Matthew S. Santirocco – Memorial Tribute

As Dean of N.Y.U.’s College of Arts and Science, I am here to pay tribute on behalf of our entire University community to a scholar, teacher, and colleague of extraordinary distinction, a towering intellectual presence on this campus and beyond, Professor Seth Benardete.

I am also a member of the Classics Department; as such I am here also as one of Seth’s colleagues, admirers, friends and — yes — students. For all of us, whether or not we were actually fortunate enough to study with him in a class, are Seth’s students.

Our sympathy and love go out especially to Seth’s family — to his wife Jane, his son and daughter, and his brothers. We grieve for Seth and for our own loss — but today we gather together also to remember and celebrate a life of achievement and to affirm Seth’s continuing and enriching presence in our own lives.

As a scholar and a teacher Seth had the most extraordinary range: a subtle interpreter of literature (poetry and prose), he was also a philosopher, an intellectual historian, and a peerless philologist. At a time of increasing specialization, Seth was a one-person classics department, not a generalist but seemingly a specialist in everything. In his more than 35 years at this institution there was hardly an author he hadn’t taught. Best known for his luminous writings on Greek tragedy, Plato, Herodotus, and Homer, he was also a master Latinist, regularly teaching Ovid, Tacitus, Lucan, Apuleius, even Augustine and the Church fathers. And he did so not only in those legendary 5-hour classes (that is, 5 hours without a break!) but also in independent studies with students — for he was as generous with his time as he was with his ideas.

I first encountered Seth through his writings. I was a graduate student. Publishing on Sophocles in Philosophy and Literature, I had to grapple with that extraordinary series of articles Seth had written on the Antigone in the journal, Interpretation (a series, incidentally, that was republished a year or two ago as a book). It was not until a few years later that I met Seth in person. By then I was starting out in the profession as an assistant professor at another institution, and we were both speaking at a conference on the Roman poet, Horace, whom I had studied for years and about whose Odes I was about to publish a book. I still remember that evening, how we read and discussed and argued over the famous ode to the spring, Bandusia. With an almost visceral understanding, Seth honed in on that famous image, how the sacrificial animal, cut off pathetically before its prime, tinges the waters with its blood. I had never before penetrated through the Horatian artifice and the centuries of sanitizing and aestheticizing scholarship to actually see the color of that blood (red turning to pink), to smell it, to feel its warm current, however feeble, course through the chill stream. Like the bloody water, the beauty of the poetry was tinged by pathos, everyone had seen that far; but Seth noted that the scene was also compromised by sheer violence. I returned home, and I re-read the poem, all the poems, and re-thought, and re-wrote, for I had discovered — so empowering was an encounter with Seth that it had become my discovery — I had discovered that everywhere in Horace, just beneath the surface, violence lurks. Augustan Rome, like its poetry, was a risky business.

Seth was charming, but also challenging, generous but intellectually demanding; he paid serious people the compliment of taking them seriously, and in any engagement with Seth, even if it was just a quick chat or a short note, one was at great risk — of aporia or, even, of epiphany.

There are many people, including some who have come from great distances, who are here today to remember Seth. Before I introduce them, let me close my own remarks by quoting from two individuals who are not able to be with us today but who have asked that I share with you their thoughts.

First, from the University of Chicago, Seth’s own alma mater, Martha Nussbaum, who studied with Seth at NYU:

Seth Benardete was the first person I ever knew for whom the life of the mind was the most important thing in the world. The passion and urgency of his own relation to the Greeks was an inspiration, showing how rigorous mastery of language, encyclopedic knowledge of authors and texts, and a probing philosophical mind could all go together to create both mystery and beauty. It is very difficult to believe that he is gone, for it seems like only yesterday that I went to that closet-like little office for a tutorial in Sophocles, and was introduced to the Philoctetes, a play that has been of central importance for me from then on. The first fact I remember Benardete telling me was that the Philoctetes is the only play in the tragic corpus in with the word gune does not occur. Nonetheless, women were far from marginal in his own picture of the discipline, and I owe him the greatest gratitude for giving me the courage to think that I could actually choose scholarship as a way of life. We have lost a unique, amazing person, but his writing and teaching are very much alive.

And from Germany, where he is on leave this term, the chair of NYU’s Classics Department, Michael Peachin, reflects on his colleague:

This morning, I was looking over my notes on the Romans’ use of exempla, and found that I had at some point jotted down, “Lucan, toward the end of the Pharsalia, says that Alexander set a bad example, namely, that the world could be ruled by one man. Check with S.B. on this.” Checking with S.B. on nearly every topic that came to one’s mind was a natural inclination. It was also a very wise thing to do, since he invariably had something of relevance and importance to contribute. Let me put it simply and briefly: Seth Benardete was one of the most brilliant persons I have had the privilege to know. He was brilliant in the range and depth of his knowledge, brilliant in his capacity to apply that knowledge. He was also immensely generous with what he knew, and with his time. We are all sorry that more of the last was not fated to him. We are saddened surely for his sake, though in all honesty, I imagine that much of our sorrow is directed toward ourselves. We had best admit a healthy dose of egotism. But therein lies, I hope, a tribute to Seth. We have lost someone of great importance, someone who simply will not be replaced. Perhaps we can take comfort, however, by remembering Seth as an exemplum. Lucan found that Alexander was a bad example, because he demonstrated that one man might rule the world. I would argue that Seth Benardete has provided us with a splendid example; for he showed, like Alexander, that one man could rule the ancient world — though in Seth’s case, the hegemony was intellectual.

I close with one last, definitive tribute, written a while ago and not for this occasion, by the distinguished classical scholar, Pierre Vidal-Naquet:

There is in the United States one man who is as comfortable with the art of interpreting Homer, Herodotus, or Euripides as he is with that of understanding the most difficult problems raised by Plato’s dialogues, a man who follows up texts step by step and discovers their hidden meanings. That man is Seth Benardete. I have long believed that he deserved glory — that of the heroes of Homer, to be precise.

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