios an object of philosophic scrutiny—is not equally observed, even among specialists in ancient philosophy. To be sure, a number of scholars have focused attention on the inadequacy of conceiving of philosophy, in the ancient Greek context, in the absence of some sense of the philosophic life.18 Nevertheless, with few exceptions, the breadth and depth of Plato’s concern to illuminate bios as an object of both contemplation and choice—that is, the animating and structural force of bios in the dialogues—has not been sufficiently remarked in recent scholarship.19 Evidence for the centrality of bios lies not only in the frequency with which Plato employs the trope of competing forms of life (e.g., body-loving and wisdom-loving lives in the Phaedo; perfectly just and unjust lives or the lovers of sights and sounds versus the lovers of wisdom in the Republic; the life of pleasure, the life of the mind, and the mixed life in the Philebus), but also the frequency with which interlocutors, especially in the aporetic dialogues, are asked to see that they have already chosen a manner of life based on culturally inflected assumptions about what kind of life is choice-worthy, assumptions in need of rigorous scrutiny. A focus on Platonic imagery illuminates bios as a central concern throughout the Platonic corpus, one that requires the diversity of discursive forms by which the dialogues are populated. A study of Plato’s images, then, is necessary if one is to develop an understanding of Plato’s presentation of philosophy in the dialogues precisely because so much of his imagery is constructed to encourage his interlocutors and his readers to view bios in this way, that is, as a question, and even as the question that inspires all other questions.

Thus, I am claiming for bios an integrative role in Plato’s dialogues. This is in part possible because bios itself is an integrating concept; it calls attention to the possibility for cohesion by means of which the capacities for perceiving, desiring, acting, and thinking are held together in such a way as to produce a discernible “manner” or “way.”20 And here we should draw an important distinction. Bios is not the same thing as the self, and Plato’s concern with bios is not simply with the particular lives of single individuals, but rather with what makes any such life recognizable as of a certain sort, and these sorts are iterable. In this sense, bios is not the exclusive property of the self; rather, the bios of any one person points beyond itself, to factors that exceed any particular “version” of, for instance, the philosophical life or the political life.21 And this brings us closer to understanding why bios would be such a philosophically provocative phenomenon for Plato. The fact that the many disparate activities and capacities required for living can be integrated into a coherent manner of life is a function of the operation of a generative principal of order and intelligibility, for which Plato famously, or infamously, has a name: the good. Plato treats bios, then, as perhaps the strongest evidence available to human beings of the force of the good, and it is in pursuit of illuminating this connection that much of Plato’s most powerful imagery is produced.

As a preliminary effort to clarify this connection between life and image in Plato, I sketch out a few possible approaches to mapping Platonic imagery below, but I am well aware that this is a somewhat artificial and corrective move. Reading the dialogues as an integrated, or, to follow the suggestion of the Phaedrus, organic whole remains the ideal. My hope is that some isolation of Plato’s images will allow us to see better how they fit into the dialogues to which they belong, and thus will serve more as a selective zoology rather than an autopsy.

No assessment of Platonic imagery can begin without acknowledging both his pervasive use of vivid imagery and his forceful and sustained critique of the image. One of the most provocative challenges the dialogues present is how to hold these two together and avoid the danger of simply dismissing Platonic imagery as “mere” rhetoric written for the sake of the less philosophically inclined, or as a tool of manipulation, or a regrettable digression from the philosophic work of argument (all responses invited by Plato himself). Efforts to separate out “real” philosophic work from the “merely” imagistic or rhetorical have been largely unsuccessful as persuasive readings of Plato because of the impoverished version of the dialogues they present. The safer course, in my opinion, is to assume that Plato took the work of image-making to be a vital and risky part of what it means to do philosophy.

Increasingly this ambivalence with respect to images has been taken as the point from which an assessment of Plato’s images must begin.22 It is equally important, however, to observe that the very critique of images that has proven to be a hallmark of Platonic thought occurs by way of images; that is, Plato mobilizes the act of image-making in its own criticism. He thereby imbeds a form of immanent critique within his dialogues, one that responds to his concern about the seductive quality of images—their capacity to attract desire and adhere it to ideas, to generate fantasies that turn life and action in certain ways and that require the most nimble and forceful forms of critique, their ability to mask their status as images—and sees this concern as the source of the ambivalence with which they should be treated. They must work, but not too well.

But what is this work to which they are put; what are they to do? Following this question through helps guard against another danger, that is, treating Platonic imagery as a monolithic construction. Again, to some extent Plato himself encourages this, as he treats mimesis and the image, especially “lies in speech,” as unified objects of philosophic scrutiny. Nevertheless, if we look at what his images do in the context of the dialogues in which they appear, we find a heterogeneous field of forces and functions, with several lines of classification available to the would-be taxonomist. One would be a demarcation of images by subject matter, and here there seem to be two general classes of images: (a) of phenomena under question, for example, the soul, the city, learning, justice and injustice, and so forth, and (b) of the questioning itself and the ones undertaking it, that is, images of the participants in a dialogue and their activity: they hunt, they wrestle; they sail; they fall in love; and, speaking to a deeper, more subterranean but powerful desire, they give birth. I would not want to insist on this distinction too far; after all, one could argue that, in one way or another, in a Platonic dialogue the object under question precisely is the questioner. Nevertheless, it is worth observing that a character in the dialogues is put into question often in the course of examining something else—as when Meno or Euthyphro must confront his own confusion about matters of virtue and piety, respectively—and to maintain this distinction in order to see the way in which the possibility of self-knowledge emerges within this practice of inquiry.23

Another axis for classification would be identification of source material for the image, if there is any that can be found. Throughout the dialogues, Plato mines comedy, tragedy, lyric poetry, medical theory, sophistry, and the theories of other philosophers, and employs favored tropes (agricultural when dynamism, transformation, and maturation are emphasized; seafaring when the nature of expertise or need for order is attempting to be clarified). His critical appropriation of these sources adds another dialogic layer to Plato’s writing.

Perhaps more controversially, we could also classify by way of the specific hermeneutic status of any particular image, and here, in looking to the interpretive clues that often accompany Plato’s images, we again encounter two sorts: some images are presented as objects of interpretation, and others are not. Some of Plato’s images, such as the noble lie and some of the preludes in the Laws, especially those appended to penal law, are presented as having been constructed less for their truth value than for their efficacy in bringing about some political or philosophically salutary end. These images are not meant to be interpreted but to be believed, and their justification is found not in their truth but in the expediency of this belief for producing some desired outcome: increased care for the city and one another in the case of the noble lie (415d) and, as is implied throughout Book 9, increased obedience in the case of the Laws.

Alternately, most of Plato’s images are presented as indicating something true in such a manner as to yield this truth if interpreted. This class admits of two subclasses based on the subject matter distinction made above: namely, images that attempt to say something true about an object of inquiry, and images that attempt to say something true about the interlocutors and/or their activity. Sometimes Plato constructs images that present themselves as venturing forth on a tentative, experimental explanation of or insight into a phenomenon that requires philosophic attention, but for which the proper course of thought has yet to be determined. These do serve a kind of speculative end, but they also point out what the limits of knowledge, and of the image itself, are—in this, even Plato’s most speculative images have a critical aspect often conveyed by explicit qualification as to their veracity. If we take these qualifications seriously, then we should read the myth of the earth in the Phaedo, for instance, less as an account of what Plato believes to be the case about the afterlife, and more as an attempt to expand moral imagination, to use the language of physical process to figure the enactment of justice, to reframe and offer resources for developing a conceptual vocabulary of the effect of violent action on the community, to consider the transforming power of forgiveness as well as its fragility and contingency.24 These images attempt to advance knowledge while also announcing their own limits.

Sometimes Plato constructs an image that is presented as identifying something true but obscured about the present situation in which the interlocutors, or even Plato’s audience, find themselves. The Phaedo myth is particularly rich insofar as it figures both the phenomenon under question, the “true” earth, and those doing the questioning—we live middling lives between the underworld and the heavenly realm. Such imagery often has a critical tone as well, a sense of furthering self-knowledge by calling attention to self-deception. It tends to do so by employing an estranging operation—we are like these others in this different place/situation—and often involves an imagined change of location. We could chart, then, the various topographies Plato envisions—the plain of Lethe in the Republic, the rivers under the earth in the Phaedo, the “inverted theater” in the Phaedrus—and the eye he constructs to survey them, an eye that passes above, upon, and beneath the earth, that hovers on plains, sinks beneath the crust, ascends beyond the heavens. All of these images call into question the perspective from which the listeners/readers are approaching the questions with which they are grappling (and themselves) and whatever taxonomy of these images and myths one might produce must be sensitive to their critical dimension as well as their speculative aspects. Such a focus on the image as vehicle of critique illuminates the self-critical, dialectical character of many of Plato’s most imagistic passages and forces us to consider their philosophic value not solely as imaginative flights of fancy or as expedient modes of explanation/persuasion but also as tools of critique and thus as essential to philosophical activity as Plato’s Socrates embodies it (i.e., as essential to gadfly philosophy). In this, Plato’s imagery continues, supports, and expands the critical work of elenchus.

We can thus identify at least three functions or aspects of Platonic imagery: critical, speculative, and, to the extent that these images are presented as correcting for a false understanding, therapeutic. This final aspect of Platonic imagery brings us perhaps closest to the objection that images are fundamentally unphilosophic, but, as I aim to show below, such a claim overlooks the nimbleness of both thought and language required to make of bios an object of inquiry. This case is better made via a more concrete discussion of a particular dialogue, in which we can better view the relation among these three functions of images. In the following section I chart how these aspects are at play in the imagery of the Republic, a dialogue whose famous inquiry into justice is undertaken for the sake of determining which kind of life, just or unjust, is most choice-worthy.

Images of Life in the Republic

Implicit throughout Socrates’s extended defense of justice in the Republic is the idea that an adequate understanding of justice will include the affirmation of the just life as more choice-worthy than the unjust. Justice cannot be defended, then, without a portrait of the just life; indeed, the worth of defending justice is tied to its having some bearing on how one chooses to live. When Socrates wants to remind Thrasymachus and his other interlocutors about the significance of their discussion of justice, he does so by pointing out, twice, that the matter at hand is of the utmost importance, namely, the selection of a “whole course of life” (ὅλου βίου διαγωγήν) (344e), the determination of, “the way one should live” (the question at hand is περὶ τοῦ ὅντινα τρόπον χρὴ ζῆν) (352d).25 Glaucon casts the defense of justice he seeks from Socrates as a comparison between most perfectly just and unjust men in order to adequately judge their lives (360e). And while Adeimantus’s elaboration of this request—asking Socrates to illuminate what justice and injustice, each in itself, does to the soul of the one who has it (367b and e)—may appear to mark a shift to a discussion of character, that this exploration of character is conducted for the sake of determining a course of life is again emphasized in Book 10, where Socrates interrupts his tale about the choice of patterns of life (βίων παραδείγματα) to exhort Glaucon to seek out the study that would indicate to him who could help him determine which course of life is best (618b–619a).

I take this emphasis on bios to structure the dialogue in significant ways. First, at stake in the discussion between Socrates and his interlocutors is a training and refinement of judgment (they must have their eyes sharpened) that must include a significant self-critical dimension (their own proclivities, desires, and fantasies will have to be examined). Second, we must maintain some distance between those who are identifying forms of life and the forms of life that are identified; after all, a study of bioi and, closely related, psuchē, are not included under the philosophic curriculum identified in Book 7.26 Bios and psuchē are dynamic entities that change and transform; their analysis requires attention to the modes and mechanisms of this transformation. Socrates and his interlocutors cannot view the just or unjust person, nor his life, without charting the process by means of which one becomes such, and what one does once one has. This is to say that the turn toward being Socrates describes in his account of the philosophic nature is conducted for the sake of determining an object subject to becoming. This may very well mark a difference between philosophizing and choosing a life, a difference signaled in the qualification in Book 10 of philosophizing “in a healthy way” (619d). But that philosophizing requires a choice of life is asserted throughout Socrates’s account of the philosophic nature, its education, and its role in the city. And finally, modes of life come to be seen, analyzed, and judged by way of a subtle philosophic portraiture that cannot do without images as well as some means of avoiding mistaking the images for the things themselves.

If we turn to the manner in which just and unjust lives are called into question, we see that Plato extends a great deal of energy to address a powerful impediment to an assessment of these lives, namely, the assumptions about them that already exist in the broader cultural milieu in which Glaucon and Adeimantus find themselves, assumptions about which they are suspicious. If we are to take a fuller measure of the operation of images in the dialogue, then, we must read the rich imagery of the Republic as marshaled for the sake of dismantling the fantasy of the free and happy tyrant, and observe that this disruptive project is presented as being undertaken in order to help Socrates’s young friends better choose what kind of life they are to live.27 On the one hand, this is a culturally embedded project; it addresses itself to the deep current in Athens that valorized the license and “freedom” that the figure of the happy tyrant represents, and it attempts to alter the specific set of attachments (to ideas, people, and things) that fuel this fantasy. There is, then, to borrow from Jean-Francois Lyotard, a “libidinal economy” at work here that Plato is attempting to disrupt and restructure. On the other hand, the fantasy itself has a life longer than this particular context, as do the institutions that support it and the interests it serves, and the imagery by means of which this fantasy is called into question also invites Plato’s readers to consider its resonance and echoes with their own time and place.

The structure and movement of the dialogue suggest that the process by means of which this dismantling work is accomplished requires the most radical forms of thought and inquiry. If one’s desires are to be reworked, one must conceive of the nature of reality, the city, and oneself differently. Glaucon and Adeimantus themselves articulate the cultural construction of the fantasy of the happy tyrant, introducing the distinction between appearance and reality that will prove so decisive for the dialogue by means of the imagery of surface and façade (e.g., 365c), imagery that will return in their judgment of lives in Book 9. In between the initial articulation of those social and political factors that promote the unjust life and the judgment of this life, a vast network of images is assembled, beginning with Socrates’s comparison of himself and his interlocutors to nearsighted people in need of larger letters to read (368c–d). The vehicle of their “reading” is a city whose founding, purging, education of its leaders, perfection (within the realm of the possible), degradation, decay, and demise will produce the portraits of just and unjust lives requested—lives that are then judged and have their wages returned to them—and which will employ images constructed from agriculture, sailing, medicine, geography, banal everyday experiences, basic anatomy, and myth. Throughout this network we can see the critical, speculative, and therapeutic aspects of Platonic imagery at work. It estranges its listeners/readers from their own situation sufficiently to make this situation an object of analysis and not simply the assumed inevitable course of reality, it provides a sense for the contingency of one’s own perspective that permits such an experience to gain hold and purchase (and not simply be dismissed as a bad dream or the ravings of the mad or the manipulations of the deceitful), and it suggests alternative ways of understanding one’s situation (some of which are radically different; others are just capitalizing on preexisting currents of meaning, often subterranean).

Let’s take a look at a few of the images Socrates constructs of their own labor, images that both criticize and valorize their activity. I have already mentioned Socrates’s likening them in their search for justice to nearsighted readers in need of larger letters (368c–d); as they seek to discern justice in the city, they are likened both to hunters who crouch, give chase, and hunker around the dark thicket hiding their prey (432b–c) and to those who look for something they are already holding (432d–e); in their efforts to discern whether justice in the city is the same as in the soul, they are like those hoping to create a fire by rubbing two sticks together (434e); in their efforts to understand the soul, they are like those approaching two roads who are compelled to choose the shorter way (435d); in their criticism of poetry, they are like ill-fated lovers who must break off relations with their beloved (607e–608a), and in this they are like the ill who must heal themselves, chanting logoi like a countercharm (608a); in gaining some purchase on the perspective on the soul with which they have been operating, they are like witnesses to the spectacle of the sea god Glaucos, longing to view him free of his earthy encrustations (611d).

In Socrates’s and his interlocutors’ efforts to “polish” their portrait of the tyrant and render judgment as to the quality of his life, the tension between surface and depth broached by Glaucon and Adeimantus in Book 2 returns. They are exhorted precisely not to stop at the surface appearance of the tyrant, but rather to look into the depths of the tyrant soul—they must not be like children, frightened by his exterior (577a), but must creep into the corners of his character and peer into the nooks and crannies of his soul (577a), and of the city he rules (576e)—depths made available to analysis only by their identification of “parts” of the soul, of how these parts interact both with one another and with extra-individual factors to produce certain forms of virtue and viciousness, and of the kind of soul with which the tyrant soul should be contrasted. All of this is accomplished by the transporting capacity of images.

Some of the most intense, vivid imagery collects around the central description of the philosopher, whose nature is like a vigorous seed: its lust for learning is likened to sexual desire and reproduction; the direction and strength of its desire is likened to the channeling of water; and its fulfillment requires an education in what can only, within the confines of the dialogue, be described in an image. Even the fateful images of sun, line, and cave are constructed to better illuminate a kind of life that is called philosophic, most just and best, a kind of life that, in Athens, occurs only by chance, divine intervention, or physical disability, because otherwise, Socrates suggests, such people would have gone into politics and been eaten alive (496d). It is among this flurry of images that we are also required to acknowledge the limits of images. Socrates cannot tell Glaucon exactly what the good is (506e) or give a complete definition of dialectic (533a); he can only offer an image.

And with this we are reminded, of course, that all of this complex and rich image-making occurs alongside a deep and sustained critique of the image. However, and I take this to be a decisive point, the critique of the image occurs by way of the frictive movement between images, and it is by the light produced from this motion that Plato attempts the possibility imagined in Book 10 of a poetics that remedies its own disfigurement of thought with understanding of what it really is, an image that presents itself as such. Perhaps nowhere is this made more evident than in the image of the divided line, an impossible image, an image that cannot be drawn, an image that images imaging, but yet in which the status of image is unfixed and sliding, such that things that had been imitated themselves become images (510b).28

Plato’s ambivalence toward the image is matched by his sense of the deep association between imagery and life. His concern with both the narcotic effects of imagery, the manner in which images put us to sleep (see, e.g., 476c), and its divisive effects, that is, its capacity to introduce tension and scission between parts of the soul (603c–d), has its mirror image in a Socrates whose elenchus also has its paralyzing effects (Meno 80a and c), and also causes some inner conflict, to say the least. If we are to follow a suggestion made in Book 10, it would seem that the only way to judge between these forms of narcosis and division is to determine which makes one better at choosing the best life. Here Socrates signals the extreme importance of this choice, in a manner that ties the understanding needed to choose well not to a transcendental principle, but to a human community: the study of which we should all be seekers and for the sake of which we should neglect everything else is a study of the one who will give us “the capacity and knowledge to distinguish the good and the bad life” (δυνατὸν καὶ ἐπιστήμονα, βίον καὶ χρηστὸν καὶ πονηρὸν διαγιγνώσκοντα) (618c), a discernment able to follow the calculus of a variety of physical, psychical, and political goods.

It is worth bearing in mind, as well, that Plato’s critique of the image includes not only a critique of mimesis per se, but also a critique of the society of the image, that is, of particular social and political structures that elevate the image to the status of the truth.29 And his complaint against such structures is informed by the experiential evidence that there is something beyond appearance; no one will settle for a likeness when it comes to the good (505d).30 In turn, there are certain experiences that mute, deaden, and dull one’s capacities to have other kinds of experiences or to encounter other forms of phenomena. The problem with mimetic images is that they maim the thought of even the decent (605b), and if we consider Socrates’s exhortation to Glaucon about their own affection for poetry (607e–608b), this would include the philosophically inclined. Thus, it is not only the desires of the many or of the unphilosophical that must be addressed, but also the desires of philosophic natures themselves. These natures too would be in need of undergoing a scrutiny and purification of their evaluations of things, of having their desires turned, of having their idols sounded, and this process for them too occurs by way of images as well as demonstration. In most political environments, philosophy must include critical and therapeutic elements alongside its more speculative aspirations. And it neither begins nor ends in a transcendence of the world, but in an estrangement that makes the everyday appear wonder-provoking and that is driven by the manner in which certain experiences point beyond themselves.31

We are now in a position to better understand the philosophical significance of bios for Plato. For if there is a philosophic bios (or bioi; we should resist the temptation to collapse this into a single way of life too quickly by overlooking the range of forms of life that are called philosophic or presented as philosophically inclined32), then, like any other bios, it must be an integration of capacities for sensing, desiring, acting, and thinking. A philosophic bios, then, cannot simply have done with perception or desire. Indeed, if we follow Socrates’s account of philosophic natures, philosophy requires a particular desiderative orientation. And even as Socrates proclaims the need to turn away from the senses, he cannot do so without reliance on a collection of images: sailing, sunlight, the darkness of the cave, and so forth. The turn to being and away from becoming must be read as a way of living with the senses; to be sure, this is a matter of not placing undue emphasis on the senses and of guarding the direction in which one’s desires are turned, but also of developing a philosophical sensibility, following the way in which proper attention to sensory information (or the lack thereof) summons thought (as it is put in the three fingers example in Republic 523b–524b) or reminds one of the divine (Phaedrus, Symposium).33 What is at stake is not a question of whether to remove one’s capacity for sensing, but rather of whether one should withdraw from politics. Of course these are not unrelated matters; they are held together by the power of appearance. It is against this power that one should seek to inoculate oneself by learning to see through appearances, and this requires that one not be seduced by them—that one’s desires be turned elsewhere.

But again, this is accomplished by making use of images of a particularly seductive sort and in a particular way. If part of the work of philosophy is to make life appear as an object of thought and choice, and this requires not only calling attention to desire but also turning it, the question then is how to inspire contemplation of bios, how to overcome the impediments to doing so found in the unexpressed, tacit assumptions even the most philosophically inclined people have about the character and worth of their own lives. Plato’s answer to this question is that this project requires sufficient estrangement from one’s assumptions as to be able to articulate them, the cultivation of a critical capacity by means of which one could evaluate these assumptions, and some sense of alternate perspectives on the character and value of one’s life. In this, Plato’s various inquiries into manners of life serve as a form of gadfly philosophy.34 The point then is not to leave the world or even the city, but to alter one’s way of operating within it. If this is a spiritual practice, it is also a political practice, that is, a practice conducted not solely for the glorification of the individual philosopher, but for the sake of the collective expression of human excellence to which a polis can give rise.35 And in this, images prove as indispensable as the need to critique, refine, and limit them. Plato thus offers us a critical iconography that merits sustained study.

Aristotle on Bios, Zōē, and the Polis

I would like to conclude by suggesting some ways in which an examination of manner of life extends beyond Plato to Aristotle, a thinker for whom bios is a constant source of interest. But the question of bios in the Aristotelian corpus lies less in its motivating a variety of discursive forms than in its role in opening up a variety of philosophic objects. For while the Platonic dialogues offer us an often bewildering variety of approaches to a collection of philosophically provocative phenomena, Aristotle’s work marks an attempt to discern the modes of account that are invited by a vast array of objects, actions, and ideas. The tension in Aristotle’s thought between, as Emanuela Bianchi puts it, an impulse for rich phenomenological description and an impulse for hierarchizing order, continues to fuel scholarly inquiry.36

Further, if it is the surprising emergence of the good into human experience that drives some of Plato’s most sustained attention and interest in bios, it is the enigma of growth that fuels much of Aristotle’s thought in general and on life in particular. Questions about the unity of the corpus have received fresh formulation in the scholarly attention given to Aristotle’s biology over the past thirty years, with the work of Allan Gotthelf, James Lennox, David Balme, and Pierre Pellegrin proving decisive in this task. Lennox’s recent focus on bios as indicating the organizing principle around which the activities of a particular organism cohere in order to produce a manner or form of life indicative of that organism is proving to be particularly influential.37 This particular approach to bios is in part motivated by David Charles’s (2003) efforts to relate the criteria for explanation and demonstration set out in the Posterior Analytics to the biological treatises, in which he observes the significant role bios plays in accounting for the particular unity at work in living beings and so decisive for Aristotle’s conception of substance and being. This has also opened fresh interest in Aristotle’s teleology, long an avenue for pursuing the unity of the corpus question, and recent work to extend scholarship on teleology in the biological works to the ethical and political realms by Mariska Leunissen, Devin Henry, and others is particularly promising.38 Recently the Politics has proven fruitful thematic ground on which to stage this question, as its rather difficult structure straddles a number of forms of inquiry that we tend to try and separate: ethics, biology, and practical concerns about obtaining and maintaining power.

With respect to the impact of Aristotle on contemporary political philosophy and theory, the stakes of the research into the relationship among his biology, ethics, and politics are quite high. The concepts of “biopower” and “biopolitics” enjoy near ubiquity in contemporary critical theory, due in no small part to the profound salience of the distinctions that reside at their heart—distinctions between matter and meaning, the biological and the political, the bodily and the discursive—to assessment of contemporary political life. This salience has allowed them to survive even the most powerful critiques of “Cartesian” dualism, biological essentialism, and the sovereignty of the subject. If one of the most influential political theorists of the past several decades, Giorgio Agamben, is to be believed, this is due in part to the ancient lineage of these distinctions, running, he claims in his influential Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, through ancient Greek philosophy to the most significant and horrifying events of contemporary politics.39 Indeed, while Michel Foucault is generally recognized as biopower’s conceptual “father,” Agamben aims to be its biographer, building on the work of Foucault and Hannah Arendt, concentrating this set of distinctions to that between the two ancient Greek words for life—zōē and bios—and locating the source of this central schism in the work of Aristotle.

Yet it is precisely this lineage that a number of scholars have called into question.40 The divisions between “mere” life and meaning, or between bare life and political life, or between biological life and discursive life, are in many ways alien to much of ancient Greek philosophy and literature, in which we frequently find instead insistence that life grants meaning. When Aristotle privileges living being in his examination of substance, he does so in a language permeated by terms that do the dual work of signifying parts of the body and parts of speech, has behind him hundreds of years of a literary landscape that emphasized the conjunction of living and signifying, and is steeped in an intellectual tradition that took the divine and the cosmos themselves to be instances of living beings. Far from encountering the inclusion by exclusion that Agamben sees as characteristic of the political reception of zōē, when we survey Aristotle’s analysis of human political life, we see instead that it is actively, vividly permeated by zōē in such a manner as to render inadequate an association between bios and symbolic, discursive, meaningful life as distinct from zōē. We cannot so simply align bios, as Agamben does, with the discursive and symbolic, with the “articulate” and “political” against the purported material, “inarticulate,” “mute,” “private” character of zōē.41 Nor are we given license to restrict bios to human political life, nor even to political life as such. Not only will Aristotle attribute a bios to other nonhuman political animals; he also attributes bioi to all mortal animals (often determined on the basis of what each kind takes as its sustenance) and even to the polis itself.

This is all to say that even if there is a concept in Aristotle akin to the notion of “bare life” as Agamben constructs it, the phrase is not appropriate to associate with the field of meaning expressed by the Greek zōē. Nor are the distinctions to which Agamben’s formulation give rise encapsulated by some primary distinction between zōē and bios. When, for instance, Foucault describes the fact of living as “an inaccessible substrate that only emerged from time to time, amid the randomness of death and its fatality,” he seems to be describing something other than the zōē that Euripides describes as shining, or that Aristotle describes as sweet and an object of desire for all.42 And while Aristotle will, like Arendt, Foucault, Agamben, and others, speak of “living itself,” he rarely does so in a pejorative sense, in the sense of “mere life.” While it may be possible to isolate and abstract “life itself” for the sake of analysis, we should not forget that, for Aristotle, in the living cosmos occupied by living beings, life is never bare.


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(1) Badiou (2013, xxxv).

(2) See, for instance, Schuessler (2013), Wilson (2014), and Flaherty (2015). The cases described in these articles prompted a series of op-ed pieces in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and The Atlantic, among others, and are symptomatic of larger issues within the discipline of philosophy, described in numerous blogs and recognized in a recent letter of acknowledgment from the American Philosophical Association.

(3) There is particularly exciting work being done at the interstices of ancient philosophy and feminist theory; see especially Sandford (2010) and Bianchi (2014) for work on Plato and Aristotle respectively, Holmes (2012) for a general overview, and forthcoming work from Connell (2016) and Miller (2016).

(4) Here too we find a rich body of scholarship. On the major figures and schools, see, for example, Palmer (2013), Sharples (2010), and Wedin (2014) on Parmenides, Shearin (2015) on Lucretius, Brouwer (2014) and Brunt (2013) on Stoicism, Fish and Sanders (2015) on Epicureanism, Bett (2010) on skepticism, Gunderson (2015) and Williams (2012) on Seneca, and Keimpe and Ierodiakonou (2015) on Sextus Empiricus. For comparative studies of themes and thinkers, see Bryan (2012), Castagnoli (2010), Gill (2010), Horky (2013), Huffman (2014), Long (2013b), Marmodoro and Prince (2015), and Warren (2015). For reception of Aristotle in particular, see Alwishah and Hayes (2015), Griffin (2015), and Miller (2012). For the reception of Epicureanism, see Holmes and Shearin (2012); of Lucretius, see Hardie (2009) and Norbrook and Harrison and Hardie (2015); and of the ancient skeptics, see Berry (2010). See also several new collections and commentaries, for example, Graham (2013), Curd and Graham (2008), and Warren (2007) for the pre-Socratics, and Bett (2012), Gill (2013), Griffin (2013), Hatzimichali (2011), Inwood (2007), Polito (2014), and Sedley (2012) for Hellenistic philosophy.

(6) On Eros, see Gordon (2012) and Belfiore (2012); on definition, see Charles (2010) and Ferejohn (2014).

(7) Examples of this debate can be found in the collections of Press (2000), Griswald (1988), and Gonzalez (1995).

(8) As evinced by the essays collected in Boys-Stones, El Murr, and Gill (2013).

(9) Among these were, of course, Husserl himself as well as Heidegger, whose thoughts on Plato and Aristotle were both developed and criticized by Gadamer, Derrida, and Levinas. For recent criticism of Heidegger’s reading of Plato, see the essays collected in Partenie and Rockmore (2005) and Gonzalez (2011). And on Gadamer’s interest in and divergence from the Tuebingen school, see Grondin (2010) and Szlezak (2010).

(10) John Sallis’s Being and Logos has proven foundational for this line of interpretation; see also Sallis (1999, 2004), as well as Hyland (1995, 2008), Baracchi (2002), McCoy (2007), Ewegen (2013), Bell (2015) and Sanday (2015). A similarly phenomenologically inflected approach to Aristotle can be found in Baracchi (2011, 2014), Long (2010), Trott (2013), and Diamond (2015).

(12) Annas and Rowe (2003), Gerson (2013), and most recently the collection of studies of Socrates in Neoplatonic philosophy edited by Layne and Tarrant (2014).

(13) See especially Leonard (2005, 2010).

(14) For the history of this debate and useful bibliography, see Press (2000) and Gerson (2013).

(15) As is reflected in a number of recent studies of individual dialogues, see, for example, Baracchi (2002), Ewegen (2013), Sanday (2015), Capra (2014), and Werner (2012).

(16) On myth, see Morgan (2000); Partenie (2009); Collobert, Destree, Gonzalez (2012); and Werner (2012). On Platonic imagery more broadly, Pender (2000) makes admirable inroads on images of the gods and of the soul, and Brock’s (2013) recent discussion of Plato’s political imagery is excellent. The volume on Platonic imagery edited by Destree and Edmunds (forthcoming) as a third volume in the Mnemsyne series including Destree and Hermann (2011) and Collobert, Destree Gonzalez (2012), and consisting of papers given at two jointly organized conferences, will surely push inquiry forward and is a clear sign of the depth and breadth of interest in this topic.

(18) As evidence of the range of approaches in such scholarship, compare Hadot (1995), Nehamas (2000), and Nightingale (2009).

(19) In this, Mitchell Miller’s work is an exemplary exception. See, for instance, Miller (1980, 1986, 2007).

(20) We could say, then, that the connection between logos and living suggested in the Phaedrus is dialectical: logos may and should be structured like a living being, and life can come to have a logos, not only in the sense of a biography, but in the sense of intelligible, articulable patterns of life.

(21) In developing this understanding of the integrative character of bios, I am indebted to James Lennox’s (2009, 2010) recent work on bios in Aristotle. It is also worth drawing a distinction between the βίων παραδείγματα of Republic 10 (617d) and bios as such; in the former case it is the variety of such patterns that is emphasized, while the latter can have a normative as well as descriptive valence in Plato. On the Platonic possibility of something like a pattern or form of self, see Gerson (2006).

(22) See, for example, Porter (2010) and Gonzalez (forthcoming).

(23) Observing all the while that, as with the two examples mentioned, this possibility is not necessarily realized.

(24) I have argued for this kind of reading of the myth of the earth in the Phaedo in Brill (2013).

(25) All translations are my own; the Greek text is that of Slings (2003). In this discussion of bios in the Republic I am not drawing any firm distinction between bios and zōē, but do address contemporary formulations of such a distinction in Aristotle in the final section.

(26) In fact, one of the only places in which a study of the soul is directly recommended is in the discussion of “true” rhetoric in the Phaedrus (266c–274b). I discuss the strange formulation of knowledge of the soul in Republic 10 further below.

(27) In calling this a fantasy, I do not mean to suggest that there were not historical examples upon which this construct was modeled, only that the affirmation of this construct as the best example of how one should lead one’s life, with its implied sense that “this too could be yours,” involves an imagined displacement of difference and abstraction from specificity and contingency.

(28) In the Phaedrus we see a similar operation of becoming image, in the beloved’s serving as an image of the divine. See Porter (2010).

(29) Nor should we simply collapse the critique of images into the critique of mimesis; see the discussion of salutary images in the Sophist.

(30) An assertion to which El Murr (2013) calls attention, and which should be compared with other passages in which intelligibility is given experiential evidence; see, for example, the two stick discussion in the Phaedo and the natural tendency toward justice in the Republic and Laws.

(31) Experiences that, as Ruby Blondell has put it, force us “to acknowledge the inescapable embodiedness of human thought” (2006, 50).

(33) The characterization of philosophy as practice for death in the Phaedo must be balanced with the portrait of the philosophical nature passionately devoted to learning and ardently pursing Being of the Republic. So long as it is a static conception of character that is taken to be at stake here, and not a dynamic conception of manner of life, these will appear as simply contradictory. But insofar as they describe manners of life, that is, manners of accomplishing the coincidence of body and soul, philosophic and tyrannical or wisdom-loving and body-loving all define a way of taking up (or failing to take up) the full range of one’s capacities.

(34) In this I am in agreement with Sedley (2004) and Rowe (2007) that Plato remains a Socratic, but place greater emphasis on Socratic elenchus as a politically as well as philosophically salutary form of self-knowledge than on Socratic intellectualism.

(35) For all of his concentration on the human things, Plato’s Socrates will also mark the limits of these things and of their significance; his anthropocentrism is not a humanism (see, e.g., the invocation and privileging of all time against “the whole of time from childhood to old age” at 608c).

(40) See, for example, Derrida (2009), Patton (2007), and Finlayson (2010).

(41) Agamben (1998, 187–188).

(42) Foucault (1980, 141–142).