The Magazine

At Homer's Diner

Conversations with Seth Benardete.

Apr 7, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 29 • By MARK BLITZ
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Encounters and Reflections

Conversations with Seth Benardete

Edited by Ronna Burger

University of Chicago Press, 216 pp., $30

THERE'S A JOKE that goes: "'Do you know where we're supposed to go?' I said, 'No.' So he said, 'Well let's go together.' That's how we met."

This joke--an all-purpose metaphor for youth, love, education, friendship, and thought--appears in "Encounters and Reflections." The book is a remarkable collection of accounts of Seth Benardete's encounters with various people, now mostly obscure, and his reflections on topics, more obscure still. Benardete, the classical scholar and philosopher who died last year, sat down in the early 1990s with three of his students to recapture their conversations of twenty years before. The resulting discussions are both spontaneous and well ordered: a lovely achievement brought about by the editor's skill, Benardete's wizardry, and the familiarity of friends. Of course, they don't quite have the unity of one of Plato's dialogues. But it's nonetheless presumably no accident that many of them occurred in a place called Homer's Diner.

The first part of "Encounters and Reflections" treats the reader to Benardete's stories about his friends and teachers, occupants of lost worlds of scholarship and intellectual passion, with some of their attendant eccentricities: "Didn't you once tell us that Strauss didn't know how to boil water? No, that was Wachs, in the sociology of religion." Benardete's anecdotes and descriptions often are punctuated with compressed analyses of his colleagues' leading traits and their cause. The remarkable Allan Bloom saw the meaning of the 1960s more clearly than Benardete and had extraordinary sensitivity "to people's defects." Yet, "he got impatient if you could not say what you wanted to say in more than half a sentence," and the vanity of which he accused others (such as the late philosopher Richard Kennington) might better be attributed to Bloom himself.

IN FACT, Kennington's questions always seemed to Benardete "to be so much deeper than anything I was doing that I couldn't catch up" (which must make Kennington so deep as to be literally unfathomable). Benedict Einarson, a professor of classics at Chicago, "knew more than anybody else. Absolutely amazing knowledge." But "he looked like the Michelin tire ad," and "everything he said was punctuated by a laugh." Peter von Blanckenhagen, the art historian, understood himself as Goethe understood Winckelmann, "the notion of the eternal moment being preserved by the work of art," two things "completely at odds." Yet "he was eager to be accepted by people who did not have the same capacity as he did, like those who were at the top of the American archaeological profession, who were unimaginative, or imaginative in a very professional way, not like him at all." The classical historian Arnaldo Momigliano also knew everything but was never satisfied with the number of his honorary degrees. Renato Poggioli, who studied comparative literature, would always conclude his conversations by saying, "Now you see the point," more charming if less honest than Jacob Klein's characteristic "By Zeus I don't know." And that's not to mention Benardete's discussions of rats, dogs, deer, and T.S. Eliot.

There is an untold amount to learn from any of Benardete's books: works like "The Argument of the Action: Essays on Greek Poetry and Philosophy," or "Socrates' Second Sailing:On Plato's Republic," or "Herodotean Inquiries." But to read them is to be forced to overcome a real denseness and compression that sometimes blocks access to them. "Encounters and Reflections" is attractive because the clear, straightforward, and charming Benardete of its first part makes us confident of the accessibility of the master magician of textual interpretation. In the second part, moreover, Benardete is still answering questions. When he says something dense about Plato's "Phaedrus" or "Republic," his friends ask what he means, and they keep on asking until it comes clear. Robert Berman, Ronna Burger, and Michael Davis's own considerable learning and intelligence allow them the luxury here of seeming occasionally to be ignorant--and thus to ask out loud the question one sometimes mutters when reading Benardete: What could you possibly mean?