restricted access The Tragedy and Comedy of Life: Plato's "Philebus" (review)
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Book Reviews Seth Benardete, trans. The Tragedy and Comedy of Life: Plato's "Philebus." Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, t993. Pp. xiii + ~5o. Cloth, $ 37.5o. If all translators and commentators to some degree recreate their text in their own image, this seems especially true for Seth Benardete, whose work on Plato shows him as a master of the art, common to the disciples and followers of the late Leo Strauss, of subverting the traditional reading of Plato's dialogues by following up crucial clues that escape the eye of the ordinary reader. This practice resembles deconstructionism only superficially, since not "serious and creative misreading" is intended by the Straussians , but the uncovering of the author's true intentions. The application of this practice to the Philebus, Plato's late vision of the good life as a combination of pleasure and thought, promises at least a respite from the struggles with that dialogue's complex conceptual apparatus. It is not surprising, then, if Benardete does not have anything enlightening to contribute to the solution of this dialogue's notorious difficulties that have occupied most of the learned world. He offers nothing new concerning the problem of the "one and many" or the dialectical method, nor on the question of the "fourfold division of being," nor on the much debated question of true and false pleasures. His aim is a complete revaluation. Benardete's translation at first sight seems surprisingly free from all "subversive" tendencies. He makes every effort to preserve the character of the Greek text by following the structure of Plato's long sentences and his peculiar phraseology-sometimes to a fault, since such fidelity makes the translation often quaint and difficult to understand? When he adds a word or phrase, he indicates it by square brackets, even where such solicitousness seems quite unwarranted. But these signs of faithfulness and closeness to the text are deceptive, because Benardete often enough omits indicating where he does make additions of his own.~ More irritating than this erratic practice is his merciless exploitation of what he takes to be puns. Whenever Plato uses the word peramein or diaperainein ('to carry out', 'to bring to an end', 'to finish'), they are ' Cf. 23c: "Let's take apart in two all the beings now in the whole, but rather, if you want, in three"; 37e: "If we detect some pain, in its involvementwith that for which there is pain, in error, or its contrary, pleasure, in error, shall we apply..."; 33a: "Let's go through some brief point about it right to the end [limit]"; 53d: "Merely by putting the point at issue in a question, my dear Protarchus, I'll go through it to the end [limit] for you." Cf. 17e where he replaces ellogimosand enarithmosby two expressions, without indicatingthat fact: "it makes you as inconsequentas inconsequentialand as incapable of countingas of being of any account." Not only does he not indicate that Plato uses only one expression, he makes him sound as wordy and pompous as Gorgias' Helen. [331 ] 332 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 33:2 APRIL ~995 treated as allusions to one of the dialogue's most important distinctions, that of peras and apeiron ('limit' and 'unlimitedness'), and invariably translated as "going through to the end [limit]." Not only does this turn Plato into a nerve-grating bore, it makes these passages cumbersome and mysterious. Equally irritating is Benardete's selective and unexplained translation of other important terms. Idea is always translated by 'look', eidos as 'species', genos as 'genus', without discussion of whether or not this is suitable and justified.a These peculiarities could be overlooked as eccentricities were it not for the suspicion that the resulting obscurity of the text is intentional. Where no mystification is intended the translation is smooth, intelligible, and even elegant. More important, however, is the deliberate choice of misleading translations. Benardete translates, for instance, the Greek word sphodra ('very much', 'exceedingly', 'excessively', 'vehemently') by 'exactly' throughout (24c et passim). This is not a mere foible. It serves as an indication that the apeiron, the limitless, is after all not without measure, in spite of all that Plato seems to say...