Richard J. Bernstein – Memorial Tribute

The theme of my remarks is a theme with which Seth was much concerned — the theme of temporality. I want to speak about the present, past and the future in regard to Seth.

I think of this occasion as a celebration of a magnificent life. Anybody who knew Seth, in whatever relationship — friend, colleague, student — could not help coming away inspired by this human being. It is very difficult to think about Seth without thinking about Plato. In preparing my remarks, I thought of those opening sections of the Republic when Socrates first describes the characteristic of the true lover of wisdom. The philosopher must combine opposite traits in a harmonious manner.

These opening slightly humorous remarks (Socrates compares the philosopher to a watchdog) are extraordinary appropriate for characterizing Seth. He was gentle, compassionate, and even at times self-effacing. But he combined this with an erudition, insight, and intellectual command that could be truly intimidating. I had many experiences with Seth sitting on oral examinations of graduate students. Sometimes students would be extremely nervous. Yet Seth had a rare maieutic ability to draw out of students things they did not even realize that they knew. This is the same soft-spoken Seth who in a classroom spoke with the firm authority of wisdom — always probing, always inviting his students to discover something that was fascinatingly novel. He had that rare capacity to make texts and problems come alive in a fresh manner.

He taught at the New School for a period that covered four decades — longer than any other individual in our philosophy department. He came as a relatively young man and was asked to teach by the generation of great scholars — Aaron Gurwitsch, Hans Jonas and Hannah Arendt. They recognized in him an outstanding creative scholar who could introduce our students to the depths and joys of classical philosophy and poetry.

When I came to the New School twelve years ago, Seth represented a link with this great intellectual tradition. When I interview students asking why they came to the New School, there are always students who tell me it was because of Seth Benardete. And as some of you know, it became almost a joke: there were students who returned year after year — long after they graduated — to listen to Seth. No class of Seth was anything but a vital, intense learning experience.

But it is not only his connection with the New School that I want to speak about. I’d like to go back deeper into the past, to the University of Chicago. I was also a student in Chicago when Seth was there in the late ’40’s and ’50’s. Much has been written about the University of Chicago during that time. (It was A.J. Liebling who wrote that the University of Chicago was the greatest center for juvenile neurotics since the Children’s Crusade.) But I have never read anything that quite captured what was really distinctive about Chicago at that time. It was the sheer intellectual intensity, the sheer intoxication with ideas, the collective eros of the life of the mind. And I recall — I was in my late teens when I was an undergraduate — that somehow we all thought that the highest of the high — those closest to the divine — were the classical scholars. For me, Seth epitomized that distinctive eros.

When I think of Seth, I don’t simply think of him in the present and the past. (He was scheduled to teach a course for us this spring and his students were eagerly looking forward to it). I think of the future. And here again Plato comes to mind. There is a wonderful passage in the Phaedrus when Socrates compares the dialectician to the farmer who plants his seeds in the right soil and helps to cultivate them, and watch them grow. Seth’s legacy is that he has sown those fertile seeds in many of us — colleagues, friends, and students. I am convinced that they will grow and flourish, and that Seth is very much alive. Seth lives on.

Back to other memorial tributes