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?
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.