By Richard L. Velkley
Seth Benardete left behind an astonishing body of writing on the ancient poets, historians, and philosophers: translations of Greek tragedies and Platonic dialogues; five books of commentary on Plato; a book apiece on Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles; a volume of essays; and a long list of articles on many authors and subjects. Anyone having some acquaintance with his work readily produces a string of superlatives: extraordinary depth and subtlety of interpretation, vast erudition, audacious mastery of the most difficult texts and problems. He belongs to the rare company of classical exegetes who will endure as primary sources, since he was more than a scholar. He was a philosopher, one of the most important of the past half-century.
Born into a Brooklyn academic family of Sephardic origin, Benardete studied at the University of Chicago (1948-52, 1954-55) and wrote a dissertation on the Iliad for the Committee on Social Thought. He held fellowships in Athens, Florence, was a Harvard Junior Fellow, and taught at St. John’s College, Annapolis, and Brandeis University before joining the classics department of New York University in 1965. At the same time he began giving courses in ancient philosophy at the New School for Social Research, a practice he continued for the rest of his career. He worked seven days a week in his tiny, windowless and book-filled office, a short walk from his home. He was deeply indifferent to most aspects of conventional academic success. Ronna Burger, one of his foremost students, writes: “In his teaching and writing, but especially vividly in conversation — where humor, depth of insight, and soaring thought were inextricably intertwined — Benardete was a model of what it means to live a philosophic life.“
His philosophical investigations were, of course, decisively formed by his study with Leo Strauss. Strauss made a gift of two volumes to the young Benardete, Aristotle’s Physics and Martin Heidegger’s Holzwege, whereby, no doubt, the teacher indicated his judgment of the remarkable student’s potential for addressing the questions of first philosophy. In Benardete’s later years, during the completion of his series of great Plato-studies, it was evident that Heidegger was much on his mind. Like Strauss, Benardete liked to frame the questions in terms borrowed from Plato’s famous image, in the Republic, of the city or the political association as a cave. Indeed, Benardete’s continuation of Strauss’s recovery of “the primary phenomena of the cave” was his way of carrying forward Strauss’s central effort to respond to Heidegger’s Destruktion of the Western tradition.
Benardete understood that Strauss’s term “the natural cave” was paradoxical and ironic, for it refers to how political life appears from the standpoint of nature, once politics has been exposed by philosophy. It cannot connote some actual “cave” — whether of fifth-century Athens or any other time — that achieved the highest excellence and should be restored through practical-political efforts. To understand the cave naturally is to grasp the natural disparity between opinion and the search for truth. In Benardete’s words, “political philosophy is the philosopher’s ascent from, not his descent into, the cave. The philosopher always looks back, he never turns back, to the cave.” Hence the natural cave, like the best city, exists only for philosophical thought or speech.
Our difficulty in grasping what Plato meant by the cave owes much to modern philosophy’s attempt to understand the human things not by nature’s light but by the lights of history. Heidegger brought the latter way of thinking to its highest development. As Strauss liked to say, modern man lived in “the cave beneath the cave,” in a historical-cultural world of his own even further removed from the world illuminated by the natural sun. To say that the natural cave can be occluded by history is to assert that the very concept of the philosophical ascent from opinion, from the cave, can be forgotten: philosophy is inherently subject to decay. Benardete (following Strauss) saw no inconsistency in speaking this way about nature, for nature is hierarchical; only at its bottom rung does nature mean “what prevails necessarily, everywhere and always.” (Strauss argued that the egalitarian nature of modern natural right, with its claim of the necessary actualization of the good, is an indispensable condition for the “turn to history.”) In Benardete’s view, Strauss restored “the connection between political philosophy and ontology” by showing that Being must be approached as nature in this forgotten, elusive, yet vital sense, since the hiddenness of Being is inseparable from the hiddenness of the philosophic nature. Benardete pursued this undertaking into unexplored terrain, wherein he made countless wonderful finds.
The center of Benardete’s interpretations of Plato — from which his thought radiated to other authors — was Socrates’s account of his “two sailings” in the Phaedo. Philosophy necessarily begins in error, for the natural way of the human mind is from and toward causes that exist in spurious independence from the wholes they would explain. In this separateness the causes reflect the character of speech as dividing and collecting. Thus before Socrates makes his turn to speeches, he does not see the root of his activity in logos, and hence he misses how the soul is crucial for the togetherness of things. This turn, or “second sailing,” is the turn to political philosophy, for it reflects on the connection between the tendency to posit separate causes and the “idealism” or “vulgar Platonism” of opinion. Such “idealism“ is at work in the Republic, Book IV, where spiritedness (or thumos) dominates the account of the tripartite soul, effecting a “thumoeidetic“ division of appetite, spiritedness, and reason as separate eide. It can also be seen in the ascription to the city of a class-structure based only on the soul as abstracted from the body.
In the Republic Socrates enacts with full self-awareness a “first sailing” with his interlocutors. Indeed, every Socratic dialogue displays a first sailing in which the distorting perspectives of the interlocutors shape the discussion, thus revealing their souls even as their souls are hidden from themselves. Benardete boldly treated the “doctrine of ideas” as a form of the first sailing and as a vehicle by which Socrates tries to effect the turning of the soul (periagoge) toward itself. It is a sign of their not making the periagoge that Glaucon and Adeimantus do not see that the true best city is not the imaginary one of their speech, but is in motion before their eyes as the “dialogic city” of their conversation. Similarly they do not see that the true account of philosophic education would be the reflection on their own education with Socrates, and not the ideal account of Books VI-VII, an account as impossible as the imaginary best city. Their self-ignorance is related to the duality of speech as articulation of the beings and as conversation, which duality is mirrored in the concerns of dialectic with eidetic and genetic modes of analysis.
Since all inquiry must be guided by the Good, or “interest,” the conduct of inquiry is necessarily informed by the contingencies of persons and circumstances. The action disclosing how these contingencies shape the questions and the answers arising in the conversation unfolds the true argument of a Socratic dialogue. The “abstractions” of the dialogues (for example, the abstractions from eros in the Republic and in Timaeus’ cosmology) correspond to the blindness of the speakers, and the explicit argument treats an apparently neglected issue through showing (rather than stating) what its absence entails. But through such abstraction the dialogues reflect the nature of the soul and achieve a kind of perfection. Since philosophy is made possible by error, or by the need to start with treating a part as apart from the whole rather than as a part of the whole, the best philosophic writing employs “phantastic” images proportioned to the soul’s limitation. But this is to say that philosophic speech exploits the error intrinsic to political life, since the cave isthe effort to treat a part (the city) as the whole. It is the error of the city’s “idealism” to think that the best world would be one so well-governed that law, and thus the city itself, would be unnecessary. The myth of the reversed cosmos in the Statesman describes a world in which there are no cities and the gods rule men as shepherds. It is a world without eros and without philosophy. Benardete spoke of “the teleology of evil,” and noted that the frustration of the city’s primary aim is the condition for the possibility of philosophy. The self-undermining tendency of opinion allows the soul to look beyond opinion.
Through such reflections Benardete revealed with unsurpassed depth and precision the meaning of the marriage of philosophy and poetry in Plato. Moreover, he arrived at the conclusion that “the Socratic revolution in philosophy seems to be coeval with Greek poetry,” and that Homer and Hesiod already grasped the philosophic truth about error and insight, argument and action. Benardete also saw in the Aristotelian treatises a poetic action correcting their explicit arguments: by seeming to found separate disciplines, Aristotle quietly shows what needs to be combined. On Benardete’s reading, Heidegger might well have discovered in Plato and Aristotle an account of Being as that which is never present, as hidden by the beings and the sciences of them. But Heidegger, while seeing that Being cannot be caught in the net of “method,” did not reflect adequately on how the quality of the soul of the thinker — and thus the political realm — conditions the access to Being. His profound efforts to renew the question of Being therefore fell into the error of conflating philosophic insights with demotic or popular revelations. On Benardete’s reading he failed to complete the “second sailing.”
The above comments offer only a glimpse of the vast range of Benardete’s accomplishment. Perhaps the best path of entry into the cosmos of his thought is the collection of essays, The Argument of the Action: Essays on Greek Poetry and Philosophy, edited by Ronna Burger and Michael Davis (University of Chicago, 2000), to which the editors’ introduction is a superb guide. The final essay (“Strauss on Plato”) illuminates the principles of reading Platonic dialogues, as does more expansively The Rhetoric of Morality and Philosophy: Plato’s “Gorgias” and “Phaedrus” (Chicago, 1991). Socrates’ “two sailings” are discussed in the essay “On Plato’s Phaedo” in The Argument, and are the central theme of Socrates’ Second Sailing: On Plato’s Republic (Chicago, 1989). The Socratic analysis of the problem of causality in terms of the eidetic/genetic distinction figures in many of Benardete’s studies, and notably in his accounts of what are commonly considered non-Socratic dialogues; for this see “On the Timaeus” in The Argument, and Plato’s “Laws”: The Discovery of Being (Chicago, 2000). Benardete treats the Socratic replacement of ideas as separate from soul and body with an account of eidos as the hidden thread of being “that always shows itself as other than it is” in The Tragedy and Comedy of Life: Plato’s “Philebus” (Chicago, 1993). For the distinction between “eikastic” and “phantastic” image-making, and for the tendency of political life toward an absolutizing of law that is disastrous for eros and philosophy, see the commentary on the Platonic trilogy, The Being of the Beautiful: Plato’s “Theatetus,” “Sophist,” and “Statesman” (Chicago, 1984). For Benardete’s Socratic way of reading Greek poetry see the essay “On Greek Tragedy” in The Argument, and The Bow and the Lyre: A Platonic Reading of the “Odyssey” (Lanham, MD, 1997). For his related approach to Aristotle see “On Wisdom and Philosophy: The First Two Chapters of Aristotle’s Metaphysics A” in The Argument.
Richard L. Velkley is associate professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America, and associate editor of The Review of Metaphysics. His latest book is Being After Rousseau: Philosophy and Culture in Question (University of Chicago Press).
— Reprinted with the kind permission of The Claremont Review of Books, Winter 2002