At Homer's Diner
Conversations with Seth Benardete.
Apr 7, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 29 • By MARK BLITZ
Still, the discussions in "Encounters and Reflections" are difficult. They cover many poets and thinkers, chiefly Plato. We see remarkable reflections on the connection between the gods and the ideas, the political-theological problem, love and spiritedness, existence, and the good. The major theme is Benardete's view that, in ancient poetry and Plato's dialogues, the plot embodies its own logic. It cannot be explained simply as exemplifying or modifying in detailed action a formal structure or list of topics. "Well, if the Platonic dialogue and ancient poetry always have to do with the oddity of the individual, what is being reflected in these imitations is the fact that something is being disclosed in a particular that is incapable of being disclosed in any other way. It looks as if the Platonic enterprise is based on a thesis about the nature of the world--that there is something I would call the encounter with the question, which can't be determined by formula or concept."
The bulk of the book discusses this point, in various guises. The inevitable duality in things, their being what they are but not only that, is the major issue. Benardete's students press him, trying to work this problem out in specific cases. He makes clear how his initial formal analyses of books (for example, that Herodotus follows the pattern laid out in the Divided Line of Plato's "Republic") is modified by his new understanding. Needless to say, we can clarify this understanding more completely only by reading Benardete's other works, and the books he is discussing.
A SECOND THEME of "Encounters and Reflections" is the idea of "beginning"--beginning to think and to learn. Benardete sketches throughout his remarks a notion of how original questions, perplexities, or crises launch inquiries that when pursued uncover the deeper cause of what has launched them. The Greek discovery of the singularity of nature over the multiplicity of laws, conventions, and cultures is the necessary condition for the philosophical quest. Yet, the individuality of one's beginning retains a certain independence. The particular is not wholly subsumed in the general, practice not wholly subsumed in theory, the lover not wholly subsumed in what is loved. Socrates' political philosophy puts philosophy in crisis by involving it with political risk and desire for what is best for oneself. This seeking of what is good here and now, and not just what is good generally, keeps philosophy alive.
"Encounters and Reflections" not only discusses the importance of the individual, it exemplifies it. In fact, the occasional and accidental element in things may make us despair over our own condition. We apparently have nothing with which to replace the marvelous combination of accidents--academic parents, undergraduate friends such as Stanley Rosen and Bloom, attention to the great books, and the presence of Leo Strauss--that helped make Benardete what he was. Indeed, given the state of the academy today, we may well wonder whether the passion of the scholar that he exemplified will ever revive. Intense and brilliant thought may still exist, but will it again be as significant individually or as dominant generally as once it was? One by one our intellectual giants disappear, and their memories seem to shrivel in the gloomy and endless cave of our mediocrity.
It is more hopeful to say instead that in books like this they continue to glow. The humor and intelligence in Seth Benardete's "Encounters and Reflections" make us long for the world it remembers.
This world can be recovered because none of the elements that constitutes it is simply an accident. Each reflects or exemplifies things more lasting: love, friendship, natural wonder, intellect, and courage.
Mark Blitz is Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College.