The Last Things

1. For consideration:

Aristotle…in the Poetics… compares the plot of a drama to a living animal, whose beauty depends not only on the arrangement of its parts, but also on a size that allows the design of the whole to be perceived as a whole.

Gathering these studies together is for us an expression of profound gratitude. Here, as so often elsewhere, Benardete has been our guide. In the last essay in this collection, he traces to Leo Strauss much of what seems to characterize his own work. This generosity, which might initially strike one as misplaced and excessively modest, points rather to the paradoxical experience of learning from another only after coming to understand for ourselves, although we then realize that we had been directed in some way by the other from the start. This experience lies at the heart of the practice of philosophy as interpretation. What is strikingly characteristic of this practice as Benardete carries it out is the depth of understanding he achieves through an uncanny ability really to see the surface of things, which in turn enables him to see what ordinarily obscures the surface. In recalling us to the hidden surface of things, these essays, and Benardete’s work as a whole, exemplify what he once called “the being of the beautiful.”

– Ronna Burger and Michael Davis, in the Preface to The Argument of the Action: Essays on Greek Poetry and Philosophy, by Seth Benardete

2. “Interpretation” seems at once a haughty and a slavish task: only elitists do it in order to ensnare others. They want to make others slaves, but are themselves slaves to formal rigor, with which they can be judged and hanged. Hypocrites and dull pedants, one and all, not even seeing the limitation of their own standard.

We are free from that now, and most ungrateful. Our world is where all voices must be heard as a cacophony even, for individual expression is what matters, and this in turn has led to the debasement of the past: it doesn’t matter what a book says, as much as what you felt you got out of it, if you bothered engaging it at all. We are ungrateful because we feel the uninhibited is natural: we couldn’t possibly be dressing chains with flowers, could we?

3. Against us is the notion of the “whole,” a beautiful notion. Properly speaking, it is Being, and to grasp it would be “beyond Being.” Any “whole” we think we experience is really a part, a microcosm that at best hints at its own inadequacy, its own partiality. Our world, again, sees “lies” and “ignorance” here, and so has effectively banished literature; we, emerging, see honesty. The limit of a being is what allows it to be, to have a definition in the first place.

But beauty is a surface: if we didn’t dare to imagine the whole, if we only focused on parts, we would not be able to come to grips with the self – the union of body and soul – in any way. Seeing the surface truly, of course, is seeing how things reveal themselves to us: that was the classical solution to the problem of knowing beings, what Heidegger called “uncovering.”

No uncovering is absolute, though: the whole is the sum of parts. We start with the whole, move through the parts, return to the “whole.” That movement leaves us profoundly grateful, as we see on a larger scale the parts that compose the ever larger whole, and begin to see ourselves and those around us truly. The truth here comes from the direction and guidance, which can be passed on, but do not dictate. It isn’t that the knowers of the past necessarily knew better: they’d be the last to assume that about themselves. It is rather that they wanted us to be better, and knowledege is that greater, wiser purpose some might term charity, if it weren’t for the fact that a generous, magnanimous legacy is the preserve of the truly free. One doesn’t always declare one’s love when actually loving, nor especially one’s freedom when actually being free.

2 Comments

  1. FTA, “The truth here comes from the direction and guidance, which can be passed on, but do not dictate.”

    I like where your thoughts are leading…Wisdom is always attained by WISE collective thought. If we are to avoid the pitfalls of our predecessors, we must consider how they fell…I can almost see the sagacious counsellors gathered around Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:6)–like a chorus in a Greek tragedy. We know where to get good water…and anything else good that we want, so why should our counsel come from fools?

    Are you hinting that the last things are the only things which are enduring–outlasting everything else–things like charity and freedom? Reminds me of 1 Corinthians 13:13–“hope” being freedom along with elements of “faith.”

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