Ronna Burger – Memorial Tribute

I just want to say I’m very honored, really, to be here today, and hope I’m speaking for many of you here who’ve had some of the experiences I want to describe and also for some of those from whom I’ve gotten such wonderful messages in the last few weeks, who are with us in their thoughts today.

Seth Benardete was, to put it most simply, my teacher. But what that meant was so determinative that he was the dividing point in my life: there was the time before knowing Benardete, which looks in retrospect like a kind of preparation, and my life after. In the sudden silence of the last few months, I keep recalling a passage in Plato he often mused over, which describes thinking as an internal conversation within one’s own soul. As Benardete pointed out, that means one must be able to ask oneself a question, presumably because one does not know, then provide an answer to it, and then raise another question in response. He was himself a master of this process. As for myself, over time his voice became so internalized that thinking is almost always an imagined conversation with him, and yet, as I am now so aware, no inner dialogue can substitute for conversation with Benardete; there is no way to play both parts and thinking about any text or idea, any event or character, will never be the same when it cannot be shared with him.

Perhaps you noticed the name I’ve used is “Benardete.” I deliberated about it and made that decision, for one thing, because that is how we spoke of him among friends — as so many of you here this afternoon know. And we spoke of him, or his ideas, very often since, as I see clearly now, not only was he himself so central in my life, but he was a part of so many other relationships important to me, with friends and students, my husband, Robert. (As I say that the memory comes to me of my conversation with Benardete when I told him Robert and I had decided to get married: he spontaneously spun off something like an intellectual rap song, about what would happen when you combined Platonic and Hegelian dialectics and turned it into a life together.)

I speak of “Benardete” today for another reason — because I am, naturally, looking back to the beginnings and it took a long time for him to become “Seth” to me. He addressed me as “Miss Burger” for so many years (over ten, I think, judging from the letters I have recently been re-reading). It was amazing to me that there could be so close a connection within such a formal framework. My interaction with Benardete brought out, I felt, what was most important and best in me, without ever talking in any ordinary way about myself. Only much later did I realize that this distancing from the self — from the concern with individuality — was the way Benardete understood what Socrates in the Phaedo calls “the practice of death and dying,” which the philosopher is engaged in throughout his life.

I came to New York in the fall of 1969 to study with Benardete, after asking an undergraduate classics professor about the best person with whom I could continue the study of Plato as he had introduced me to it. I didn’t quite know what to make of it when I first introduced myself to Benardete and he shrugged off this recommendation. I had no idea, when I began attending his seminars at the New School, that he had only been teaching there for four years: it seemed as if he must have been doing it his whole life. Before the semester began, I learned that Benardete was scheduled to present a public lecture at the City University Graduate Center, on Book III of De Anima — one of the most influential but obscure passages in the history of philosophy. I walked into the lecture room, a little intimidated, sat down, and began listening to a talk that seemed to be in a foreign language. For some reason, I didn’t experience that as frustrating. I was intrigued, and somehow certain that the activity of thinking I was hearing about was being enacted in a most vivid way right before my eyes. The semester soon began, with a course on the Timaeus, Plato’s “likely story” about the genesis and structure of the cosmos. I don’t know what exactly I learned from those lectures, but I was enthralled. As I watched Benardete wrestle with all the puzzles of the work, I had the impression that this activity of interpretation he was practicing was the most natural way of thinking for me. The seminar met once a week and the six days in between more or less disappeared, with life forming a strange continuum between the discrete points of those weekly classes.

As I discovered over the years, Benardete kept up with all the fascinating developments in contemporary cosmology, reading not just the popular accounts in the newspapers, but the writings of the physicists. If, as I believe is the case, he had a genuine understanding of the core of the problems they address, it was through Plato’s guidance. This was as true, or more so, of his interest in politics: Plato’s account of the demos or the tyrannical soul provided a light with which he probed all the strange and disturbing political phenomena of our century. When Benardete was studying a Platonic dialogue, he was entirely absorbed in it, and it became a world unto itself. But it was never just a text to be interpreted; it was the way into understanding the world, not through some artificial imposition of a fixed system, but in an altogether natural way, which brought out how things can be so perplexing and intelligible at once.

I was vividly reminded of this, and of our loss, when Robert called my attention in the last few weeks to two articles. One was the report of a recent colloquium about the problem of putting together quantum mechanics and gravity, held to mark the birthday of Stephen Hawking, who was arguing for the importance of incorporating the perspective of the observer in trying to solve the problem. We wanted to reach for the phone to get Benardete’s take — he surely would have seen the report-on this latest version of the Platonic “art of phantastics,” which he applied in so many original ways. Then there was the piece on the Pashtun mothers who, as the journalist put it, “sing the law” to their children every day. Benardete would have loved to hear this confirmation of his reading of Plato’s Laws, which is a profound exploration of a pun on nomos as law and song.

The Laws was the last of the most notoriously challenging Platonic dialogues to which Benardete seemed to be drawn from early on. In the years I attended his courses at the New School, we studied the Parmenides, Philebus, Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman. Later, he would give me at the end of the semester a copy of the notes he had written up in preparation, which seemed to grow longer and longer over time (the last time through the Parmenides was over three hundred pages). In a small, rather controlled script — which for some reason I never had trouble deciphering — he worked his way through the dialogue, continuously putting his hypotheses to the test, caught up in the puzzles, trying to put it together as a whole. While his ideas may have been inspired, his productivity was a result of discipline: after completing each course, he sat down almost immediately and wrote up what he had come to see. This was the source, I think, of almost all his articles and books. I realize only now that it was twenty years or so before the fruits of his labors began appearing in the remarkable stream of books on Plato, which continued until this year.

To be an apprentice philosopher is probably a contradiction in terms: one learns by imitating, but how does one grow beyond that? If I began that process in Benardete’s presence, it was not in the classroom, but in the hours we spent studying a work together in the small space of his office. Our most sustained and serious study was of Plato’s Phaedo, which we read together for a semester, then continued through letters the following year, when I was in Germany writing it up. We had some strong disagreements — I fought hard sometimes, and I think he liked that; but often I discovered that the disagreement was really because I hadn’t understood him, and when I did, it was usually compelling. Perhaps I should have worried more about being independent enough. I think I know why I did not: working with him was such an intense experience of trying to get at the point of the work and think through the issues it raises, there was no sense of subordination to his authority, but only to what we were trying to figure out in common. This too, I think, belongs to that separation from the self that Benardete understood by “the practice of dying and being dead.”

At some point during my years at the New School, a small group of us persuaded Benardete to start going out regularly after class. We would flood him with a barrage of questions about the session as we drifted out and made our way to the Cedar Tavern, later replaced by Homer’s Diner, where no one bothered us for hours, almost any time of day or night. The conversations that started out with questions about the work we were studying ranged from there over current politics and history, Greek tragedy and the Bible, Latin writers and Christianity, Hegel and Heidegger, circling back to Plato. This is when I learned what a wonderful story–teller Benardete was: at some appropriate moment in the discussion, he would ask, “Did I ever tell you the story about…?” and we would hear of some telling episode involving Strauss or Klein or another of the captivating characters he encountered in his years at Chicago, Athens and Rome, St. John’s, Harvard. All these stories displayed his flair for the particular observation that opens up a fundamental question. He was always reading something intriguing — the record of two women traveling through the Gobi desert, a sixteenth century account of a Christian missionary among the Incas, the Talmud…. Discussions often spilled over into the streets. Benardete liked to think while walking: he would proceed a block or two, maybe less, then abruptly stop and concentrate for a moment, the rhythm of walking an outward manifestation of his thinking.

I don’t think there was ever a conversation over all these years — it sounds unbelievable, I know — that didn’t combine a sense of being engaged in an activity of the utmost seriousness while having so much fun. After I left New York, our ongoing dialogue was carried on for a while through letters, later e-mail, but mostly through the disembodied medium of the telephone. Early Sunday morning was Robert’s time; he would pick up the phone and hear Benardete’s voice, “I thought you would want to know…,” and get absorbed for hours. Late night conversations grew more rare over the years, but until the last months, Benardete would call at unanticipated moments any time of day, eager to share his excitement about something he had discovered.

And he was always making discoveries because philosophy, as he once put his own understanding of it, is the concrete encounter with the unexpected and he exemplified this uniquely in his thinking and reading, his conversation and writing. No predetermined system or method stood in the way of his openness to such an encounter; yet he had his tools of thinking and was pursuing a vision of the whole, developing over a lifetime his central themes — eros and the beautiful, the city and the law in its role of making humans being human, the poets and their gods…. His mind seemed to move in leaps, which was exhilarating to some, and provoked others; but if one had the privilege to talk and could slow him down for a moment, or if one did the work oneself, one could see the complex path of careful steps that led him to his conclusion. And those paths grew in complexity as he returned to the same works, over forty years, always starting afresh, without exactly abandoning the prior layers. He so often formulated his ideas in paradoxes, not, I think, to be obscure or provocative, but to capture what he found to be the paradoxical character of things, at least as seen through philosophic eyes. What death means is the philosopher’s lifelong practice of dying, but that does not make any less real what it is — the sorrowful end of life, which slaps us in the face with another, most painful, paradox: non-being is.

Benardete liked the image of thinking as a process of walking in sand, leaving footprints only for a moment, to be covered over again as one proceeds on a trackless way forward. He was more excited about the unknown way ahead than about leaving any monuments behind. But in his absence, I think many of us are grateful for whatever traces of his footsteps are preserved — through his writings, the memories we have and share, our own efforts to carry on.

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