Plato Project #6: Hippias Major

[Up Next: Hippias Minor]

Hippias Major considers the question of what is beautiful, though really only reached conclusions about what it is not.  It begins with Hippias (I’m guessing he’s a sophist) boastfully explaining that he gives the best and most beautiful speeches, because he makes the most money of anyone who gives them.  There’s a timeless quality to that boastfulness, and its connection to money.

Socrates does his best to dismiss that view through sarcastic innuendo, but doesn’t actually engage with it as an argument.  Socrates moves the discussion along to a definition of beauty.  Hippias doesn’t say “beauty means that which makes someone the most money”; he never offers this definition in the abstract.  It’s just that it’s clear that it’s functioning in the background of his other proposed definitions, all of which Socrates finds problems with.

Some other definitions considered include “the appropriate” (since Hippias concedes that gold in all situations is not beautiful – if one finds it where not appropriate, it is not beautiful even though it is gold).  Then they move along to a consideration of “the useful” and also “the pleasant,” never stopping satisfied with any of these concepts.  Socrates’ point seems more to create some sort of taxonomy of abstract qualities: the beautiful, the useful, the just, and so on.

They stick the longest on something like “that which is pleasing either to see or pleasing to hear” but get stuck on the question of whether both of those participate in something bigger and external, called “the beautiful.”

Eventually Hippias signals some impatience, and suggests to Socrates that he still knows he knows enough about what is beautiful, given that he’s able to make money and give speeches many regard as beautiful.

At this point Socrates, who has been the entire time proposing objections which he says would be spoken by a close friend of his, identified at one point as “Socrates Sophroniscus” (i.e., Socrates the wise/restrained I guess?) whom he says “lives in his house.”  This sheds some light on the question of the “daimonion” in the Apology I think: in “Hippias Major” anyway, it seems as though Socrates’ hearing “voices” is really more like Socrates considering the views of his alter-ego, or even just the views which occur to him when he’s reflecting further upon things.

None of that works so well, of course, if this dialogue isn’t authentic.  At least not for showing us what Plato thought about Socrates (and Jowett seems to have had doubts – it’s not even included in my two-volume Works of Plato).  But even if it’s not authentic to Plato, it can still shed light on the question were we discussing before, about what the nature of the voice that Socrates here is.  Here is seems just to be “a friend of Socrates'” who has a tendency to ask abstract questions, i.e., Socrates himself.  Somehow, though, it still makes sense when he describes it as another person.  It’s like he’s saying “well, that answer you’ve given, it sort of makes sense to me, but when I think further about it, this other part of me says ‘no, that’s not a good answer.'”  So then the two Socrates just become a personification of reflective or more abstract thought.

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2 Responses to Plato Project #6: Hippias Major

  1. Nates says:

    I haven’t had a chance to read this one, and it’s not looking good that I’ll get to it this week, but let me quickly register a few reactions to this interesting post.

    (1) A quick scan of Google scholar suggests that, while the authenticity of the dialogue remains in doubt, the pendulum has swung back a little toward genuineness in recent decades. Honestly, there doesn’t seem to have been much change in terms of evidence, but the hunches have taken a different direction. It’s fascinating that this question has remained unresolved for several centuries now!

    (2) Even setting aside the issues of authenticity, your use of this dialogue to downplay the literal reading of Socrates’ Daimon feels a little quick to me. The character of the exchange seems very different–at least based on how you’re representing it. The Daimon is normally described as simply prohibiting certain actions (or lines of inquiry), not engaging in a full conversation. Also, there’s something weird going on with the Sophronicus reference, as that’s apparently the name of Socrates’ father! I wish I had more time right now to sleuth around these issues, as it’s very interesting stuff!

    • Josh says:

      You’re right to call it “quick.” I was trying to finish that post before leaving… I did not research enough, for example, that that was S’s father’s name / I just assumed it was a play on words (though it could be both). I didn’t mean to say it totally eliminated any problems with the daimon, just really meant it was interesting in light of it. If he’s taking about his father, then there’s a whole tangle of issues that raises. Freud would have (and may have in fact( had a field day with this, considering the voice of the father as an internalized presence is one of he main definitions he gives for the so-called “super-ego.”

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