BMCR 2003.11.31

Reflections. Edited by Ronna Burger

, , Encounters & reflections : conversations with Seth Benardete : with Robert Berman, Ronna Burger, and Michael Davis. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 1 online resource (x, 229 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780226042770 $30.00.

As editor Ronna Burger notes in her preface (p. x), the present volume is “a project that falls outside the usual categories” of scholarship. While listing him as author, it is in fact an edited transcript of interviews with Seth Benardete, late of the New York University Department of Classics, conducted during 1992 and 1993 by Burger, Michael Davis, and Robert Berman, three of his former students from the Department of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, where Benardete had also frequently taught during his long career in New York. It falls into two major sections, each of five chapters. The first, “Encounters,” is primarily reminiscences of persons Benardete had known. It will be of interest to many classicists at least for the anecdotes concerning eminent philologists of the past. In the second half, “Reflections,” the conversations turn to discussion of Benardete’s major interpretative contributions, especially in regard to ancient philosophy, and Plato in particular.

Benardete was certainly one of the leading classicists of his generation. He possessed an encyclopedic learning and an unsurpassed mastery of Greek, and, as a translator, demonstrated a rare combination of fidelity to the original and fluid English idiom of great literary merit. For his provocative and insightful analyses especially of Plato, which comprised the central concern of his career, he was well known; yet his own originality as a philosophical thinker has not been easy to appreciate.1 As a kind of compendium of his thought, Encounters & Reflections provides a welcome occasion for such an assessment. While Benardete had read the penultimate draft of the book prior to his death in November 2001, there is much of his work subsequent to the interviews — then eight or nine years before — that is not reflected here. I shall try therefore to round out an account of his career with a view to his later work and from my own conversations with him, which began with my arrival at N.Y.U. in 1997.2

Part I of Encounters & Reflections is arranged to follow the chronology of Benardete’s life and starts with his answers to some queries from the interlocutors about his upbringing and early years. These preliminaries quickly yield a store of vignettes about fellow students, former teachers, and others with whom Benardete was acquainted from his time as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago (where he began in 1948), through his graduate education there, fellowships in Rome and at Harvard and his first faculty positions, to his arrival at N.Y.U. in 1964 and subsequent career.

For those who were fortunate to have heard them from Benardete himself, these stories will bring back fond memories. Quite apart from this personal appeal, the interviews also form a remarkable historical record; but to collect and arrange them in this way necessarily misses the natural context in which Benardete would have told these tales. To anyone who had extended conversations with him, they will be familiar for Benardete often adduced one or the other of them to punctuate discussions. Those of his experiences which Benardete would recall on these occasions were of interest to him because of what they revealed — more comically than tragically — of human nature and the human condition. In retrospect, however, it seems clear this was rather of a piece with his interest in Herodotus — the subject of his first book, and an author with whom he remained concerned throughout his career.3 Indeed, the whole first part of Encounters & Reflections is, I think, best understood, as a kind of Herodotean inquiry. In Benardete’s view, Herodotus is of interest not for his “history” (in the modern sense), but for the way his narratives unfold within his work as a whole: What they communicate must be understood as something beyond their content. It concerns the interplay of contents and occasion — what Benardete called the tension between “pattern” and “dynamic.”4 Through this tension, Herodotus’ stories reveal enduring sources of continuing inquiry into human affairs, rather than solutions to the puzzles of “history.” In the same way, the interest of the stories collected by Burger et al. is not so much for what they tell us of Benardete qua individual — and, in any case, Benardete was or makes himself out always to be a bystander of their action. Their interest lies rather in what they reveal to be the source of his understanding of philosophy — concrete encounters with the unexpected in human life.5

Since the point of the stories anthologized in Encounters & Reflections is not autobiography, they provide little direct sense of Benardete’s intellectual development. Chief among the influences on him was his relationship — as a student and subsequently — with Leo Strauss, whose importance is clear from the frequent references to his work in the “Reflections” section, as opposed to his nearly complete absence from the “Encounters.” Benardete readily acknowledged his teacher’s impact on him; but Strauss’s own work is so commonly and completely misunderstood that little is to be gained merely by attaching the term “Straussian” to Benardete.6 Benardete did clearly take from Strauss an appreciation of philosophy’s place in human affairs and an approach to engaging texts philosophically; and these are evident already in his readings of the Iliad (the subject of his dissertation at Chicago in 1955), Aeschylus’ Persians and Suppliant Maidens (translations of which were his first publications, in 1957), and Herodotus.7 Some forty years later, in his The Bow and the Lyre: A Platonic Reading of the Odyssey, (1997), Benardete remarked that he had come to understand why this interpretative method had proven fruitful: The power of these interpretation was due to the fact that Plato had inherited from his predecessors his understanding both of the domain of philosophical problems and the range of solutions he addresses. This insight, Benardete writes, he owed ultimately to Strauss.8

In other words, it might be said (to use the useful terminology of literary theorist Harold Bloom) that Plato’s “strength” as a poet obscures for the tradition his dependence on his predecessors, and none among them more so than the “historical” Socrates.9 By the end of his career, Benardete’s thinking-through of this thought had given him in turn a highly nuanced sense of the literary character of Plato’s work in particular and of his predecessors’ more generally. This allowed him remarkable insights on the methods by which these authors can be approached, their epistemological and metaphysical commitments, and the importance of Plato’s distinction between “poetry” and “philosophy,” as well as the importance of Plato’s undercutting of that distinction, even as he makes it.10

While Benardete’s whole career might thus be seen as an exploration of an interpretative approach suggested by Strauss, in his last major work, his commentary on Plato’s Laws subtitled “The Discovery of Being,” (2000), Benardete pushed this insight yet farther, to seek the “concealed ontological dimension” in Plato’s political philosophy, and “why it is concealed and how it comes to light” (p. xii). In doing so, he was pursuing something of a “second sailing” of his own. Just as Plato says Socrates turned away from beings to speeches (Phaedo, 99d-e), Benardete moved from his earlier concern for Plato’s conception of the Being of the beings (in his translations and commentaries on Theatetus, Sophist, and Statesman, published as The Being of the Beautiful, 1984) to a more subtle sense of Plato’s metaphysical scepticism.11 Beginning with Socrates’ Second Sailing: On Plato’s Republic (1989), which itself began as a review of Strauss’s The City and Man, and up through the Laws commentary, Benardete was increasingly concerned to show that the whole metaphysical problematic of Being is an unavoidable epiphenomenon of human life, most particularly arising in our use of language as we seek to know and represent the world.12 To continue this line of inquiry, Benardete then turned to readings of Heraclitus and Parmenides, and to the vision of the latter in Plato’s Parmenides.

The Plato who emerges from Benardete’s work is not simply the Straussian philosopher of minimal metaphysical commitments; rather, he is an author profoundly concerned to investigate the necessary forgetting of philosophy that linguistic usage effects, while at the same time constantly creating anew the possibility of philosophy’s manifestation in the unexpected circumstances he portrays in his poetic and dialogical art. To put it more analytically, Benardete reveals that Plato is not a “Platonist,” in the sense that the dialogues neither expound nor refine a doctrine of ideas. It may well be that idealism, as it is articulated by Plato, is a marriage of putatively Parmenidean ontology with Pythagorian number-theory, as Aristotle is wont to see it; but to say this much is yet to say nothing of Plato’s interest in such a synthesis. Benardete’s view, as I understand it, is that Plato sees such idealism as the condition for the possibility for technical knowledge. I use the Kantian terminology deliberately, though Plato seems already to be beyond transcendental idealism.13 For Plato, it is not that idealism is the (presumably) preferred metaphysical solution to philosophical problems. It is rather that ideas are hypothesized by humans in our search for knowledge; but however necessary they may be to that pursuit, their reality remains only a fiction.

We might then say, as Benardete once remarked in person, “there are as many ideas as questions” — as if one could enumerate either; but the point of this obiter dictum is really to remind us that philosophy, for Plato, is not a doctrine but therapeutic to the search for technical knowledge. Such knowledge at once entails eidetic analysis — collection and division of phenomena into species or forms (eide), the class characteristics of which are the ideas — and genetic analysis, which aims at identifying causal principles.14 The practice of philosophy is to comprehend the confusions that arise in such pursuits, which may be slight in mechanical arts — though these help provide perspective — but are of the greatest seriousness when the claim is to knowledge of human things, e.g., an art of ruling the city.

Plato’s “positivism” in this regard would be close to that of Wittgenstein from the time of the Philosophical Investigations, for, if some problems may be dissolved, what remains is the constant possibility of manifestly philosophical inquiry. In his turn back to Heraclitus and Parmenides, Benardete found these concerns in them already. Heraclitus, already before Plato, had come to the understanding that speech makes both inquiry and error possible; and Parmenides had already shown that the metaphysical assumptions of the natural historians were untenable.

Parmenides’ poem is not to be understood, then, as promulgating a doctrine of Being, but rather as articulating “Being” as the idealist hypothesis that makes possible the inquiries of the natural historian, a hypothesis which is then shown to be incoherent, because it at once admits the possibility of non-Being while denying its necessity: without non-Being, the technical project of collecting and dividing is impossible. The paradox of eidetic analysis — that things must be both like and unlike, both be and not be what they are — is both the ground and limit of knowledge. Returning to Plato’s treatment of this Eleatic legacy, as we see it in Plato’s Parmenides, Benardete is able to make excellent sense of this difficult dialogue. He dissolves the apparent problem here of developmentalist readings of Plato — why Socrates at the end of his life, as shown in the Phaedo, returns to an idealist doctrine already discredited in his youth, as portrayed in the Parmenides. Instead, Benardete’s sees the latter dialogue as confirming the power of Plato’s authorship: Socrates, as characterized by Plato, signifies the paradoxical, accidental nature of philosophy; and philosophical practice is only made to seem logical and necessary on a particular occasion through the art of the Platonic dialogue.

This illusion Benardete sometimes calls the “logographic necessity” of Platonic dialogues (borrowing Plato’s own term from Phaedrus 264b). Its interpretative counterpart is finding what he calls the “argument in the action” of a work.15 It is an approach which, rather than faulting Plato for the unsound arguments he frequently gives his leading speakers, asks instead why Plato does so, what pattern the arguments form, and what he means to communicate by having the interlocutors accept or reject them. The result is to replace our conception of a dogmatic Plato — or Socrates — with one in which we recognize Plato not so much de-mythologizing the poets as demonstrating how the demands of a progressive project aiming at technical knowledge trade the necessity of the poets’ Olympian gods for the necessity of ideas among natural historians and sophists alike. The poets had shown why we needed the fiction of the gods to understand human experience. Positing ideas of the just, the good, and the beautiful as terms for understanding the characteristically human — and, in particular this means the political — is not an advance of philosophy, but rather a renewal of the need for philosophical practice to remind us of the essentially mythical status of these metaphysical entities.

It is impossible here to do more than sketch the movement of Benardete’s thought; and I have passed over much in silence, most notably his studies of Greek tragedy, his remarks in Encounters & Reflections concerning Christian and Roman writers, and his conception of law, which Benardete’s sudden passing prevented the interviewers from including.16 While he certainly changed his mind about various details over the course of his career, that movement, as may also be the case in the work of Plato, is not to be understood developmentally, but rather was the result of the profound thinking-through of a fundamental insight about the nature of philosophical thought. That insight is precisely not reducible to a proposition, but it is hinted at in formulas like the “second sailing,” and Benardete’s remark once that “There is only surface. Depth is an illusion of surface.”17 Or, again, it is an openness to the unexpected as the accidental occasion for remembering that the ideas which appear to be necessary for us to make sense of our experiences are themselves fictions the “philosophers” have substituted for those of the poets. In this view, the “ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy” is both the mark of this and the continuing possibility of its recognition; and, Benardete may best be understood to be a “poet” of the same sort as Herodotus, one recognizing the need for a history of such mythologizing, even when it is one’s own. Beautifully produced, Encounters & Reflections is recommended to those wishing to embark on such an inquiry into Benardete’s work themselves.


The following site on the World-Wide Web is devoted to Benardete’s life and work: (The earlier, now redirects visitors to this site.) The Benardete Archive site also includes two, very different reviews of Encounters & Reflections:

Blitz, Mark. “At Homer’s Diner: Conversations with Seth Benardete.” [ Review of Encounters & Reflections.] Reprinted from The Weekly Standard (April 7, 2003),

Velkley, Richard. “In Memoriam: Seth Benardete, 1930-2001.” [ Review of Encounters & Reflections.] Reprinted from The Claremont Review of Books (Winter, 2002).

A very complete bibliography of Benardete’s publications up to 2000 will be found in his The Argument of the Action: Essays on Greek Poetry and Philosophy, edited and with an introduction by Ronna Burger and Michael Davis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

This collection includes a number of essays on Homer, the tragedians, and Aristotle, and the reprinted lecture on Leo Strauss noted above at 8. It is of particular interest for several essays on Plato — concerning Theatetus, Sophist, Statesman, and Timaeus — which supplement Benardete’s earlier writings on these dialogues. It also republishes essays on Charmides, Laches, Lysis, Symposium, and Cratylus — the latter of these, dating from 1981, while among his earliest writings on Plato, is of crucial importance to understanding Benardete’s thought.

The editor’s introduction is also of great value as a guide to Benardete’s career up to the time of the volume’s publication.

I include here information only for this collection and for such of his subsequent works of which I am aware.

Aristotle. On Poetics. Translation by Seth Benardete and Michael Davis. Introduction by Michael Davis. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine Press, 2002.

Benardete, Seth . “Derrida and Plato.” Unpublished lecture delivered at New York University on October 19, 2000, at Derrida and his Non-Contemporaries, a part of Derrida Month, a series of lectures and symposia organized by Professor Benjamin Binstock.

— — — — . “Freedom: Grace and Necessity.” [Unpublished lecture on Plato and Herodotus, to have been delivered at Catholic University in Fall 2001.] Forthcoming in Freedom and the Human Person, Richard Velkley, ed. Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy. Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press.

— — — — . “On Heraclitus.” Review of Metaphysics 53, 3 (#211, March, 2000): 613-633. Paper based on a based on a graduate course at the New School in Spring 1998.

— — — — . “‘Night and Day, . . .’: Parmenides.” Unpublished paper based on a graduate course on Parmenides’ poem at the New School in Spring 2000. Forthcoming in Métis: Revue d’anthropologie du monde grec ancien.

— — — — . “The Plan of Odysseus and the Plot of Philoctetes.” Epoche 7, 2 (Spring 2003): 133-150. [A version of this paper was delivered at a colloquium in the N.Y.U. Classics Department, March 20, 2001.] This issue of the journal is devoted to Benardete’s work and bears the subtitle “Readings of Ancient Greek Philosophy: In Memory of Seth Benardete.”

— — — — . “Plato’s ‘Laws’: The Discovery of Being.” Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

— — — — . “Plato’s Parmenides: A Sketch.” Unpublished paper based on a graduate course on this dialogue at the New School in Spring 2001.

Plato. Symposium. A translation by Seth Benardete, with commentaries by Allan Bloom and Seth Benardete. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2001. This edition collects Benardete’s translation of 1986 and commentary of 1994 (both issued previously and the latter reprinted also in The Argument and the Action) with Bloom’s previously published commentary of 1993.

Plato. The Being of the Beautiful: Plato’s Theatetus, Sophist, and Statesman, translated and with a commentary by Seth Benardete. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

This volume is now out of print. The three translations and commentaries (Theatetus, Sophist, Statesman; each at Chicago, 1986) were subsequently re-issued separately; however, not included among them is the very important introduction to the original volume, in which Benardete treats the Hippias Major for justification of his approach to those other three dialogues.


1. Even when the profundity and influence of Benardete’s work is appreciated in the abstract, frequently missed or misunderstood is the playfulness of his writing and the deep philosophical reasons for his style of close commentary. See, e.g., Edward Rothstein’s article on Benardete’s collected essays, The Argument and the Action (Chicago, 2000), in the New York Times (February 16, 2002), page B11. For an appreciation of his typical style, see the review by Michael Davis of Benardete’s The Being of the Beautiful (Chicago, 1984), in Ancient Philosophy 7 (1987): 191-200.

2. During this period, I sometimes had occasion to audit Benardete’s philosophy courses at the New School, each of which formed the basis of a later papers of his. Two have appeared in print. For more complete information on all, see the Bibliography. — Heraclitus, Spring 1998; “On Heraclitus”; — Timaeus, Spring 1999; “On the Timaeus,” in The Argument and the Action, pp. 376-395; — Parmenides, Spring 2000; “‘Night and Day,…’: Parmenides”; — Plato’s Parmenides, Spring 2001; “Plato’s Parmenides: A Sketch.” (At the time of his death, Benardete was planning a course on the Euthydemus for Spring 2002.) In addition to having been a colleague of Benardete — albeit one trained in philosophy, not Classics — I should also acknowledge my acquaintance with Michael Davis. I am grateful to Professor Davis for providing copies of some of Benardete’s yet-unpublished papers.

3. Herodotean Inquiries (Nijhoff, 1969), reprinted with an appendix “Second Thought” (St. Augustine, 1999). Benardete returned to Herodotus again in “Freedom: Grace and Necessity” (2001). For information on the forthcoming publication of this paper, see the Bibliography. Discussion of Herodotus also informs his commentary on Plato’s Laws (Chicago, 2000). See especially the preface to that work, pp. xii-xvii.

4. Cf. “From Pattern to Dynamic,” chapter six of Encounters & Reflections. For the discussion of Herodotus therein, see pp. 118-120.

5. Cf. Burger’s preface to Encounters & Reflections, p. vii.

6. Cf. the recent spate of commentary that seeks to hold Strauss responsible for the politics of the current administration in the United States. See, e.g.: James Atlas, “A Classicist’s Legacy: New Empire Builders,” New York Times (May 4, 2003), Week in Review section, page 1; and Jeet Heer, “The Mind of the Administration,” Boston Globe (May 11, 2003), page H1. For a helpful corrective see the “The Real Leo Strauss,” by Jenny Strauss Clay, New York Times (June 7, 2003), page A15.

7. See also his Master’s thesis on the Theages (Chicago, 1953). Benardete accepted this dialogue as Platonic, as he was typically inclined to accept as authentic Platonic works of the Thrasyllan corpus whose authorship is now disputed, explicitly accepting the Theages and the Minos. For discussion of the latter, see his commentary on Plato’s Laws, especially pp. 3-7. Cf. also his “Plato, True & False” [review of Plato, Complete Works, John Cooper, ed. (Hackett, 1997)], New Criterion (February, 1998): 70-74.

8. Bow & Lyre (Rowman and Littlefield 1997), page xiv. For an extended appraisal of Strauss’s influence on him, see Benardete’s “Strauss on Plato” (1993), reprinted in his The Argument and the Action, pp. 407-417.

9. Cf. Charles Kahn’s Plato and the Socratic Dialogue (Cambridge, 1996). Kahn’s Plato could likewise be said to be a “strong poet,” dominating our view of others working in the same literary genre of “dialogues with Socrates.” Already before this, Strauss was remarkable among modern commentators on Plato for the weight he gave to the accounts of Socrates to be found in the works of Xenophon.

10. Benardete suggests that Plato learned this dialectical understanding of the opposition of poetry and philosophy from Heraclitus: “Plato’s Parmenides: A Sketch,” p. 4. This unpublished paper, based on a graduate course at the New School in Spring 2001, Burger and Davis hope to include in a second volume of Benardete’s collected shorter works.

11. In his preface (p. ix) to The Tragedy and Comedy of Life, his translation and commentary on the Philebus (Chicago, 1993), Benardete said he had meant with that work to complete “his account of Plato’s understanding of the beautiful, the just, and the good” (treated, respectively, in The Being of the Beautiful, Socrates’ Second Sailing, and this work on the Philebus). This is certainly an accurate description of the project of those three studies, but Benardete leaves out of consideration here a number of his other publications during the same period, particularly his 1986 translation of the Symposium (a dialogue on which he went on also to comment in 1994), and his commentaries on the Gorgias and Phaedrus (The Rhetoric of Morality and Philosophy; Chicago, 1991). Moreover, in his introduction to the latter (p. 3), he writes: “The Gorgias and the Phaedrus, then, pick up as their theological counterparts the Protagoras and Symposium, respectively. I propose to treat the latter pair in another book, The Gods of the Poets, which will explicate the theological dimension of the Gorgias and Phaedrus.” That proposal was never brought to fruition, but I believe the impetuous behind it found expression in Benardete’s subsequent work, as I am characterizing it herein.

12. Benardete thus sees Plato as already aware of and transcending the criticism of commentators like Jacques Derrida. Benardete spoke to the Derridean misprision of Plato in a lecture “Derrida and Plato” delivered in October, 2000, at N.Y.U. The Derridean reading had also already been differently criticized, e.g., by G. R. F. Ferrari in Listening to the Cicadas: A Study of Plato’s Phaedrus (Cambridge, 1987). For Benardete’s review of Strauss’s The City and Man, see the Political Science Reviewer 8 (Fall, 1978): 1-20.

13. In the summer before his death, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to discuss with Benardete Plato’s achievement in this regard, as well as the views of Paul Natorp and Leon Robin.

14. Benardete used these concepts frequently, if not always with as clear a statement of them as we find in chapter 1 of this Laws commentary (entitled “The Eidetic and the Genetic”), p. 18, n. 18. These terms of analysis are grounded particularly in his reading of the Timaeus. In addition to his late paper on this dialogue (see note

2., above), see also his early “On Plato’s Timaeus and Timaeus’ Science Fiction,” Interpretation 2, 1 (Summer, 1971): 21-63.

15. Cf. “The Logos of the Action in the Platonic Dialogue,” Encounters & Reflections, pp. 124-128. The phrase “the argument in the action” echoes the title of Strauss’s commentary The Argument and the Action of Plato’s Laws (Chicago, 1975). At least once, Benardete also writes “the action of the argument” (The Tragedy and Comedy of Life, p. 90).

16. See Burger’s preface to Encounters & Reflections, pp. ix-x.

17. He thus revises a remark of Strauss, from Thoughts on Machiavelli (lectures at the University of Chicago, 1953; published at Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1958; p. 13): “The problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.” Benardete cites this remark in his review of Strauss’s The City and Man. See also Encounters & Reflections, p. 125.