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Topic #C23

Plato, Lesser Hippias


31 October 2001
Scribes: Charles Trapunski and Daniela Parlagreco


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



         This work is called Lesser Hippias because another Hippias dialogue is longer, and has more pages, and is therefore called Greater. The ancients used this method to distinguish between the two dialogues. Though there is some doubt concerning the authenticity of Greater Hippias and Lesser Hippias, as Plato wrote far more complicated dialogues, (one can even say more shrewd and wily), we know this is the first complete work of Plato that we are examining. It is written in Plato’s style, even though this is a merciless and nasty critique by Socrates who ridicules Hippias for the outrageous pretension and absurdity of what he claims to know.


         One interpretative clue to reading Socrates is that he is portrayed as having a virtue under discussion. In other dialogues he exemplifies piety, in another he portrays courage, while in Lesser Hippias the virtue under discussion is wisdom. In this dialogue, Hippias cites Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. He contrasts the type of wisdom between these two characters, the wiliness or shrewdness of Odysseus versus the straightforwardness of Achilles. Socrates is paradoxically wise in that he is aware of what he does not know (it is exemplary of a wise man to have knowledge of what he does not know whereas Hippias is completely oblivious to what he does not know).  Socrates acknowledges that he is ignorant and he cannot stop wavering because he can never believe the same thing - he is constantly changing his mind.  (See Lesser Hippias 376 c.)  This wavering is the subjective side of not knowing.  If we demand the company of a sophist, an educator, like Hippias, what are we supposed to expect but unwavering responses and a sense of comfort?


         A student then asked why this wavering was such a terrible thing. The professor posed a question back to the student asking where else can one expect to find relief from the wavering but from the wise. Plato criticizes Hippias in the dialogue saying that if you have the ambition to be wise and you go to see Hippias, you will find yourself disillusioned because he is unaware of his ignorance.  One would be better off approaching Socrates or Plato who both have a keen awareness of what they do not know.  Euthydemus and Alcibiades, other students of Socrates, stayed in the company of Socrates because he had already revealed his fallibility himself and therefore provided them with a certain level of clarity.  This is reinforcement for one to go to a Socratic philosopher rather than a Sophist. Socrates’ own awareness of his lack of knowledge reveals the limit of knowledge and calls into question the validity of where one derives authority for beliefs and knowledge (e.g. Hippias recalls Homer).  How are we to understand this wisdom and power that Socrates was searching for?  It is quite evident that Socrates was on a focused pursuit of power and wisdom and Plato wants us to review the difficult aspects of this task. The dialogue ends in a puzzlement that Plato leaves open to us to solve.


         The first theme addressed in the dialogue is Hippias’ expertise on Homer. Hippias is seen as the Umberto Eco of his day. In fact, if one were to ask him, Hippias would be able to give a performance or lesson on any theme within Homer’s works. To Hippias, The Iliad is a better poem than The Odyssey because Achilles is a better person than Odysseus. This is clearly a very banal criticism and quite a silly remark. The conventional notion was that Achilles is the best and bravest of the Athenians and that Odysseus is the shrewdest. These good qualities are reduced by Socratic theory, which states that the best person is the wisest and the wisest person is the shrewdest (that being Odysseus).  Thus Hippias’ interpretation of The Iliad is totally responsible, while Socrates’ interpretation is totally irresponsible. 


At this point, a position paper referred to stated that the student agreed with Socrates that Odysseus was wiser, yet also that Hippias should have argued his point another way, because he could have easily won this argument. This approach by the student is exemplary of what Plato wishes his readers to do. The student placed himself in Hippias’ position and suggested alternate means of setting forth and explaining Hippias’ stand. This method of going beyond the text is essential to a good Socratic argument.


         One must now decide how narrowly ‘better’ is to be construed. Odysseus lacks the aspects of wisdom that Achilles possesses. Achilles as well speaks his mind (although he was also known to often change his mind). Socrates takes up this challenge in an artificial way of interpreting the poem, mentioning an incident where Achilles tricks Odysseus into staying, even though the war is over. It is a manipulative, dishonest way of using Homer’s text and we are meant to see that Socrates is misleading Hippias using the knowledge, skill, and power that he has over Hippias. This is similar to a section of Protagoras, where Socrates uses every means of criticism when discussing Prodicus’ poem. Socrates is showing off that he can “win at the game” and has much power over the person he is challenging (this person being one who he feels is worth objecting to). 


Another student asked whether Socrates was paralleling Odysseus, by saying the wrong things because he knows the right thing. The professor agreed, stating that Socrates, by having knowledge and exploiting it, did so in such a way that it gave him power and thus allowed him to beat Hippias at his own game.


         In Lesser Hippias 365 c-d, we see Plato’s real view or opinion. It states:


SOCRATES: So Homer, it seems, thought the truthful man was one kind of person, and the liar another, and not the same.

HIPPIAS: How could he not, Socrates?

SOCRATES: And do you yourself think so, Hippias?

HIPPIAS: Certainly, Socrates.  It would be very strange if it were otherwise.

SOCRATES: Let’s dismiss Homer, then, since it’s impossible to ask him what he had in mind when he wrote these lines. But since you’re evidently taking up the cause, and agree with what you say he meant, answer for both Homer and yourself.


Here, Socrates is suggesting that Hippias set aside Homer and formulate opinions of his own.  This also seen in Protagoras where Socrates says:


Why don’t we say good-bye to odes and poetry and get back To what I first asked him [Protagoras], a question, Protagoras, Which I would be glad to settle in a joint investigation with you discussing poetry strikes me as no different from the second-rate drinking parties of the agora crowd …The best people avoid such discussions and rely on their own powers of speech to entertain themselves and test each other.  These people should be our models.  We should put the poets aside and converse directly with each other, testing the truth and our own ideas.


Socrates suggests putting poets aside and testing one’s own truths and ideas, and this is a true manifesto on Plato’s part. We must not carry on philosophy through secondary sources such as scouring old books for no other reason than that we cannot ask the book what it means.  That is to say that if there is any misunderstanding towards the meaning of the text, one is not able to ask the author directly for clarification. This does not mean we should not read texts, of course we should read. What it does mean is that if a person appeals texts when making an argument, they should be asked whether they believe what is being said or not. If they did not agree, then forget it, their argument is irrelevant. But if they do agree, ask them to put the text down, and state what their real view is.


         However, this raises weird paradoxical questions for readers of Plato. Firstly, having already stated in 365 d that Hippias should dismiss Homer, Socrates goes right back to Homer in 370. Plato was an admirer of Homer because he had a respect for the arts, namely literary arts, yet he envied his status. Plato wonders why Homer is writing a static and fixed text. Yet here we are reading a static and fixed text! In Phaedrus, Plato questions why he is writing philosophy because it is a pale imitation of real life discussion and is fossilized in textuality. Yet, gee whiz, here we are 2500 years later, spending 70 lectures analyzing literary texts. What is the point? Scholars themselves are no better than the second-rate drinking parties of the agora crowd, (or Eaton Centre people,) because they are construing and misconstruing literary texts in the exact way that Socrates, (and Plato,) are asking us not to.


          Through these lectures and by studying these texts, are we wasting our time and is there any point to it? Professor Hutchinson brought up a section from Xenophon Memoirs of Socrates, 1.4, wherein it is stated that Xenophon prefers humans to dogs or horses, because he is able to converse with people, and not with animals. People assist him in taking a selection of ideas from a text and shedding some inner light of reason.    Professor Hutchinson then asked, “What light can we shed on it”?  By writing position papers, we are asked to look at a ‘dead’ literary text, pick out an idea, and then leave the text aside and engage in hand to hand combat with that idea. We should be able to open up texts of the past and still find valuable concepts within them.


        A student disagreed, arguing we were required to fully read a text from beginning to end in order to properly analyze and discover what the author is attempting to convey. In response, Professor Hutchinson stated that we have learned ways of reading texts, and if we reexamine a text and find new ideas within it after several readings, this is an indication that we are reading fruitfully. Plato wants readers to surrender their autonomy to another person -- the author of the text. Although there are changes found with different versions and translations, the thoughts of Plato are essentially the same. Bertrand Russell said in conversation with Alfred Whitehead that all of Western philosophy is in fact footnotes of Plato.