Seth Benardete was born in Brooklyn on April 4, 1930. His father was a professor in the Spanish department of Brooklyn College, his mother in the English department. Benardete’s intellectually formative years were spent at the University of Chicago (1948–52, 1954–55), where he developed friendships with Allan Bloom, Stanley Rosen, and Severn Darden (of Second City fame), amongst others. As a student in the Committee on Social Thought, he had the opportunity to study with Leo Strauss, who had moved to Chicago from the New School for Social Research (at that time still called the University in Exile). This encounter was decisive for the direction he took in his thinking and scholarship.
From Chicago, Benardete pursued his studies abroad, one year at the American School in Athens (1952–53), and the following year on a Ford Foundation fellowship in Florence (1953–54), where he wrote his dissertation on the Iliad. His first teaching position was as a tutor in the great books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis (1955–57), where he worked with Jacob Klein, who was Dean of the college. During this period he provided an early demonstration of his mastery of ancient Greek by contributing translations of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Maidens and The Persians to The Complete Greek Tragedies, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Benardete’s extraordinary knowledge of the subtlety and nuances of the language is evident in the translations of Platonic dialogues he produced over the years, like the recently published Symposium (Chicago 2001), which, as Leon Kass remarks, “enables every Greek-less reader to encounter Plato’s art and thought in all its charm, power, and perplexity.”
Invited to join the Society of Junior Fellows, Benardete went on to Harvard (1957-60), where he wrote his first book, Herodotean Inquiries, as well as his influential essay on Sophocles’ Oedipus, which became the first of many powerful studies of Greek tragedy. During those years Benardete met and married Jane, who had received her Ph.D. from Harvard and was teaching literature there. His family held a special place for him throughout his life and he took pride in the accomplishments of his children, Ethan, now a neurosurgeon, and Alexandra Emma, who is completing her training as an architect.
After several years of teaching at Brandeis University, Benardete returned to New York City in 1965 when he joined the classics department at New York University and began a series of courses at the New School that continued for the duration of his career. At NYU Benardete taught the complete range of Greek and Latin poetry, history, and philosophy. Many students recall the intense experience of the summer courses he later taught in the Latin-Greek Institute at the City University Graduate Center. Benardete’s lectures on ancient Greek philosophy at the New School drew a devoted following, with some — fortunate New Yorkers — continuing to attend with the same excitement year after year. Typically each course would focus on one work for the term (though the lectures on Plato’s Republic, for example, stretched out for three semesters). Over thirty-seven years, Benardete’s lectures included the pre-Socratic thinkers and Aristotle, while covering almost the entire corpus of Platonic dialogues (he was preparing to teach the Euthydemus, one of the few he had not taught before, this spring).
It was a special privilege for a student to study in an individual tutorial with Benardete, who gave of his time and ideas with unstinting generosity. He could be found in his office most of the day, seven days a week. Even, or especially, when he was struggling with unsolved problems, his work always seemed to be a source of pleasure and satisfaction to him. His research was supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Earhart Foundation, and the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung in Munich, and his accomplishments were recognized by the award of an honorary degree from Adelphi University.
The fruits of Benardete’s long years of teaching and reflection began to appear at a rapid pace in the mid-eighties and never ceased until he suddenly became ill just a couple of months before his death. His translation of and commentary on the trilogy, Theaetetus, Sophist, and Statesman (Chicago, 1984) — considered among Plato’s most challenging dialogues — was followed by books (all published by Chicago) on the Republic (1989), the Gorgias and Phaedrus (1991), the Philebus (1993), and the Laws (2000). According to Plato’s famous image, the philosopher is distinguished from the other prisoners chained in the cave of social convention by the experience he undergoes of being turned around toward the opening into the light; in his interpretations of the Platonic dialogues, characterized by their startling insights, paradoxes, and unexpected turns, Benardete sought to capture and induce that experience of a radical turnaround, which is the mark of philosophic thought.
Benardete returned to Homer, forty years after his dissertation, with what he called a “Platonic reading of the Odyssey” (The Bow and the Lyre, Rowman and Littlefield, 1997) — “a work of matchless erudition and insight,” as Harvey Mansfield puts it, by “our greatest student of the relation between poetry and philosophy.” In coming to see how the plot of a Homeric epic or tragic drama has its equivalent in the unfolding of the argument of the Platonic dialogue, Benardete discovered the common ground of poetry and philosophy; this discovery gives his body of work its originality and abiding importance. It was encapsulated in the title, The Argument of the Action, a collection of essays on Greek poetry and philosophy spanning his whole career (Chicago, 2000). Commenting on that volume, the distinguished French scholar and intellectual, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, observed: “There is in the United States one man who is as comfortable with the art of interpreting Homer, Herodotus, or Euripides as he is with that of understanding the most difficult problems raised by the Platonic dialogues, a man who follows texts step by step and discovers their hidden meanings. That man is Seth Benardete. I have long believed that he deserves glory — that of the heroes of Homer, to be precise.”
In his teaching and writing, but especially vividly in conversation — where humor, depth of insight, and soaring thought were inextricably intertwined — Benardete was a model of what it means to live the philosophic life.
— Ronna Burger, January, 2002