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Plato's Greater Hippias - Selections - Comments

Tr. Benjamin Jowett. In classical times this dialog was also titled "On Beauty" -- the English word 'beauty' being a partial equivalent to the Greek concept kalon -- and was classified as a "refutative" dialog, an illustration of the method of "subversive [i.e. undermining] argument" (Diog. L. iii, 60, 51).

The use of such a word as 'beautiful' is ... apt to be misunderstood if you look at the linguistic form of sentences in which it occurs ... 'Beautiful' is an adjective, so you are inclined to say: "This has a certain quailty, that of being beautiful." The subject (Aesthetics) is ... misunderstood as far as I can see. (L. Wittgenstein, LC p. 1)

The question Plato asks in this dialog is about the common quality named by the common adjective 'beautiful', the common quality he believes to be the meaning of the word 'beautiful' or what beauty itself is: (1) what do all things we call 'beautiful' have in common, and (2) what distinguishes those things from all other things? That is definition as Plato inherited it from Socrates, definition by common natures. (What is the meaning of common name?)

Does the Sophist Hippias of Elis know what beauty is? If he does know, he can explain what he knows to Socrates. But every definition of beauty Hippias offers is refuted by Socrates' cross-questioning, because their dialog assumes as Plato does that 'the beautiful' is the name of a common nature and that to know what beauty is means to be able to say what that common nature is.

And so, unlike in Xenophon where the word 'beautiful' is defined logically, in Plato's work 'the beautiful' is defined metaphysically. [Philosophy's three parts according to the Stoics: logic, ethics, metaphysics.]

And so the dialog ends without solution because to the end Socrates remains faithful to the standard the son of Sophroniscus holds Socrates to.

Outline of this page ...

Introduction to the Topics of Greater Hippias

In the Greater Hippias, Plato's Socrates questions -- "in order to see who is wise and who is not" (Apology 23b) -- the Sophist Hippias of Elis. If, as Hippias says, he knows "what beauty is", then he can tell others what he knows. And thus whether or not he knows is a question to be answered in Socratic dialectic (proposing and cross-questioning).

The Greek Sophists professed to be wise or knowledgeable men ('sophists') who were able to teach what they knew to others. Hippias plays a light role, as a display of rhetoric, in another of Plato's dialogs known in ancient times by the title Sophists.

The principal subject of the Greater Hippias is the Greek concept kalon, usually rendered by the English word 'beauty', but meaning not only 'handsome' but also: 'excellent' ('outstanding'), 'fit for purpose' and 'well-done'.

Hippias says that he will tell Socrates "what beauty is", that the answer to that question is but "a scrap" of his vast learning and "of no value" (286e). It is not a "big question" (287a-b).

As to the title of this dialog, there is also a dialog known as the Lesser Hippias or Hippias Minor (in contrast to Hippias Major), which was know in ancient times by the title On Falsehood, but which most scholars have long judged to be spurious, although some six hundred years after the death of Socrates it was still included in Plato's canon (Diog. L. iii, 60). Scholars have also doubted that Plato wrote the Greater Hippias.

Xenophon's Memorabilia offers a discussion between Socrates and Aristippus, with the latter doing the questioning, of kalon (iii, 8, 4-7). Socrates' view there quite resembles the view Plato has Protagoras express in Protagoras 334a-c. In Xenophon's discussion, both 'goodness' and 'beauty' are relational concepts.

One proposition that is agreed to by Hippias is: "Whatever is appropriate to a particular thing makes that thing beautiful", just as whatever is inappropriate to that thing does the opposite (i.e. makes it ugly) (290a). That proposition, however, is refuted in this dialog because it has the consequence that the same thing may be beautiful and ugly depending on context, and Plato is seeking something that is only beautiful and never ugly (291d), for that something, he thinks, must be beauty itself.

In comparison to his view of Protagoras, Plato does not regard Hippias highly as a thinker. He presents him as extremely vain and a bit thick, but at the same time strangely naive and patient with Socrates, although Hippias hasn't the redeeming philosophical seriousness of someone like Euthyphro. He certainly doesn't know what he thinks he knows. Nonetheless there are more than a few points of interest in this dialog.

Yes, the deceiver is always at home, persuading us to think we know what we do not know (Crat. 428d; cf. Hipp. maj. 293e), but it can be kept somewhat in check if the philosophical critic is also always there (Hipp. maj. 304d).

If at any point this dialog seems unclear, try substituting the Greek word kalon for the English word beauty, and the Greek kalos for the English 'beautiful', to see just how much more unclear it might be.

The contrast between the Sophists and the Philosophers of old

Plato begins by contrasting "the old philosophers" (281d) with Socrates' contemporaries, the Sophists. All or most of "the great figures of the past who are famous for their wisdom -- Pittacus and Bias and the school of Thales of Miletus", as well as more recently Anaxagoras, "made a habit of taking no active part in politics" (281c), and never "saw fit to charge money for [their] wisdom, or to give demonstrations of it to miscellaneous audiences" (282c-d). In contrast to these "old philosophers", the Sophists such as Hippias of Elis [a city in the northwest of the Peloponnesus], Gorgias of Leontini [a city in eastern Sicily], Prodicus of Ceos [a Greek island southeast of Attica], as well as Protagoras before them (282b-d), "carry their wisdom into both regions of life, the public and the private" (281d).

Socrates asks Hippias how it is that the old philosophers took no active part in politics, and Hippias says the reason is "incapacity, the lack of the power to carry their wisdom into" public life (281d). Hippias himself, on the other hand, does not lack this power and is "always the first choice among [the] citizens [of Elis] to be [that city's] ambassador" (281a). Furthermore, Hippias has as well, in Socrates' words, "as a private person ... made an astonishing amount of money by giving demonstrations to the young and admitting them to his society" (282c).

SOCRATES: According to your account, earlier thinkers were sunk in ignorance ... Your success, I admit [with no small amount of irony], is fine evidence of the wisdom of the present generation compared with their predecessors, and it is a popular sentiment that the wise man must above all be wise for himself; of such wisdom the criterion is in the end the ability to make the most money. (283a-b)

And by that standard, that is, according to Hippias' wisdom, Anaxagoras was a fool, "sunk in ignorance", "for when he inherited a large fortune, he neglected it and lost it all -- so mindless was his wisdom -- and the same kind of story is told of other great figures of former generations" (283a).

Socrates now asks Hippias, "in which of all the cities you visit have you made the most money?" (283b) Is it in the city which Hippias visits most often as ambassador, namely Lacedaemon (281a-b)?

HIPPIAS: Certainly not ... I've never made money there at all.

SOCRATES: Then is not your wisdom fitted to advance [their youths] in virtue ...?

HIPPIAS: Very much so. (283b-c)

Socrates asks then if the Lacedaemonians (i.e. Spartans) do not "desire to become better men"? But Hippias responds that undoubtedly they desire it.

SOCRATES: Then you were unable to convince the Spartan youths that in your society they would make more progress toward virtue than in the society of their own people? Or, alternatively, could you not persuade their fathers that, if they had any solicitude for their sons, they ought to hand them over to you [to be educated rather than educate their sons themselves]?

If the laws of a state are more harmful than beneficial to its people, then are they the laws at all?

SOCRATES: [In] states with good laws, virtue is held in the highest honor?

HIPPIAS: Quite so.

SOCRATES: And you know better than anyone else how to impart [virtue] to another?

HIPPIAS: Emphatically ... [But the] ancestral tradition of the Lacedaemonians forbids them to change their laws or to give their sons an education different from the customary.

SOCRATES: Does the ancestral tradition of the Lacedaemonians require them to do wrong instead of right?... Would you say that law is an injury to the state, or a benefit?

HIPPIAS: It is made, I think, with a view to benefit, but sometimes it does positive harm if it is ill made.

SOCRATES: But surely the legislators make the law on the assumption that it is a principal good of the state ... When, therefore, would-be legislators miss the good, they have missed law and legality.

HIPPIAS: Speaking precisely, Socrates, that is so, but mankind are not accustomed to put it that way.

SOCRATES: The men who know, or those who do not?

HIPPIAS: The multitude.

SOCRATES: This multitude, is it composed of men who know the truth?

HIPPIAS: Certainly not.

SOCRATES: But at any rate those who know, I suppose, hold that the more beneficial is in truth more lawful for all men than the less beneficial ...?

HIPPIAS: Yes, I agree. It is so, in truth.

SOCRATES: And ... what is more beneficial is more lawful ...?

HIPPIAS: [That is what I have said.]

SOCRATES: Then on your argument it is more lawful for the sons of Lacedaemonians to be [brought up in a foreign education] by Hippias, and less lawful for them to be educated by their fathers, if they will in fact get more benefit from you ... Then Lacedaemonians break the law by not entrusting their sons to you, and paying you handsomely for it ... [And the Lacedaemonians] prove to be lawbreakers, and lawbreakers in the most vital matters -- the very people who are reputed to be the most law-abiding. (283b-285b)

Plato appears to be making here the distinction that Sophocles' Antigone makes between man's law ("thy writ, o king") and divine law ("the laws of God"), for it may be that according to man-made law the Spartans are the most law-abiding of people although according to God's law they are outlaws. (But whether to say that is Plato's intent or not, I don't know.)

Now, Hippias may have been a fool in the eyes of philosophy, but it does not follow that therefore the Spartans were wise. They were in fact "misologists and strangers to the Muses" (Plato, Republic 411d), hostile to philosophy (haters of dialectic, of reasoned discourse, of the "art of words"), the examined life -- everything the historical Socrates is remembered for.

The Spartans were like the blockheaded Athenian youth Aristophanes says Aeschylus' plays fostered: "knaves [who] knew nothing at all" beyond calling for rations and pulling the oars. (The Frogs, line 1070)

Socrates then says that if the Lacedaemonians will not allow Hippias to teach their youths virtue, then "on what kind of subject do they listen to you"? (285b) And he suggests various subjects on which Hippias is "a great authority" such as: "the stars and the celestial phenomena"? and "geometry"?

HIPPIAS: Not at all. Many of them do not even know how to count, so to speak.

SOCRATES: Then they must be a far from appreciative audience when you address them on arithmetic?

HIPPIAS: Very far indeed. (285b-c)

Socrates then asks if the subject is "the problems which you of all men know best how to analyze -- the properties of letters and syllables and rhymes and harmonies"? But Hippias regards that suggestion as preposterous. Socrates: "What then are the subjects on which they listen to you with pleasure and applause?"

HIPPIAS: They delight in the genealogies of heroes and of men and in stories of the foundations of cities in olden times, and, to put it briefly, in all forms of antiquarian lore ...

SOCRATES: Now I understand how naturally the Lacedaemonians enjoy your multifarious knowledge, and make use of you as children do of old women, to tell them agreeable stories.

HIPPIAS: Yes, indeed, and, what is more, Socrates, I have lately gained much credit there by setting forth in detail the honorable and beautiful practices to which a young man ought to devote himself. On that subject I have composed a discourse, a beautiful work distinguished by a fine style among its other merits ... After the fall of Troy [Nestor, in reply to Neoptolemus' question to him about "the honorable and beautiful practices" to which a youth should devote himself], propounds ... a great number of excellent rules of life. (285d-286b)

Hippias seems to know everything, except what is most important for man to know, namely, how to live his life (Cf. in Plato's dialog Phaedrus 229e-230a, Socrates says that "to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous" (tr. Jowett)), although Hippias does presume to know that when he speaks of "beautiful practices" -- i.e. of a beautiful way of life. But he does not know what the excellence that is proper to man is, although he thinks he knows what it is, or, at least, that is the view of both Socrates and Plato, for Hippias imagines rhetoric rather than philosophy to be what makes man "beautiful".

Now when Hippias mentions "beautiful practices" and "a beautiful work distinguished by a fine style" (286a), Socrates responds by asking Hippias to "answer me a trifling question on the subject [of beauty]; you have reminded me of it in the nick of time" (286c). And so Socrates goes on to examine Hippias to see whether Hippias, the Sophist, is truly wise or not (Apology 21c-e), for wise is what both "the multitude" and Hippias himself think Hippias to be.

"What is beauty itself?"

SOCRATES: Quite lately ... when I was condemning as ugly some things in certain compositions, and praising others as beautiful, somebody threw me into confusion by interrogating me in a most offensive manner, rather to this effect. You, Socrates, pray how do you know what things are beautiful and what are ugly? Come now, can you tell me what beauty is?

I was confounded, and could find no proper answer to give him ... I was filled with anger and reproaches against myself, and promised myself that the first time I met one of you wise men [i.e. Sophists], I would listen to him and learn ... I do not want to be made to look a fool a second time, by another cross-examination. (286c-e)

What Socrates is describing is similar to the reaction against him ("filled with anger and reproaches" and "made to feel a fool") of those he has been cross-examining to discover who is wise and who is not (Apology 21c-d).

"How do you know?" is here a grammatical question because it asks how anyone who knows can know -- i.e. it asks for criteria, a definition, for applying the word 'know' in the case of knowing what beauty is. (It is not a question about Socrates as an individual, as it might be if he were asked by a magistrate e.g. "How do you know? Were you yourself there? Did you see it with your own eyes?" etc.)

As to what beauty is, Socrates suggests to Hippias: "Of course you know perfectly, and it is only a scrap of your vast learning."

HIPPIAS: A scrap indeed, Socrates, and of no value, I may add.

SOCRATES: Then I shall acquire it without trouble, and nobody will confound me again.

HIPPIAS: Nobody at all, if I am not a bungling amateur in my profession.

SOCRATES: Will it be a nuisance to you if I act as [the understudy of the man who will again "cross-examine me" about my answer] and fasten on your answers with my objections, so that you may put me through some vigorous practice? I have had a fair amount of experience of his objections. If, therefore, it makes no difference to you, I would like to play the critic. In this way I will get a firmer grasp of what I learn.

HIPPIAS: Certainly, put your criticisms. As I said just now, it is not a big question. (286e-287b)

Socrates now proposes -- and asks Hippias to agree to, which he does, each of -- two propositions: (1) that "all beautiful things [are] beautiful by beauty" (just as "it is by wisdom that the wise are wise, and by goodness that all things are good"), and (2) that beauty "has a real existence" (287c-d) -- Socrates' point being, I think, that if beauty has "a real existence" and that beautiful things are beautiful because of it, then it should be possible to say what beauty itself is: "What is this existent thing that makes beautiful things beautiful? What is beauty when it's at home?"

Socrates asks Hippias to agree step-by-step -- This is an essential feature of Socrates' method in dialectic: obtaining agreement for each step (proposition) of the discussion before continuing to the next.

Beauty's "real existence"

As to the notions that beauty (or, the beautiful) is itself beautiful, that it is beauty that makes beautiful things beautiful, and that beauty has real existence -- similar notions are found in Plato's Protagoras (330b-e, 332b-c, 332a).

Do I deny then that beauty or "the beautiful" has real existence? What I deny is that to say that beauty has real existence is to say anything more than that the word 'beauty' and rules for using it -- i.e. that the concept 'beauty' -- exists. "If I do speak of a fiction, then it is of a grammatical fiction" (PI § 307).

As to the combination of words 'It is the beautiful that makes beautiful things beautiful', I can think of no meaning to assign those words; they do not have a use in the language we normally speak -- and what language if not that should we speak? (cf. ibid. § 246) --, and likewise with 'Beauty is itself beautiful'.

Plato's distinction between beautiful things and beauty itself

Socrates says that his cross-questioner, the man he is playing understudy to, would now say to Hippias, "Then tell me, stranger [or, visitor to Athens from Elis] ... what is this thing, beauty?" (287d)

HIPPIAS: By putting this question, he just wants to find out what is [i.e. what things are] beautiful?

SOCRATES: I do not think so, Hippias. He wants to know what is beauty -- the beautiful.

HIPPIAS: What is the difference between them?

SOCRATES: You think there is none?

HIPPIAS: There is no difference. (287d)

Socrates, however, returns to his cross-questioner:

SOCRATES: That man will question me something like this. Come, Socrates, give me an answer. Returning to your examples of beauty, tell me what must beauty by itself be in order to explain why we apply the word ['beauty'] to them? (288a; cf. Euthyphro 5c, and also Euthyphro 6d-7d: Socrates seeks a standard in ethics.)

About "my questioner", the one who asked Socrates "How do you know what things are beautiful and what are ugly?" (286c), Socrates says, "... I was confounded, and could find no proper answer to give him" (286d). We learn, as I imagine we should already have guessed, that Socrates' questioner is in fact Socrates himself, examining himself (cf. Apology 28e) to see whether he is wise or not (ibid. 23b).

Hippias says "what beauty is": "a beautiful maiden is a beauty"

SOCRATES: Obviously you know best. Still ... look at it again; he asks you not what is beautiful, but what is beauty.

HIPPIAS: I understand ... and I will indeed tell him what is beauty, defying anyone to refute me. I assure you, Socrates, if I must speak the truth, that a beautiful maiden is a beauty. (287d-e)

Hippias does not grasp the distinction that Socrates is trying to make: he imagines that he is being asked to name the most beautiful of things or at least to give an example of one. And so Socrates suggests various other examples. He asks Hippias: "Is not a beautiful mare a beauty ...?" (288b) and "what about a beautiful lyre? Is that not a beauty?" (288c) And Hippias agrees to those suggestions. But when Socrates suggests that his cross-questioner will now ask whether "a beautiful pot [is not] a beauty", Hippias is offended.

HIPPIAS: Who is this fellow [who questions you]? What a boor, to dare to introduce such vulgar examples into a grave discussion!

SOCRATES: He is that sort of person, Hippias -- not at all refined, a common fellow caring for nothing but the truth. Still, he must have his answer ... (288d)

Hippias replies that a pot "is beautiful when it is beautifully made, but generically it does not deserve to be judged beautiful in comparison with a mare or a maiden". (288e)

Heraclitus on relative beauty

SOCRATES: I am sure that [fellow] will say, Yes, Socrates, but if maidens are grouped with gods, will the result not be the same as when pots are grouped with maidens? Will not the most beautiful maiden appear ugly? Does not Heraclitus, whom you adduce [289a], employ these very words, "The wisest of men, when compared to a god, will appear but an ape in wisdom and beauty and all else"?

[But if we admit this that fellow] will laugh and say, Socrates, do you remember what you were asked? Yes, I shall answer. I was asked what beauty by itself is. He will then rejoin, Then when you are asked for beauty, do you offer in reply that which you yourself acknowledge to be no more beautiful than ugly?... If I had asked you at the beginning what is both beautiful and ugly, and you had answered me as now, would not your answer have been correct? But do you still think that absolute beauty [i.e. beauty by itself, by which all beautiful things are beautiful (287c-d)] -- do you think that is a maiden, or a mare, or a lyre? (289a-d)

What is appropriate to a thing makes it beautiful

Next Hippias imagines that he is being asked what when added to anything makes that thing beautiful, which indeed appears to be the question Socrates asks him (289d; cf. 292c-d).

HIPPIAS: But still, Socrates, if this is what [your cross-questioner] wants, it is the easiest thing in the world to tell him ... [Beauty] is nothing else than gold [for] we all know that if anything has gold added to it, it will appear beautiful when so adorned even though it appeared ugly before. (289a-e)

But when Socrates objects that when Phidias made his statue of Athena, he did not give Athena "eyes of gold or use gold for the rest of her face", but instead used ivory, Hippias replies that ivory too is beautiful. And then Socrates points out that rather than ivory Phidias made Athena's eyes "of stone", and Socrates asks Hippias, "Or is the stone that is beautiful itself a beauty? Shall we say that it is?" (290b-c)

HIPPIAS: Yes -- it is beautiful, at least, wherever it is appropriate.

SOCRATES: But ugly when not appropriate?

HIPPIAS: Yes -- when not appropriate. (290c)

But Socrates says that his cross-questioner will go on to ask, "[Do] not ivory and gold cause a thing to appear beautiful when they are appropriate, and ugly when they are not? Shall we deny it or admit that he is right?" (290d)

HIPPIAS: We shall at any rate admit that whatever is appropriate to a particular thing makes that thing beautiful. (290d)

And thus if, that proposition is true, then also what is appropriate (or, proper) to man makes man "beautiful" (i.e. of outstanding quality -- and it should be clear by now that although they may be more or less distinct concepts (because there is a difference between being displeasing to look at and being morally vicious), as in the discussion in Xenophon (Memorabilia iii, 8, 4-7), in the Greek language, what is beautiful, is also good --), and what is inappropriate to man makes man the opposite of "beautiful", namely "ugly".

It is the excellence (i.e. "beauty") that is appropriate (or, proper) to man that makes man "beautiful", and therefore it is by living in accord with that excellence that man reaches what is the beautiful way of life for man.

But Socrates says that the man who questions him will go on to ask him: "Then when a man boils the pot of which we spoke [288c], the beautiful pot full of beautiful soup, which is the more appropriate to it -- a ladle of gold or a ladle of figwood?" (290d)

HIPPIAS: Really, Socrates, what a creature! Please tell me who he is.

SOCRATES: You would not know him if I told you his name.

HIPPIAS: I know enough about him at this moment to know that he is a dolt.

SOCRATES: He is a terrible nuisance, Hippias. Still, how shall we answer?

Which of the two ladles are we to choose as appropriate to ... the pot? Obviously the one of figwood? For ... it would not break our pot and spill the soup and put out the fire ... whereas that golden ladle would do all this.

And therefore, if you do not object [i.e. if you agree], I think we should say that the wooden ladle is more appropriate than the golden.

HIPPIAS: Yes, it is more appropriate, but I would not myself go on talking with the fellow while he asks such questions. (290d-291a)

Plato appears to be using the word 'appropriate' equivocally here. His first examples are of things which when added to another thing make that thing beautiful, as the ivory and stone used by Phidias for his statue of Athena do. -- But the ivory and stone are incorporated into the statue; they become part of it, and removing them would remove what, according to the discussion, makes the statue beautiful.

But the ladle used with the gold pot is used as a companion to the pot, and its removal does not make the pot ugly. The ladle is 'appropriate' in the sense of being appropriate to be used with (the pot) rather than 'appropriate' in the sense of being appropriate to be added to (as the ivory and stone are added by Phidias to his statue of Athena).

As we see, the concepts -- i.e. the conceptual tools -- we are trying to use here -- 'appropriate' and 'beautiful' -- are soft ("fluid"): they do not retain their shape if pressure is applied to them, and therefore it is difficult to get much work done using them, because it seems that we can give them as many senses as we like without extending them to the point of turning them into different concepts.

Does the equivocation or ambiguity in the dialog spring from (i.e. have its source in) the Greek concept kalon which has many both distinct and indistinct-from-each-other meanings? If Plato, at this stage in his philosophical development, assumes that every word has a general definition, then that may blind him to the word-magic at play in his argument.

The two ladles may be appropriate or inappropriate from countless points of view. For example, the wooden ladle may be more appropriate in the sense of fit for purpose if its purpose is to ladle out soup, without its also being more appropriate in the sense of handsome than the golden ladle, which in the context of a display of an artisan's craft might be more appropriate with the golden pot. And so on.

But remember the way of face-to-face dialectic: step-by-step agreement: the dialog goes in a particular direction -- not in every direction we can imagine; the dialog belongs to its day: a renewed discussion -- i.e. one with new cross-questions (objections) and theses -- might be taken up another day. And if I had taken part in the discussion of "Beauty is appropriateness" I would have objected to the thesis that "Beauty has a real existence" -- but I did not take part in it. And because "the written word cannot defend itself" (Phaedrus 275c-e), I think it best if we stick to the discussions' agreed-to propositions and see if on the basis of those propositions the conclusions drawn in the discussion truly follow or not.

SOCRATES: Quite right ... It would not be appropriate for you to be contaminated by such language, you who ... wear such good shoes, and are renowned for wisdom throughout the Greek world. But to me [who never wears shoes (Phaedrus 229a)] it does not matter if I am mixed up with that fellow; so fortify me with your instruction, and for my sake answer the questions.

He will say, If indeed the wooden ladle is more appropriate than the golden, will it not also be more beautiful, since you, Socrates, have admitted that the appropriate is more beautiful than the inappropriate? Can we then avoid the admission [i.e. agreeing] that the wooden ladle is more beautiful than the golden?

HIPPIAS: Well, if you like, answer him that it is the one made of figwood. (291a-c)

Next Hippias offers to give Socrates "a definition of beauty by which you can save yourself from prolonged discussion" (291b).

But recall the logic of language distinction between definition of a word (in this case 'beauty') versus "definition of a thing" (But does beauty have "a real existence" (287c-d) and a very mysterious one it would be, other than in the way I described before?) which here looms out: Hippias is like a man groping his way about in the dark, trying to find he doesn't-know-what; Wittgenstein: "they let the words speak to them", as in linguistic analysis.

Contrast Hippias' new definition with the thesis he earlier (290d) agreed to, namely, "Beauty is whatever is appropriate to a particular thing", because the earlier proposition is an example of a universal definition, although one which Plato regards as being refuted by its being consistent with the statement that the same thing can be beautiful or ugly (depending on the context it is found in) -- but beauty ("the beautiful") can never be ugly; it can never be its opposite.

But that refutation, like the whole of Plato's Greater Hippias, treats the word 'beauty' as if it were the name of "a real existent thing" -- and the dialog's trying to discover what that thing is, is a quest that can never be completed. "The meaning of the word 'beauty' is the thing the name 'beauty' stands for" -- That preconception makes arriving at a general definition impossible, because we simply do not use the word 'beauty' to name an object. In fact we don't use most words that way: "The meaning of the name of an object is often explained by pointing to the object it names" (cf. PI § 43), but we don't define the word 'beauty' with an ostensive definition, even when we point to examples of things that we call beautiful.

Socrates asks Hippias to tell him this definition, because "following your answer, if I take the line that beauty is gold, I shall apparently have to face the fact that gold is no more beautiful than figwood. Now, once more, what according to you is beauty?" (291c)

HIPPIAS: You are looking, I think, for a reply ascribing to beauty such a nature that it will never appear ugly to anyone anywhere?

SOCRATES: Exactly. You catch my meaning admirably.

HIPPIAS: Now please attend. If anyone can find any fault with what I say, I give you full leave to call me an imbecile. (291d)

What Hippias now offers Socrates, however, is not a "definition of beauty itself", but is instead a statement of what "a beautiful way of life" is for man, a statement which even if it is or were true, is not a statement of what the essence of beauty is -- i.e. of what everything we call 'beautiful' has in common (the common defining quality [300a-b] of beauty).

HIPPIAS: I maintain that always, everywhere, and for every man it is most beautiful to be rich, healthy, honored by the Greeks, to reach old age and, after burying his parents nobly, himself to be borne to the tomb with solemn ceremony by his own children. (291d-e)

The aspect of the concept 'beauty' which Hippias seems to be or is defining here -- if this should be called a definition -- is "a beautiful way of life" for man. It is the same kind of definition Hippias agreed to (by not objecting to it) in 283b-c and will state in his final response to Socrates.

In any case, Socrates now refutes Hippias' latest statement of "what beauty itself is" by pointing to counter-examples (See the ancient characterization of this dialog as an illustration of the method of "undermining") -- i.e. examples of where what Hippias describes would not be "a beautiful way of life". Of course Socrates allows "that man who is always questioning me" to present that counter-case (refutation). Socrates says that he himself applauds Hippias' wonderful words, "sublime, worthy of you". But Socrates warns Hippias that "that man" will respond very differently.

SOCRATES: [That man who is always questioning me] will now deride us more than ever ... [When] he has the answer you suggest he may not be content just to laugh at me. So I forebode.

HIPPIAS: What do you mean?

SOCRATES: If he happens to have stick with him, he will attempt to get at me with it very forcibly ...

HIPPIAS: What? ... Surely he will be arrested and punished for such behavior? Or has Athens no system of justice, that she allows her citizens to commit wrongful assaults on one another?

SOCRATES: She forbids it absolutely.

HIPPIAS: Then he will be punished for his wrongful assaults.

SOCRATES: I do not think so, Hippias -- emphatically not, if that [i.e. Hippias' last definition (291d-e)] were the answer I gave him. I think his assault would be justified.

HIPPIAS: Since that is your opinion, well, I think so too. [Hippias has given Socrates leave to call him an "imbecile" (291d) and that is what Socrates is doing here.]

SOCRATES: But may I go on to explain why [i.e. to state my reasons, present my refutation], in my opinion, that answer would justify an assault upon me? Or will you too assault me without trial, refusing me a hearing?

HIPPIAS: No, such a refusal would be monstrous. But what have you to say?

SOCRATES: I will continue on the same plan as a moment ago, pretending to be that fellow but not using to you the kind of offensive and grotesque words [such as 'pot', 'ladle'] he would use to me. He will say, I feel sure, Do you not think, Socrates, that you deserve a thrashing ...?

Are you incapable of remembering what I asked about beauty itself, that which gives the property of being beautiful to everything to which it is added -- to stone and wood, and man, and god, and every action and every branch of learning? I am asking ... what is beauty itself ... You might be a stone sitting beside me ... with neither ears nor brain. (291e-292d)

Plato's presumption is that there is a property named 'beauty' that is given to other things by "a real existent entity" named 'beauty'. But there is no such property and there is no such entity. And how do I know? I know because this is not a question of facts other than grammatical facts. That is, my denial is a grammatical remark. I know because I have learnt English [PI § 381] (and the Greek concept kalon, despite its dissimilarity in having greater extension than the English concept 'beauty, is not dissimilar in this respect: neither kalon nor 'beauty' nor any of the other words equivalent to the Greek word is the name of any kind of object or property). That is, I know because I know how we use the word 'beauty' -- and it isn't the way Plato presumes that we do. (Note that Plato nowhere even so much as tries to prove in dialectic that words such as 'beauty' and 'holiness' are the names of things with "a real existence". He simply presumes it to be so -- i.e. Plato simply thinks he knows what he does not know.)

Plato, of course, does not imagine that he his trying to define a mere word, but that he is instead trying define the thing named by the word 'beauty'. But all he does is to present a false account of the grammar of the word 'beauty', because that word isn't the name of anything.

And so after Socrates has presented the counter-examples that refute Hippias' thesis (or, definition), he states the conclusion of "that man who is always questioning me".

SOCRATES: So this definition meets the same fate as those we discussed earlier -- the maiden and the pot -- it is an even more ludicrous failure, offering that which is beautiful to some men, and not to others. To this very day, Socrates, you cannot answer the question you were asked -- beauty, what is it?

These and other like reproaches he will hurl at me with some justice, if I give him this answer [i.e. Hippias' last definition (291d-e)].

For the most part he talks to me something after this fashion [i.e. offensively rather than as a companionable dialectician (cf. Protagoras 336b)], but sometimes, as if in pity for my inexperience and lack of education, he himself proffers a question, and asks whether I think beauty is such and such, or it may be on some other subject -- whatever he happens to be thinking about, and we are discussing.

HIPPIAS: What do you mean, Socrates? (293c-d)

"Do you think that the appropriate is [the] beautiful?"

SOCRATES: I will explain. My worthy Socrates, he says, don't give answers of that kind, and in that way -- they are silly, easily torn to rags -- but consider this suggestion.

In one of our answers [290d] a little while ago we got hold of, and expressed the idea that gold is beautiful or not beautiful according as it is placed in an appropriate setting, and similarly with everything else to which this qualification can be added. Now consider this appropriateness, and reflect on the general nature of the appropriate, and see whether it might not be beauty ... do you think that the appropriate is beautiful?

HIPPIAS: Certainly ...

SOCRATES: Let us consider, and make sure that there is no deception.

HIPPIAS: So we ought.

SOCRATES: Do we define the appropriate as that which by its presence causes the things in which it becomes present to appear beautiful, or causes them to be beautiful, or neither?

HIPPIAS: In my opinion, that which causes things to appear beautiful. For example, a man may be a figure of fun, but when he wears clothes or shoes that fit well he does seem a finer [i.e. more beautiful ('beautiful' in the sense of 'handsome')] man. (293d-294a)

Question: do the clothes only make the man appear beautiful or do they make him to be beautiful? That is, is it clear what the distinction is here between being and only appearing to be beautiful? Because is there a difference between the clothes that make the man beautiful (i.e. handsome, pleasing to look at) and the ivory and stone that make Phidias' statue of Athena beautiful (i.e. handsome, pleasing to look at)? In both cases things are added [292c-d] to a framework which is not itself beautiful -- and removing those things removes what makes the framework beautiful. And so there is no difference in this particular case between being and seeming to be. Even in the case of the golden pot, does the figwood ladle make the pot to be more beautiful (i.e. serviceable) -- or does it only make the pot appear to be more beautiful? That question -- i.e. that combination of words -- is undefined.

If well-fitted clothing can make a body that is not beautiful without that clothing beautiful, then is that body not beautiful when it is clothed in that clothing? Or is it the clothing that is beautiful and the body not and never was? Say whatever you like, because whatever you say here will be either grammar or nonsense.

"Beauty itself is: that which causes things to be beautiful whether they appear to be beautiful or not"

SOCRATES: But then if the appropriate really makes things appear more beautiful than they are, the appropriate is a kind of fraud in relation to beauty, and would not be that for which we are looking, would it?

We were looking, I think, for that by which all beautiful things are beautiful, corresponding to that by which all great things are great, namely, excess -- by this all great things are great, and great they must certainly be if they exceed, even [in cases where] they do not appear so.

Similarly we ask about beauty, by which all beautiful things are beautiful whether they appear so or not -- what can that be?

We ought to take that which causes things to be beautiful ... whether they appear so or not, and try to define it -- this is what we are looking for, if we are looking for beauty [itself]. (294a-c)

"... whether they appear so or not." -- But, again, does that distinction exist in the language (i.e. the rules of grammar) of the word 'beauty'? No, with respect to 'beauty', it is in fact a distinction without a difference. It is rather a case of creating a new grammatical rule: If A [i.e. beauty] can be taken away from B, then B is not really A [i.e. beautiful]. But is there anything that cannot be taken away from B? "You cannot reduce an essence"; -- but "essence belongs to grammar" (cf. PI § 371) -- i.e. what is or is not essential to anything is a question of definitions, verbal not real definitions.

Is Plato saying that if A is greater than B (A > B), this is because A possesses a quality named 'excess'? Because even if A does not appear to be greater than B, nonetheless in reality it may be -- i.e. the qualities of excess or beauty in A may be hidden?

"... even though they do not appear so." Cf. Protagoras 356c: "The same magnitudes seem greater to the eye from near at hand than they do from a distance ..." But is it a question of seeming or of different standards of measurement: How things look versus how things are measured e.g. by sight versus using a yardstick? Appearance versus reality -- but only if we set a standard for determining which is which, which in the case of beauty, Plato has not done.

And/or is Plato saying that excess is what produces or causes one thing to be greater than another -- or does 'exceeding' = 'greater'? "A exceeds B = A is greater than B" -- i.e. it appears possible to substitute one word for the other without suffering a loss of meaning. But then 'Excess causes greatness' = 'Greatness causes greatness', and, according to Plato later in this dialog [297a], a thing is not the cause of itself.

(This is a bottomless pit of language unclarity: once you fall into it, you never find anything to set your feet on. Maybe it is the extension and fluidity of the concept kalon itself and maybe the absence of "illustrations and examples" that is responsible for the nebulosity of this topic -- or maybe it is even more so Plato's very strange presumptions, or, preconceptions.)

HIPPIAS: But ... the appropriate causes things both to be and to appear beautiful, when it is present. (294c)

When it's present -- i.e. when it only appears to be present? If it is present, then the thing it is present in is beautiful; it does not only appear to be beautiful.

SOCRATES: Then it is impossible for things that are in fact beautiful not to appear beautiful, since by hypothesis that which makes them appear beautiful is present in them?

HIPPIAS: It is impossible. (294c)

But again, if the antecedent of an hypothesis is false or, even worse, nonsense, then where does that leave us? Certainly not with a tool with which to discover the truth, I think (and that means: I don't know).

SOCRATES: Then it is our conclusion, Hippias, that all established usages and all practices which are in reality beautiful are regarded as beautiful by all men and always appear so to them? Or do we think the exact opposite, that ignorance of them is prevalent, and that these are the chief of all objects of contention and fighting, both between individuals and between states?

HIPPIAS: The latter, I think. Ignorance prevails. (294c-d)

In both the Euthyphro (7d) and the Phaedrus (263a-b), Plato discusses "things about which we agree, and things about which we are at variance", saying that it is over those things which we are at variance -- i.e. about which we disagree -- that we fall out with each other and become enemies. And it is in order to put an end to that variance and its consequent disturbance of mankind's peace that Socrates, or at least Plato's Socrates, seeks a way (in the Euthyphro a standard in ethics comparable to a standard of measurement) to establish the truth. And in this case (the case of "all established usages and all practices") it seems to me that the "contention and fighting, both between individuals and between states" is over the question of how man should live his life: both individuals and states are at variance about the correct way for man to live.

SOCRATES: [Ignorance would not prevail] if the appearance of beauty were but added to ["all established usages and all practices"], and it would be added if the appropriate were [the] beautiful and moreover caused [those usages and practices] to appear as well as be beautiful. (294d)

Plato seems to be saying that if appropriateness can make or cause things that are not really beautiful [such as an ugly body in well-fitting clothing (294a) -- but also a custom ("usage or practice")] to appear beautiful without at the same time also making them to really be beautiful [as the ugly body remains ugly even when well-fitting clothing makes it appear beautiful, and a wrong way of life remains wrong even if custom ("usage or practice") makes it appear beautiful], that is to say, to transform them into something beautiful, but only causes them to appear to be what they are not, then appropriateness cannot be beauty itself. Because Socrates is looking only for whatever it is that makes what really is beautiful to be beautiful. (But how are we to distinguish those things that really are beautiful from those that are not really beautiful but only appear to be beautiful? -- That is, Plato does not set a criterion -- a standard -- for making that distinction, and therefore that distinction simply does not exist.)

SOCRATES: We have then these alternatives -- is the appropriate that which causes things to appear beautiful, or that which causes them to be so?

HIPPIAS: To appear, I think.

SOCRATES: Then the chance of finding out what the beautiful really is has slipped through our fingers and vanished, since the appropriate has proved to be something other than [the] beautiful. (294e)

And so, that thesis having been refuted, Socrates now suggests a new thesis about what beauty itself is, namely, "whatever is useful is beautiful" (295c).

"Beauty is whatever is useful"

SOCRATES: My ground for the proposition is as follows. We do not say that eyes are beautiful [in which sense of the word 'beautiful'? Not 'handsome' because a blind person's eyes may be beautiful to look at -- but 'beautiful' in the sense of 'fit for purpose'] when they appear to be without the faculty of sight; we do when they have that faculty and so are useful for [i.e. fit for the purpose of] seeing. (295c)

And consequently (apparently), according to the Socrates' latest thesis, whatever has the power to make things useful must be beauty itself or "the beautiful" (295e).

SOCRATES: [That] which has the power to achieve its specific purpose is useful [i.e. fit] for the purpose which it has the power to achieve, and that which is without that power is useless?

HIPPIAS: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Then power is a beautiful [i.e. 'beautiful' in the sense of 'admirable'] thing, and the lack of it ugly?

HIPPIAS: Very much so ... for in political affairs generally, and also within a man's own city, power is the most beautiful of things, and lack of it the most ugly and shameful. [cf. Hippias view on the life the wise man will lead (304a-b)] (295e-296a)

Socrates now asks if a consequence of this is "that wisdom is the most beautiful, and ignorance the most shameful of all things"? That seems to be the consequence if it is true that wisdom is the power to make things useful and ignorance is the absence of power to make anything useful. But Socrates next shows that thesis not to be true, because if those who work evil do so because they are ignorant -- and they could not work evil if they did not have the power to -- then it seems that wisdom cannot be beauty, if power is beauty, because ignorance, which is the very opposite of wisdom, is not powerless. (296b-c)

SOCRATES: And evil is done much more abundantly than good by all men from childhood upward, erring involuntarily? [That is, no one is willingly ignorant of the good, and therefore if anyone does evil, he does it unwillingly so to speak] ... are we to say that this power, and these useful things -- I mean things useful for working some evil -- are we to say that these are beautiful, or that they are very far from being so?

HIPPIAS: Far from it, in my opinion.

SOCRATES: Then the powerful and the useful are not, it appears, the beauty we want.

HIPPIAS: They are, Socrates, if they are powerful for good and are useful for such purposes.

SOCRATES: Still the theory [i.e. thesis] that that which is powerful and useful without qualification is beautiful [and, as well, I think, "the beautiful"] has vanished away. (296c-d)

Revised thesis: "Beauty is that which is both useful and powerful for some good purpose" (296d)

SOCRATES: ... beautiful bodies, and beautiful rules of life, and wisdom, and all the things we mentioned [295d] just now, are beautiful because they are beneficial? (296e)

To make clearer just how confusing this dialog can be, try everywhere substituting kalos for 'beautiful' and kalon for 'beauty'. Thus: kalos bodies, kalos rules of life; wisdom is kalos; ivory and stone make Phidias' statue of Athena kalos; a figwood ladle makes a golden pot more kalos. Now tell us what this kalon itself that we are talking about is.

HIPPIAS: Evidently.

SOCRATES: Then it looks as if beauty is the beneficial ... Now the beneficial is that which produces good?... And that which produces is identical with the cause?... Then the beautiful is the cause of the good?


SOCRATES: But surely, Hippias, the cause and that of which it is the cause are different, for the cause could scarcely be the cause of the cause [i.e. a thing is not self-caused].

Look at it this way ... that which produces produces only that which is coming into existence ... And that which is coming into existence, and that which produces it, are two different things?... Then the cause is not the cause of the cause, but of that which is coming into existence through it?

If then beauty is the cause of good, then the good would be brought into existence by beauty, and it would appear that we devote ourselves to the pursuit of wisdom and of all other beautiful things for the reason that their product and offspring, the good, is worthy of devotion.

And from our explorations it looks as though beauty is metaphorically a kind of father of the good ... [But] the father is not his son, nor the son his father?... [And] the cause is not that which it brings into existence, nor vice versa?

Then most certainly ... beauty is not good nor the good beautiful. Do you think that possible after our discussion?

Then ... should we be willing to say that the beautiful is not good, nor the good beautiful?

HIPPIAS: Most certainly not.

SOCRATES: Then it looks as though the view ... that the beneficial, and the useful, and the power to produce something good, is [the] beautiful, is in fact wrong ... (296e-297d)

It appears that the thesis is refuted because it has an absurd consequence -- namely that: Beauty is not good, and the good is not beautiful. (Or, in other words, kalon is not good, and the good is not kalos.) But what is 'absurd' to mean here -- 'false'? Well, a false consequent does not follow from a true antecedent. And if it is true, and given the extensiveness of the concept kalon it appears to be, that "Beauty is good and the good is beautiful", then the thesis is refuted because its consequent is the contradiction of a true proposition. (This is a standard method of proof in geometry: "Assume p to be true ...")

Socrates now proposes another thesis to be explored in dialectic, i.e. a proposition for Hippias and Socrates to cross-question. (297e).

"Beauty is whatever we enjoy through the senses of hearing and sight"

SOCRATES: Come now, if we were to say that whatever we enjoy -- I do not mean to include all pleasures, but only what we enjoy through our senses of hearing and sight -- if we were to say that this is beautiful [or "the beautiful"?] ...? Surely beautiful human beings, and all decorative work, and pictures, and plastic art, delight us when we see them if they are beautiful, and beautiful sounds, and music as a whole, and discourses, and tales of imagination, have the same effect, so that if we were to reply to that blustering fellow [i.e. that man who is always cross-questioning Socrates] [that] beauty is the pleasant which comes through the senses of hearing and sight, do you not think that we would stop his bluster?

HIPPIAS: At last, Socrates, I think we have a good definition of beauty. (297e-298b)

And so once again Hippias, with his enthusiastic presumption that he knows what he does not know -- not that knowing is the most important, or even an important, thing to Hippias: he thinks it important to win in rhetoric, not in philosophy --, agrees to Socrates' suggestion -- In fact Hippias agrees to almost every suggestion Socrates makes, apparently unaware that by doing this he contradicts himself countless times in the discussion.

Now, Socrates has said, "if they are beautiful". But that is already to admit that some pleasures are and some pleasures are not beautiful, and if that is the case then Socrates' general proposition appears to be false, because it amounts to this: "If a pleasure is beautiful, we enjoy that pleasure. Why? Because that pleasure is beautiful" -- or, in other words, it amounts to saying: "Beautiful pleasures are beautiful". But it does not follow therefore that "Beauty is pleasure", but quite the contrary: If a visual or aural pleasure is beautiful, that is because it is beautiful -- not because that visual or aural pleasure is pleasure per se.

Well, the word 'beauty' is neither the name of an object nor the name of a phenomenon. It is not a name at all. But Plato's preconception says that it is a name. And so the dialog continues.

SOCRATES: Well, but are we then to say that those practices which are beautiful, and the laws, are beautiful as giving pleasure through our senses of sight and hearing, or that they are in some other category? (298b)

Socrates has discovered what appear to be counter-examples to the thesis they are looking at, but Hippias is not overly concerned about that.

HIPPIAS: Perhaps these cases might escape our man [i.e. might be overlooked by "that blustering fellow"]. (298b)

The son of Sophroniscus

SOCRATES: No, Hippias, they would certainly not escape the man by whom I would be most ashamed to be caught talking pretentious nonsense.

HIPPIAS: Whom do you mean?

SOCRATES: The son of Sophroniscus, who would no more allow me to hazard these assertions while they are unexplored than to assert what I do not know as though I knew it. (298b-c)

Hippias replies that he now too thinks that the "question about the laws is on a different footing". But Socrates says that, although these "matters of law and practice might perhaps prove after all to be within the range of the perceptions of hearing and sight", he suggests that they "leave the question of the laws altogether on one side" for now, because at that moment an objection to their thesis occurs to Socrates, and he asks Hippias what they would reply "if we were asked by the person to whom I refer [i.e. "the son of Sophroniscus"], or anyone else" the following question. (298c-d)

SOCRATES [speaking as if it were "that blustering fellow"]: Why, Hippias and Socrates, have you picked out within the class of the pleasant that which is pleasant in the way you affirm to be beautiful, while you deny the designation "beautiful" to that which is pleasant according to the other senses [i.e. the pleasures of sensuality]?

I too understand that you are and have been ashamed to say these [i.e. the sensual] pleasures are beautiful, because that is not the common view, but my question was, what is beautiful [or the beautiful?], not what the mass of men think it to be. (298d-299b)

Socrates says that he imagines they will reply to "that blustering fellow" thus: "we shall restate our original proposition -- [In] our view that part of pleasant that comes by sight and hearing is beautiful". And Hippias agrees. (299b)

SOCRATES [continuing to speak as if he were "that blustering fellow"]: If then the pleasant which comes by sight and hearing is beautiful, is it not obvious that any pleasant thing outside that category could not be beautiful?... Then is that which is pleasant through sight, pleasant through sight and through hearing, or is that which is pleasant through hearing, pleasant through hearing and through sight?

SOCRATES [speaking now for himself and for Hippias]: We shall reply, By no means. The pleasant which comes by either sense would certainly not be pleasant through both -- that seems to be your meaning. Our statement was that either of these pleasant things [i.e. either things that are pleasant through sight or things that are pleasant through hearing] would be beautiful just by itself, and also both of them together [as e.g. beautiful music (hearing) and beautiful dance (sight) would be beautiful together (I think that is the meaning of these words)]. (299b-c)

Socrates' point may be that: there seem to be two distinct pleasures here: one of sight and one of hearing -- and therefore, if beauty is pleasure, there seem to be two distinct beauties here as well -- and do those two beauties or those two pleasures have anything more in common than the misapplied, if applied to both beauties or both pleasures, names 'beauty' and 'pleasure'? Because the combination of words 'The pleasant which comes through sight would not be pleasant if it came through both sight and hearing' is, according to normal usage, undefined -- i.e. it is nonsense (To give an example of the phenomenon suggested by that combination of words, if there is such a phenomenon, would be to give a meaning -- i.e. a definition -- to that combination of words). Further, if the same pleasure can be beautiful through sight and not-beautiful through hearing, then it would appear that, if beauty is pleasure, then beauty can both be beautiful and not-beautiful (i.e. ugly).

SOCRATES [again, asking questions as if he were "that man"]: [Does] any pleasant thing whatever [i.e. regardless of which of the five senses (hearing, sight, smell, taste, or touch) it comes to man through] differ from any other pleasant thing in respect of its pleasantness? The question is ... whether there can be a difference between pleasures in this particular respect, that one is, and another is not, a pleasure?... It follows that you chose out these from among the other pleasures [i.e. the visual and aural pleasures were selected, and the sensual pleasures deselected, saying that one group (or, class, or, category) of pleasures is beautiful and the other group is not] for some other reason than that they are pleasures.

Since there is some difference between them and the others, you saw in both of them some quality capable of providing a criterion by which you judge them to be beautiful ... (299c-e)

"... a criterion by which to judge whether a pleasure is beautiful or not". That criterion would be what in Euthyphro 6d-e is called "a standard of judgment", which is what Socrates seeks in ethics (and Plato for all things about which we are "at variance" (Phaedrus (263a-b)) with each other).

That blustering fellow who is always questioning Socrates says that the pleasure that comes through sight "is not beautiful just because it comes through sight. If that were the reason why it is beautiful, the other pleasure, the one that comes through hearing, would never be beautiful -- [because] it is emphatically not pleasure through sight [and what has been claimed by the antecedent of the hypothesis ("if") is that beauty or "the beautiful" is pleasure that comes through sight]. And likewise neither "is the pleasure that comes through hearing beautiful because it [comes] through hearing, for again, in that case the pleasure through sight would never be beautiful since it is emphatically not pleasure through hearing". (299e-300a)

SOCRATES [again asking questions as if "that man" were asking the questions]: But yet both [i.e. the pleasures that comes through sight and the pleasures that come through hearing] are beautiful, you affirm? (300a)

"Beauty must be a quality common to all things that are beautiful"

SOCRATES: Then they have something identical which makes them to be beautiful, a common quality which appertains to both of them in common and to each singly; otherwise they could not ... both of them be beautiful as a pair, and also each separately? (300a-b)

Socrates now asks Hippias to answer Socrates as if he were answering "that man who is always questioning" Socrates.

HIPPIAS: I answer that what you say [or rather, what "that man" says] is my opinion also.

SOCRATES: If then these pleasures are both of them as a pair conditioned in some way [i.e. sharing a common quality the makes them both beautiful], but neither singly is so conditioned [i.e. has that quality], they could not be beautiful by reason of this particular condition?... You think it impossible?

HIPPIAS: I do ...

SOCRATES: But still I fancy perchance I see an example of what you say to be impossible ... It appears to me that there are attributes which cannot, and do not now, belong to either of us singly, but can belong to both together, and, conversely that there are attributes of which both together are capable, but neither singly.

HIPPIAS: Here indeed [in what you have just said], Socrates, are [monstrous] absurdities ... Only consider. If we are both just men, is not each of us individually just? If each of us is unjust, are not both so? [If both of us had any] human attribute you like to mention, must it not follow inevitably that each of us singly [has the] same [attribute]?

SOCRATES: Most certainly. (300b-301b)

And so, after Socrates' last reply, Hippias berates Socrates and Socrates' friends for being: "unreasoning, and superficial, and stupid, and uncomprehending!" (301c)

SOCRATES: ... a man does what he can, not what he wishes, according to the oft-quoted proverb ... Just now, before your admonition of our stupidities in these matters, I had some further thoughts about them [i.e. these matters] which perhaps I might explain to you -- or shall I refrain?

HIPPIAS: I know what you are going to say, Socrates; I know the mind of every school of dialecticians. But say your say, if you prefer it.

SOCRATES: Well, I do prefer it ... Hippias, remind me, are you and I both one [1], or are you two [2] and I two [2]?

HIPPIAS: What do you mean, Socrates?

SOCRATES: Is not each of us two one [1], possessing the attribute of being one?

HIPPIAS: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Then if each of us is one, each is also an odd number ... Are we then together an odd number, being two, Hippias?

HIPPIAS: Impossible [i.e. two is an even, not an odd number].

SOCRATES: Both together would be an even number?... Since then both together are even, does it follow that each of us singly is even?

HIPPIAS: Certainly not.

SOCRATES: It is not then absolutely inevitable that, as you said just now, each individual should be what both are together, and that both should be what each is?

HIPPIAS: Not in such cases, but it is inevitable in the kind of case I mentioned earlier. (300b-302b)

And so Hippias' general (or, "absolute") proposition has been refuted thus: namely, the same numerical value may be possessed by each singly, but not by both together -- and vice versa. Socrates = 1, and Hippias = 1, and Socrates + Hippias = 2; but Socrates ≠ 2, and Hippias ≠ 2, and Socrates + Hippias ≠ 1. Or: Socrates is an odd number, and Hippias is an odd number, and Socrates and Hippias together are an even number; etc.

HIPPIAS: Not in such cases, but it is inevitable in the kind of case I mentioned earlier [300e-301a].

SOCRATES: [Even that] suffices ... as an acknowledgment that sometimes it is so, and sometimes not.

But start again as from the beginning. If pleasure through sight and pleasure through hearing are beautiful both together and each singly, does that not which makes them beautiful belong to both together and to each singly?

HIPPIAS: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Then can they [i.e. the pleasures that come through sight and the pleasures that come through hearing] be beautiful because each singly and both together are pleasures? On this reasoning, would not all other pleasures [i.e. the sensual pleasures] be beautiful just as much, for ... they were acknowledged [298e] to be just as much pleasures? [These particular pleasures, i.e. those of sight and hearing], however, were stated to be beautiful because they came through sight and hearing ... [And the quality of being beautiful] belongs to both together but not to each singly, does it not? As we said earlier [299b-c], each of them [i.e. the pleasures of sight and the pleasures of hearing] singly does not come through both senses [i.e. sight and hearing]; both together come through both but not each singly. Is that so?


SOCRATES: [It] follows that while from our agreed propositions we may rightly say that both [i.e. the pleasures that come through sight and the pleasures that come through hearing] together are beautiful, we may not say [that] of each [i.e. the pleasures that come through sight and the pleasures that come through hearing] singly ... Are we to say then that both together are beautiful, but not each?

HIPPIAS: I see no objection.

SOCRATES: I do ... To which category, Hippias, do you think the beautiful belongs? To the category of those you mentioned ["of attributes appertaining to individual entities in such a way that if they appertained to two together they appertained also to each singly" (303a)]? If ... I am just and you too, we are both just, and if both, then each singly. In the same way, if I am beautiful and you too, are we also both beautiful and if both, then each singly?

Or may the same principle apply [to beauty] as in mathematics, when for instance the two components of even numbers may severally [i.e. taken singly] be odd, but may also be even [i.e. when added together]?... In which category do you place beauty?... To me it seems a gross absurdity to hold that while both of us together are beautiful, neither is so singly, or that each singly is beautiful but not both together ...?

Do you choose my alternative, or the other?

HIPPIAS: Yours. (302b-303c)

But is it "a gross absurdity"? For we can easily think of an example given the extensiveness of the concept kalon, a seemingly Protean concept, able to extend itself in as many directions as such concepts as 'to make' and 'to be'. Hippias has said, "If I am strong and you are too, we are both strong ..." (303b) But if Socrates and Hippias together are strong enough to lift a very large rock, it does not follow that Socrates and Hippias singly are also strong enough to lift that large rock. And if neither Socrates nor Hippias is singly able to lift the large rock, and if by kalos here we mean "fit for purpose", then singly neither of them is fit for the purpose of lifting that rock and therefore singly neither of them is kalos; but it may be that both of them together are strong enough to lift the large rock, in which case they are both together kalos (i.e. fit for purpose). And that example is not "a gross absurdity".


SOCRATES: Quite right, if we wish to be spared further inquiry. For if this category [i.e. the class of both singly and together] includes beauty [i.e. if "beautiful" is an attribute of the kind that must appertain both singly and together], it can no longer be maintained that the pleasant which comes through sight and hearing is beautiful [i.e. beauty itself]; the description "which comes through sight and hearing" makes both together beautiful but not each singly -- which was impossible [for beauty to be (303c)] ... Then it is impossible for the pleasant which comes through sight and hearing to be beautiful [i.e. beauty itself], since when we equate it with beauty an impossible result is produced.

HIPPIAS: Quite so. (303c-d)

But the result isn't "impossible". It is simply a result that Socrates and Hippias are unwilling to accept. Which is to say it is "absurd" (i.e. what someone is disinclined or does not want to believe to be true -- which is not of course a criterion for a proposition's being true), not impossible. (This seems to be an instance of Plato's axiomatic method in philosophy.)

SOCRATES: My questioner will say, Now start again from the beginning since you have missed the mark this time.

What according to you is this "beautiful" which appertains to both these pleasures, and by reason of which you have honored them above the others and called them beautiful?

I think, Hippias, we are bound to reply that these [i.e. the pleasures that come through sight and the pleasures that come through hearing, "when they are beautiful" (298a)] are the most harmless of pleasures and the best, both taken together and taken singly. Can you suggest any other reason why they are superior to the others [i.e. to the pleasures of sensuality]?

HIPPIAS: None. They really are the best. (303d-e)

"Beauty is beneficial pleasure"

SOCRATES: This then, [Socrates' questioner], will say, is your definition of beauty -- beneficial pleasure. Apparently [i.e. I agree], I shall reply. And you?


SOCRATES: He will go on, Well then, is not the beneficial that which produces the good, and that which produces and that which is produced was shown a little while ago [297a] to be different, and so our discussion has ended up in the old discussion, has it not? For the good cannot be beautiful, nor beauty good, if the two are not identical with one another [i.e. unless: the good = beauty, and beauty = the good].

Nothing is more certain, we shall reply, if we are honest -- there can be no justification for demurring to truth. (303e-304a)

Wisdom, according to Hippias

HIPPIAS: But I must ask you, Socrates, what do you suppose is the upshot of all this? As I said a little while ago [286e, 301b], it is the scrapings and shavings of argument, cut up into little bits.

What is both beautiful and most precious is the ability to produce an eloquent and beautiful speech to a law court or a council meeting or any other official body whom you are addressing, to convince your audience, and to depart with the greatest of all prizes, your own salvation and that of your friends and property.

These then are the things to which a man should hold fast, abandoning these pettifogging arguments of yours, unless he wishes to be accounted a complete fool because he occupies himself, as we are doing now, with trumpery nonsense. (304a-b)

(Cf. Callicles' advice to Socrates in Gorgias 484c-486c)

But what if the truth is discovered precisely by Socrates' "annoying, petty objections", by his "fussing over details" (Are not Wittgenstein's philosophical investigations "pettifogging arguments"). Then maybe what Socrates occupies himself with is not "showy but worthless" foolishness. Maybe, but only if seeking the truth is what is most important for man, which for Hippias it clearly is not.

Who is "that man who is always questioning" Socrates?

SOCRATES [replying to 304a-b]: You, my dear Hippias, are blissfully fortunate because you know what way of life a man ought to follow ... I, however, am subject to what appears to be some supernatural ill fortune [cf. Apology 21a-b; cf. 23b, 21e-22a]. I wander about in unending perplexity, and when I lay my perplexity before you wise men, you turn on me and batter me with abuse as soon as I have explained my plight. You all say just what you, Hippias, are now saying, how foolish and petty and worthless ["trumpery nonsense" (304b)] are the matters with which I occupy myself, but when in turn I am convinced by you and repeat exactly what you tell me, that the height of excellence [i.e. areté, for man] is the ability to produce an eloquent and beautiful speech and win the day in a law court or any other assembly, I am called every kind of bad name by some of the audience,

including especially that man who is always cross-questioning me. He is a very close relative of mine and lives in the same house, and when I go home and he hears me give utterance to these opinions he asks me whether I am not ashamed of my audacity in talking about a beautiful way of life, when questioning makes it evident that I do not even know the meaning of the word 'beauty'.

And yet, he goes on, how can you know whose speech is beautiful -- and the same applies to any action whatsoever -- or the reverse when you have no knowledge of beauty [i.e. if you know what beauty is, you know what is and is not "a beautiful way of life" for man]? And so long as you are what you are, don't you think that you might as well be dead?

I suppose all this must be endured. I may get some good from it -- stranger things have happened. (304b-e)

A "beautiful" way of life

By "a beautiful way of life" (304d) is meant an outstanding (most excellent, most admirable) way of life, and that excellence -- i.e. virtue (areté) -- is the excellence that is proper to man both as man and to the individual man as an individual (i.e. as one who acknowledges his individual limitations) -- which are the two parts of "Know thyself" -- that is the guide to "what way of life man ought to follow" (304a) -- i.e. to how man should live his life. So I say, but Plato and Aristotle's Socrates will now ask for a Socratic definition of excellence (areté) itself, and how will I answer him? Because simply pointing to examples of human excellence (such as reason, meekness, creativity), something which he already knows, is not the answer Socrates seeks or will accept. But does what he seeks exist? I don't know. Because I have never tried to find it.

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