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Plato

Mika Ojakangas

1.

There are not many books by Agamben in which Plato does not figure. In The Man Without

Content (MC 52-64), Agamben discusses the Platonic discrepancy between politics and

poetry; in Stanzas, he examines Plato’s conceptions of love (S 115-21) and phantasm (S 73-

75); in Infancy and History (IH 73), Agamben takes up Plato’s concept of time (aion and

chronos), while in The End of the Poem (EP 17) he examines Plato’s criticism of tragedy

again. In Language and Death (LD 91-2), he gives an account of Socrates’ ‘demon’ and

Plato’s Idea (eidos) – though he investigates the latter more thoroughly in Potentialities (PO

27-38), in which he also shortly touches upon Plato’s doctrine of matter (khôra) (PO 218). In

the Idea of Prose (IP 120-3) and The Coming Community (CC 76-77), it is the Platonic Idea

again that is under scrutiny, albeit more implicitly than in Potentialities. In Homo Sacer (HS

33-35), Agamben offers an interpretation of Plato’s treatment of Pindar’s nomos basileus

fragment and the sophistic opposition between nomos and physis, whereas in The Sacrament

and Language (SL 29) he touches on Plato’s critique of oath. In The Signature of All Things

(ST 22-26), Agamben gives an account of Plato’s ‘paradigmatic’ method, while in Stasis

(STA 5-12) we find an analysis of Plato’s conception of civil war (stasis). In The Use of

Bodies, finally, Agamben returns to many of the above-mentioned Platonic subjects, to the

idea of the Idea in particular and thereby to the pre-suppositional structure of language (UB

115-133), but he also adds new Platonic themes not discussed in his previous books,

including an interpretation of the myth of Er (UB 249-262) narrated at the end of the Republic

and of the Nocturnal Council (UB 279) introduced at the end of the Laws. The list is not
exhaustive but it illustrates well the extent to which Plato is present in Agamben’s work from

the very first to the latest book he has published.

Furthermore, the majority of these interpretations present Plato in a most positive

light. In Homo Sacer (HS 30-38), in which Agamben analyses Plato’s criticism of Pindar’s

famous nomos basileus fragment and that of the sophistic distinction between nomos and

physis, Plato’s concept of ‘natural justice’ is introduced, perhaps a bit unexpectedly, as an

antidote to ‘the sovereign confusion of violence and law’ (HS 35) – despite the fact that

violence in the mode of legal penalty, including expulsion and even death penalty, is

recommended in Plato’s every major political work from the Republic via Statesman to the

Laws. In The Signature of all Things (ST 22-26), on the other hand, Agamben gives an

account of Plato’s concept of paradigm and his ‘paradigmatic’ method in a manner that gives

the impression that Agamben’s own ‘paradigmatic’ method is a mere replica of that of Plato.

In The Use of Bodies, furthermore, in the context of his interpretation of the myth of Er

(including the most extended citation of any author in Agamben’s entire oeuvre), the Platonic

soul (psykhê), arguably the most significant Platonic concept alongside the Idea, is

unequivocally represented as an example of the Agambenian form-of-life:

Form-of-life, the soul, is the infinite complement between life and mode of life,

what appears when they mutually neutralize on another and show the void that

united them. Zoè and bios – this is perhaps the lesson of the myth – are neither

separate nor coincident: between them, as void of representation of which it is not

possible to say anything except that it is ‘immortal’ and ‘ungenerated’ (Phaedrus

246), stands the soul, which holds them indissolubly in contact and testifies for

them. (UB 262)


In The Use of Bodies, even the Nocturnal Council – the supreme political body whose task is

to secure the salvation (sôtêria) of the city of Magnesia (Laws 968a) with unlimited (and one

could also say dictatorial) authority (Laws 968c) – is exalted as an example, not of sovereign

but of destituent potential that renders sovereign decisions inoperative:

Plato had in mind something of the kind [destituent potential] when at the end

of the Laws (968c), he mentions as ‘protector’ (phylake) of the city a ‘Nocturnal

Council’ (nykterinos syllogos), which, however, is not an institution in a

technical sense because, as Socrates [sic!] specifies, ‘it is impossible to lay

down the council’s activities until it has been established [prin a kosmethe] […]

through a long standing together [metà synnousia pollen]’. (UB 279)1

One could easily extend the list of sympathetic ‘appropriations’ of Plato’s thought by

Agamben (though we could as well speak about ‘expropriations’ as Agamben’s

interpretations are not only very intriguing but sometimes also quite bewildering), but given

the limited space of this chapter, I restrict my analysis to the most pervasive Platonic theme

in Agamben’s work, that of the Idea.

2.

In modern renditions, Plato’s Ideas are usually understood as temporally and spatially

transcendent and unchanging models of immanent beings existing in time and space, which

are imperfect copies of the Ideas that constitute the essential foundation of reality. For

1
Interestingly, Agamben omits the part in which Plato asserts that the members of the

Council ‘must themselves ordain what authority they should possess’ from the sentence he

quotes above. Socrates does not feature in the Laws.


example, there is a variety of beautiful objects in the world but in addition to these there

exists ‘beauty itself’, the Idea of beauty. And in order to attain true knowledge, one must

grasp the world of Ideas with one’s mind, but in contrast to the modern concept of idea, the

Platonic Ideas exist independently of minds. Sometimes Ideas are understood as perfect

examples, sometimes as universals, but it is generally acknowledged that Plato himself in

different dialogues offers several incompatible definitions and oscillates between different

positions even in the course of individual dialogues.

What then is Agamben’s interpretation of Plato’s Idea? One finds the most

thoroughgoing accounts of the Idea in his article ‘The Thing Itself’ published in 1984, and in

The Use of Bodies published thirty years later. These slightly different constructions, based

mainly on Agamben’s reading of the philosophical digression in Plato’s Seventh Letter and

section 511b of the Republic, show that his interpretation of the Idea is – to put it mildly –

quite different from other modern interpretations. It is true that there is nothing extraordinary

in Agamben’s identification of ‘the thing itself’ (to pragma auto) discussed in the Seventh

Letter with the Idea (auto is generally recognized as a technical expression of the Idea: circle

itself, beauty itself, and so on). However, by relocating the discourse on Ideas from the sphere

of ontology into that of linguistic signification, he takes a step that is not very often taken in

Plato scholarship:

One could say, with an apparent paradox, that the thing itself, while in some way

transcending language, is nevertheless possible only in language and by virtue of

language: precisely the thing of language. (PO 31)

In order to grasp what kind of a thing the thing of language is, we must reconstruct the

philosophical context of Plato’s theory of Ideas as Agamben understands it.


As already noted, Agamben relocates the ontological question of Ideas into the

sphere of language, arguing that the Greeks, Plato and Aristotle in particular, were well aware

of the complex relation between language and the world. They were aware of the fact that by

speaking of beings, beings are presupposed by language in language. Plato, Agamben writes,

was ‘perhaps the first to thematize the presuppositional power [il potere presupponente] of

language’ (UB 119). Similarly, ‘Aristotle frequently expresses with perfect awareness the

onto-logical interweaving of being and saying’ (UB 120). Thus ontology has been onto-logy

from the very outset of Western philosophy. According to Agamben, however, there is a

decisive difference between Plato and Aristotle as to how they deal with the fact – in

Agamben’s estimation what is at issue is precisely a fact – that beings are presupposed by

language, decomposing the thing itself into a being (on) about which something is said and a

quality (poion) that is said of it (PO 106).

In Aristotle’s onto-logy, Agamben holds, the pre-suppositional structure of language

is affirmed: being is divided into an ‘existentive being’ (un essere esistentivo) and a

‘predicative being’ (un essere predicativo), that is, into a presupposed subject (existence) on

the basis of which something is said and a predication that is said of it (essence) in which the

named existing being is presupposed (hypothesized) as non-linguistic (and therefore

ineffable) (UB 115-18, 125; PO 36-7) – analogous to the way natural life (zoe), in the

political thought of Aristotle, is included in the political form of life (bios) in the mode of its

exclusion (HS 7-9). In contrast to this Aristotelian approach, Plato’s onto-logical paradigm is

‘completely different’ (UB 130). While Aristotle affirms the pre-suppositional power of

language – though in a sense, he also tries to surpass it (the separation of existence and

essence) by temporalizing being but without success (PO 36-7; UB 115-29) – Plato

overcomes it, freeing human speech from presuppositions: ‘The Platonic constitution of truth,

unlike the Aristotelian, never comes to a halt at a presupposition’ (PO 109; see also UB 130).
Both Aristotle and Plato were aware of the pre-suppositional power of language, but while

Aristotle located this power at the basis of his philosophy (UB 131), Plato, with his ‘non-

presupposed principle’ (arkhê anypthetos), rendered it inoperative, effacing the ineffable

from philosophical discourse (PO 35, 77, 107; UB 130). Let us quote section 511b of the

Republic, cited in ‘The Thing Itself’ (PO 35) and The Use of Bodies (130), on which

Agamben’s interpretation is based and which he unconventionally translates (in this context

logos is seldom translated as ‘language’ but usually as ‘reason’) as follows:

Then also understand the other subjection of the intelligible, I mean that which

language itself [autos ho logos] touches on [haptetai] with the potential of

dialoguing [tei tou dialegesthai dynamei]. It does not consider these

presuppositions [hypotheseis, etymologically, ‘that which is placed under, at the

foundation’] as first principles [arkhai] but truly as presuppositions – as

stepping-stones to take off from, enabling it to reach the non-presupposed

[anypotheton] toward the principle of everything and, having touched on it

[hapsamenos autes], it reverses itself and, keeping hold of what follows from it,

comes down to a conclusion without making use of anything visible at all but

only ideas themselves, moving from ideas to ideas and ending in ideas. (UB

130; see also PO 35)

The thing itself, the Idea, is this non-presupposed principle, a word freed from its shadow (a

word in which on and poion have become indistinguishable):

The philosopher frees language from its shadow and, instead of taking hypotheses

for granted, seeks to ascend from these latter – namely, from denotative words –
toward the non-presupposed principle. The Idea is this word freed from its

shadow, which does not presuppose the arkhe as given but seeks to reach it as

what is not a presupposition to name and discourse. (UB 130-1)

For Agamben, in other words, Plato’s theory of Ideas is an attempt to philosophize without

supposing and hypothesizing, without subjectifying that about which one speaks – an attempt

to speak absolutely (PO 33). This also means that Agamben rejects the esoteric and mystical

readings of Plato inspired by the Seventh Letter (341 c-d), in which it is said that the thing

itself ‘does not at all admit of verbal expression’. Drawing attention to the immediately

following phrase ‘like other disciplines’, Agamben argues that the thing itself, although it

cannot be expressed in the same way as in other ‘disciplines’ (meaning name [onoma],

definition [logos], image [eidôlon], and knowledge [epistêmê]), it is not for that reason

simply unsayable (PO 31). It is, as Plato continues further on (344b-c), in a passage quoted

by Agamben (PO 30), only when the names, definitions, and sense-perceptions are ‘rubbed

against each other […] that wisdom [phronêsis] along with insight [nous] will commence to

cast its light in an effort at the very limits of human possibility’. Similarly, when Plato in this

same Letter (342e) speaks about the ‘weakness of language’ (in asserting something of

something else, a logos can only qualify this something else, not express its inherent being),

Agamben argues that it is precisely the recognition of this weakness that paves the way, not

for the rejection of language, but for the need to help speech so that in speech, ‘speech itself

does not remain presupposed but instead comes to speech’ (PO 35). The weakness of logos

does not consist in its inability to represent beings adequately but in the fact that – without

help – it can only represent them without being able to bring ‘sayability’ (dicibilità) to
expression.2 The Platonic theory of the Ideas is not a theory against logos but a theory the aim

of which is to help speech so that the sayability of the said does not remain presupposed

(ineffable) but is expressed in full:

The thing itself is not a quid that might be sought as an extreme hypothesis

beyond all hypotheses, as a final and absolute subject beyond all subjects,

horribly or beautifully unreachable in its obscurity. We can, in truth, conceive of

such a nonlinguistic thing only in language, through the idea of a language

without relation to things […]. Thing itself is not a thing; it is the very sayability,

the very openness at issue in language, which, in language, we [but not Plato!]

always presuppose and forget. (PO 35)

The question of language has been at the heart of Agamben’s philosophy from the outset: the

human being is a being whose proper dwelling-place is in language (for us, there is no object

outside language), but insofar as we remain caught by language without seeing language

itself (without being able to say the sayability), we remain alien to our authentic nature –

separated from what is constitutive of us. Therefore, the task of the coming philosophy,

according to Agamben, is to bring language, which mediates all things and all knowledge,

into language, to mediate the immediate: ‘To restore the thing itself to its place in language

[…] is the task of the coming philosophy’ (PO 38).

2
In Language and Death (LD 91), Agamben identifies Socrates’ daimon (daimonion) with

the unsayable, that is, with the mute voice of conscience that has haunted Western

metaphysics as that which is inclusively excluded from speech (logos) so that speech can

emerge. From this perspective, Agamben’s interpretation of Plato’s theory of Ideas depicts

Plato as essentially anti-Socratic: the Idea is the revocation of the demonic.


Yet as the choice of the word ‘restore’ indicates, philosophy has always already succeeded in

bringing language into language, to mediate the immediate. The Platonic Idea, which in

Agamben’s estimation remained undefined by Plato (WA 1), is the taking place of this

immediacy, constitutive of ‘authentic human community and communication’ (PO 35). In

Agamben’s view, however, the Western philosophical tradition from Aristotle onwards has

either ignored the Idea, replacing it with the first substance (the presupposition of all

presuppositions) (Aristotle), or misunderstood it, identifying the Idea with the ineffable and

incomprehensible One (Neoplatonism).3 Therefore, we need to return to Plato, the first to

discover the pre-suppositional power of language and, with the help of the theory of Ideas, to

render this power inoperative and to efface the ineffable from philosophical discourse. The

coming philosophy is thus also the come-back of a philosophy, the philosophy of Plato.

3.

As already noted, Agamben’s interpretations of Plato’s Idea are not absolutely identical. In

‘The Thing Itself’ and in Idea of Prose (1985), Agamben underlines the coincidence of the

sensible and the Idea in the immediacy of language. In Idea of Prose he formulates the

thought as follows:

What is reached here [in the Idea], that is, is something still sensible (from this

comes the term idea, which indicates a vision, an idein). But not some sensible

3
In ‘The Passion of Facticity’ (PO 194), Agamben points out that in the Heideggerian Dasein

existence and essence are as inseparable as on and poion are in Plato’s ‘soul’. In The Use of

Bodies (UB 144-5), however, Agamben asserts that even Heidegger remained bound up with

the aporias of the Aristotelian-Neoplatonic tradition.


thing presupposed by language and knowledge, but rather, exposed in them,

absolutely. Appearance which is no longer based on a hypothesis, but on itself,

the thing no longer separated from its intelligibility, but in the midst of it, is the

Idea, is the thing itself. (IP 122-123)

In The Use of Bodies, Agamben recapitulates what he had written earlier, but at one point the

emphasis is a bit different inasmuch as he also pays attention to the verb ‘to touch’ (toccare /

haptetai) that occurs twice in the passage from the Republic (511b) I quoted above. While in

his previous interpretation Agamben had stressed that in the Idea the sensible is not

represented but exposed in language without sensible referent, now, in The Use of Bodies, the

Idea is defined as a (self-signifying) word in which the thing itself and language itself are in

contact with each other (just like the soul between zoè and bios in Agamben’s interpretation

of the myth of Er) – united only by a void of signification and representation: ‘The idea is

word that does not denote but “touches”. That is to say, as happens in contact, it manifests the

thing and at the same time also itself.” (UB 131) The idea of ‘contact’ may appear enigmatic

in this context, but anyone familiar with Jean-Luc-Nancy’s ‘haptology’ recognizes a

homology. The touch entails neither fusion nor representation: it exposes the thing (‘body’) to

the exteriority of the touched but in this exposing the thing (‘body’) is also exposed to itself.4

We may still wonder how a word can touch itself but perhaps it is not only Agamben’s genius

but also his ability to philosophize at the limits of understandability that has made him one of

the leading intellectuals in the contemporary tradition of continental philosophy.

4
See Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus (Fordham University Press, 2008).