Shelf Life; A Classicist’s Starting Point: Putting Aside Interpretation

Edward Rothstein, "Shelf Life: A Classicist's Starting Point: Putting Aside Interpretation" (Review of The Argument of the ActionThe New York Times, Arts, February 16, 2002.

Confessions of ignorance are not usually in a critic’s best interest. But in this case, perhaps, an exception can be made. Ignorance, after all, is now common when confronting Greek literature. Beginning with ignorance is also an approach recommended by many of these demanding essays by Seth Benardete, a classicist at New York University, who died to relatively little notice in November. Because of his difficult and idiosyncratic interpretations, that notice is not likely to expand beyond a small group of philosophers, political scientists and classicists.

Yet testimonials are unqualified. Pierre Vidal-Naquet, the respected French historian, has proclaimed of Benardete, ”I have long believed that he deserves glory — that of the heroes of Homer, to be precise.” Harvey Mansfield, a political scientist at Harvard, said Benardete was ”the most learned man alive and, I venture to assert, the deepest thinker as well.” According to several anecdotes, T. S. Eliot heaped praise on his brilliance. At a memorial program at New York University earlier this month, encomiums for the man — who spent his career writing translations and commentary on Plato, a book on ”The Odyssey” (”The Bow and the Lyre”) and essays on Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristotle — were offered by philosophers and classicists, including Ronna Burger of Tulane University and Michael Davis of Sarah Lawrence College, both of whom edited the current collection.