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Plato's Lesser Hippias - Brief account and criticism

Tr. Benjamin Jowett. In classical times this dialog was also titled "On Falsehood" and was classified as a "refutative" dialog (Diog. L. iii, 60).

Who does wrong voluntarily -- the good man or the evil man? According to the dialog's discussion, it is the good man. But does the good man ever willingly do wrong?

Outline of this page ...


Background and Setting

As always, Plato's Socrates questions men "in order to see who is wise and who is not" (Apology 23b). If a man knows anything in philosophy, then he can tell others what he knows. And his account is then put to the test of Socratic dialectic (proposing and cross-questioning), either to be agreed to or refuted, by the man's companions in the discussion.

As to the title of this dialog, there is also a dialog known as the Greater Hippias (or Hippias Major in contrast to Hippias Minor), 'greater' (or 'major') in the sense of '[the] longer [of the two dialogs]'. Scholars have doubted that Plato wrote either of these dialogs, but they are usually (and since ancient times have been) included in the canon of Plato's works.

The Greek Sophists, of whom Plato in this dialog uses Hippias of Elis as a mild representative, professed to be wise men -- "sophists" or "those who know" -- rather than "philosophers" or "those who seek to know".

In the Greater Hippias, Hippias says that he has composed a discourse "setting forth in detail the honorable and beautiful practices to which a young man ought to devote himself" (Hipp. maj. 286a) and that he has spoken this discourse in Sparta (ibid. 286b), and that, "at the request of Eudicus, the son of Apemantus" (ibid. 286e), Hippias is to speak that same discourse in Athens (He invites Socrates to attend) (ibid. 286b).

In Lesser Hippias 364b, Socrates refers to Eudicus as "my friend", although that may simply be rhetoric, as if to say that they are all "companionable dialecticians", whether or not they all are (cf. Protagoras 336b).


"Achilles was the better man because he was straightforward, whereas Odysseus was deceptive"

Hippias has been contrasting Achilles of Homer's Iliad with Odysseus, and he has stated that Achilles "was a better man than Odysseus". And Eudicus asks Socrates if he will not respond to what Hippias has been saying. (363b)

EUDICUS: Why do you [Socrates] not either refute [Hippias'] words, if he seems to you to have been wrong in any point, or join with us in commending him [i.e. in agreeing to his words]?... Tell me, Hippias, if Socrates asks you a question, will you answer him?

HIPPIAS: [At] each Olympic festival [I have] professed my willingness to perform any of the exhibitions [i.e. discourses demonstrating his wisdom] which I had prepared, and to answer any questions which anyone had to ask.

SOCRATES [returning to what Hippias has said about Odysseus and Achilles]: Which is the better of the two? And in what particular does either surpass the other?... I wish you would tell me what you were saying about these two heroes, so that I may clearly understand. How did you distinguish them?

HIPPIAS: I say that Homer intended Achilles to be the bravest of the men who went to Troy, Nestor the wisest [cf. Hipp. maj. 286b], and Odysseus the wiliest.

SOCRATES: When you said that [Homer] meant Odysseus to be the wiliest, I must confess that I could not understand what you were saying. Will you tell me, and then I shall perhaps understand you better, has not Homer made Achilles wily?

HIPPIAS: Certainly not, Socrates. He is the most straightforward of mankind. [Hippias cites a passage in the Iliad called "The Prayers" where] Achilles is supposed by the poet to say to Odysseus [whom he addresses as "crafty Odysseus"].

[ACHILLES]: I will speak out plainly the word which I intend to carry out in act ... For I hate him ... who thinks one thing and says another. (Iliad 9.308 sq.)

HIPPIAS [continuing]: Now, in these verses [Homer] clearly indicates the character of the two men. He shows Achilles to be true and simple, and Odysseus to be wily and false ...

SOCRATES: Now, Hippias, I think I understand your meaning. When you say that Odysseus is wily, you clearly mean that he is false?

HIPPIAS: Exactly so, Socrates. It is the character of Odysseus, as he is represented by Homer in many passages of both the Iliad and the Odyssey.

SOCRATES: And Homer must be presumed to have meant that the true [i.e. "not-wily": not thinking one thing and saying another -- i.e. not a deceitful] man is not the same as the false?

HIPPIAS: Of course ...

SOCRATES: And that is your own opinion, Hippias?

HIPPIAS: Certainly. How can I have any other?

Since Homer cannot be cross-questioned, Hippias shall speak for him

SOCRATES: Well, then, as there is no possibility of asking Homer what he meant in these verses of his, let us leave him [cf. Protagoras 347e-348a; Meno 71d], but as you show a willingness to take up his cause, and you opinion agrees with what you declare to be his, will you answer on behalf of yourself [i.e. as if you yourself were stating the thesis that Homer appears to be stating] and him?

HIPPIAS: I will. Ask shortly anything which you like. (363a-365d)

Note: Socratic dialectic is always between speakers who are present, as Socrates and Hippias are and Homer is not. It requires step-by-step agreement between disputants (If either one does not agree, he must try to refute -- i.e. try to show in what way that the proposition (thesis) being discussed is false) in order for the discussion to move on to the next step.


Criticism of the topic of Lesser Hippias

In the discussion Hippias states that Achilles was the good man because Achilles was straight-forward (Odysseus was "wily" -- 'wily' being the opposite of 'straight-forward'). But then Plato has Socrates cite passages in the Iliad that show that Achilles was also deceptive, that is to say that he also knowingly stated falsehoods, which is Socrates' counter-example to Hippias' example of Achilles' straight-forwardness (369e-371d). But Hippias does not agree that his thesis has thereby been refuted, but counters Socrates by saying that Achilles did so unwilling whereas Odysseus did so willingly (370e).

And so Socrates asks if is it the good man or the bad man who willingly does wrong. And at that point the dialog founders -- shipwrecked by two tautologies: (1) If virtue is knowledge, then it is only the virtuous -- i.e. the good man -- who is able to do wrong willingly, because it is only the good man who is not ignorant of what is wrong and what is right. Any man who does wrong does so through ignorance, that is, unwillingly. (2) Then there is the proposition that someone willingly does wrong, which the good man does not do because wrong is only done through ignorance, and the good man is the opposite of the ignorant man -- and the bad man is unable to willingly do wrong, because he is ignorant of right and wrong. (3) From which it should follow that neither the good nor the bad man ever willingly does evil (wrong-doing).

Again, (1) Only the good man is able to willingly do wrong because only he has the necessary knowledge of good and evil; but (2) No good man willingly does wrong because wrong-doing can only be done through ignorance of the good. (3) And thus all wrong-doing is involuntary.

SOCRATES: For myself I am fairly certain that no wise man believes anyone sins willingly or willing perpetuates any evil or base act. They know very well that all evil or base action is involuntary. (Protagoras 345d-e)

And so the entire discussion turns out to be idle, because it is based on an impossibility -- an impossibility, that is, if virtue is knowledge, as in Socrates' way of looking at ethics it is. In the view of Socratic ethics, the discussion is based on the false proposition that it is possible for the good man (i.e. the man who knows what is right and what is wrong) to willingly do evil (moral wrong-doing), or in other words, to willingly do harm to his own soul (i.e. himself as an ethical human being; cf. Apology 41c-d). And indeed at the very end of the dialog Plato has Socrates say as much.

SOCRATES: Then, Hippias, he who voluntarily does wrong and disgraceful things, if there be such a man, will be the good man? (376b)

"... would ever willingly harm his own soul." To harm one's own soul would be to act irrationally (as the irrational part of the "rational animal" acts), -- and what one does irrationally one does neither willingly nor unwillingly, if 'willingly' and 'unwillingly' are concepts applicable only to a rational being rather than to a creature of instinct. (The concept 'free' is distinct from the concept 'willingly' if by 'free' we simply mean not-restrained, not tied-up, and by 'willingly' we mean 'as the result of a rational choice'.)

Maybe the idea -- although I think Plato does not say this -- would be that the better man is the one who has the choice between doing good and doing evil (because he is not ignorant of which is which) rather than the one who has no choice (who does evil because he is ignorant of the good). The better man is the man who knows -- i.e. the wise man, who is therefore the good man, if virtue is knowledge -- and the opposite of knowing is not-knowing (or, ignorance), and that is the condition of the worse man. And therefore it is better to have the choice, or have the ability, to do either good or bad.

Note that Plato uses the word 'bad' equivocally, sometimes using that word to mean 'poorly done or not done at all [in the context of matters of skill]', at other times to mean 'unethical' -- i.e. 'evil'. It is true that for Socrates the good is the useful or beneficial (or, the useful or beneficial is the good) (cf. Xenophon, Memories of Socrates (Memorabilia iv, 6, 7-8)), but we must distinguish between and between by asking: useful for what? better for what? beneficial to what?

The Greek word areté ("excellence" or "virtue") is ambiguous in meaning, sometimes meaning 'skill', sometimes meaning 'excellence in ethics' (or 'moral virtue'). It is not evil to be without a skill (unless one has the obligation and ability to develop that skill and does not) -- so long as one does not think oneself to have that skill if one does not have it (cf. Plato, Apology 29a: "to think one knows what one does not know").

Is lack of self-knowledge evil? It is evil not to seek to "know thyself", to seek the excellence that is proper to man and to oneself as an individual, the knowledge that tells man how he should live his life. Ignorance in ethics is always evil; it makes a man to do evil. But does it make the man himself evil? Or only in poor health (cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia iii, 13, 1; and Kant's "to heal the wounded understanding")?

"... or to have the ability." As, for example, the archer who willingly (voluntarily) misses the mark is better (i.e. a better archer -- not a better man, i.e. not 'better' in the sense of a 'more ethical' man) than the archer who unwillingly (involuntarily) misses the mark (375a-b). And likewise in lute-playing "and in all the arts and sciences" (375b-c).

The word areté as applied to archery and "all the arts and sciences" is different in meaning from that word applied to piety, temperance, justice, courage. But in the Lesser Hippias a distinction between ethics and skill does not appear to be made.

Socrates as a philosopher

Socrates says of himself that he is "pertinacious ... in questioning wise men" -- i.e. those who think themselves to be wise (for see Apology 23b). "And I think that this is the only good point about me". (372a-b) But then Plato has Socrates say,

I have one singular good quality ... I am not ashamed to learn, and I ask and enquire, and am very grateful to those who answer me ... And when I learn a thing I never deny my teacher, or pretend that the lesson is a discovery of my own, but I praise his wisdom, and proclaim what I have learned from him. (372b-c)

So that he seems to have two or three good points, not just one? But Plato is trying to teach men to be companionable dialecticians (cf. Theaetetus 210b-c). About Socrates own ignorance, Socrates says to Hippias,

I hope that you will good to me, and not refuse to heal me, for you will do me a much greater benefit if you cure my soul of ignorance than you would if were to cure my body of disease. (372e-373a)

And that is how Plato describes the character of the dialectician (philosopher) in Gorgias 457e-458b, as one who benefits more from being refuted by another than from refuting another.

But Socrates says to Hippias what he also says to Protagoras (Protagoras 334c ff.), that "if you make a long oration to me you will not cure me, for I shall not be able to follow you ..." (Hipp. min. 373a)

"... or pretend that the lesson is a discovery of my own." That is the why of the many source notes, e.g. "(PI § 43)" and "(cf. BB p. 45)", in my pages. They are not to claim Wittgenstein's or Plato's authority (There is no authority in philosophy) -- but to give credit where credit is due.

It does not matter what the source of a true proposition is -- whether it comes from a wise man or a fool (as Plato says in Charmides 161c: "for the point is not who said the words, but whether they are true or not"; cf. Phaedo 91b: "if you will take my advice, you will think very little of Socrates, and much more of the truth") -- but stealing someone else's work does.


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