Lesser Hippias by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Also known at “Hippias Minor,” this isn’t one of the better Socratic dialogues, but it’s amusing and somewhat thought-provoking. It’s one of two dialogues which feature the exceedingly narcissistic Sophist, Hippias, as Socrates’ philosophical sparring partner. The crux of the matter is Hippias’ claim that Achilles is fundamentally truthful while Odysseus is a liar. Socrates takes issue, showing that both heroes tell both truths and lies over the course of Homer’s works.
When Hippias is challenged on his oversimplified classification scheme, the Sophist claims that Achilles’s falsehoods are involuntary, whereas Odysseus’s lies are committed on purpose. This brings the dialogue to the issue that will play out to its end. While Hippias claims that involuntary falsities make Achilles the more virtuous man, the Sophist is led through a series of examples showing that the person who does bad voluntarily is invariably the better man. To give one of the countless examples (not countless, but I’m too lazy to count them,) Socrates suggests that the musician who plays badly on purpose is considered the better musician than one who plays badly because it’s all he or she is capable of.
While most of the dialogue is about whether it’s better to be bad voluntarily or involuntarily, it doesn’t seem that’s really Socrates’ point. In the end, when Hippias last says he doesn’t agree with Socrates, Socrates says that he’s not sure he agrees with himself. Socrates’ point might be that Hippias is full of untested claims because Hippias thinks himself smarter than everyone else.
It’s true this isn’t among the best, but it’s worth reading for this one lesson: don’t be like Hippias.
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