Harvey Mansfield – Memorial Tribute

Seth Benardete was a philosopher and a family man. He was a philosopher who believed that philosophy had to be [the] history of philosophy in our time. He agreed with Leo Strauss that modern philosophy was diminished philosophy, that modern philosophy had “covered up” philosophy, and therefore that philosophy had to recover itself in the history of philosophy. To study the history of philosophy, the philosopher needs scholarship. Scholarship has to be classical scholarship, and classical scholarship is of the Greeks.

So Benardete was a scholar of the Greek philosophers and the Greek poets; both of them, not one or the other, as most are. He was a patron of the old quarrel between philosophy and poetry; but he was also a skeptic about that quarrel. He was not sure that the quarrel went very deep.

That he was a philosopher he always knew. That he was a family man he learned as he lived his life, as Jane Johnson came into his life — somehow I remember her maiden name — and he fell in love with her, not expecting to, I’m sure, and as his children, Emma and Ethan, were born. There was not much in his life in the middle, between philosophy and family. He followed politics very closely; he always had something interesting to say about the politics of the day, but he stayed out of it, He was not a public intellectual. He read the TLS, but he never wrote for it. And this, I think, was because he was not an angry man. He never grinned, sniggered and cracked his knuckles like Hugh Lloyd-Jones. There was no scholarly malice in him. He loved gossip, but he never generated it.

Once, when we were at Eliot House at Harvard — Seth was a Junior Fellow and I was a graduate student — I invited him to my room to drink some wine for some sort of celebration. It was a bottle of Rheinwein. He took one taste and said, “It’s a little too sweet for me.” I went on drinking, and at the end of the bottle he said, “You are sweeter than I am.” Now, is that true? Because I think he became sweeter, a sweeter man than I am. By the way, he wouldn’t drink whiskey: he said, “The mind is muddled enough on its own.” (That’s the only time I’ve ever heard that reason for not drinking whiskey.)

He was not equipped with the male desire to hit a ball. Once during this period we played squash. This was my idea, my importunacy. He consented. “You’ll win,” he said, meaning that this was the first time he had played. And it’s true he was not very good, except in one regard: he was very good at swooping to the front of the court to catch a short shot, which he did holding the racquet something like a spoon. He played squash as if he were playing badminton, which I think he did play.

I would sometimes provoke him, like James Boswell to Dr. Johnson. Once I said to him, “You’re really quite handsome, you know.“ And he smiled and said, “Yes! In a ghastly sort of way!”

He was fearless, almost too fearless to be courageous. Once he was mugged in pre-Giuliani New York. This was recounted to me by his family — that they all went to some event and Seth had to get the car out of a garage, and the rest of them were waiting for him. It was a very long wait, and finally Ethan guessed that perhaps he’d been mugged. And that was the case. So when I heard this, I asked him, “Weren’t you afraid?” And he said, “Either the guy was going to pull the trigger, or he wasn’t.”

So I think he had a happy life. He got what he wanted, and more. And these were things supremely worth having. It’s too bad it had to come to an end. Or do all good things come to an end? Or isn’t that one of his questions?

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