The Hippias Major is, aside from the Philebus, the latest of Plato’s dialogues my course covers. It’s generally thought to be from the middle period.
If it’s thought to be from any period at all, that is. Scholarly opinion has only recently swung towards considering the Hippias Major to be a genuine Platonic dialogue. The negative voices generally cited the apparent inadequacy of the theories and refutations, some interesting literary techniques, and the apparent complete lack of progress the interlocutors make towards their goal: a definition of fineness. But although these concerns remain, they are now no longer considered sufficient excuse to dismiss the dialogue’s authenticity.
The greek word for fineness is το καλον, from καλος, ‘fine’. The many alternate translations include noble, beautiful and excellent. You can already forsee the difficulty in searching for a single definition to this extremely multipurpose word.
Yet search they do.
Dislclaimer: This study note series is targeted towards my revision, so someone without a background in classics may find them difficult. But if you’re interested, do leap in.
Name: Hippias Major
Topic: Definition of Fineness
Characters: Hippias, Socrates
Conclusion: aporia, loss. No conclusion reached.
Points of note: ‘Alter Ego’ technique; argument that fineness is not good; possible ontology; demonstration of a Socratic Definition.
The dialogue begins with Socrates and Hippias talking. The theme of the dialogue is introduced from a literary point of view in this section, as their conversation is littered with καλος used in all it’s many aspects. Hippias himself is repeatedly called fine, and speaks of his own fineness.
This opening section also contains a satire of sophists like Hippias’ approach to money. Hippias boasts of how much money he has earned charging to educate youth and give lectures all across Greece, and considers this evidence of his skill. Socrates prompts that indeed, the old philosophers who refused to charge anything for their wisdom must have been greatly misguided. Hippias takes the bait, agreeing that they must have been idiots.
Although anyone familiar with Socrates would recognise the irony here, it is compounded by the comparison to Daedalus and the other ancient sculptors. They too, Socrates suggests, would pale beside modern accomplishment. Hippias agrees, betraying his ignorance. The ancient sculptors were said to make statues that breathed and moved.
Socrates then innocently suggests that it must be in Sparta that Hippias makes the most money, as he speaks there most frequently. The sophist is forced to admit that this is not so, and in fact that the Spartans refuse to buy any kind of education. In fact, he is not allowed to expound his views on wisdom and the good life there at all, for the Spartans are only interested in Homeric tales and other stories from history. Socrates then, by obtaining Hippias’ agreement to the premises that the laws must be good and that educating the young well is also good, reaches the conclusion that the Spartans are breaking the law. As the Spartans were renowned as the most stickling of law-abiders, this is a paradoxical conclusion. But it is one Hippias accepts, on the assumption of his own fineness.
The implication, of course, is quite the opposite.
The dialogue itself then begins. As Hippias is so very wise, surely he would be able to help Socrates with a little niggling problem? (Throughout this dialogue, as in so many others, Socrates is effusively complimentary to his fellow interlocutor. At least on the outside.) A little while ago, Socrates was giving his good opinion on something when a friend interrupted him.
“How can you say what is fine and what is not?” The friend asked. “Do you even know what fineness is?”
Socrates found himself at a loss to give a reply. Angry with himself, he explains, he resolved to find an expert who could relieve his ignorance. It wouldn’t be too much trouble for Hippias, would it?