Review Essay Posted – “Approaching Seth Benardete: On ‘The Eccentric Core'”

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Reviewing The Eccentric Core turned out to be more difficult than I had initially guessed.  The quality of the essays is extraordinarily high, and they cover quite a range of texts: Genesis, both of Homer’s epics, Hesiod, Herodotus, Parmenides, seven or eight Platonic dialogues, a few of Aristotle’s treatises, Roman imperial literature, and probably some other material that I don’t recall right now (Sophocles comes to mind, now that I think of it).  It doesn’t help that these essays all concern the labyrinthine books and essays of Seth Benardete.  To do this volume justice, I felt that I had to convey the point of each essay as well as the plan of the volume as a whole—especially since this book, more so than others of its kind, seemed to me to be organized according to a plan.  I think I’ve accomplished that.

Though the review comes in just shy of 8500 words, I think those interested in Benardete but unsure where (or whether) to start will find it a good point of entry.  I encourage them to buy The Eccentric Core, too, as it is an invaluable contribution to understanding Benardete’s work.  Fittingly, too, the volume ends with three brief, previously unpublished essays by Benardete, each of which is a snapshot of one of his books.  I think they set the stage for reading these longer works, in addition to his other essays.

I’ve included the introduction to my review below.  But you can also just download the whole thing here.

Enjoy!


I. Introduction

The Eccentric Core is an eclectic collection of writings having to do with the late classicist and philosopher Seth Benardete (1930–2001). Its editors do not explain the order of its chapters, but one readily discerns it. The volume has two main parts: writings about (chaps. 1–27) and writings by (chaps. 28–30) Seth Benardete. The first main part also admits of a division: Harvey Mansfield’s short memorial essay on Benardete’s life (chap. 1) and writings on Benardete’s works and thought (chaps. 2–27). The second of these parts is clearly divided in two: essays on Benardete’s interpretation of the development of biblical, Greek, and Roman thought, on one hand (chaps. 2–13), and book reviews chronicling his own development as a thinker, on the other (chaps. 14–27). These are the two main arcs of the volume. Both proceed chronologically: the first arc is arranged according to the date of the text or thinker discussed, while the second is arranged according to the date of the original appearance of the work under review. The first thus gives us Benardete’s history of philosophy, while the second gives us a history of Benardete’s philosophy. In addition, the second arc brings The Eccentric Core full circle, as the reviews of such retrospective and, in the latter two cases, posthumous works as The Argument of the Action, Encounters and Reflections, and The Archaeology of the Soul necessarily drift into the sort of personal recollections that we find in the volume’s opening chapter. We are thus invited to consider the connection between a man and his works, between his particular existence and the truths of the tradition he uncovered and conveyed, between his development and that of the history of political philosophy. By what procedure, we wonder, may a particular man uncover a general truth?

Benardete had (or has) a phrase for this procedure: eidetic analysis. In the introduction to Socrates’ Second Sailing, Benardete says the following of eidetic analysis as it shows up in Socrates’ autobiography in Plato’s Phaedo:

The bits and pieces of the good that show up in opinion are not as bits and pieces what they are in the whole truly articulated by mind. These bits and pieces are the speeches or opinions of things to which Socrates has recourse after the possibility of looking at things directly has foundered on the problem of causality. These fragmentary speeches parade as wholes or eidē (Statesman 262a5–263b11), and Socrates saw it as the proper task of philosophy to proceed from them to the true eidē. I call this procedure eidetic analysis.

The dismemberment of putative wholes and the consequent discovery of their partiality occur in what Benardete describes as “the unexpected break and the unexpected join in arguments that constitute the way of eidetic analysis.” Elsewhere Benardete clarifies that, “inasmuch as the way out of the city lies of necessity through the city”—that is, inasmuch as the city has an ontological as opposed to merely conventional status—“neither the whole nor man can be understood without the city. . . . Political philosophy is the eccentric core of philosophy.” This Socratic insight—which Benardete credits to his teacher, Leo Strauss—lies behind the co-presence of the personal and the theoretical in The Eccentric Core. As the contributors variously attest, Benardete was “an extraordinary man” (1); he and his work are “idiosyncratic” (267), have “established a reputation” (236), and are possessed of an “originality” (274) coupled with “sheer power” (291)—all words meant to distinguish him in his particularity. Yet his idiosyncrasy includes, in Bryan Warnick’s words, his “keen eye for subtle connections among different passages and for subtle differences among similar passages” (215). “Let us say it openly,” writes Heinrich Meier. “Benardete is the most demanding interpreter of Plato conceivable. But whoever engages him seriously will be richly rewarded” (80, emphasis added). Benardete’s slipperiness as an author is not reducibly his own, but rather necessarily bound up with “the unexpected break and the unexpected join in arguments”—it is of a piece with political philosophy. Seth Benardete is the eccentric core of The Eccentric Core: because every chapter is about him, it must eventually be about something else. What Benardete says of Socrates one can therefore say of him: “In his connecting something with something else or disconnecting something from something else, we are forced suddenly to ascend merely to catch up.”


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Article Posted – “The Philosopher in Plato’s ‘Sophist'”

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Under the research section, I’ve posted a link to my new article on the depiction of the philosopher in Plato’s Sophist.

In lieu of an abstract, here’s the map of the argument from the end of the introduction:

In this article, I walk the arc of the Sophist’s argument from the Theaetetus to the Statesman as follows. First, I consider how the initial definitions of the sophist frame the dialogue’s famous digression on images, being, and non-being (Section II). I then consider how this frame necessitates the distinction of ‘spoken images’ (εἴδωλα λεγόμενα) into φαντάσματα and εἰκόνες, i.e. those that respectively distort and preserve the proportions of the beings, the very distinction that eventually allows the Stranger to distinguish between true and false opinions (Section III). Thereafter, I discuss how this distinction in spoken images necessitates the acquisition of a ‘dialectical science’ (διαλεκτική ἐπιστήμη), which very acquisition appears intractably problematic (Section IV). I then conclude with some general reflections on the stance of the dialogue as a whole, the possibility of defining false opinion, and how the interpretation advanced informs the search for the statesman in the Statesman (Section V). My basic aim throughout is to show that, in so situating the Sophist between its prequel Theaetetus and sequel Statesman, we come to see the place of the philosopher in Plato’s Sophist.

Article Posted – “Plato’s ‘Minos’ and the ‘Euthyphro'”

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Under the research section, I’ve posted a link to my new article on Plato’s Minos and its connection to the Euthyphro.

Abstract: At the start of Plato’s Minos an anonymous comrade argues that the variability of law according to time and place undermines the claim that it conveys moral truth. But by the end he has accepted Minos as the greatest of lawgivers because of his education by Zeus. How does he manage to slide so quickly from the moral laxity of conventionalism to the moral absolutism of divine revelation? Guided by this question, the author considers how the two divergent parts of the Minos form one whole, and so what Plato suggests is the common basis to conventionalism and piety. Plato’s Minos thus ends up having an unexpectedly close relationship to his Euthyphro.

Contents and Introduction to “Becoming Socrates”

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Becoming Socrates: Political Philosophy in Plato’s Parmenides

Interpreters of Plato’s Parmenides have long agreed that it is a canonical work in the history of ontology. In the first part, the aged Parmenides presents a devastating critique of Platonic ontology, followed in the second by what purports to be a response to that critique. But despite the scholarly agreement as to the general subject matter of the dialogue, what makes it one whole has nevertheless eluded its readers, so much so that some have even speculated it to be a patchwork of two dimly related dialogues.

In Becoming Socrates, Alex Priou shows that the Parmenides’ unity remains elusive due to scholarly neglect of a particular passage in Parmenides’ critique—a passage Parmenides identifies as the hinge between the dialogue’s two parts and as the “greatest impasse” facing Platonic ontology. There Parmenides situates the concern with ontology or the question of being within the concern with political philosophy or the question of good rule. In this way, the Parmenides shows us how a youthful Socrates first learned of the centrality of political philosophy that would become the hallmark of his life—that it, and not ontology, is “first philosophy.”

Forthcoming in 2018 from the University of Rochester Press.

Article Posted – “Parmenides on Reason and Revelation”

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Under the research section, I’ve posted a link to my new article on the fragments of Parmenides’ poem.

Abstract: In this paper, the author argues that the revelatory form Parmenides gives his poem poses considerable problems for the account of being contained therein.  The poem moves through a series of problems, each building on the last: the problem of particularity, the cause of human wandering that the goddess would have us ascend beyond (B1); the problem of speech, whose heterogeneity evinces its tie to experience’s particularity (B2–B7); the problem of justice, which motivates man’s ascent from his “insecure” place in being, only ultimately to undermine it (B8.1–49); and finally the question of the good, the necessary consequence of man’s place in being as being out of place in being (B8.50–B19).  What emerges is a Socratic reading of Parmenides’s poem, a view that Plato appears to have shared by using Parmenides and his Eleatic stranger to frame the bulk of Socrates’s philosophic activity.

Translation of and Brief Comment on Xenophanes’ Fragments

In this pdf, you will find my highly literal translation of the fragments of Xenophanes. They are based on the text of James H. Lesher, Xenophanes of Colophon (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), with any deviations from Lesher’s text detailed in the footnotes. I have not recently revisited the Greek since my initial translation some time ago, so corrections are likely necessary and certainly welcome.

A brief comment on Xenophanes’ significance. It is my opinion that this Pre-Socratic figure is among the most under-appreciated in Classical thought, perhaps owing to Aristotle’s deprecation of him in Metaphysics A. But Xenophanes is of paramount importance on the question of the gods, for in the scant writings of his that we possess, he runs the gamut from Homeric to Aristotelean theology. He is captivatingly both of the moment and ahead of his time, so that he is for all time.

A cursory glance corroborates this aspect of Xenophanes’ writing. He reflects, first, on the rituals and trappings surrounding everyday religious experience, culminating in a rejection of traditional standards of excellence (e.g., B1). From here, he embarks upon a critique of the traditional gods, such as one finds in Homer and Hesiod (e.g., B11). The Platonic Socrates borrows this critique in Republic III, thus allowing him to replace the Olympian gods with Platonic forms. And, indeed, the same Aristotle who finds Xenophanes unworthy of even the most cursory treatment borrows from this line of argument the rudiments for his criticism of Platonic forms in Metaphysics B. What takes the cake is that those fragments in which Xenophanes presents his revised theology look suspiciously familiar to the theology Aristotle lays out in Metaphysics Λ (e.g., B25).

Thus we see that the extraordinary breadth and depth of Xenophanes’ thought cannot be denied. A fresh study of the extant fragments would be much welcomed, especially one taking into account what appears to be Aristotle’s highly ironic stance toward an otherwise marginal character in the history of philosophy. I am hoping to turn my notes on Xenophanes into an article on this question with the title “Rehabilitating Xenophanes,” once time permits. For now, I hope you find my translation and this brief comment helpful.