Plato’s Dialogues: Lesser Hippias

I’m sure that the mother of Lesser Hippias loves him just as much as Greater Hippias, which is good because no one else seems to like this dialogue. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, in their introduction to it, say “This dialogue can be ascribed to Plato only because it always has been, from Aristotle’s days on. It is inferior to all the others.” That opening sentence isn’t just them being gratuitously insulting, either, as there has been some doubt over whether Lesser Hippias is authentic or not. Benjamin Jowett, though he ultimately does accept it as genuine, places it among Plato’s doubtful works, alongside Menexenus and First Alcibiades. His full comments are worth reading, but he says that one mark against it is that it’s of lesser quality than Plato’s undoubtedly genuine work, which sometimes signals the work of either a counterfeiter or a lesser follower whose work was mistakenly ascribed to the master.

Now, this makes it sound as if the dialogue sucks so badly that people don’t even believe it’s Plato’s, but Jowett gives it some deserved credit, even if it is weaker than all the others so far. For one thing, we have the return of Hippias, the great and wonderful, who in the course of his conversation with Socrates unabashedly calls himself a great arithmetician, geometrician, and astronomer. Socrates also recounts Hippias’ boasting from the recent Olympic games:

[Y]ou [i.e., Hippias] said that upon one occasion, when you went to the Olympic games, all that you had on your person was made by yourself. You began with your ring, which was of your own workmanship, and you said that you could engrave rings; and you had another seal which was also of your own workmanship, and a strigil and an oil flask, which you had made yourself; you said also that you had made the shoes which you had on your feet, and the cloak and the short tunic; but what appeared to us all most extraordinary and a proof of singular art, was the girdle of your tunic, which, you said, was as fine as the most costly Persian fabric, and of your own weaving; moreover, you told us that you had brought with you poems, epic, tragic, and dithyrambic, as well as prose writings of the most various kinds; and you said that your skill was also pre-eminent in the arts which I was just now mentioning, and in the true principles of rhythm and harmony and of orthography; and if I remember rightly, there were a great many other accomplishments in which you excelled. I have forgotten to mention your art of memory, which you regard as your special glory, and I dare say that I have forgotten many other things[.]

Typically, arrogant men annoy those around them with their self-praise and posturing, but at some point boasting becomes so over-the-top that it turns comical and even endearing. Yes, Hippias like everyone else comes out looking rather shabby after their rhetorical grappling matches in these works, and though I don’t think Plato wrote these dialogues as character assassinations, it is worth keeping in mind that as characters these men were written specifically so Socrates could dunk on them. We can also sympathise with his frustration in dealing with Socrates. He’s apparently willing to talk to anyone who wishes to question him, even though he knows how this conversation in particular is likely to go. “Socrates,” he says at one point, “you are always weaving the meshes of an argument, selecting the most difficult point, and fastening upon details instead of grappling with the matter in hand as a whole.” We can look at the full body of Plato’s works see why Socrates approaches these discussions as he does, but no doubt, it would look different if we were the ones getting the dialectical swirlie.

Lesser Hippias is relatively short, and centres around interpreting Homer, specifically Hippias’ claim that “Homer intended Achilles to be the bravest of the men who went to Troy, Nestor the wisest, and Odysseus the wiliest.” Now, I haven’t read either of Homer’s epics in several years, though I may make them a “capstone” for my project of reading the Greek classics, but this certainly sounds reasonable enough. Achilles (Akhilleus? whatever) is among the Greeks’ most admired heroes, and when describing Odysseus (Ulysses? whatever), “wily,” “crafty,” “clever,” or some similar word comes to mind right away. When I read The Odyssey in college one point the instructor brought up was that Odysseus is admired specifically for how clever he is. Hippias adds that Achilles, by contrast, “is the most straight-forward of mankind,” and that Homer “shows Achilles to be true and simple, and Odysseus to be wily and false,” adding a quotation from The Iliad as evidence. Hippias, the wise and powerful, seems obviously right here, and there’s only one person in the world who’d contest this point. Unfortunately for our man Hippias, that one person is just the man he’s speaking to.

Socrates shortly sets aside the epic, at least for now, “since there is no possibility of asking Homer what he meant in these verses of his.” Again, we have this same scepticism of drawing moral lessons or solid interpretations of poetry, since there’s no way to consult the author for clarification on any uncertain points, which we’ve previously seen most clearly in Protagoras. The following exchange is somewhat tedious, but in short, Socrates and Hippias determine, by Socrates’ questioning, that the wily are so by cunning and prudence, that is, through knowledge and wisdom, “at least,” Hippias says, “[wise] in so far as they can deceive.” Socrates summarises the discussion so far, “the false are powerful and prudent and knowing and wise in those things about which they are false,” and “the true and the false are the very opposite of each other,” both of which his interlocutor agrees with. Progressing a few steps, they also agree that those skilled in something, geometry or arithmetic or whatever, can speak truly or falsely just as easily about those subjects. For example, after determining that the arithmetician is best able to speak falsely about calculation, they say:

SOCRATES: Who, then, Hippias, is discovered to be false at calculation? Is he not the good man? For the good man is the able man, and he is the true man.

HIPPIAS: That is evident.

SOCRATES: Do you not see, then, that the same man is false and also true about the same matters? And the true man is not a whit better than the false; for indeed he is the same with him and not the very opposite, as you were just now imagining.


SOCRATES: And now, Hippias, consider the question at large about all the sciences, and see whether the same principle does not always hold. [… T]ell me, having regard to the admissions which you and I have made, whether you discover any department of art or any description of wisdom or cunning, whichever name you use, in which the true and false are different and not the same: tell me, if you can, of any. But you cannot.

HIPPIAS: Not without consideration, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Nor will consideration help you, Hippias, as I believe; but then if I am right, remember what the consequence will be.

HIPPIAS: I do not know what you mean, Socrates.

If you don’t know what Socrates means, either, the apparent conclusion here is that the false or wily man is good, because he is able, because he is able to speak truthfully or deceitfully, while the good or honest man cannot. “And now,” Socrates says, “do you perceive that the same person has turned out to be false as well as true? If Odysseus is false he is also true, and if Achilles is true he is also false, and so the two men are not opposed to one another, but they are alike.”

Well, okay. Hippias maintains that Achilles is still a better man than Odysseus because of his honesty, and when Socrates points to instances of Achilles contradicting himself, Hippias replies that Achilles “Achilles is induced to say one thing to Ajax, and another to Odysseus in the innocence of his heart, whereas Odysseus, whether he speaks falsely or truly, speaks always with a purpose.” Socrates answers:

SOCRATES: Then Odysseus would appear after all to be better than Achilles?

HIPPIAS: Certainly not, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Why, were not the voluntary liars only just now shown to be better than the involuntary?

HIPPIAS: And how, Socrates, can those who intentionally err, and voluntarily and designedly commit iniquities, be better than those who err and do wrong involuntarily? Surely there is a great excuse to be made for a man telling a falsehood, or doing an injury or any sort of harm to another in ignorance. And the laws are obviously far more severe on those who lie or do evil, voluntarily, than on those who do evil involuntarily.

Right. Obviously. Right?

We then move on to some sports analogies. Is the runner who loses a race intentionally a better runner than one who loses unintentionally? Yes. Same basic idea with a wrestling match, playing a musical instrument, riding a horse, and several other activities. Also to the character of slaves; they’re better if they make mistakes voluntarily than involuntarily, which sounds odd but the concept is that in the former case they’re at least capable of doing things right. Socrates then applies all this to minds and asks if our minds are not better if they do wrong and make mistakes voluntarily; Hippias objects, “O, Socrates, it would be a monstrous thing to say that those who do wrong voluntarily are better than those who do wrong involuntarily!”

“Monstrous,” indeed! That is the common sense answer, but Socrates continues. They agree that justice is either a knowledge or power of the soul, or both, and “the soul which has both knowledge and power [will] be the more just, and that which is the more ignorant [will] be the more unjust.” The better soul can also do either good or evil just as well, and voluntarily. You can probably see where this is going, as Socrates offers the conclusion that “he who voluntarily does wrong and disgraceful things, if there be such a man, will be the good man.”

Hippias doesn’t agree, nor would most of us, I’m sure. What is Socrates getting at, here? The dialogue ends with him saying this:

Nor can I agree with myself, Hippias; and yet that seems to be the conclusion which, as far as we can see at present, must follow from our argument. As I was saying before, I am all abroad, and being in perplexity am always changing my opinion. Now, that I or any ordinary man should wander in perplexity is not surprising; but if you wise men also wander, and we cannot come to you and rest from our wandering, the matter begins to be serious both to us and to you.

It’s strange watching Socrates out-sophist a Sophist, but I think the point is in the sophistic method, rather than the conclusion. It is, I take it, a satire on over-reasoning, and also a lesson for Hippias that, like Socrates, he knows nothing. Whether Hippias the Outstanding and Strong took heed, we don’t know.

Oh, and what about that conclusion, that the good man is one who does wrong voluntarily? I think the central problem is conflating “good” with “power” or “ability.” The able man is good only in the sense of having his ability, but this is a separate kind of goodness than virtue. I suppose Socrates conflates power and virtue because he’s speaking to a Sophist, and Sophists seem to value power above all else. Gorgias, though he does say he can teach virtue, places most of his emphasis on teaching his students rhetoric, the art of persuasion. Hippias seems more concerned with fame and honour than anything else, but in Greater Hippias does explicitly mention the value of his art as lying in the ability to persuade others in court, in politics, and so on.

There is, however, one way in which the able man is more virtuous than the incapable, or rather, is capable of more virtue. Right and wrong, as Hippias understands through common sense despite getting turned about in dialectics, consists largely in the will. To practice virtue in choosing right over wrong, though, we must have a choice to make in the first place. For example, a young, attractive celebrity is notably virtuous when he practices chastity; a homely loser who no woman wants to be anywhere near in the first place does not. Another instance, there’s more virtue in the humility of a rich and powerful man than in the poor and weak. This is not to say, of course, that power is required for virtue. We all have our talents to put to use and our crosses to bear, and as Milton put it, “They also serve [God] who only stand and wait.”

So, this concludes the third tetralogy of dialogues, and we now leave the Sophists. Up next is one of Plato’s most famous works, the Symposium. I plan to continue prioritising the dialogues over other things I want to read so that I get through them in a reasonably timely manner, so that review should be coming up relatively soon.

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