Plato Project #7: Hippias Minor

[Up Next: Ion]

Brad Pitt as Achilles and Sean Bean as Odysseus in the often unfairly maligned 2004 movie Troy


Who’s the greater hero – Achilles or Odysseus?  There is a timelessness to that question, since the two well-known Homeric heroes – the one of the Iliad and the of ther of the Odyssey – seem to represent two diametrically opposed ways of being a hero.  Achilles is a swift-footed and strong warrior; Odysseus is a crafty and deceptive strategist.  Who is better is the topic of Hippias Minor, or The Lesser Hippias (depending whether you like your titled Latinized or not)

It’s a fairly common line of reasoning to use the values extolled in the two characters an important piece of evidence in establishing the epics’ relative dates of composition: The Iliad’s Achilles, on this view, represents an earlier, more archaic vision of the hero as excelling in physical strengths, and the Odyssey’s Odysseus represents a later, more urbane vision of heroism as intelligence.  Adorno and Horkheimer’s “Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment” (jstor – you need access to read it) takes this position as the starting-point for critique of the notion of enlightenment itself.

Gregory Nagy, in his The Best of the Achaeans (full text is online for free) – the title itself is an epithet that each epic applies to its respective protagonist – considers the problematic interaction between these two characters.  They do speak to each other a handful of times, most importantly (for Nagy) in the so-called “embassy sequence” in the Iliad, when Odysseus, accompanying Ajax and Phoenix, goes to Achilles’ tent to persuade Achilles to rejoin the fighting and thereby help the Greeks win the war.  Nagy’s book takes this dichotomy in all sorts of interesting directions, including a fascinating investigation about why Odysseus seems to be linguistically excluded – Achilles addresses Ajax and Phoenix in the dual, as though Odysseus isn’t there.  Instead of seeing this as evidence of “interpolation” of the Homeric original by a later corruptor, Nagy sees in these dual forms a powerful statement of the two heroes’ irreconcilability, almost a refusal to cognizance the existence of the other (his argument is much more complicated than that, but that is its essence I think).  I wrote a paper about the embassy scene if you’re really curious.

Anyhow, in Hippias Minor, Socrates and Hippias argue about Odysseus and Achilles’ relative merits.  The dialogue falls into two sections.  In the first, Hippias asserts that Achilles is the better hero, since he is “true,” whereas Odysseus is lesser, because he is “false.”  Socrates plays some logical games and demonstrates that in this context, “the true” can easily become “the false” – it has a lot to do with the idea that Odysseus is good at being false, which in itself speaks towards some “truth.”

A frustrated Hippias protests that Socrates has misunderstood the essence of the matter by verbal trickery.  Socrates then allows Hippias to re-state his case.  Hippias’ second set of arguments relies on the idea that though Achilles does tell some lies, he never does so voluntarily, which, he says quite reasonably, is a worse thing to do.  Since Odysseus voluntarily lies on many occasions, he is worse.

Socrates’ answer here turns on the idea that someone who voluntarily does something like lose a footrace in fact must have been the better runner, or else they could not have voluntarily done so, whereas someone who involuntarily loses a race must, ipso facto, be the worse runner (an example that might hit a little too close to home for David, who lost a memorable footrace to yours truly).

This would demonstrate, to me anyhow, that Odysseus is more intelligent than Achilles, but not necessarily more heroic in general, as the next step in the argument (one that doesn’t happen here) would be to suggest that intelligence is a more heroic attribute than strength – or more in the terms used in the dialogue, that intelligence is somehow “better” than strength.

There is a brief discussion of justice – the idea seems to be that having more mental power makes one more capable of justice – “if justice is a power of the soul, then the soul which has the greater power is also the more just; for that which has the greater power, my good friend, has been proved by us to be the better” (Stephanos 375).  In some way that does some sort to close that gap, but isn’t there power in physical strength, and therefore justice?

Admittedly, I’m just reading this once, and not reconstructing the subtleties of the logic in a way that might be necessary.

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2 Responses to Plato Project #7: Hippias Minor

  1. Nates says:

    So, it doesn’t sound like this dialogue would make Plato’s greatest hits album…

    What I find most interesting in it is the idea that the Greeks were having Achilles vs. Odysseus debates back then. Well, mainly I’m surprised that this was much of a debate. In purely Homeric mythological terms, doesn’t it seem obvious that Achilles is the greater of the two? He has superior lineage, he’s more feared by the Trojans, his decisions (and indecisions) matter more, and he’s repeatedly, explicitly identified as the greatest of the Acheans. Also, Achilles isn’t dumb. He’s young, and thus not in control of his emotions, but he delivers some of the most thoughtful, reflective lines about warfare and mortality in either story. Odysseus is wilier, but I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be seen as smarter in general. Or, to the extent he is, this is as much about his being older. (Nestor gets all sorts of wisdom praise, just for having outlived the rest of his generation.) So put me in the Achilles camp with Hippias.

  2. Nates says:

    Also, well-played with the footrace remark!

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