On Plato’s “Greater Hippias,” part 2

Part I | II | III

Contrasting the lives Socrates and Hippias lead goes far in framing more difficult issues:

Socrates: Hippias, the beautiful and wise, how long a time it’s been for us since you alighted at Athens!

Hippias: Yes, for I’ve had no leisure, Socrates. For whenever Elis has to conduct some business with any of the cities, she always comes to me first among her citizens when she chooses an envoy; she considers me to be a most able judge and reporter of whatever speeches are made by each of the cities. Therefore I’ve often gone as envoy to other cities but most often and regarding the most numerous and important matters I’ve gone to Lacedaemon. For this reason – in answer to your question – I don’t come frequently to this area.[1]

Socrates is ugly, Hippias is beautiful. Socrates stays in the same place, Hippias travels much. Socrates has leisure, Hippias does not. Socrates does not have a formal public capacity, but Hippias does. These would be trivial contrasts between any other two men, but here one purports to be called wise by many. Hippias, in his wisdom, is considered “a most able judge and reporter of… speeches;” he may be “first” among the citizens of his city, although one could suspect that many in Elis are glad to be rid of him for long stretches of time.

The dialogue builds from simple characterization like the above to something far more complex. Later, when the beautiful is sought after, Hippias gives three statements of what is most beautiful: a maiden, gold, a death worthy of the highest honor. One is tempted just looking at those three items to dismiss them as not answering “What is the beautiful?” They only seem to be particular examples of something that may be beautiful. But each response of Hippias helps give what is a broad question more focus. The beauty of a maiden is nothing compared to the beauty of a god; what is most beautiful may be easiest to see within a class, but then a hierarchy of classes needs to be established.[2] “What is the beautiful?” may not need to account for classes, however. What if there was something that could be added to another, which automatically made it beautiful? That something would not simply be the predicate “is beautiful,” but another attribute for which we could substitute beautiful. “Gold,” as ridiculous as it may sound, is a perfectly legitimate attempt to answer the more refined query, especially for a more materialistic society.[3] Of course, “gold” runs into the problem that it is literally not the beautiful: a gigantic statue of Athena the Athenians thought very beautiful was of ivory and stone.[4] The problem of class, strangely enough, points to the problem of the gods: What is the highest class, and how is it determined?[5] Athena is a maiden; who determined the sacredness of virginity? If the beautiful turns out to be godly and useful (Socrates’ second definition), is the beautiful merely convention? Such a question never arises openly as Hippias gives the most conventional answer possible to the problem of the beautiful:

“I say, then, that always, for everyone and everywhere, it is most beautiful for a man who is wealthy, healthy, and honored by the Greeks, having arrived at old age and having celebrated beautifully the funeral of his parents after they have come to their own end, to be beautifully and magnificently buried by his own offspring”[6]

If “gold” was brought forth by Hippias partly to address the universality of the beautiful, as Hippias’ own wisdom converts to gold in nearly any city, then this conventional definition has a certain universality (not without irony, of course: note “by the Greeks”). But this definition also has another feature. It is meant to address something Hippias himself introduced to the conversation, when confronted with the problem of a most beautiful statue made of substances other than gold. Hippias said that what was “fitting” could be used to differentiate beautiful from ugly. Hippias is trying to articulate what is most fitting for man in saying that what is most beautiful is for a man, having met the conditions he puts forth, “to be beautifully and magnificently buried by his own offspring.” Unfortunately, he has made what is fitting for man not-being.[7]

Hippias’ attempts to define “the beautiful” elaborate on the basic description of who he is. His answers seem to be useful for one moving from city to city. They are meant to win arguments, not investigate an issue. He can be characterized as conventional to the point of not-being: he tells people exactly what they want to hear; he impresses them through looks alone; he never is anywhere. And yet, when forced to account for the basis of what he thinks, he said something very insightful. It is fairly plausible to think the beautiful is the fitting. The outstanding question is what can be truly told about Socrates from his description. The dialogue must be reported and judged more fully before that can be appreciated.

[1] Greater Hippias, 281a-b

[2] Greater Hippias, 289a-c; The Being of the Beautiful, xxvii

[3] ibid, 289e; regarding the materialism of certain Greeks, see Euripides, Hippolytus 616-627, where Hippolytus wishes that women were replaceable by wealth, and Xenophon, Oeconomicus Book VII, where Ischomachus teaches his wife that the purpose of marriage is the preservation of wealth had and acquisition of that much more.

[4] ibid, 290b-c

[5] David Sweet, “Introduction to the Greater Hippias,” 345-6

[6] Greater Hippias, 291d

[7] For more on the conventional and not-being, one needs to consider Solon’s response regarding happiness to Croesus in Herodotus. A discussion of that account is in Benardete’s Plato’s “Laws:” The Discovery of Being (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), xiv-xv

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