Michael Davis – Memorial Tribute

Remarks by Michael Davis
Seth Benardete Memorial Service, February 1, 2002

There were certain times in Seth’s classes when questions would uncharacteristically break out. On one particular evening in a course on the Phaedo in the spring of 1980 (it seems so much more recent than that), David O’Brien first asked Benardete what we were going to do when he died, to which Seth gave a silent but expressive shrug. In a follow–up Mr. O’Brien asked whether it didn’t make Seth angry that he would die. To this he replied, “No, I have always considered it a privilege to have lived.” Now, as with many of the things Seth said, this beautiful remark is both striking and illusive, especially in light of something else he once said. Having begun a sentence with “It has always seemed to me…,” Seth stopped abruptly and added, “My brother, José, has noticed that whenever someone says, ‘It has always seemed to me,’ about something, it invariably means that he has just thought of it.” Perhaps this was true of his view of life as a privilege for which one ought to be grateful, not a right violated by the uncanny certainty of death; still this view is consistent with his much later “Platonic reading” of the Odyssey, and especially with his interpretation of the passage read a moment ago. Odysseus the man of mind refuses immortality because he understands that there is no mind without soul, and no soul without death. This is perhaps the deepest version of what Seth called the teleology of evil. To learn one must experience or suffer — pathei mathos. This suffering must remain hard, but knowledge of its necessity somehow transforms it. Because to be alive means to die; to be angry about the fact of death means to hate life. Seth was a lover of life, which was for him the love of learning — philosophy.

Seth was first a figure of gossip for me. During a year at Heidelberg, I read Plato’s Philebus with Tom Schmid and Richard Velkley. Schmid, who I think had heard Seth lecture at Yale, gave an elaborate description of what he called his “magnificent head.” Later I would always put this together with the dark brooding photograph at the beginning of Seth’s essay on Greek tragedy. The outside does not always reflect the inside, but Seth’s looks reflected his eidos — at once daunting and seductive. When I decided to do my dissertation on the Philebus, Richard Kennington, my advisor, made available to me Seth’s course notes on the dialogue. I had looked at most of the literature and had just finished a seminar on the Philebus with Hans–Georg Gadamer, but all that was nothing compared to Benardete. He had an uncanny ability to see the profundity lying concealed on the surface of things. Once one understood that the Greek expression kata noun (to my mind) meant “pleasing,” it was clear that in the very first sentence of the Philebus Plato had already denied the separation of mind and pleasure which is the dialogue’s putative theme. The truth of kata noun is that there is no mind without desire, without soul.

At Kennington’s urging, I sent Seth a copy of my finished dissertation. He wrote back within the fortnight — he had “read it with pleasure, for it [was] very well written,” and then “indeed, too well written given the matter discussed.” There followed pages of intricate criticism which I had the humbling experience of simply not understanding. Rereading it many years later, I began to see what he had had in mind when he spoke of the relation between eros and mind. But at the time I was perplexed, disappointed, and a little angry — superficially at him, really at myself. Over the years I saw others respond as I had. It is difficult to discover someone who knows what you are supposed to know so much better than you know it. And Seth didn’t make it easier, for it was a point of principle with him to converse with others as though they shared his unconditional devotion to getting at the truth of things. He always treated interlocutors as equals, and it was always a lie, for he was the intellectual superior of everyone with whom I ever heard him converse. But by way of this noble lie he made us better than ourselves.

For years I sat in on his classes at the New School and at NYU — the first a seminar on Sophocles’ Philoctetes in the fall of 1979. It started at 6:10 and usually lasted until 10:30. Then we would go out afterward, to the Cedar Tavern, or in later years to Homer’s. Sometimes there were several of us; sometimes he and I were alone. The conversation was like nothing I had before experienced. It would usually start with unresolved puzzles generated in the class, then turn to politics or the newest problem in cosmology. We might talk about Heidegger and Strauss. Or we might discuss whatever he was reading — the memoirs of Babur, the Great Mogul of the 16th century, or of Mildred Cable, a Christian missionary to Mongolia. Or we might talk about Tibetan grammar, or Priscilla Cornwell, or his interpretation of Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Rome, Christianity, Judaism, Cervantes, the Arabian Nights, Hades, and at one point or another every figure in the history of philosophy. And of course there was Plato, for Seth the measure of everyone else, and tragedy, the question to which he always returned. His conversation danced with ease over an enormous range but was somehow never superficial. It was most exhilarating when we circled back to put together these odd pieces into a single whole. Seth and I used to joke about how strange it was that in any given semester the different books we were teaching ended up being about the same thing. One day during that first year I was walking to my office with one of my students. Intelligent and yet a little presumptuous (as Sarah Lawrence students are wont to be), she asked me what had happened. I didn’t know what she meant. Well, she said, I had been a pretty good teacher the previous year, but something had changed, something in the way I looked at things, I was somehow more alive. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but she assured me that I had somehow — well — changed. I could put my finger on it; I had met Seth Benardete.

After the Cedar Tavern, when Seth walked me to the subway; the conversation would return to what he had talked about in class. I don’t know how many times I had to race through Grand Central Station to catch the last train of the night back to White Plains. I would get home at 2:30 or so, get to bed by three, and the telephone would ring. Without so much as a hello, Benardete’s voice would say “I’ve just discovered this beautiful thing” and the conversation would continue from where we had left off. In later years we would walk from Homer’s to my car; then I would drive him home. On one bitterly cold night we sat for two hours on 12th St. The conversation had gone back and forth all evening on Republic Book 3. Seth interrupted himself in midsentence and in that excited breathy tone said, “Wait, wait, wait…. Could it possibly be…?” He had discovered the connection between the kalon, the beautiful, and thumos, spiritedness, that would prove so crucial for his book, Socrates’ Second Sailing. I thought about what he had said all the way home — somehow it was now “our” discovery. That night too I got a call. While I had been delighting in “our” discovery, Seth had already reformulated it and pushed it to another level. The following week in class, I had expected to see it triumphantly hauled out for display, but he had transformed it still further so that it was no longer altogether recognizable to me. His books too read like this; most authors pause to sum up what they have accomplished. Seth’s writings are so difficult not because any sentence is particularly opaque, but because of the collective weight that must be borne when every sentence adds something important. He so delighted in discovery because it enabled him to discover still more. The entire world was the object of his wonder — himself only insofar as he was an example of the most peculiar part of it.

I first saw Benardete at a memorial for Leo Strauss, and the first words I heard him utter were “Leo Strauss was a philosopher.” Seth never claimed to be a philosopher; he knew the danger of supplanting love of wisdom by love of self. But honesty requires us now to call him that. Drew Keller once asked him if he still thought about Strauss to which he responded, “every day.” Benardete used to tell a story about the public presentation of his Master’s thesis on the Theages at the University of Chicago. As he was reading it, he periodically heard giggling from behind him — where the members of his committee were seated. Afterward Strauss came up to him and said, “I didn’t know you were such a funny man.“ No one else had got the joke. Benardete was the most playful and the most profound man I ever met; in him the two were one. It must surely have been difficult for him that even those of us who admired him most had only a glimmer of their togetherness.

For twenty-two years it was my privilege to share in a conversation that, however staggeringly broad its range, was still one conversation — an on–going attempt (in which nothing was too petty to be considered) to glimpse the true pieces of the world in their mutual connection. Having tasted the sweetness of this conversation, it is hard to imagine life without it, and yet hard as well to imagine it without him, so thoroughly have thinking and talking to Benardete come to mean the same thing for me. Knowing him — being his student and later his friend — has been the great gift of my life.

Seth generally indulged but did not share my admiration for certain contemporary authors — Saul Bellow, Tom Stoppard, and others. I would like to conclude by reading a passage from one of them — a poet whom Seth thought interesting, but not that interesting, Wallace Stevens. Nevertheless, as this part of a poem called “The Sail of Ulysses” seems to me particularly appropriate, I will ask his indulgence this one last time.

If knowledge and the thing known are one
So that to know a man is to be
That man, to know a place is to be
That place, and it seems to come to that;
And if to know one man is to know all
And if one’s sense of a single spot
Is what one knows of the universe,
Then knowledge is the only life,
The only sun of the only day,
The only access to true ease,
The deep comfort of the world and fate.

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