Category: Plato’s Dialogues

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.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Gorgias

We’ve spent a lot of time in the dialogues talking to and about Sophists, but Socrates has an awfully hard time figuring out exactly what a Sophist is and what they teach. In Protagoras, Socrates’ friend Hippocrates wants to take lessons from Protagoras, but when questioned can’t quite explain what he expects to learn, and Protagoras doesn’t really give a straight answer. In Greater Hippias, we’re able to gather from the greatest Sophist of them all (in his own estimation) that they are primarily concerned with public speaking. So, though Protagoras and Hippias do say that they teach a number of subjects, including moral instruction, their speciality is rhetoric.

For most of us that would be good enough, but of course, we’re hanging out with Socrates, and there’s no way “rhetoric” is an adequate answer here. What, exactly, is rhetoric? In Gorgias, we’re going to try to get at the truth of this, with not one, not two, but three interlocutors. First, we have the Sophist Gorgias (his friends called him “Gorgeous”), who I rather like. He may be a capital-S “Sophist,” but he’s not a small-s sophist. He’s quicker than Hippias in catching on to what Socrates wants to know from him, is more agreeable than Protagoras, and for the most part keeps his answers straightforward. Unfortunately, he has a couple of his groupies with him. One is Polus, who, when Socrates first asks what sort of art Gorgias would say he practices, gives a non-answer for him, blathering for a minute about how there are many arts and that Gorgias practices the greatest of them, without actually saying what that art is. Polus isn’t too grating, though, and is willing to concede defeat at some point. He’s a prince of a guy compared to the last interlocutor, Callicles, who, well, is a bit of a jerk, never conceding a point and getting pissy when it becomes clear that he’s totally outgunned by Socrates.

To the work itself, though. We begin with some of the runaround typical to Socratic dialogues. What is rhetoric? The art of using words, in particular to persuade others. Don’t other arts, like mathematics and medicine, also use words? Yes, but they use them only incidentally, and persuade people primarily through facts. In the parlance of a later age, we might say that words are accidental and not essential to mathematics and medicine, or only incidental to them.

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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.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Protagoras

Crito’s attempt to save Socrates has failed, so now we’ll go back and begin working through Plato’s dialogues from earlier in his life. First up are some discussions with various sophists, beginning with Protagoras.

This dialogue begins with a somewhat odd framing device; a friend meets Socrates walking through the city, and learns that he’s just come from speaking with Protagoras, who has recently arrived in Athens to work as a teacher. So, the rest of the work is Socrates recounting the meeting, so there’s a double narration going on, and the frame is never closed. I’m sure there’s been discussion enough of why the dialogue is structured this way, but I could only guess.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Crito

To the sorrow of all of his friends and students, us included, Socrates has been condemned, and normally would have been executed shortly after the trial. However, a state galley had been sent on a sacred mission at about the same time and no executions could be carried out until it returned, so instead he sat in a jail cell for almost a month. Shortly before its return, Crito, one of Socrates’ students, came to visit his teacher to say that he expected the ship to return soon, but that he could easily help Socrates escape by placing a few bribes. Socrates, though, always true to form, doesn’t jump at this chance to save himself, but instead insisted on discussing whether this would truly be the right thing to do.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Socrates’ Defense

When we last left Socrates, he had just finished an unproductive discussion with Euthyphro, and was on his way to court to face charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates’ Defense, also commonly called the Apology, is not a dialogue, aside from a few lines, but a speech given by Socrates in answer to his accusers’ charges against him. This is the first time so far that Socrates speaks mostly of himself, and my understanding is that it’s the only time he does so at much length.

One interesting tidbit is that this is the first work so far to mention Plato by name. This makes the speech feel authentic, since the author explicitly puts himself at the scene, though of course, that doesn’t mean this is an accurate depiction of the trial.

In any case, Socrates begins by apologising for not being a great orator like his opponents. We should take this with a grain of salt since this claim is actually good rhetoric, disarming the audience from looking for slick oratory. He says that resentful men, like his accusers, have unjustly given him a bad name because of his past arguments with them, and their slander has prejudiced those who haven’t yet met him. As evidence of his good intentions, a bit later, Socrates cites his own poverty, and points out that he has always taught openly and free of charge. Clearly, then, he was not trying to stir up trouble or personally benefit from his vocation.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Euthyphro

So, we’ve made it to one of Plato’s most famous dialogues, Euthyphro. Socrates is on his way to court, having been charged with corrupting the youth of Athens, when he meets a young man, Euthyphro, who is there to charge his father with murder. The primary question here is how to define piety, but with a theme throughout the dialogue of intellectual humility, even more so than in the other works so far.

Now, Euthyphro’s case is a difficult one. One of his father’s servants had killed a man, so his father had bound him and, while deciding what to do with him, the servant died. He certainly caused his servant’s death, though not intentionally, and few would find much sympathy for the murderous servant. There’s also, of course, the question of whether one should charge one’s father with a crime at all. Socrates doesn’t seem to think so, at least in most cases, and he says to Euthyphro in astonishment, “And the man your father killed, was he a relative of yours? Of course he was? You never would prosecute your father would you, for the death of anybody who was not related to you?”

It may be helpful to compare another philosopher’s opinion on a similar subject; the situation reminds me of an exchange in The Analects, in Book XIII:

The duke of Sheh informed Confucius, saying, ‘Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact.’

Confucius said, ‘Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.’

Translator James Legge notes, “[Confucius’] expression does not absolutely affirm that this is upright, but that in this there is a better principle than in the other conduct. Anybody but a Chinese will say that both the duke’s view of the subject and the sage’s were incomplete.”…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Meno

Plato’s dialogue Meno begins with the titular character asking Socrates whether virtue is something that can be taught. Socrates, of course, wants to begin by defining what exactly virtue is. Now, in LysisLaches, and Charmides, Socrates and friends couldn’t even figure out what a few particular virtues are, so it seems unlikely that we’ll find out what virtue as a whole is (spoiler: we don’t), but interestingly, unlike those three aporetic dialogues, Socrates does present a positive argument of his own and even offers a conclusion at the end.

So, in response to Socrates’ question, Meno attempts to define “virtue” as “desiring fine things and being able to acquire them.” This doesn’t stand up to Socrates’ scrutiny, though, in part because, when Socrates starts asking for more detail and examples, Meno isn’t able to define virtue as a whole without reference to individual parts of virtue, like justice, temperance, and so on.…

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Getting Started with Plato (Lysis, Laches, and Charmides)

My trip through the Classics so far was, to a large extent, a preparation for the works of Plato. I’ll work my way through The Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, a few dialogues at a time, and posting about them as I go.

Now, one choice I had to make at the outset was what order to read these in. There is no one perfect method, it seems, but in a project like this I like to have some plan going in. When I asked about this on twitter I got a few very helpful suggestions (beginning here) from Megillus, who knows the dialogues well, and I also found this recommendation online. That one is fairly close to Megillus’s recommendation, so I slightly modified it and will proceed through them like so:

  • Getting started: Lysis/Laches/Charmides
  • Socrates’ trial: Meno + Euthyphro/Apology/Crito
  • The Sophists: Protagoras +Hippias major/Gorgias/Hippias minor
  • The soul: Symposium + Phaedrus/Republic/Phaedo
  • Logos: Cratylus + Ion/Euthydemus/Menexenus
  • Dialectic: Parmenides + Theaetetus/Sophist/Statesman
  • Kosmos: Philebus + Timaeus/Critias/Laws

 

You may notice that I cut out Alcibiades I, and I did that because it’s not included in my edition of The Collected Dialogues. I may look it up later; after all this I’ll be so close to being a Plato completist anyway that I may as well.

In any case, the first three, very short, works are all aporetic dialogues, that is, they each raise a question concerning some virtue that Socrates and his interlocutors try to define, but never come to a definite conclusion. At first glance that sounds rather pointless, but it does a few valuable things, namely introducing us to the style of Socratic dialogue, and forces us to begin thinking seriously about these virtues ourselves. This is why I don’t have a lot to say about LysisLaches, and Charmides, because I don’t think that the ideas raised are the point; rather, the point is the process, which isn’t something that can really be summarised adequately.

The style of these dialogues is taking some getting used to for me. When I read philosophy I generally prefer someone like Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas, who approach a question systematically, with all the directness and charm of a dictionary entry, and who offer a conclusion at the end of a discussion. I know a few people who much prefer Plato’s style, because it feels more natural, and philosophy does seem more entertaining when it includes a little storytelling and characterisation of the interlocutors. So I completely understand why many people like Plato’s work so much, but personally I much prefer a formal approach in works of non-fiction.

In any case, these are like the appetiser for the main course, and there’ll be more to follow, probably over the next several months.…

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