Hippias Minor is an early Socratic dialogue composed by Plato. The topic concerns the identification of the false man and the true man.

The scenery of the dialogue

The mise en scène is extremely minimal. Specifications on the dramatic date are missing, while those on the dramatic place are scarce. We are only informed that the sophist Hippias meets with Socrates and the unfamiliar Eudikos somewhere in the Athenian open, right after the sophist has delivered a speech on Homer “inside” some place. The dialogue, which acts out almost exclusively among Socrates and Hippias, aims at the evaluation of Achilles and Odysseus by the sophist. Hippias of Elis was a well-known fifth-century sophist, notorious for his polymathy and versatility.

Structure and content

In the beginning of the dialogue, Eudikos calls on Socrates to pose a question to Hippias with regard to the latter’s lecture on Homer. Socrates opens the conversation by requesting a comparison of the two Homeric heroes, Achilles and Odysseus; who among them is better and in relation to what? (364 b54-5) Hippias’ double attempt at praising Achilles over Odysseus incurs Socrates’ dialectical elenchus. This elenchus is articulated in two arguments which divide the dialogue in equal parts. The conversation ends in perplexity because of the paradoxical conclusion it has reached.

In the first part (363 a-369 b7), Hippias designates Achilles as better than Odysseus on account of the former’s identification as “true” and the latter’s as “false”. Socrates decries this evaluation by claiming that the true and the false man are one and the same, and therefore none is to be acclaimed as better. In every field of knowledge, the man who can lie must be knowledgeable of the thing he cares to lie about. If he is deprived of such knowledge, it is possible to say something true perchance. In the same vein, the true man is also knowledgeable of the thing he speaks of, and it is he and he alone who can lie at will. Consequently, the false and the true man are not different but identical.

In the second part of the dialogue (369 b8-367 c7), Hippias insists on Achilles’ distinction by putting forward the argument that even if this hero does lie occasionally, he does so involuntarily, and hence he is superior to Odysseus who lies on his own will. It is exactly the element of intentionality that Socrates will turn around in order to infer, against Hippias, that the good man is the intentional wrongdoer. The inference rests upon the premise that intentional wrongdoing presupposes knowledge and capacity over the matter in question; and the man who possesses knowledge and power is by definition better than the one who falls short of them (367c5-6). Inductively, as it is the case with every knowledge (episteme) or expertise (techne), it is also the case with justice that the man who does wrong voluntarily is the good man, whereas the man who does so involuntarily is not.

Date of composition

The Hippias Minor is generally considered an early dialogue. However, scholars of the nineteenth century have disputed its authenticity mainly because of Socrates’ heavy use of “sophistry”. At any rate, the genuineness of the dialogue is verified by its citation in Aristotle’s Metaphysics (1025 a6-9). The composition displays all the typical characteristics of Plato’s early dialogues: a topic on morality, the central role of Socrates, consecutive dialogue, irony, and aporetic conclusion. Its brevity and the absence of any reference to “Forms” attest to its early composition.

Interpretation

In this dialogue, the dialectic method is employed in a way that strikes us as odd: instead of explaining away the confusion of the initial thesis, it comes down to avertible paradoxes. Scholars have raised two crucial questions: are the arguments, put forward by Socrates, really paradoxical? And if they really are, then why does he utter them in the first place?

It has been argued that the nub of the problem lies in the Socratic use of equivocation. If we could tell apart the different meanings that each term acquires in its appliance, then the paradoxes would disappear. Evidently, the predicates “true” and “false” of the first argument designate the man who possesses the general capacity of speaking either correctly or falsely in regard to a particular matter that he knows. The problem would occur if the two predicates informed the character or the ethos of a person. In that case, the identification of a straightforward and honest man with the liar and the deceptive would result in a paradox.

In the same vein, the second paradox withers away if we assume that no moral significance is attached to the usage of the epithet “good”. The man with the knowledge and capacity in some discipline (episteme) or art (techne) is good at it – as opposed to the man who ignores or acts perchance. But the former man is not morally good; he is good at something by virtue of his knowledge – and thereupon he has the capacity to commit a beneficial or evil act on his own will.

This intricacy invites the question: why doesn’t Socrates clarify the semantic discrepancies involved in his notions? Instead of doing so, he prefers to call in question his cognitive efficiency (372e3), to express his unwillingness in accepting his argument (376b1-c), and to devalue the accuracy of his conclusion (376b5-7).

Gregory Vlastos suspects that Socrates is helplessly entangled in his convoluted syllogisms, and that his final perplexity is to be taken at face value. Nonetheless, this approach plays down the importance of Plato’s composition with regards to morality and against sophistry. Paul Friendländer calls our attention on a more exhaustive interpretation:

1. Socrates takes pains to entrap Hippias into confusion, and thus expose his opponent’s cognitive incompetence. What lies tacitly behind this attitude is the philosopher’s repugnance against sophistry, which he associates with lie and deception. For all that, Socrates proves more capable at deceiving than Hippias; and, thus, he verifies his own pronouncement that the man who knows the truth is better at deceiving than the man who ignores it (376c2-7) – that is the sophist. But is Plato’s intention to deceive the reader of the dialogue as well as the dramatic bystander Eudikos?

2. The philosopher’s repeated hesitations accomplish an ultimate edifying purpose: he wants us to reexamine the soundness of his paradoxical conclusions; to make an attempt, that is, at differentiating the various meanings that he purposefully intermingles in the use of his notions.

3. Only by postulating this ultimate pedagogic end is it possible to ascribe a moral overtone to the final conclusion. According to this conclusion, the man who deceives voluntarily is the good man for the reason that he knows the truth of the thing over which he deceives. If we couple this conclusion with the fundamental socratic principle that nobody wrongs intentionally, we infer that all men pursue what is good. Accordingly, what Plato pursues by having Hippias being deceived by Socrates and by implicitly devaluating Socrates’ conclusions are two good outcomes: on the one hand, he discredits the sophist, and on the other, he stimulates the philosophical reflection of Eudikos and the reader.

Author: Ioannis Telios
  • Vlastos, G. Socrates. Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge, 1991.
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