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Saturday, December 15, 2001

Arts & Letters

Seth Benardete: In Memoriam


Seth Benardete died at the age of 71 on November 14 of this year. With characteristic attention to the little things that upon deeper reflection open up into big things, he wrote with unsurpassed breadth and depth on Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Aristotle, Cicero, Horace, Apuleius, and 20 Platonic dialogues. The short piece on A. E. Housman that follows may be the last thing that he wrote before his death.

Benardete learned from Pindar, Horace, and others the art of articulating the perennial by way of the occasional. His criticism of Housman hints at how one may recognize the deepest sort of thinker. “The greatest Latin scholar that England produced since Richard Bentley” is the author of “A Shropshire Lad,” and is regularly acknowledged to be a poet of a high order. Yet, while in some ways genuinely admiring Housman, Benardete wonders whether his poetry is not excessively sentimental, and he finds his scholarship, while brilliant and exact, still narrow and lacking in greatness of soul. If Housman’s scholarship falls short because it is not in the service of anything grand, his poetry is insufficiently meticulous and rational in its argument; it is too quickly too grand. Housman is an interesting case, for in him the two elements of philosophy, the comprehensive and the precise, are present but at war. In Seth Benardete, they were never apart.

He may well have been the ablest classical scholar of his generation, but he was always too busy really reading books – that is, looking past them to the world they describe – to allow this manifest superiority to lead to contempt or pettiness. Benardete’s greatness of soul consisted of a fixed disposition to wonder at things – a habit of taking nothing for granted. This and a marvelous playfulness combine to make his thought occasionally seem eccentric, but when approached with the right sort of patience and humor, of modesty and audacity, it leads one to the very heart and core of things. Seth Benardete never called himself a philosopher – he was always amused by those who appropriated the most important vocation in the world as a personal badge of honor. Yet, if we are to be precise, that is what we must call him – and thereby, incidentally, honor him.

Michael Davis is professor of philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College. His recent books include The Autobiography of Philosophy, and a translation of Aristotle’s On Poetics.
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