As a translator of and commentator on Greek philosophy and poetry, Seth Benardete made major contributions to the field of political philosophy. His range of studies is so wide that it is difficult to know where to begin, and not possible in a short space to explore it adequately. Each of the topics addressed in the Platonic dialogues and other works he studied—pleasure, rhetoric, piety, justice, philosophy, friendship, and love, among others—is illuminated by the intensity and brilliance of his analysis. Because his thought presents itself primarily as interpretive in nature, however, it is helpful to start from the interpretative principles that guide his work.
How Benardete Approached Platonic Dialogues
Central among Benardete’s interpretive principles is the idea of “logographic necessity.” This is the standard Plato’s Socrates holds up for a perfect written work (Phaedrus 264b-c), in which nothing is left to chance and nothing is redundant or superfluous. Every part, rather, serves a necessary function in the whole. In applying this standard to the Platonic dialogue, the reader must try to uncover the underlying argument by thinking about the significance of all the elements, including the setting, the characters, and, often, the practical issue that leads to the central theoretical question.
Benardete offers an illuminating account of the principles at work in interpreting a Platonic dialogue in his review essay on Leo Strauss’s The City and Man (available in Archaeology of the Soul, as well as online here.) In discussing Strauss’s reading of Plato’s Republic, Benardete highlights two main functions of the dialogue form. First, it allows Plato to imitate in his written work the irony Socrates is famous for practicing in conversation. As the author of a dialogue, Plato does not speak in his own name, and while Socrates may be his spokesman, “to speak through the mouth of a man who is notorious for his irony,” Strauss claims, “seems to be tantamount to not asserting anything” (City and Man, 50–51). Thus, the path to Plato’s thought through the speeches of his characters, including or especially the ironic Socrates, is necessarily an indirect one. Plato’s imitation, in writing, of Socratic irony in conversation reflects the essential situation of the philosopher in his relation to the political community (the “city.”) As Benardete puts it, “Socrates the master ironist and Socrates the first political philosopher seem to be the same. And if they are the same, political philosophy would have to be double—with one face turned toward and the other away from the city. The Platonic dialogue is the replication of this Janus.”
Plato’s use of dialogues is also motivated by the challenge of inspiring thinking in the face of the elusive character of being. Each dialogue is both a whole in itself and a part of the greater Platonic corpus; we can see this as an imitation of the duplicity of being itself. The Republic, for instance, is about justice, but it is also the introduction to the Timaeus, Plato’s “likely story” about the genesis and structure of the universe. In linking the two dialogues, Plato raises the question of the relation between justice and cosmology. In his own work, Benardete exemplifies this understanding of the Platonic corpus:
The reason for Plato’s choice of imitative dialogues becomes self-evident once Strauss calls one’s attention to the resemblance between an ‘idea’ and the collection of Plato’s dialogues, each of which looks like both an individual member and a species of the same genus. To collect and divide the dialogues according to their most obvious features is to become initiated into the practice of dialectics. The set of groupings of which a dialogue is capable is an imitation of the enigmatic relations that obtain between the parts and the whole in nature. (362)
These considerations help us see how Benardete can claim that “What philosophy is seems to be inseparable from the question of how to read Plato.”
Benardete’s Principles of Translation
Benardete’s understanding of how to read Plato plays a guiding role in his well-known translations. His translations of both Plato’s dialogues and of other Greek works are so faithful that they sometimes push the limits of English diction and syntax in pursuit of literalness; but in doing so, they try to convey the logographic necessity of the original texts as far as possible for the Greekless reader. In the case of the dialogues, the translations support the premise that the philosophic teaching must be uncovered by considering the dramatic form in all its elements. The often unexpected and strange character of Benardete’s translations is a reflection of the unexpected and strange character of Plato’s writings.
Benardete’s translations lead the careful reader to experience the periagoge, or “turn-around,” that he finds crucial for philosophic thinking. An example of the Platonic turn-around is how the Republic, which begins as a political discussion, becomes a discussion of the good as such. A lesser example occurs nested within the discussion, when Socrates surprises his interlocutors by saying “Do not try to breed a quarrel between me and Thrasymachus, who have just become friends and were not enemies before either” (498c-d). Because Thrasymachus and Socrates had appeared openly hostile to one another at the outset of that dialogue, we have to re-evaluate their earlier confrontation in light of the disclosure of their “friendship.” To learn from Plato, we have to keep an eye on our own reactions to the dialogues and be willing to wonder at the strangeness of these turn-arounds. Aristotle wrote in the first book of the Metaphysics that philosophy begins in wonder, and Benardete helps us see how the Platonic dialogues embody this understanding.
Political Philosophy as “the Eccentric Core of Philosophy”
In their dramatic representation of conversation between Socrates and his interlocutors, Plato’s dialogues expose an essential tension between the philosopher and the city. That tension is vividly manifest in Socrates’ fate: he is ultimately put on trial and convicted. While philosophy as such may be suspect in the city, Socrates’ distinctive turn to “the human things” seems to bring this tension out in the open: the philosopher may seek knowledge of the whole, but the necessary starting point is an inquiry into the political things. Benardete captures this idea with an enigmatic line in his review of Strauss’s City and Man: “Political philosophy is the eccentric core of philosophy.” By this he means that political philosophy is a necessary way into psychology (i.e. the study of the soul), and then into what is later separated into cosmology and ontology. Politics has this privileged position because the city (the polis) is the context for our opinions about the just, the beautiful or noble, and the good, along with the human passions attached to them, and philosophy is the examination of such opinions. Thus the study of politics is in a sense “first philosophy,” the title assigned since Aristotle to metaphysics.
According to Benardete, this is the meaning of Socrates’ statement in the course of Plato’s Minos (315a2–3) that “law wishes to be the discovery of what is.” In his work on Plato’s Laws, Benardete himself speaks of “definitional laws,” customs concerning burial, for example, or the prohibition of cannibalism, which define human beings over and against other animals: human beings are not mere carcasses or food, even in death. These laws also distinguish men from gods; in Hesiod’s Theogony, for instance, the gods commit incest and patricide freely, while human beings are forbidden from these acts. Definitional laws make an implicit claim, not only about what humans are, but also about what the world is, because the human is defined in relation to views about the gods or the principles of the whole.
City in Speech and Dialogic City
Many of the issues at the core of Benardete’s work—the significance of the dialogue form, the centrality of political philosophy to philosophy, the hidden yet volatile “pre-political” origins of the political community—are represented in his reading of Plato’s Republic (Socrates’ Second Sailing, Chicago 1989). The specific focus of his interpretation turns on the difference between the “city in speech” and the “dialogic city.” As Benardete characterizes it:
The city that is made in the Republic is the city of which Glaucon and Adeimantus, no less than Socrates, are the founders. The city that becomes is the Republic itself, whose invisible founder is Socrates, and in which are enrolled as citizens everyone present, including Thrasymachus. It is in this dialogic city that the justice of the city that can be mapped onto the individual can be found. The dialogic city is the philosophic city in which Socrates is already king. (47)
The perfect coordination between the good of the individual and the community can only be found in the dialogic city, in which Socrates leads his interlocutors in exploring the question of justice. All of them are searching for truth together, led by Socrates, and truth is the only good that can be shared in equally without diminishing the total stock. Thus, the dialogic city provides the only real instantiation of “communism” and the “philosopher-king.” In Benardete’s reading of the Republic, Socrates’ answer to the question “what is justice” confirms the well-known claim about the human good he makes at the end of his trial: “The greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue…and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living” (Apology 38a).
Philosophy and Poetry
Benardete finds a representation of still other aspects of human life that conflict with politics or the city in tragic poetry. Sophocles’ Antigone is a paradigm for tragedy because Antigone’s belief that she has a sacred duty to bury her brother Polyneices conflicts with Creon’s political order that Polyneices go unburied as punishment for his betrayal of Thebes. The tragedians present human life as radically flawed because the claims of the sacred always come into conflict with the claims of the city. A still more complicated example, which plays an important part in much of Benardete’s thought, is Oedipus Rex. Oedipus the tyrant absorbs himself entirely into the city he rules; yet such a total identification is not possible as long as the private realm of the family exists. By his double crime of patricide and maternal incest, Oedipus eliminates the boundary between family and polis, and thus removes the pre-political obstacle that stands in the way of the total politicization of human life. Thus, according to Benardete’s reading, it is as an exemplar of political man that Oedipus is fated to commit patricide and incest.
Benardete found in the tragedy of Oedipus an important key for interpreting Plato’s Republic. In Book V, Socrates outlines the conditions for the guardian class, who are to be protectors of the best city in speech. The guardians are to have “women and children in common,” meaning no marriages or private families. The only legitimate couplings will be arranged according to an arcane eugenics lottery, and the offspring of these unions are to be raised by nurses, while parents are forbidden to know who their children are. All people of a similar age are to look on one another as siblings, and to regard anyone older as a parent and anyone younger as a child. It is not hard to see that incest would be a regular occurrence here. This is a necessary consequence of the avowed purpose of the Republic, namely, to design a city in which perfect justice is possible, or where the private good and the public good are always perfectly aligned.
For Plato as well as Sophocles, the total politicization of human life means the abolition of the sacred boundaries of the private family. Sophocles’ heroine Antigone, in her attachment to the sacred and the family, indicates how such politicization is neither possible nor desirable. Plato’s Republic, according to Benardete, is an attempt to flesh out that insight and to explain why perfect justice in the city, or a political “final solution,” is impossible as well as undesirable. The true tragedy is the city’s attempt to perfect itself beyond what is possible: one way to avoid this fate is through the Socratic political philosopher.
–Essays by Seth Appelbaum
(Thanks to the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung in Munich for its kind permission to use the photo of Benardete.)