How Benardete Read the Last Stage of Socrates’ Philosophic Education

Laurence Lampert, "How Benardete Read the Last Stage of Socrates' Philosophic Education," Political Philosophy Cross-Examined, ed. by Thomas Pangle and Harvey Lomax (Palgrave Macmillan 2013): 189-204.

Seth Benardete, like Leo Strauss, judged that the Symposium occupies the privileged place in the Platonic kosmos. A chief reason both give is that the Symposium is the third of three dialogues in which Plato tracks a young Socrates becoming the mature thinker of all the dialogues; portraying the last stage of Socrates’s philosophic education, the Symposium shows Socrates gaining the peak of understanding after moving through earlier stages in Phaedo andParmenides. Benardete treats that peak in “On Plato’s Symposium,” an essay that first appeared in a lovely edition edited by Heinrich Meier, an edition that Meier equipped with a foldout reproduction of Anselm Feuerbach’s mammoth painting, Das Gastmahl des Plato. I confine myself here to Benardete’s paragraphs on the peak.

“The truth about Eros is terrifying” (65[190]). With this explanation of Socrates’s reason for holding that Eros is hard to praise, Benardete opens the Socrates part of his interpretation of the Symposium in electrifying fashion. For this truth about Eros casts its light and especially its shadow over the balance of his account. Knowing that the truth is terrifying, Socrates can attack all the previous speakers not for their ignorance of Eros but for knowing the truth about it and consequently not finding anything in it to praise. All their speeches were “whistlings in the dark.” But how will Socrates praise the deadly truth that all the other speakers decked “out with spurious beauties and excellencies”? He will “suppress the ugly elements in Eros” and “present only the beautiful truth”.