On Plato’s “Greater Hippias,” part 3

part I | II | III

From the answers of a maiden, gold and a most honorable death the dialogue ventures into the topics of the fitting, the useful, and the pleasant. “The fitting,” though, was strictly speaking Hippias’ answer. He rooted it in a convention so strict, however, it could not help but be contradictory. Hippias said that it is beautiful to bury one’s parents, but this does not apply to heroes. Achilles was buried well before his parents and yet lived a most beautiful life, celebrated in epic.[1] Socrates says the person who abuses him will not only point out this contradiction, but will bring back the question of whether “the fitting, and the nature of the fitting itself, happens to be the beautiful.”[2] Socrates himself asks whether the fitting makes things beautiful (the fitting is the being of the beautiful) or appear beautiful. This results, after some wrangling, with Hippias asserting the fitting both makes things beautiful and makes things appear beautiful. Hippias abandons “the fitting” entirely when confronted with the problem of law, which is said to be beautiful. Not all people are lawful, but if the beautiful is the lawful and readily apparent, then they should be law abiding in Hippias’ mind.[3]

The ironic thing about Hippias abandoning the “fitting” is that it brought him and Socrates’ abusive friend into agreement that something was important.[4] It could be said those in cities fight because the beautiful is readily apparent to each of them, and this argument is far easier to hold if one thinks the beautiful is “fitting.” Different sorts of men require different things. Hippias and Socrates’ abusive interlocutor are two different sorts of men, but both need knowledge (even if one thinks, as Hippias does, that he can find the beautiful by himself if left alone). What we need is an account of how the beautiful ties in with knowledge, and therein lies the great mystery of the Greater Hippias. Socrates is erotic. One assumes people who lust are interested in beautiful things. But eros is completely absent from this dialogue.[5] Wisdom, progress, virgins, gold, statues, honor and death have been mentioned. The law has come up as a topic. The non-erotic character of Hippias’ relation to beauty is what Socrates is after. To refine the questions brought forth in the Protagoras and Gorgias, respectively: How can virtue developed by a political art be knowledge when the city is not fully rational? Is it possible to reconcile Gorgianic rhetoric with philosophy, so that listeners are not only made better but the truth can be progressed toward? One expects eros to be absent in those dialogues, as eros resists what is political in any form. It is strange this dialogue even had to consider politics or gods.

Hippias as an individual has shaped the dialogue. As an individual, in his private capacity, he is almost completely public. Even when he says something terribly obnoxious, such as his proclamation that he is wiser than those in the past, he explains his impropriety with an appeal to the character of the public.[6] If the Greater Hippias has a rhetorical object, in the sense of prosecuting someone, it is attacking the sophists as empty shells. The critique of Protagoras, who could command his audience as Orpheus,[7] or Gorgias, who does rebuke Callicles, may not be as harsh. And yet all sophists depend on being beautiful in some way.

One has to wonder, then, whether Socrates attempts to define the beautiful as useful in order to lower the conversation. This would be similar to Protagoras, where high talk about Simonides and Pittacus descended into a discussion of courage and people who jump into wells to recover pots. Now the useful as beautiful is not a common opinion; still, it introduces the some very common notions into the conversation. Beauty must be the holding of power; all people are impressed by that.[8] Hippias as a political figure is being scrutinized indirectly. Before, Hippias’ relative silence about law told us how he, a sophist, regards the law. It is beautiful inasmuch people say it is beautiful.[9] To be considered lawless can be bad for business. The consideration of politics may be more about the public than the private in this section. The part of the dialogue prior to the search for the beautiful depended on a public/private distinction:

The introduction is in two sections. The first (281a-283b) discusses the activity of sophists and compares them with the men of the past who were famous for their wisdom. The second (283b-286c) discusses Hippias’ activity as a sophist in general and at Sparta in particular. Socrates starts by proposing a definition of the wise and perfect man. Such a man combines the private and the public; on the one hand, he acts in his own interest, earning money by helping the youth (how he helps them is not said). On the other hand, he acts in the public interest by benefiting his city….

The second section of the introduction is a demonstration that Hippias cannot always convert opinion into money. It therefore calls into question his ability to combine the private and the public and does so by raising more explicitly the questions of what sorts of knowledge and skills he possesses and what sorts of help he gives, if any.[10]

The useful is ultimately rejected by Hippias because it would mean the beautiful is a means to an end, that end being the good.[11] The beautiful, strictly speaking, would not be good, and this displeases him greatly. It is fairly obvious what this says about Hippias the individual. He may talk about politics and what arts are worth pursuing, but he is only concerned with them inasmuch as they affect his appearance. “Getting his hands dirty,” which would be the consequence of reasoning that the beautiful is useful, a cause of the good, is utterly unacceptable.

But Hippias’ desire to see the beautiful as good, with no qualification, affects how he conceives public things. Appearances are powerful, and he deals with what political pundits nowadays call “spin” as well as the myths that surround any citizen’s view of politics. A lack of clarity about whether we are indeed talking about “spin” or mythos brings forth the attempt to define the beautiful as that which pleases through sight or hearing. The power of appearances, for the hoi polloi, is in the pleasing. Knowledge of ignorance is pain. Hippias has unwittingly opened up the question of the philosophic life versus everyone else. That the beautiful may be a pleasure experienced two different ways (through sight, through hearing) creates a problem.[12] There are two wholly separate entities that are each beautiful and beautiful in different ways. How could the term “beautiful” ever be applied with any seriousness to two phenomena which have nothing else to do with each other than their being regarded beautiful? The term seems completely empty to a modern reader, a convention at its purest. Hippias need not be so cynical outright; he can say “beautiful” works like “just,” where if one person is just, and the other is just, then both are just.[13] Socrates is denying that “both” and “each” work such a way with regards to “the beautiful,” partly because we are talking about “the beautiful” as opposed to “beautiful.”

“The beautiful” has been abstract from the very start of the inquiry. It demands that we see something as better than others of its kind (the “maiden” discussion). We cannot divorce the concept from matters of class or kind (the significance of the “gold” discussion). It may be that the beautiful is the fitting, in terms of the being of a thing (Hippias, in pursuing “appearance,” went astray. If the discussion continues properly, one should get an account of how being and appearance relate). To understand the fitting as crucial to a being, one can look at usefulness and the being in question. Are there simply good beings? If so, it would be the case that “the beautiful” suits them as it enables us to see and pursue them.

The topic of pleasure through sight and hearing is the culmination of the inquiry. What we need to know is how we know the good and the beautiful. We have an idea how they relate, but saying “something looks beautiful, because it is beautiful it is good” demolishes the inquiry. We get fooled by false beauty, and the good is distinct from the beautiful, distinct enough to be apprehended separately, we think. The abstraction of beauty as pleasure, that the problem of  the beautiful becomes one of number,[14] where “both” comprehends two of “each” where the “each” are most unlike, hints that the beautiful is a larger domain than the good. This makes sense: “false beauty” is beauty also; a “false good” is something people quickly abandon upon discovery. But the implication of such reasoning is that “true beauty” is not simply honesty. True beauty has to correspond not merely with the truth, but the good. The whole has to make its parts better.

Hence, this dialogue. Hippias concludes the Greater Hippias with this speech:

But Socrates, what do you suppose all these things together are? They are scrapings and clippings of speeches, as I was just saying, divided up into bits. But the alternative is both beautiful and worth much – to be able to compose a speech well and beautifully in a law court or council chamber or in any other ruling group to which the speech is addressed and to go away having persuaded them and taking off not the littlest but the largest of the prizes, the salvation of oneself and one’s money and friends. So one ought to cling to these things, bidding good-bye to little speeches, in order that one not seem to be exceedingly unintelligent by engaging in babblings and drivel, as we were just now.[15]

Hippias sees the beautiful as a whole which is effective. One says beautiful things to beautiful (powerful) people and gets beautiful things. All one needs to do is mimic the whole. But Socratic dialectic has, throughout the dialogue, made some progress in illuminating the concept under scrutiny. It did this by taking one “each” that was most unlike another “each,” Hippias and Socrates, and making them report and judge their own dialogue. The “both” in this case is the literal representation of Socrates, who presented the true questions he wanted to ask in an interlocutor Hippias could not recognize. That interlocutor, of course, was truly Socrates. The Socrates speaking directly to Hippias was merely beautiful.

[1] Greater Hippias, 292d-293e

[2] ibid, 293e

[3] ibid, 294d-e

[4] cf. The Being of the Beautiful, xxxv-xxxvi

[5] ibid, xx

[6] Greater Hippias, 282a

[7] Seth Benardete, “Protagoras’ Myth and Logos,” 187

[8] Greater Hippias, 295e-296a

[9] ibid, 294c. Socrates says the “lawful things and pursuits, are both reputed to be beautiful,” and this is rejected by Hippias subsequently as the “fitting” requires that beauty to be easily apprehended by all men, resulting in concord.

[10] Sweet 343-344

[11] The Being of the Beautiful, xxxix

[12] Greater Hippias, 298d-299c

[13] ibid, 300e-301a

[14] The Being of the Beautiful, xliv-xlv

[15] Greater Hippias, 304a-c


Primary source:

Plato, “Greater Hippias.” tr. David Sweet. The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues. ed. Thomas Pangle. Ithaca: Cornell, 1987. 307-339

Secondary sources:

Benardete, Seth. The Being of the Beautiful. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

“Protagoras’ Myth and Logos.” in The Argument of the Action: Essays on Greek Poetry and Philosophy, ed. Burger & Davis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 186-197.

The Rhetoric of Morality and Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Euripides, “Hippolytus.” trans. David Grene. Greek Tragedies Vol. 1, 2nd ed. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Strauss, Leo. Xenophon’s Socrates. South Bend: St. Augustine’s, 1988.

Sweet, David. “Introduction to the Greater Hippias.” The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues. ed. Thomas Pangle. Ithaca: Cornell, 1987. 340-355

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