BOOK REVIEW: Hippias Major [a.k.a. Greater Hippias] by Plato

Hippias MajorHippias Major by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Socrates questions the arrogant sophist, Hippias, about the nature of beauty. The dialogue begins, as do most, with a meeting and pleasantries. This involves Socrates’ seemingly sarcastic praise of Hippias (we’re given no indication that Hippias sees the sarcasm, but – given the degree to which the sophist is in love with himself – that’s no surprise.) It’s possible Socrates is being sincere, but given the views attributed to him elsewhere, it seems uncharacteristic that Socrates should truly think Hippias wise because the sophist rakes in cash for making eloquent speeches.

The dialogue plays out with Hippias offering a range of unacceptable “definitions” of beauty. Hippias first presents a set of examples of things which are beautiful. This, of course, is unacceptable because if there is some common property of these varied entities, Socrates believes that property should be definable such that a person could see how the trait applies to other things. There are a series of other false starts involving goldenness, goodness, usefulness, popular agreement about what is beautiful, and a combination or two of the aforementioned.

Finally, Socrates suggests a definition of that which is pleasing to the eyes or to the ears. The discussion peters out after this definition is shown to be incomplete because pleasantness to eyes and to ears still begs the need of a common characteristic, as well as the fact that there are many concepts that are called beautiful that aren’t sensory experiences at all (e.g. a beautiful idea.)

This dialogue is more satisfying than Lesser Hippias, but is by no means one of the best. However, it does encourage thought about beauty, as well as about how both members of a set can have a characteristic that each does not have individually. If you’re interested in aesthetics, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Lesser Hippias [a.k.a. Hippias Minor] by Plato

Lesser HippiasLesser Hippias by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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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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