By Harvey C. Mansfield
Last week Seth Benardete died, a most extraordinary man, a scholar and a philosopher. His post in life was to be a classics professor at New York University, but he was not an especially prominent professor. Nor was he much known in the world of intellectuals, a realm he never tried to enter. He wrote books on Greek poetry and philosophy, and before he died he was the most learned man alive, and I venture to assert, the deepest thinker as well.
To me, he was both friend and hero. The hero got in the way of our friendship because he was in every way my superior and the best I could offer him was unspoken admiration. I first met him in 1957 when he arrived at the Society of Fellows at Harvard, a group of very bright or highly praised young persons who are given the run of the university for three years. He had received his B.A. in classics from the University of Chicago in 1949 and his Ph.D. from the Committee on Social Thought in 1955, with a dissertation on “Achilles and Hector: The Homeric Hero.” I was introduced to Benardete by his fellow student at Chicago and our common friend Allan Bloom. All three of us were in the company of those who saw something quite remarkable in the teaching of Leo Strauss.
Bloom in his brilliance went on to become a best-selling author and a figure of reknown. Benardete did not. Because of his obvious gifts he received high honors when he was young, but then he settled in as a professor at NYU in 1964. When in 1984 his books began to appear in a steady stream, he was largely ignored. He was held in awe by some Straussians, and he had a select following from the courses on Plato that he taught over the years at the New School for Social Research as well as devotees elsewhere who sensed his greatness.
Not surprisingly, the classics profession never gave him recognition or honor for the books in which he showed how little they knew, and from which they could have begun to think. Classicists are only somewhat more insular and thick-headed than most professors, and their neglect did not bother Benardete a whit. He left the task of punishing lesser scholars to others. His books have no anger in them. They are there for people who want to fly to strange places without buying a ticket and without being frisked by security guards.
Actually, in Benardete’s view it’s very important that flights to strange places are protected by security guards. Benardete was extremely learned in the details of philology, more so indeed than those who know nothing else and are proud of it. But if you want to know his specialty, it was the whole. The whole is depicted to us by poetry and explained to us by philosophy. The depiction by poets tells us the extra-large sized beliefs we need to hold in order to live as we do. Philosophers call these beliefs into question and to the extent possible replace them with rational explanations.
This might sound like “the old quarrel between philosophy and poetry” featured in Plato’s Republic. But without denying the existence of such a quarrel, Benardete found philosophy in poetry and poetry in philosophy. That was the theme of his many books on Homer, Plato, and Sophocles. Poetry with its image-making aims at, and depends on, the nature of things that is the object of philosophy. And philosophy with its logic cannot simply reject the conceits and the plotting of the poet. It must “learn from our mistakes” — not so much to avoid them as to see why we make them. This re-learning is what Benardete called, following Plato, the “second sailing”: it is at the heart of all serious thinking.
My summary does not convey the adventurous sparkle of Benardete’s prose as he alternately plunges into the deep and returns to the surface. His books have been published by the University of Chicago press, a faithful friend to him and his readers. Those who have never read Seth Benardete might begin with a volume of his essays, The Argument of the Action (published last year). Soon to come is a book of reminiscence and self-summary, Experiences in Reflection: Conversations with Seth Benardete. When he died, this family man, a scholar who worked seven days a week, left the world, as do the best human beings, richer for his having lived and poorer for his being gone.
— Reprinted from The Weekly Standard (November 27, 2001), with the kind permission of Harvey Mansfield