Plato's Dialogues: Greater Hippias

When we last saw Socrates, he was debating the Sophist Protagoras on whether virtue was something that could be taught, as well as giving his young friend some words of warning about trusting Sophists, or anyone, as teachers due to the peril of bad instruction for his soul. Today we move on to Greater Hippias, where Socrates comes across another Sophist, Hippias, who happens to be the world’s greatest teacher, as he is happy to tell you, based on the extraordinary amount of money he makes giving his lectures and in service to the State. He tells Socrates:

If you were told how much I have earned, you would be astounded. To take one case only - I went to Sicily once while Protagoras was there. He had a great reputation and was a far older man than I, and yet in a short time I made more than one hundred and fifty minas. Why, in one place alone, Inycus, a very small place, I took more than twenty minas. When I returned home with the money I gave it to my father, reducing him and his fellow citizens to a condition of stupefied amazement. And I feel pretty sure that I have made more money than any other two Sophists you like to mention, put together.

Hippias doesn’t exactly come across as a modest man, though he did apparently give his great earnings to his father, so give him some credit for filial piety. Interestingly, that he did this makes it seem that his goal as a Sophist isn’t to make a lot of cash, but rather for fame. He gives specific figures to add credibility to his story, but his emphasis is on how his success impresses others. Socrates “would be astounded,” he succeeded despite the competition with Protagoras, his father and countrymen were in “stupefied amazement,” he’s made more than any other two Sophists put together. As a later example, he asserts that a troublesome person who’s been giving Socrates a hard time in a certain debate must accept his definition of a certain term, “on pain of ridicule,” ridicule apparently being among the worst things Hippias can think of. The Greeks did have different ideas of pride and humility than we do, but nonetheless, Hippias is awfully ostentatious, and even his filial piety has more than a little showmanship to it. He tells Socrates, for instance, that the art of the Sophist has advanced greatly since its beginning, and Socrates asks, “So if Bias were to come to life again for our benefit, by your standard he would be a laughingstock […] ?” Hippias replies, “Exactly, Socrates. Nevertheless, I myself habitually praise our predecessors of former generations before and above contemporaries, for while I guard myself against the envy of the living, I fear the wrath of the dead.”

From his bragging about his wealth, he seems to invite the envy of the living, and he may “fear the wrath of the dead,” but he’s perfectly content to let them be called “a laughingstock” in comparison to him while bragging about how much greater he is. Socrates had initially greeted him with a sarcastic, “It is Hippias, the beautiful and wise!” That seems quite rude at first, but we quickly understand why Socrates would address him this way. Funnily, Hippias’ first words to the other, much poorer, philosopher are to tell him how he has no time to spare. Socrates dragging him into one of his dialogues anyway, flattering him the whole time, makes him seem rather argumentative, but it’s also hard to feel much sympathy for Hippias.

The conversation then turns to Hippias’ relative lack of success in Sparta, where they would not hear his discourses on law, because their constitution forbids them from changing their laws, nor on most other subjects, except for the tales and genealogies of heroes, which they apparently heard with much appreciation and delight. Socrates doesn’t appear impressed, saying “Now I understand how naturally the Lacedaemonians enjoy your multifarious knowledge, and make use of you as children do of old women, to tell them agreeable stories.” I assume the comment was somewhat sarcastic again, though Hippias doesn’t seem to take offence, perhaps focusing on the part comparing the Spartans to children, and he gives himself yet another pat on the back for having “gained much credit there by setting forth in detail the honorable and beautiful practices to which a young man ought to devote himself.” He assures us that this is “a beautiful work distinguished by a fine style and other merits,” in the form of a dialogue between Nestor and Neoptolemus after the fall of Troy, and he’s kind enough to invite Socrates to hear this talk when he delivers it tomorrow, right here in Athens, and to bring with him “other good critics of such dissertations.” I’ll give the Spartans, and Hippias, more credit than Socrates, since hearing of, and learning from, the conduct of heroes is a fine thing to do. In fact, we’re doing something similar by going through Plato’s work now. Of course, Hippias seems less concerned with actually learning from the ancients than with the praise he gains from teaching others about the subject.

At this point Socrates introduces the main question of this dialogue. He asks Hippias for help in dealing with a rather troublesome person, who has challenged Socrates to produce a definition of “beauty.” Now, we learn later that this person is actually Socrates himself, which again makes him seem rather argumentative, like he’s just looking for a way to give Hippias a hard time. The Sophist at first dismisses the issue as unimportant, but steps up to the challenge as confidently as any of Socrates’ interlocutors when attempting to define a term, whether “courage,” “friendship,” or “virtue,” and as anyone who’s read those other dialogues will expect, he fails as badly as any of the rest.

Unfortunately, Hippias seems a little slow. Early on, he answers that “a beautiful maiden is beauty.” Well, a beautiful maiden is beautiful, yes, but this is just an example of the beautiful, not a definition of beauty itself. Again, this is a familiar routine, and it takes a while for Hippias to catch on to what Socrates is looking for. In this case, for example, Socrates asks whether a beautiful maiden is beautiful in comparison to, say, the gods. Of course, she isn’t, so whatever quality Hippias is using here is relative, but we’re looking for something absolute. Later, he changes his answer to “beauty is nothing else than gold.” This doesn’t stand long, either, though it does lead to something more promising. Socrates asks whether a ladle of gold more beautiful than a ladle of figwood. A ladle of gold, they agree, wouldn’t work nearly as well as the wooden one, so the wooden one is more appropriate and thus more beautiful.

This still leaves us with a rather vague, relative definition, though. Socrates asks again for something precise, and they continue:

HIPPIAS: You are looking, I think, for a reply ascribing to beauty such a nature that it will never appear ugly to anyone anywhere?
SOCRATES: Exactly. You catch my meaning admirably.
HIPPIAS: Now please attend. If anyone can find any fault with what I say, I give you full leave to call me an imbecile.
SOCRATES: I am on tenterhooks.
HIPPIAS: Then I maintain that always, everywhere, and for every man it is most beautiful to be rich, healthy, honored by the Greeks, to reach old age and, after burying his parents nobly, himself to be borne to the tomb with solemn ceremony by his own children.

I did smile at the national chauvinism of “honored by the Greeks,” and wonder whether men in, say, Egypt or Persia would agree. A slight modification to “honoured by his countrymen,” though, seems to get us somewhere.

Alas, it doesn’t. We’re still dealing with relatives here. After all, Socrates points out, would it be good for men of divine parentage, like Heracles, to bury their parents honourably? Hippias tries to salvage his definition by appealing to appropriateness again, and this time specifically to the useful. Socrates develops this argument himself:

[W]e say that the whole body is beautifully made, sometimes for running, sometimes for wrestling, and we speak in the same way of all animals. A beautiful horse, or cock, or quail, and all utensils, and means of transport both on land and sea, merchant vessels and ships of war, and all instruments of music and of the arts generally, and, if you like, practices and laws - we apply the word ‘beautiful’ to practically all these in the same manner. In each case we take as our criterion the natural constitution or the workmanship or the form of enactment, and whatever is useful we call beautiful, and beautiful in that respect in which it is useful and for the purpose for which and at the time at which it is useful, and we call ugly that which is useless in all these respects.

This is pretty good. So, we’ve arrived at a working definition of “beauty,” right?



After all, as Socrates asks, are “any things useful for working some evil” also beautiful? Well, no, that would be absurd. Perhaps, though, beauty is more specifically the beneficial? Alright, so Socrates continues, “Now the beneficial is that which produces good?” Hippias agrees. “And that which produces is identical with the cause?” “That is so,” Hippias answers. “Then the beautiful is the cause of the good?” Again, our Sophist agrees.

Hold on, though. Socrates now points out that “the cause and that of which it is the cause are different, for the cause could scarcely be the cause of the cause.” In other words, we’ve reasoned about in a circle, and have determined that beauty is both the cause and result of the good, that is, the beneficial.

The dialogue continues a little longer, but I’ll skip ahead here to the conclusion. Hippias asks what the point is of all this discussion. After all, he says:

As I said a little while ago, it is the scrapings and shavings of argument, cut up into little bits. What is both beautiful and most precious is the ability to produce an eloquent and beautiful speech to a law court or a council meeting or any other official body whom you are addressing, to convince your audience, and to depart with the greatest of all prizes, your own salvation and that of your friends and property. These then are the things to which a man should hold fast, abandoning these pettifogging arguments of yours, unless he wishes to be accounted a complete fool because he occupies himself, as we are now doing, with trumpery nonsense.

Mencius Moldbug commented in the third part of A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations, when discussing why pseudoscientists so often accuse others of pseudoscience, “These reversals happen for a reason: if you are a quack, quackery is what you know, so the obvious way to dismiss your critics is to label them as quacks.” Similarly, it seems that when you’re a Sophist, sophistry is what you know, so the obvious way to dismiss your critics is to label them as sophists. Now, to be fair to Hippias, he isn’t accusing Socrates of sophistry, exactly, but is essentially accusing him of pedantry and argumentativeness. For Hippias, there’s little value in these discussions, and he’s quite content to make do with an understanding of the world that’s good enough to win him the acclaim of other men and to find worldly success. Socrates’ answer is worth quoting in full:

You, my dear Hippias, are blissfully fortunate because you know what way of life a man ought to follow, and moreover have followed it with success - so you tell me. I, however, am subject to what appears to be some supernatural ill fortune. I wander about in unending perplexity, and when I lay my perplexity before you wise men, you turn on me and batter me with abuse as soon as I have explained my plight. You all say just what you, Hippias, are now saying, how foolish and petty and worthless are the matters with which I occupy myself, but when in turn I am convinced by you and repeat exactly what you tell me, that the height of excellence is the ability to produce an eloquent and beautiful speech and win the day in a law court or any other assembly, I am called every kind of bad name by some of the audience, including especially that man who is always cross-questioning me [i.e., Socrates himself]. He is a very close relative of mine and lives in the same house, and when I go home and he hears me give utterance to these opinions he asks me whether I am not ashamed of my audacity in talking about a beautiful way of life, when questioning makes it evident that I do not even know the meaning of the word ‘beauty’.

And yet, he goes on, how can you know whose speech is beautiful or the reverse - and the same applies to any action whatsoever - when you have no knowledge of beauty? And so long as you are what you are, don’t you think that you might as well be dead?

It is my lot, you see, to be reviled and abused alike by you gentlemen, and by him. However, I suppose all this must be endured. I may get some good from it - stranger things have happened. And indeed, Hippias, I do think I have got some good out of my conversation with the two of you. I think now I appreciate the true meaning of the proverb, ‘All that is beautiful is difficult.’

This is no way to live, is it? Few men can take this kind of constant uncertainty and questioning. Yet, as Dante Alighieri would say centuries later in Monarchia, “the highest potentiality of mankind is his intellectual facility or faculty.” This intellectual facility is “not only concerned with universal ideas and classes, but also (by extension as it were) with particulars; and so it is often said that the theoretical intellect by extension becomes practical, its goal then being doing and making.” That is, practical knowledge depends on knowledge of more abstract ideas. We may also refer to the philosopher Tsăng’s commentary on the Great Learning, “If we wish to carry our knowledge to the utmost, we must investigate the principles of all things we come into contact with, for the intelligent mind of man is certainly formed to know, and there is not a single thing in which its principles do not inhere.”

“All that is beautiful is difficult,” the proverb says. So it is, but it is also necessary if we are to live to our full potential.