This is the first opportunity I have had to speak publicly on the campus of this University since the death, on November 14, 2001, of Seth Benardete, perhaps the most distinguished graduate of the Committee on Social Thought, from which I also received a degree. He was as well one of the two or three most distinguished students of Leo Strauss, with whom he studied on this campus. It is curious, therefore, that the University of Chicago did not make more use of him than it did, at least as an occasional lecturer if not even as a permanent member of its faculty. On the other hand, the University of Chicago Press has published several of his books during the last decade, books which I recommend to your prayerful consideration.
His books, as well as his lectures here and there, exhibit his formidable intelligence, his unsurpassed erudition, and his labyrinthine exegeses of important texts. I once had occasion to suggest to him that he could do both us and himself a favor if he would simplify somewhat what he had been saying. His complexity, sometimes far more intense perhaps than that of the masters whom he was “explaining,” could seem to some to be perverse–but such a judgment failed to appreciate that he himself could see, if not be bedeviled by, one facet after another of whatever he was examining. Thus, he could seem to be a man who saw too much, who therefore could not say anything simply or directly. Fortunately for his proper influence and enduring reputation, several of his better students have, for some years now, been presenting his thought in a form which permits lesser mortals to benefit from its enduring merit.
Mr. Benardete’s congenital disregard for his audience said something about his political skills. This meant, among other things, that he could read too much out of a situation (as well as out of a text) even as he may have failed to notice, or to assign enough weight to, what was on the surface. Thus, the political aspects of both situations and texts may not have been given their due, even though he himself could be impressed by the ability of others to discuss political things politically. His deficiency in this respect is not found in Leo Strauss.
Mr. Benardete’s limitations here–limitations which may be intimately related to his extraordinary capacities as a scholar–were dramatically evident to me during an informal gathering at the University of Dallas a generation ago, where he had gone to do some lecturing. That conversation was somewhat memorable for the way that he could be obliged to retreat from a challenging position on political matters that he had taken. The people present with whom I have consulted about that occasion cannot recall the precise subject–but they do vividly recall that politics was somehow not something which Seth Benardete could reliably discuss. How this affected his exegeses of texts such as Plato’s Laws remains to be determined.
These observations bear as well upon what Mr. Benardete thought of the work of Allan Bloom, an old friend of his and mine and another distinguished graduate of the Committee on Social Thought. Mr. Benardete misunderstood my 1988 critique of Mr. Bloom’s best-known book, a critique which he could have made even more vigorously (and certainly with far more learning) than I did. In fact, I continue to believe that Mr. Bloom was ill-served by those of his friends and admirers here and elsewhere who spared him the criticism he needed, especially when he dealt with politically-controversial subjects.
Even so, it can be said that our first difference of opinion (which I happen to recall) drew, in effect, upon our respective notions about the significance of family life in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos. This bears upon something I considered more critical than did he, the fact that there is left (technically) unresolved in this, the greatest of our plays, the vital issue of whether there had been one killer or many of Laius at that fateful crossroads. This was, despite what Mr. Benardete may have thought, more than merely a legalistic quibble on my part–or, at least, I hope so. Indeed, one is challenged, by this play, to wonder who (and how many) may be “responsible” for such deeds as the killing of Laius.
It should be added that Mr. Benardete himself did have a healthy family life (where there can be seen “politics” on a small scale). Perhaps related to this is the fact that he could get along well with, and encourage the best in, his female students, although he generally found few among his contemporaries (male or female) worthy of serious attention.
The merits, as well as the appetite for complexity, in the Benardete mind may be seen in an observation in his book on the Odyssey about the relation of philosophy to poetry, an observation which he identifies in this way (p. xiv):
My teacher, the late Leo Strauss, had often spoken to me about this possibility, but I did not know then what he really meant, and I do not know whether what I think I now understand was what he really meant. This book, in any case, was written to explore the possibility he indicated.
A further testimonial to Mr. Benardete is provided by the fact that none of Leo Strauss’s students was esteemed more by Mr. Strauss. That Mr. Strauss was highly esteemed in turn by this student is perhaps most dramatically displayed in the uncharacteristic clarity with which he spoke of his teacher after his death.
This, then, is my preliminary remembrance of Seth Benardete, one of the greatest, if not simply the greatest, Classical scholar of his generation.
ENDNOTE (September 2011)
These remarks preceded, on January 20, 2002, George Anastaplo’s annual University of Chicago Works of the Mind Lecture, “The Song of Roland and the Islamic Challenge to Christendom.” That talk has been included in the Anastaplo collection, “September Eleventh, the ABC’s of a Citizen’s Responses,” 29 Oklahoma City University Law Review 165, 202 (2004)
See, for suggestions about the killer(s) of Lauis referred to in these January 2002 remarks, Anastaplo, The Constitutionalist: Notes on the First Amendment (Southern Methodist University Press, 1971; Lexington Books, 2005), p. 798. This and several other Anastaplo discussions of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos have been posted on http://www.anastaplo.wordpress.com. (The 1971 discussion includes a perceptive Benardete comment on the Oedipus Tyrannos.) See, also, Anastaplo, “Aristotle’s Poetics and the Remarkable Joys of Tragedy” (which draws on Seth Benardete’s scholarship). It, too, has been posted on http://www.anastaplo.wordpress.com.
The review of Allan Bloom’s book referred to (a review prepared only because it had been requested by Mortimer J. Adler) may be found in The Great Ideas Today, vol. 1988, and thereafter in Robert L. Stone, ed., Essays on “The Closing of the American Mind” (Chicago Review Press, 1989). That review, too, has been posted on http://www.anastaplo.wordpress.com. See, further, on George Anastaplo, Seth G. Benardete, Allan Bloom, and Leo Strauss, Leo Strauss and His Legacy: A Bibliography, ed. John A. Murley, (Lexington Books, 2005), pp. 871, 874, 875, 928-30. (There was called to George Anastaplo’s attention, in September 2011, a puzzling May 2010 Internet exchange [previously unknown to him], “Anastaplo Contra Benardete?” What was that all about? And what, if anything, preceded or followed this curious exchange?)