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Topic #C23

Plato, Lesser Hippias


31 October 2001

Scribes: Jeremy McMillan and Jon Kim


These minutes were spoken on 2 November; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes




       Wednesday’s lecture focused on Plato’s Lesser Hippias.  It is ‘lesser’ because it is the shorter of the two Hippias dialogues of Plato.  There are some doubts about the authorship of the Greater Hippias as well as of the Lesser Hippias, but it should be clear that Plato is the author of the latter dialogue, as well as more than likely being the author of the former. 


       Professor Hutchinson remarked that this dialogue is classic Plato in a number of ways.  For one, it ridicules the pomposity and pretentiousness of the sophist Hippias.  Indeed, in his criticisms Plato is merciless.  The professor also noted  that when interpreting Plato’s Socratic dialogues, we should imagine that Socrates is being portrayed with the virtue that is being discussed.  For example, piety in the Euthyphro, courage in the Laches, self-control in the Charmides, and wisdom in the Lesser Hippias. 


       It was next discussed that if we characterize Socrates as possessing wisdom in this dialogue, we seem to run into a paradox.  For in the dialogue Hippias claims to be wise, whereas Socrates claims to be ignorant.  So how can Socrates be characterized has possessing wisdom.   It is because Socrates’ wisdom lies in knowing what he doesn’t know.  Hippias, however, has no idea of what he doesn’t know. 


       At the end of the dialogue, Socrates still remains in a self-proclaimed state of ignorance, noting, “I waver back and forth and never believe the same thing” (376c).  This wavering is portrayed as a sign of ignorance.  Socrates claims that the sophists should be able to end such wavering, but they do not.  Therefore, one should not attempt to acquire knowledge from them, since it is clear that they cannot provide it.  It is better to instead go to someone who is aware of their own ignorance.  Indeed, this advice was taken by Euthedumus and Alcibiades, both of whom chose to associate intellectually with Socrates. 


       Professor Hutchinson then noted that the dialogue serves two more purposes in addition to what has previously been mentioned.  It, one, calls into question the habit of a large number of people to rely on the authority of others for their opinions.  The second purpose of the dialogue is for us to ask how it is that we are to understand the wisdom that Socrates is seeking.  Socrates, Hutchinson noted, was focused on the pursuit of gaining intellectual power through wisdom.


       The professor next discussed that first purpose: reliance on the authority of others.  It was noted that Hippias was an expert on Homeric interpretation.  Literary criticism did play a large role in the dialogue and before Hippias presents his theory, we are told that Eudicus’ father was a literary critic himself and that he used to say that the Iliad was greater than the Odyssey because the Iliad’s hero, Achilles, was better than the Odyssey's hero, Odysseus.  Hutchinson noted that this attempt at literary criticism is both silly and banal.  Indeed, Hippias’ interpretations are much more mature than that.  Hippias argues that Achilles is best and bravest; Nestor is the wisest; and Odysseus is the shrewdest.  But this interpretation runs into problems with Socrates, who claims that all three of these qualities can be reduced to one.  The best person is the wisest, and the wisest is the most shrewd. 


       Professor Hutchinson next asserted that in this dialogue, we should note that Hippias’ interpretation is responsible, whereas Socrates’ is irresponsible.  The professor then read aloud from a student’s position paper which argued that Hippias’ interpretation is correct, but also a bit too simple.   Because of  Socrates’ superior intelligence, he makes Hippias look like the one whose interpretation is weak.  We the reader are then left thinking that we could have argued differently than Hippias and could have done better than him.


       Indeed, we see Socrates re-interpreting Homer in a very odd, manipulative way.  Socrates misleads Hippias voluntarily and shows himself to be a superior critic because his misleadings are deliberate.  We the reader are supposed to recognize this.  Socrates gives a similar display of literary criticism in the Protagoras, when he deconstructs a poem with great virtuosity in a debate with Prodicus.  In the Lesser Hippias, Socrates does the same thing but to a smaller degree.  That is, he shows he can play the same game as Hippias, only better.


       A student then asked whether Socrates was paralleling Odysseus by saying the wrong things while knowing what the right things were.  That is, was Socrates exploiting his knowledge for power.  The professor answered by saying that in order to beat Hippias at his own game, Socrates did say the wrong things by virtue of his knowing the right things.


       It was then noted that at 365c-d we get Plato’s real opinion.  Socrates gets Hippias to agree that Homer thought the truthful man to be different from the lying man.  Then Socrates says that since Hippias agrees with that, Homer should be dismissed because he is not present to answer questions.  Socrates then states that Hippias should argue for Homer.  This shows that someone should dismiss the text and instead talk about actual beliefs and ideas and whether they agree with them or not.  This has a parallel in the Protagoras when Socrates says we should “say good-bye to odes and poetry” (347c).  That is, we ought to get away from literary criticism and get back to doing philosophy.  For when we discuss poetry, we are often very unrefined and are akin to attendees of  a second-rate drinking party.  Moreover, we should leave the interpretations behind because (1) we can’t question the poets, since they are not present, and (2), there are too many interpretations on what they mean for anyone to be able to have a fruitful discussion.  The best people, notes Plato, test each other and their ideas directly.  This is a manifesto of Plato’s.  We can’t do philosophy through literary criticism, if for no other reason than that the text cannot answer questions.


       The professor noted that all this raises some paradoxical questions.  First, why, having at 365d dismissed Homer, does Socrates bring him back into discussion.  Plato here appears to be arguing not that we shouldn’t read authors, but that we should be aware of two problems that can occur when reading.  First, books that are well styled often persuade us irrationally.  And second, books can’t talk with us.  The second paradox is that Plato is a literary artist who criticizes literary artistry because books are static and fixed.  Plato’s text resemble what is unsatisfactory about the literary method of doing philosophy, namely that they are static.  In answering a question, Professor Hutchinson agreed with the student’s suggestion that this is the reason Socrates said the best way of doing philosophy is through discussion.  But, said the Professor, in these lectures don’t we run into the aforementioned problems.  For aren’t these lectures simply a focus on static texts.  These questions should be analyzed.


       The professor then seemed to attempt to give possible solutions to these problems.  Books can be used to generate discussion.  Reading them doesn’t make us second-rate attendees at a drinking party because we can use them as a spring-board into doing philosophy.  And this is how we should be doing our position papers.  We should find an idea in the text, then leave the text behind to wrestle with the idea itself.  The professor linked this idea of the use of books to section 1.4 in Xenophon, where Socrates notes that he likes friends more than pets because with friends he can open up books and have discussions.


       A student then asked the following question: Doesn’t reading a text first require an analysis before making any assumptions.  The professor noted that while it is good to have interpretations for some fields, focusing primarily on interpretation won’t make one a better philosopher.  You can, in philosophy, contemplate ideas regardless of whether the author intended them to have the meaning you assign them.  Moreover, you can get a lot out of texts by re-reading them.  Each new reading can sometimes yield new ideas.  The professor noted that this has been the case with regards to himself and the works of Plato.  In his writings, Plato was probably trying to allow us to retain our freedom of judgment when interpreting texts by not giving us clear arguments that we can passively assent to.