The Lost Plato Volume 1: Plato's Struggle With Socrates
Chapter 6:Plato’s withdrawal from the evils of the Thirty
Plato’s high expectations concerning the aristocrats, of which he speaks in the Seventh Letter and which he expressed in the Charmides, proved to be wrong: far from seeking Socrates’ moral guidance, the Thirty under the leadership of Critias attempted to implicate him in their crimes. They ordered Socrates and four others to seize Leon the Salaminian and bring him from Salamis, as they wanted to put him to death. Socrates refused to obey their orders as he recounts in the Apology (32c4-d8). This incident put an end to Plato’s hopes of entering a political career under the auspices of the Thirty: ‘They tried to send a friend of mine, the aged Socrates, whom I should scarcely scruple to describe as the most upright man of that day, with some other persons to carry off one of the citizens by force to execution, in order that, whether he wished it, or not, he might share the guilt of their conduct; but he would not obey them, risking all consequences in preference to becoming a partner in their iniquitous deeds – seeing all these things and others of the same kind on a considerable scale, I disapproved of their proceedings, and withdrew from any connection with the abuses of the time.’ (Plato, Seventh Letter 324d8-325a5, tr. J. Harward). The Thirty were subsequently defeated by the democrats and Plato was once again attracted to politics: ‘Not long after that a revolution terminated the power of the Thirty and the form of government as it then was. And once more, though with more hesitation, I began to be moved by the desire to take part in public and political affairs.’ (Seventh Letter 325a5-b1, tr. J. Harward). The question is whether any dialogue of Plato can be assigned to this brief intermediary period when he relinquished political ambitions.
Plato’s observation ‘I withdrew from any connection with the abuses of the time’ (eduscherana te kai emauton epanêgagon apo tôn tote kakôn, SL 325a4-5) is worth closer attention. The verb epanêgagon is composed of agô, which means ‘lead’, ‘bring’, ‘carry’, of ana, which means ‘up’, ‘upwards’, and epi, which suggests a place ‘on’, ‘upon’, ‘towards’.The words emauton epanêgagon thus mean ‘brought myself up to’, ‘I elevated myself to’. In the Republic Plato uses the term epanagôgê to signify the ascent of the soul towards the Forms (532c5). On the proposed dating of the Phaedrus the meadow of truth in which the Forms reside (Phdr. 248b-c) was the place to which to withdraw. The Form that in the Phaedrus enables the soul of a philosopher to gain access to the realm of Forms by activating his Recollection of true being is Beauty. As I have argued in the previous chapter, Socrates reacted to Plato’s presentation of him in the Phaedrus by emphasizing his philosophic ignorance. The dialogue that focuses attention on Beauty in confrontation with Socrates’ pronounced ignorance, and which reflects Plato’s disappointment with politics as practiced in most states in those days is reflected in the Hippias Major. I therefore consider the Hippias Major as having been written next after the Charmides, during the closing period of the reign of the Thirty. As will be seen, Plato’s disappointment with politics comes to the fore in the opening paragraphs, and I shall begin by exploring this aspect of the dialogue. On its own, however, this feature would not warrant the proposed dating, for on that basis the Hippias Major might be dated among the dialogues written after Plato reached forty and definitively abandoned his desire to get involved in the political life in Athens, as he speaks of it in Seventh Letter 326a-b. I shall argue that against this latter dating militates the picture of Sparta in the dialogue and the role it plays in Socrates’ discussion with Hippias, which leaves open only the first alternative, that is Plato’s brief disappointment with politics during the last few months of the reign of the Thirty as the time within which the Hippias Major was composed.
The concept of beauty is highlighted in Socrates’ opening words in the Hippias Major; he addresses Hippias as a man of beauty and wisdom (kalos te kai sophos), remarking on the long time that has passed since he last visited Athens (281a1-2). Hippias explains that he has been very busy: ‘Elis [Hippias’ native city] always turns first to me of all the citizens as her representative when she needs to make a deal with some city; she considers me to be both the best judge of messages from other cities and her best messenger’ (281a-b).
Ironically praising Hippias’ accomplishments, Socrates puts his finger on the main flaw in contemporary politics, its contamination with money-making, so highly esteemed by the many (en tois pollois, 281c3): ‘But tell me, Hippias, why those men of old, with great reputation for wisdom – Pittacus, Bias, Thales and men around him, and more recent thinkers too, up to and including Anaxagoras – why did they all, or most of them, abstain from political business (phainontai apechomenoi tôn politikôn praxeôn)?’ (281c3-8)
The words ‘did ... abstain from political business’, which stand for Socrates’ phainontai apechomenoi tôn politikôn praxeôn, have caused the interpreters of the dialogue a considerable difficulty, for Pittacus and Bias were renowned as politicians: Pittacus ruled in Mytilene for ten years and was famous as a lawgiver, Bias achieved renown as a statesman and lawyer in Priene (1). A closer attention to the original may help us solve the problem. The word praxis may mean ‘doing’, ‘activity’, ‘transaction’, ‘business’, and it is often used when speaking specifically of making money. In the given context Socrates uses it in the latter sense; he clarifies this point when he says that not one of those wise men of the past charged money as wages (argurion misthon praxasthai, 282c7) for their wisdom. He pours scorn on politics contaminated by money making. This point was especially important after the political demise of the Thirty Tyrants, for as can be seen from Lysias’ Against Eratosthenes, from Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Hellenica, Critias and his associates among the Thirty misused their political power for the sake of enriching themselves. This was the main cause of the deterioration of their rule into unmitigated tyranny, and thus the cause of Plato’s withdrawal from the evils of those days. A paragraph from the ‘Life of Pittacus’ in Diogenes Laertius may serve to illustrate Plato’s reference to Pittacus in this context: ‘The people of Mitylene honoured Pittacus extravagantly and entrusted him with the government. He ruled for ten years and brought the constitution into order, and then laid down his office. He lived another ten years after his abdication and received from the people of Mitylene a grant of land, which he dedicated as sacred domain; and it bears his name to this day. Sosicrates relates that he cut off a small portion for himself and pronounced the half to be more than the whole.’ (Diog. Laert. I. 75, tr. R.D.Hicks) Hippias appears to understand Socrates’ meaning and responds that the men of old lacked the ability to combine ‘the common interests with their private interests’ (ta te koina kai ta idia, 281d1-2). However, what Socrates viewed as the moral, intellectual, and political strength of the wise men of old Hippias viewed as their great weakness. Socrates notes that in comparison to Hippias and other contemporary sophists, who successfully combined their political assignments with private gain, the wise men of old were so simpleminded that they ‘failed to notice the great value of money’ (elelêthei autous argurion hôs pollou axion eiê, 282d2-3). Socrates’ contempt of riches, of money-making, and of combining politics with self-enrichment was so alien to Hippias’ way of thinking that he failed to see the irony.
The pessimism concerning politics that overwhelmed Plato after the political failure of the aristocrats comes to the fore later in the dialogue. Hippias equates power (dunamis) with what is useful (chrêsimon), noble and beautiful (kalon), and powerlessness (adunamia) with what is shameful and hideous (aischron). He argues that ‘many things provide evidence that this is so, and especially politics (ta politika). For to have political power in one’s own state is the most beautiful thing, but to have none is most shameful’ (296a2-3). Socrates riposts with a salvo of irony: ‘Is this then the reason why wisdom is the most beautiful, and ignorance the most shameful of all things?’ (296a5-6) To underline his irony, Socrates points out that ‘all people do much more evil than good, from their childhood onward’ (Kaka de ge polu pleiô poiousin ê agatha pantes anthrôpoi, arxamenoi ek paidôn, 296c4-5).(2)
In addition to contrasting the mercenary Hippias with the wise men of the past, Plato satirizes him against the background of Sparta. Hippias boasts that Elis, his native city, sent him most frequently on important diplomatic missions to Sparta (281b3). Socrates, whose pro-Spartan sympathies were well known – satirized by Aristophanes as early as 423 in the Clouds (214-17) – seizes on Hippias’ words to examine his educational credentials. The dialogue is dramatically set in the later years of the peace between Sparta and Athens, the so called Peace of Nicias, which lasted from 421 to 413 (3). In the Birds, staged in 414, the great influence of Socrates on his fellow-citizens is closely associated with the widespread adoration of Sparta: ‘all men were madly in love with Sparta ... they all imitated Socrates’ (elakônomanoun hapantes anthrôpoi ... esôkratoun, 1281-2). The introductory part of the Hippias Major derives all its force from the general admiration of Sparta, which accords with the time into which Plato projected the dialogue dramatically, and has implications concerning the date of its composition. After ending the Peloponnesian War in victory, in 404, Sparta not only wielded undisputed hegemonic power in the Greek world, but its education and the virtues of its citizens were admired by all, for a short time. It is from within this quite specific historical setting that Socrates’ preliminary scrutiny of Hippias’ wisdom derives its relevance. This aspect of the dialogue therefore deserves proper attention.
Hippias remarks that Socrates knows nothing about the beautiful things concerning educational activities (tôn kalôn peri touto, 282d6), having no idea how much money he gained even in Inycus, a very small place in Sicily (282d-e). This triggers the following exchange: Socrates: From which of the cities you’ve visited did you earn the most? Clearly from Sparta, which you visited most often? Hippias: By Zeus, no, Socrates. Socrates: What do you mean, did you earn there the least? Hippias: O no, nothing at all ever. Socrates: It’s monstrous and astonishing. Tell me, is not your wisdom able to make those persons better in virtue who associate with her and learn? Hippias: Very much so, Socrates. Socrates: But you were able to make better the sons of the men of Inycus, yet not those of Spartans? (283b4-c7)
When Hippias insists that he was able to improve the sons of the Spartans, Socrates asks whether the Sicilians desire to become better men whereas the Spartans don’t. Hippias concedes that the Spartans too want to become better men, and so Socrates asks whether the Spartans avoided associating themselves with him because they had not enough money. Hippias admits that the Spartans are wealthy enough, and Socrates asks: ‘What can then be the reason why they didn’t load you with money, if they desire to become better men and if they are rich, if you have the ability to bestow upon them the greatest benefit? Could it then be that the Spartans are better able to educate their children than you? Shall we say that this is the case, and you agree?’ (283d4-8) When Hippias vehemently denies this implication, Socrates takes stock of the main points: Sparta has good laws and is well ruled (eunomos ge, 283e9); in all states under good laws virtue is considered to be the most valuable thing (timiôtaton hê aretê, 284a1-2); Hippias insists that he knows better than anyone else how to impart virtue to others (paradidonai allôi, 284a2-3). Does he want Socrates to believe that Sicily and Inycus is the place where the man who can impart the most valuable knowledge for the advancement of virtue would be most highly valued, and would gain the most money, if he so wished, not Sparta? ‘Are we to believe this, Hippias? If you say so, we must believe it.’ (283c2-284b5).
The biting irony of Socrates’ words works only under the supposition that Plato’s reader shares with Socrates his high opinion of the Spartans. Aristophanes’ Birds testifies to it that this was the case at the time in which the dialogue is set dramatically. But it must have been equally the case at the time when Plato wrote the dialogue, for otherwise Socrates’ high opinion of Sparta would make him appear naive and ridiculous. The question therefore is, at what time could Plato have counted on the opinions of Sparta to be generally held high? At the time of the dialogue’s proposed dating, Sparta had recently won the Peloponnesian War, which would have ended with the annihilation of Athens, were it not for Sparta. Xenophon reports on the assembly of the allies at Sparta in 405, which decided the fate of Athens: ‘the Corinthians and Thebans in particular, though many other Greeks agreed with them, opposed making a treaty with the Athenians and favoured destroying their city. The Lacedaemonians [i.e. the Spartans], however, said that they would not enslave a Greek city which had done great service amid the great perils that had befallen Greece [i.e. during the Persian wars], and they offered to make peace.’ (II.ii.19-20, tr. Carleton L. Brownson in the LCL edition of the Hellenica)
The peace resulted in the aristocratic revolution that turned into the disastrous rule of the Thirty Tyrants, but then, once again, the intervention of Sparta proved to be beneficial, and of crucial importance for the fate of Athens. In 404 the democrats took possession of Piraeus, the main harbour of Athens, and defeated the Thirty in a battle at Munichia, in which fell Critias, the leader of the Thirty, and Charmides and about seventy other fighters in the army of the oligarchs. But this was not the end of the matter. The defeated army of the oligarchs retreated behind the walls of Athens, ‘the Thirty then withdrew from the city to Eleusis’ (4), and the Athenians elected ten new leaders. Both the Thirty in Eleusis and the ten in Athens then asked the Spartans for financial and military assistance. In 403, Pausanias, the king of Sparta arrived at Piraeus with his army in force, and won the ensuing battle against a military detachment of the democrats. But instead of using their superior force to annihilate the democrats, the Spartans mediated a lasting reconciliation between the opposing parties (Xenophon, Hellenica II.iv.28-38).
The moral and political prestige that the Spartans thus won in the eyes of the Athenians – and in the eyes of the Greek world at large – was short-lived. Xenophon’s Anabasis gives us glimpses of their arbitrary rule in the early stages of their undisputed hegemony. In 401 the Spartan governors and military leaders intervened in the affairs of the Greek army, recruited from cities all over the Greek world, when it reached the sea and the Greek settlements after its epic, victorious march through the hostile territory of the Persian empire: ‘The Lacedaemonians stand as the leaders of Greece, and they can, in fact any single Lacedaemonian can accomplish in the cities whatever he wants’ (Anabasis VI.vi.12). The Spartan admiral Anaxibius colluded with the Persian satrap Pharnabazus and deceived the Greek army, asking it to leave Asia Minor and go to Byzantium. He promised them regular pay, but reneged on his promise as soon as the army arrived at Byzantium, ordering Aristarchus, the new Spartan governor of the city to sell into slavery all Greek soldiers found in Byzantium. Aristarchus sold into slavery no fewer than four hundred soldiers (Anabasis VII.i.2-ii.6) of the very army that had become renowned in all Greece for successfully resisting the might of the Persian empire. In the end, in 399, having succeeded in keeping most of the army intact Xenophon transported it back to Asia Minor and handed it over to the Spartan governor Thibron, whose task was to defend Greek cities in Asia Minor against the Persians. Prior to Xenophon’s handover of the army to the Spartans, it was still open to him to return home to Athens, but the result of his action was that a sentence of exile was pronounced against him in Athens (5). Athenians themselves were asked to assist Thibron, and their sentiments in obliging him transpire in Xenophon’s Hellenica: ‘Thibron also asked from the Athenians three hundred cavalrymen, saying that he would provide pay for them himself. And the Athenians sent some of those who had served as cavalrymen in the time of the Thirty, thinking it would be a gain to the democracy if they should live in foreign lands and perish there.’ (III.i.4-5)
Thibron was summoned back to Sparta in the same year, for the allies of Sparta complained at his allowing his soldiers to plunder them (Hellenica III.i.8). In the same year, that is 399, the Athenians were compelled to join Sparta in its war against Elis, which must have been particularly humiliating as one of the reasons for Spartan hostility to Elis was the alliance of Elis with Athens concluded back in 420 (6). By then, the sentiments of the Athenians towards Sparta must have changed profoundly; the way in which Plato speaks of Sparta in Hippias Major therefore suggests that the dialogue was written before 399 B.C.
Hippias’ insistence that he could teach virtue to the youth of Sparta better than could their own parents, or any other Spartans for that matter, but that the Spartans would not allow him to do so, because it is against their laws (283c2-284b7), leads to the discussion of the concept of law as such. Uncompromisingly,Socrates dismisses all those laws as unlawful that are not in full harmony with the good (284d1-e1). This is of considerable importance for the dating of the composition of the dialogue, for this view of the law as such is in discord with the views on the laws expressed by Socrates in the Crito, in which Socrates refuses to escape from prison out of reverence for the laws of Athens. The view pronounced by Socrates in the Hippias Major appears to have been held by the historical Socrates, for Xenophon in his Memorabilia says that Socrates was accused of teaching his companions to despise the established laws (huperoran epoiei tôn kathestôtôn nomôn tous sunontas) (I.ii.9). Xenophon does not deny that Socrates spoke in this way about the laws, he merely exculpates him from any complicity with the violent subversion of the democratic constitution. He argues that those who are able to guide people to prudent policy – that is people like Socrates and his true followers –have no need to take recourse to violence, for they can rely on their power of persuasion (I.ii.10-11). In the Apology Socrates acted in accordance with his views as expressed in the Hippias Major – he reserved the august title of judges only for those who voted against the guilty verdict (39e1-40a3).As the Crito testifies, Socrates during his days in prison profoundly modified his views regarding the laws of Athens. This consideration corroborates the dating of the Hippias Major prior to 399 B.C., which was the year in which Socrates was put to death. A closer attention to Socrates’ discussion with Hippias on the concept of law will allow us to further specify the date of its composition, placing it within the last three months of the reign of the Thirty (7). Hippias parries Socrates’ sarcastic jibe concerning his zero earnings in Sparta by stating that the ancestral tradition forbids the Spartans to change their laws (kinein tous nomous) and to educate their sons in a different way from what is customary (para ta eiôthota paideuein tous hueis, 284b6-7).
Socrates: What do you mean? According to their ancestral tradition, are the Spartans to do wrong rather than right? Hippias: I would not say so. Socrates: Wouldn’t they be doing the right thing if they educated their young better rather than worse? Hippias: You are right. But it is illegal (ou nomimon) for them to introduce foreign education. For you may be sure that if anyone ever got there money for teaching, I would have received there the greatest amount, for they like listening to me and praise me, but as I say, it is against their law (ou nomos). Socrates: Hippias, do you consider the law (nomon de legeis) to be something harmful or something beneficial to the city (blabên poleôs einai ê ôphelian)? Hippias: I think that it is made for the benefit of the state, but that it is sometimes damaging if it is badly made. Socrates: But what do you think? Is it not so that the lawgivers give the law to the state as the greatest good (hôs agathon megiston)? And that without it, it is impossible to live in a well ordered community? Hippias: You are right. Socrates: Don’t you think that when those who attempt to give laws fail to achieve the good (Hotan ara agathou hamartôsin hoi epicheirountes nomous tithenai) they fail to give law (nomou hêmartêkasi)? Hippias: It is so, Socrates, if one speaks with precision (tôi men akribei logôi houtôs echei), but people are not accustomed to speak in this way (ou mentoi eiôthasi anthrôpoi onomazein houtôi). Socrates: Do you mean people who know or those who don’t know? Hippias: The many (hoi polloi). Socrates: But do these people know the truth, the many (Eisin d’ houtoi hoi eidotes talêthes, hoi polloi)? Hippias: Certainly not (Ou dêta). (284b8-e5).
When Plato wrote these lines, he was very far from envisaging the Athenian democracy as capable of establishing the rule of law, far from any hope that he might be tempted to engage in politics if the democracy were to be restored. The whole discussion is aimed at the Thirty who were entrusted with the reform of the Athenian legal system and giving the city the best laws (8), and yet in pursuit of their private gains achieved the opposite. This is the main reason for my dating the composition of the dialogue in the last three months of the rule of the aristocrats, at the end of 404 and the beginning of 403 B.C.
The introductory discussion ends with the fireworks of irony: Socrates once again presses the point that ‘knowledgeable men hold that what is more beneficial (ôphelimôteron) is in truth (têi alêtheiai) more lawful (nomimôteron) for all people (pasin anthrôpois) than what is less beneficial’ (284e5-7), and that ‘things are as knowledgeable men hold them to be’ (estin te kai echei hôs hoi eidotes hêgountai, 284e8-9). Hippias agrees, and Socrates returns to Hippias’ claim that his education would be more beneficial for the Spartans than their own traditional education, reassuring himself that Hippias also holds that what is more beneficial is more lawful. He then concludes that according to Hippias (kata ton son ara logon, 285a4-5) the Spartans are breaking the law (paranomousin, 285b1) by not entrusting their sons to him and not paying him in gold (284e10-285b3). Hippias agrees, for it appears to him that Socrates is arguing his own case (dokeis gar moi ton logon pros emou legein, 285b3-4), and Socrates ripostes: ‘Then, my friend, we find that the Spartans are law-breakers concerning the most vital matters - the very people who appear to be the most law-abiding.’ (285b5-7). This display ofirony derives all its humour from Plato’s relying on the image of Sparta as the best governed state, with the best education that brings up citizens endowed with virtue.
The proposed dating of the Hippias Major points to a passage in Xenophon’s Memorabilia that sheds more light on the dialogue: ‘When the Thirty were putting to death many citizens of the highest respectability and were encouraging many in crime, Socrates had remarked: “It seems strange enough to me that a herdsman who lets his cattle decrease and go to the bad should not admit that he is a poor cowherd; but stranger still that a statesman when he causes the citizens to decrease and go to the bad, should feel no shame nor think himself a poor statesman.” This remark was reported to Critias and Charicles.’ (I.ii.32, tr. E.C. Marchant)
Xenophon says that the Thirty drafted a law which made it illegal ‘to teach rhetoric’ (en tois nomois egrapse logôn technên mê didaskein, I.ii.31), and when Socrates’ critical remarks were reported to Critias and Charicles, their leading men, they summoned Socrates and quoted the law against him. Socrates asked for clarification: ‘I am prepared to obey the laws (egô pareskeuasmai men peithesthai tois nomois). But lest I unwittingly transgress through ignorance (hopôs de mê di agnoian lathô ti paranomêsas), I want clear directions from you. Do you bid me abstain from the art of words which say what is right (tên tôn logôn technên sun tois orthôs legomenois einai) or from the art of words that fail to say what is right (ê sun tois mê orthôs)? For if from the art of words that say what is right, then it is clear that one must abstain from saying what is right (dêlon hoti aphekteon an eiê tou orthôs legein), but if from that which uses words that say what is not right, then clearly one must try to say what is right (peirateon orthôs legein).’ Then Charicles got angry and said ‘Since you do not know, Socrates, we put our order in a manner easier to understand. You may not hold any discussions with the young. ... You shall not converse with anyone who is under thirty.’ (I.ii.34-35)
At the time the order was given Plato was in his mid twenties. In the Phaedrus his Socrates outlined the art of rhetoric founded on the knowledge of truth, and on strict adherence to the highest moral standards, and in the Charmides he rejected Critias’ identification of the royal art of government with sôphrosunê for failing to give proper significance to the good. In the early days of the Thirty Plato was thus actively engaged through his writings in promoting Socrates’ influence instead of following the proposition of his friends and relatives to join them in governing the city. Critias and his associates had therefore good reasons for attempting to isolate Socrates from Plato in particular. Did they succeed? The Charmides ended with Critias’ bowing to Socrates’ privileged position as teacher of sôphrosunê, understood as political wisdom, and Socrates requited by accepting his authority. In reality, Critias insisted on Socrates’ unqualified submission: the Thirty ordered Socrates to imprison Leon the Salaminian. Socrates ignored the order. As Plato intimates in the Seventh Letter (324e, cf. Ap. 32c-d), it was this incident that finally compelled him to withdraw from the evils of those days. Does this mean that Plato submitted to his being isolated from Socrates? Is this how his words about his withdrawal from the evils of those days should be understood? Any association with Socrates after his flagrant refusal to obey the Thirty was bound to expose his friends to danger, and we have reasons to believe that Socrates on his part therefore abstained from seeking their company: in the Crito he admits that one of the reasons for his refusing to allow his friends to get him out of prison was his fear that it would put them in danger (44e2-45a4). On the other hand, we may suppose that if Plato insisted on meeting Socrates, Socrates would not refuse his company; he did not prevent his friends from visiting him in prison. The Hippias Major, in my view, indicates that Plato was undeterred by the threat and continued his discussions with Socrates as normal, or rather, that the danger hanging over them enhanced the intensity of their philosophic intercourse. Just as later, during the thirty days of Socrates’ imprisonment, immersed in philosophic discussions with his friends, Socrates ‘continued to live exactly as before’ (ouden alloioteron diabious ê ton emprosthen chronon, Xenophon, Memorabilia IV.viii.2). Focusing his thought on Beauty, in the Hippias Major Plato projected both his admiration for Socrates’ philosophic enquiries and his struggle against Socrates’ philosophic ignorance into Socrates’ thought: in the dialogue Socrates brings into discussion his innermost self as a third and by far the most important interlocutor. As long as Socrates lived, the Thirty had no power over him, and they had no power over Plato. In no other dialogue are Plato’s and Socrates’ thoughts and struggles so intimately and so dramatically intertwined as in the Hippias Major.
The third interlocutor is introduced into the dialogue to give urgency to Socrates’ appeal to Hippias to tell him what beauty is. Hippias speaks of the success that he has lately had in Sparta with his detailed exposition of beautiful pursuits (peri ge epitêdeumatôn kalôn, 286a3-4) to which young men ought to devote themselves. He boasts that he has prepared a most beautifully composed discourse (pankalôs logos sunkeimenos,286a5-6) on this theme, in which he asks what pursuits are beautiful (poia esti kala epitêdeumata, 286b1) and offers very beautiful (pankala, 286b4) rules for life. He says that he will present it in Athens and asks Socrates to come and bring others with him. At this point Socrates asks him what beauty is: ‘Quite lately, my noble friend, when I was condemning (psegonta) as ugly (aischra) some things in certain compositions (en logois tisi, 286c6), and praising (epainounta) others as beautiful (hôs kala), somebody threw me into confusion (eis aporian) 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 (hopoia kala kai aischra)? Come now, can you tell me what beauty is?’ (286c5-d2, tr. Benjamin Jowett).
The questioner remains unnamed, but later in the dialogue it becomes clear – to the reader, though not to Hippias – that he is identical with Socrates, or rather, he is his critical self. This self-splitting of the mind of Socrates provides the dialogue with an atmosphere of great hilarity, but there is a very serious side to it. In this way, the problem of beauty is introduced as central to Socrates’ thought in direct confrontation with his philosophic ignorance. Socrates’ innermost self makes him aware that his ignorance threatens the validity of any critical assertion on his part, and thus any positive influence of his on others.
On the dating of the Phaedrus and of the Hippias Major that I have proposed, those ‘certain compositions’ (logoi tines) to which Socrates refers as the ones in which he illegitimately – illegitimately concerning his self-professed ignorance – praised some things as beautiful and condemned others as ugly, unseemly and shameful must refer to the Phaedrus, where Socrates criticizes Lysias’ speech on love, presents his own two speeches on the same theme, and then critically analyses all three. Indeed, Plato in the Hippias Major does his best to make it clear that this is the case. To begin with, Hippias in praise of his discourse on the education of young men in the Hippias Major uses language that recalls Phaedrus’ praise of Lysias’ speech in the Phaedrus. In the Phaedrus Phaedrus says that Lysias’ speech is splendidly composed ‘in every other respect’ (ta te alla) ‘and especially in point of language’ (kai tois onomasin, 234c6-7), in the Hippias Major Hippias says that his speech is splendidly composed ‘in every other respect’ (kai allôs) ‘and especially in point of language’ (kai tois onomasin, 286a5-6). In the Phaedrus Socrates examines Lysias’ speech and his own two speeches in order to establish ‘what is the nature of beautiful writing and its opposite’ (tis ho tropos tou kalôs te kai mê graphein, 258d7),reflecting on his move from condemning eros in his first speech on love to praising it most highly in the second (apo tou psegein pros to epainein, 265c5-6). In all these cases Socrates trespassed against his self-professed ignorance by confidently taking recourse to the concept of beauty. Socrates’ second speech on love in the Phaedrus is focused on Beauty, and it contains the foundation of Plato’s philosophy, his theory of Forms. All this is put in question by Socrates’ critical self as far as Socrates himself is concerned.
Socrates’ insistence on his ignorance was by far the most serious threat to Plato’s Phaedran concept of philosophy, for it was a threat coming from within philosophy, and yet quite apart from it at the time of his writing the Hippias Major Plato had to face another threat to it, this one coming from outside. For Socrates’ second speech on love in the Phaedrus culminates with the picture of a philosopher’s life here on earth as a happy and blessed one (256a-b), closely followed by Socrates’ pointing to Polemarchus as an example of a man turned to philosophy (257b). Polemarchus was put to death by the Thirty in 404 B.C. The Greeks believed that a man’s life can be viewed as beautiful, happy and blessed only if that man ends his life beautifully (kalôs) (9), and it was impossible to describe the end of Polemarchus as beautiful. Plato could defend the Phaedrus on this point only by challenging the deeply engrained belief of the Greeks concerning the relevance of one’s death to the proper evaluation of one’s whole preceding life. This is what he does in the Hippias Major by encompassing the traditional view in Hippias’ third and final attempt to define beauty, which he then exposes to Socrates’ scathing irony.
Hippias asks whether Socrates is looking for such beauty (zêtein gar moi dokeis toiouton ti to kalon) that would never appear shameful and ugly to anyone anywhere (ho mêdepote aischron mêdamou mêdeni phaneitai, 291d1-2). When Socrates confirms that this is the case, Hippias proclaims: ‘I say then that always, for every man, and everywhere the most beautiful thing is (kalliston einai) for a man who is rich, healthy, and highly respected among the Greeks, to attain old age, to give beautiful funerals (kalôs peristeilanti) to one’s parents, and to be buried beautifully and in great style (kalôs kai megaloprepôs) by one’s own children (291d9-e2).’ Socrates exclaims: ‘Hurrah, hurrah (Iou, iou), Hippias, what you have said is really wonderful, great, and worthy of you. And I admire your well meant effort to assist me (boêthein, 291e5) as well as you can’ (291e3-5).
Socrates’ admiration of Hippias’ attempt to assist him recalls the Phaedrus, where the philosopher’s words are always capable of assisting themselves (boêthein hikanoi, 277a1). Will Hippias be able to defend his final definition of beauty? To enhance the irony, Socrates takes recourse to his critical self, disguised as the unnamed questioner: ‘Concerning my interlocutor we have missed the mark, and you may be sure that now he will laugh at us(hêmôn katagelasetai) more than ever (291e5-7).’ Hippias nevertheless remains confident of his case: ‘His laughter will be contemptible, if he has nothing to say concerning this, but laugh. He will be the butt of his own laughter (hautou katagelasetai) and will be laughed at by those attending the discussion (kai hupo tôn parontôn autos estai katagelastos) (291e8-292a1).’ Socrates ripostes that if he presented this third definition to his importunate questioner and did not run away, the man would take a stick and give him a good hiding (292a). Hippias is amazed: ‘What? Is this man some master of yours? If he did this, surely he would be arrested and punished ... He will be punished for an unjustified assault on you.’ (dôsei dikên adikôs ge se tuptôn, 292b4). But Socrates defends the critic’s severity: ‘It would not be unjustified at all, in my opinion; if I gave him that answer (ei tauta ge apokrinaimên), he would be justified in beating me’ (292b5-6).
The above scene is rich in references. The exclamation Iou, iou, with which Socrates greets Hippias’ third definition is the same as that with which Strepsiades enters the scene in the Clouds after having been beaten (moi tuptomenôi, 1323) by his son Pheidippides (Clouds 1321), a recent acolyte of Socrates. With his third definition of beauty Hippias descended to the intellectual level of Strepsiades, who because of his fixation on money missed and perverted – ‘Strepsiades’ means ‘Twister’ – all Socrates’ attempts to elevate his mind to higher spheres of thought. Even more importantly, the scene with the stick recalls both Homer’s Ilias, where Odysseus restrains Thersites by hitting him with his sceptre, and also the unruly horse in the tripartite image of the soul in the Phaedrus, the horse that could be restrained only with a whip, and even that with difficulty. Homer describes Thersites as follows: ‘Thersites ... was never at a loss for some vulgar quip, empty and scurrilous indeed, but well calculated to amuse the troops. He was the ugliest man that had come to Ilium. He had a game foot and was bandy-legged. His rounded shoulders almost met across his chest; and above them rose an egg-shaped head, which sprouted a few short hairs. Nobody loathed him more heartily than Achilles and Odysseus.’ (Iliad B 212-220). (10) The unruly horse in the Phaedrus is described as ‘crooked of frame, gross, all jumbled up, thick short neck, snub nose, black, grey-eyed, bloodshot, companion of wantonness and boastfulness; shaggy around the ears, deaf, hard to control even with whip and goad.’ (Phaedrus 253e1-5). The picture of the unruly horse in the Phaedrus was undoubtedly inspired by Homer’s description of Thersites, so that in recollection, these pictures reinforce one another. Only by chastising Thersites could Odysseus restore the discipline of the army (Iliad B 211-278), only by chastising the unruly horse could the philosopher-lover in the Phaedrus subdue the power of evil and liberate the power of goodness in his soul (Phaedrus 256b2-3): if anyone were to propound the view that the beauty of one’s life depended on one’s being buried beautifully and in great style, they too would deserve a stick. That Socrates himself viewed Polemarchus’ death as completely irrelevant as to the judgment about his preceding life is a plausible conjecture, for in his defence Socrates proclaimed that his accusers, Anytus and Meletus, might succeed in obtaining a verdict of guilty against him, they might kill him, exile him, or bring ignominy upon him by disenfranchising him, all of which they would consider to be great evils, and others would agree with them, but that he would disagree, for these were not evils; evil was to commit injustice, which was what they were doing (Apology 30c-d). And as to his taking recourse to the stick, we know from Xenophon that Socrates often recalled the lines in Homer’s Iliad B when he reproved those who were unable to assist (boêthein) anybody with word or deed (mête logôi mêt’ ergôi) (Mem. I.ii.59).
In the Hippias Major scene that evokes the stick Socrates gives a new reason for his taking recourse to that unnamed critic of his: ‘I shall imitate him as before so that I avoid aiming at you words with which he will chastise me, harsh and uncouth’ (292c3-5). The critic attacks Socrates for reporting to him Hippias’ third definition of beauty as follows: ‘Tell me, Socrates, do you think thrashing you would be unjustified if you sang so artlessly such a long dithyramb, way out of tune with the question?’ (292c5-8) By ‘artlessly’ I render the critic’s amousôs; and the full thrust of the criticism becomes apparent only if we keep in mind Socrates’ Phaedran identification of philosophy with mousikê of the highest kind (259d): Hippias’ definition goes against the grain of philosophy. The critic reminds Socrates that the question was what beauty in itself is (to kalon auto, 292c9), and begins by addressing him ‘O man’, which is a very impolite form of address: ‘O man (ônthrôpe), I am asking what beauty itself is, but I cannot get it through to you (gegônein) [gegônein is a Homeric word that means ‘to shout so as to make oneself heard’] any more than if you were a stone sitting here beside me, and a millstone at that, without ears and brain.’ (292d3-6) The critic’s dismissal of Hippias’ definition of beauty as an ‘artless dithyramb’ recalls Socrates’ ‘almost dithyrambic’ (ouketi porrô dithurambôn, 238d2-3) definition of eros in his first speech in the Phaedrus: ‘When irrational desire, pursuing the enjoyment of beauty, has gained the mastery over judgment that prompts to right conduct, and has acquired from other desires, akin to it, fresh strength to strain towards (errômenôs rhôstheisa) bodily beauty, that very strength (rhômês) provides it with its name: it is the strong passion called Love (erôs).’ (238b7-c4, tr. Hackforth) The relation between the two is not incidental. Hippias’ ‘artless dithyramb’, which identifies beauty with a long life of a rich man that ends with a beautiful funeral, springs from desires pertaining to the sinister eros of Socrates’ first speech in the Phaedrus.
As we know from Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Socrates crossed swords with Hippias on the education of the young, on what is good for the state, and on the relationship between justice and the law (IV.iv.5-25). Much of what Hippias has to say to Socrates and Socrates to Hippias in Plato’s dialogue can therefore be viewed as a historically accurate portrait of both these men. But the intensity of the attack on Hippias on account of his third definition of beauty suggests that under the guise of criticizing the historical Hippias Plato takes on contemporary criticism of the Phaedrus. Polemarchus was as far from being ‘buried beautifully and in great style’ as can be; his brother describes his funeral as follows:
‘When he was being brought away dead from the prison, although we had three houses amongst us, they [i.e. the Thirty] did not permit his funeral to be conducted from any of them, but they hired a small hut in which to lay him out. We had plenty of cloaks, yet they refused our request of one for the funeral; but our friends gave either a cloak, or a pillow, or whatever each had to spare, for his internment.’ (Lysias, Against Eratosthenes XII.18, tr. W.R.M. Lamb)
The death and burial of Polemarchus cast a shadow not only over the closing paragraphs of the Phaedran Palinode, but over the dialogue as a whole, and in particular the praise of the young Isocrates at the end of the Phaedrus. There are therefore good reasons to believe that Isocrates was particularly sensitive to the implications that Polemarchus’ death appeared to have in this respect.This being so, he could either rally to the defence of Socrates, Plato, and the Phaedrus, which would expose him to the invective that he did so in defence of the praise bestowed on him in the dialogue, or he could position himself in the forefront of those who cast aspersions on the dialogue. The Hippias Major indicates that the latter was the case, for Hippias’ third definition of beauty is presented in a pompous rhetorical style that strongly reminds the reader of Isocrates, a fact underlined by Socrates’ praise: ‘you said it in a wonderful and grand style, worthy of yourself’ (ê thaumasiôs te kai megaleiôs kai axiôs sautou eirêkas, 291e3-4). This takes us back to the opening discussion, where Hippias’ proclamation ‘I guard myself against the envy of the living, I fear the wrath of the dead’ (eulaboumenos men phthonon tôn zôntôn, phoboumenos de mênin tôn teteleutêkotôn, 282a6-8) with its two clauses in perfect balance and its studied vocabulary bears the hallmark of Isocrates. On that occasion, just as with Hippias’ third definition of beauty, Socrates did not let the elaborate construction of the sentence slip by unnoticed; he commented with a biting irony: ‘Very beautifully said, Hippias, both in your choice of words and in the way you think’ (Kalôs ge su onomazôn te kai dianooumenos, 282b1).
In the closing days of the Peloponnesian War and the ensuing rule of the Thirty Isocrates was presumably making up his mind to enter the career of a professional rhetorician, for as he himself intimates in the Antidosis, all his patrimony was lost as a result of the Peloponnesian Wars, and he had to enter a career in which he could earn his living (cf. Antidosis, XV. 161). And since the Thirty drafted a law against the teaching of rhetoric, he had to contemplate earning his bread as a rhetorician not in his native city but abroad, as Hippias did. In contrast to the unconditional characterization of Polemarchus as a man turned to philosophy, the praise that Socrates bestows on Isocrates in the Phaedrus is veiled in uncertainty, which suggests that Isocrates’ attitude to philosophy was in Plato’s view ambivalent even at the time when he was writing the dialogue.
The praise of Isocrates is introduced towards the end of the Phaedrus. Socrates exhorts Phaedrus to report to Lysias (phraze Lusiai) their discussion, and in particular the criticism concerning Lysias’ preoccupation with writing rhetorical pieces; if Lysias aspires to anything more than being called a poet or speech-writer or law-writer, if he wants to deserve the name of a philosopher, he must be able to show that his writings are inferior in comparison to his actual thoughts and words (278b7-e4). Phaedrus asks in return: ‘What will be your message (ti apangeleis) to the beautiful Isocrates, and what shall we call him?’ Socrates answers: ‘Isocrates is still young, but I want to tell you the future I prophesy for him’ (278e8-279a1): ‘It seems to me that his natural powers give him a superiority over the kind of speeches with which Lysias is preoccupied and that he is endowed with a more noble character (êthei gennikôterô kekrasthai), and so it would not be surprising, when he grows older, if in the very speeches at which he works now he surpasses all those who ever touched speech-writing, differing from them more than men differ from boys; and still more so, if this were not enough for him, and some diviner impulse lead him to greater things. For the mind of this man is endowed by nature with a certain love of wisdom (phusei gar enesti tis philosophia têi tou andros dianoiai). This is the message that I shall give (exangellô) to Isocrates, my beloved.’ (279a3-b2)
The dramatic dating of the praise – Isocrates being very young –requires its being coached in the guise of a prophecy, which allows Plato to underline the question mark concerning Isocrates.Plato put the final touches to the dialogue at the time when he was viewed by the Thirty as a man who had a natural claim for taking part in the government: ‘they immediately exhorted me to join them as well suited for the matter in hand [that is for the tasks related to the governing of the city]’ (kai dê kai parekaloun euthus hôs epi prosêkonta pragmata me,SL 324d2-3). This was a time of great hopes, a time when Plato was convinced that the Thirty would transform the city, managing it so as to lead it away from its unjust ways towards justice (ek tinos adikou biou epi dikaion tropon agontas dioikêsein dê tên polin, SL 324d4-5). And just as the Thirty turned their eyes on him, he in turn turned his eye on Isocrates as a potential ally: the prophecy all but urges Isocrates to join Plato, raising his aspirations to greater things than writing rhetorical pieces. In doing so Plato misjudged both the Thirty and Isocrates.
Isocrates was seven years older than Plato; he was in his thirties when Plato took the liberty of praising him in the Phaedrus, and on that account alone we may presume that he did not feel very comfortable when reading it. In their discussions on rhetoric Isocrates viewed himself as the leading spirit, as can be judged on the basis of his pamphlet Against the Sophists, written and published more than ten years later, in which he views himself as the only man with the correct approach to philosophic rhetoric (11). What must have turned his not being quite happy with the Phaedran praise of him into a deep animosity was the deterioration of the rule of the Thirty, the rule with which Plato was willy-nilly associated, into abject tyranny. Isocrates’ deep-seated animosity against the Thirty and other similar regimes installed by Sparta after the end of the Peloponnesian War, the so called decarchies, bursts into the open in his Panegyricus, published about 380, that is almost a quarter of a century later:
`Now although we have shown ourselves to be of such character and have given so convincing proof that we do not covet the possessions of others, we are brazenly denounced by those who had a hand in the decarchies – men who have befouled their own countries, who have made the crimes of the past seem insignificant, and have left the would-be scoundrels of the future no chance to exceed their villainy ... for what crime have they overlooked? What act of shame or outrage is wanting in their careers? They regarded the most lawless men as the most loyal; they courted traitors as if they were benefactors ... they honoured the assassins and murderers of their fellow-citizens more than their own parents; and to such a state of brutishness did they bring us all that, whereas in former times, because of the prosperity which prevailed, every one of us found many to sympathize with him even in trifling reverses, yet under the rule of these men, because of the multitude ofour own calamities, we ceased feeling pity for each other, since there was no man to whom they allowed enough of respite so that he could share another’s burdens. For what man dwelt beyond their reach? What man was so far removed from public life that he was not forced into close touch with the disasters into which such creatures plunged us? But in the face of all this, these men, who brought their own cities to such a pitch of anarchy, do not blush to make unjust charges against our city; nay, to crown their other effronteries, they even have the audacity to talk of the private and public suits which were once tried in Athens, when they themselves put to death without trial more men in the space of three months than Athens tried during the whole period of her supremacy.’ (110-113, tr. George Norlin)
The deepening of the political gulf between Isocrates and Plato was accompanied by Isocrates’ voicing his profound philosophical disagreement with Plato. For although Isocrates shared with Plato of the Phaedrus the view that rhetoric had to be profoundly transformed so as to give it greater scholarly rigour and persuasiveness, he had no time for Plato’s insistence on exact knowledge that required the unchanging Forms as its object. In Against the Sophists he observes that those who use their judgements (tous tais doxais chrômenous)are more consistent and more in tune with each other (mallon homonoountas), and achieve greater success in life (kai pleiô katorthountas) than those who in their messages profess to have exact knowledge (ê tous tên epistêmên echein epangellomenous, XIII.8). He found ridiculous (cf. katagelastotaton, XIII.5) the claims that Plato and his associates were making concerning philosophical knowledge: ‘they try to persuade young men that if they become their disciples they will know what to do in life (ha te prakteon esti eisontai) and through this knowledge will attain happiness’ (kai dia tautês tês epistêmês eudaimones genêsontai, XIII.3). In Isocrates’ view this amounted to claiming that they could teach foreknowledge of future events (ta mellonta progignôskein), which is not within the powers of human nature (XIII.2): ‘They pretend to search truth (prospoiountai men tên alêtheian zêtein), yet at the very beginning of their messages they attempt to deceive people with lies’ (euthus d’ en archê tôn epangelmatôn pseudê legein epicheirousin, XIII.1). Isocrates asks who can help hating these men, viewing them with contempt (tis gar ouk an misêseien hama kai kataphronêseie, XIII.1) and regarding their studies as mere prating and logic-chopping (adoleschian kai smikrologian), not as true care for the soul (ou tês psuchês epimeleian, XIII.8).
Isocrates’ attack in Against the Sophists, which he directed against all contemporary philosophers, but first and foremost against Plato, is surprising in its ferocity; it suggests a prior attack by Plato directed against him. This can be found in the Hippias Major which voices Isocrates’ initial, and at that time merely verbal criticism of Socrates and Plato, as well as Plato’s first coming-to-grips with Isocrates. It should be compared to the Euthydemus, which contains Plato’s response to Isocrates’ Against the Sophists. In the Euthydemus Plato presents Isocrates as a severe critic of Socrates. He does not name him, just as Isocrates does not name Plato in Against the Sophists, yet takes great care that the reader will not fail to identify him: Socrates’ critic is not an orator (hêkista rêtôr)but people say that he understands the subject of rhetoric (epaiein auton phasi peri tou pragmatos) and that he is a formidable man composing formidable speeches (kai deinon einai kai deinous logous suntithenai, 305c1-4) (12). As in the Hippias Major, Plato has him speak in an exquisitely Isocratean style. The critic says of the discussion that Socrates had with his interlocutors, in Jowett’s translation: ‘theirs was the sort of discourse which anybody might hear from men who were playing the fool, and making much ado about nothing’, in Watterfield’s translation: ‘the sort of nonsense one can always hear from such people, of course, when they devote themselves pointlessly to pointless matters’. Both translators record the sentiment, but neither can reproduce the perfectly balanced Isocratean sentence with its studied choice of words, and I shall not even try: hoiaper aiei an tis tôn toioutôn akousai lêrountôn kai peri oudenos axiôn anaxian spoudên poioumenôn, 304e3-5). And as in the Hippias Major, Plato focuses the reader’s mind on the manner in which these words were spoken: ‘these were almost his exact words’ (houtôsi gar pôs kai eipen tois onomasin, 304e5-6).
In the Hippias Major, prior to voicing Hippias’/Isocrates’ criticism, Plato outlines dialectics as the core of philosophy. After discarding Hippias’ attempts to define beauty as a beautiful maiden, gold, and finally as the long life of a rich man crowned with a magnificent funeral, Socrates’ critical self, his innermost questioner pulls and pushes Socrates on, opening for him new ways of enquiry: ‘Socrates, don’t give answers of that kind, and in that way –they are silly, and can be easily refuted; examine rather the point on which we touched upon in one of our answers a little while ago when we said that gold is beautiful for those things for which it is appropriate (hois prepei, 293e2) and not beautiful for those things for which it is not appropriate; and similarly with everything else to which appropriateness is attributed. Examine this appropriateness in itself (auto dê touto to prepon, 293e4) and the nature of the appropriateness itself (kai tên phusin autou tou prepontos, 293e4-5), and see whether this is beauty (to kalon, 293e5).’ (293d6-e5).
The importance of this step is marked by the critic’s self-identification with Socrates – ‘we touched upon’ (epelabometha, 293e1), ‘when we said’(hênik' ephamen, 293e2) – and even with Hippias, for the first person plural that the critic uses includes Hippias, and indeed it was he who introduced the qualification of appropriateness into the discussion (290c7). This shows us the split within Socrates’ personality in a new light; in discussing philosophy Socrates identified himself with his interlocutors in order to facilitate their ascent to a higher level of understanding, to the level of general concepts, such as beauty, appropriateness, and the like. Was then the split in Socrates’ personality in the Hippias Major nothing more than a pedagogic artifice? If we view it as such, we miss what is most important about Socrates not only in the dialogue itself, but about the historical Socrates as Plato saw him. In the Charmides Socrates insisted that he pained Critias with his questions not because he himself knew the answers, but because he himself did not know them (dia to mê autos eidenai, 165b8-c1), and that he examined the given propositions first and foremost for his own sake (malista men emautou heneka, 166d3-4). In the Phaedrus he proclaimed that all his examinations were self-examinations (230a).
Socrates’ self-identification with Hippias and his opening to him an investigation on the level of universal concepts appears to have worked; Hippias forgets all his previous contemptuous remarks as regards Socrates’ questioner and is ready to accept the ‘appropriate’ as the answer to the question ‘what is beauty’. But this time it is Socrates who warns Hippias against accepting the suggestion of the unnamed questioner uncritically: ‘Let us investigate it, for fear that we may somehow be deceived’ (Skopômetha, mê pêi ar’ exapatômetha, 293e9). Socrates asks whether the ‘appropriate’ by its presence makes things appear beautiful or be beautiful. When Hippias answers that it makes things appear beautiful, Socrates takes his word for it (hôs ho sos logos, 294b7), and on that basis rejects the suggestion, for the question is what makes things beautiful, not what makes them appear to be beautiful. Strangely, Hippias in the meantime has become enamoured with the ‘appropriate’ and is unwilling to let it slip through his fingers: ‘But the appropriate causes things both to be and to appear beautiful, when it is present’ (alla to prepon kai einai kai phainesthai poiei kala paron, 294c3-4). At this point Hippias seems to have fully embraced the idea and the language of the theory of Forms: Plato here reproduces the happy time when Isocrates appeared to have embraced his theory, which prompted Plato to immortalise Isocrates’ interest in philosophy in the Phaedrus. But Socrates’ piling up of ever new difficulties with the definitions, which he himself proposes and refutes, in the end exhausts Hippias’ willingness to go along with him and persevere in a joint philosophic pursuit.
Painstaking search for truth which was what dialectic was all about, and which was Socrates’ and Plato’s main concern, was alien to Hippias. This is most clearly revealed in an incident concerning Socrates’ final attempt to define beauty. Socrates suggests that beauty is ‘whatever gives us pleasure (ho an chairein hêmas poiêi) through our senses of hearing and sight’ (dia tês akoês kai opseôs, 297e5-7). Hippias is all for it: ‘In my view, Socrates, now at last (nun ge) it is well said what beauty is’ (eu legesthai to kalon ho esti, 298a9-b1). As soon as Hippias agrees, Socrates brings in a difficulty: what about beautiful pursuits (ta epitêdeumata ta kala) and laws (kai tous nomous), are these pleasant through our senses of hearing or sight, or are they of some other form (ê allo ti eidos echein, 298b2-4). Hippias cannot deny the relevance of this difficulty, but he suggests that these cases might escape Socrates’ impertinent interlocutor (tauta d’ isôs kan paralathoi ton anthrôpon, 298b5-6).
Socrates: ‘No, Hippias, they would certainly not escape the man by whom I should 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.’ (298b7- c2, tr. Jowett)
Having had enough of it, in his last entry Hippias then attacks Socrates’ pursuit of philosophy as follows:
‘But I must ask you, Socrates, what do you suppose is the upshot of all this? As I said a little while ago, it is the scrapings and shavings (knêsmata toi esti kai peritmêmata) of argument (tôn logôn), cut up into little bits (kata brachu diêirêmena); what is both beautiful (kalon) and most precious is the ability to produce an eloquent and beautiful speech (eu kai kalôs logon katastêsamenon) to a law-court or a council-meeting or any other official body (en dikastêriôi ê en bouleutêriôi ê epi allêi tini archêi) 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 (tas smikrologias tautas), unless he wishes to be accounted a complete fool because he occupies himself, as we are now doing, with trumpery nonsense (lêrous kai phluarias hôsper nun metacheirizomenos).’ (304a4-b6, tr. B. Jowett) I have given the passage in Jowett’s translation, for I could not translate it better, but I must note several discrepancies with the original that vitiate its understanding. Jowett in his translation did not find an English word with which he could consistently render Socrates’ logos, translating tôn logôn as ‘argument’ at 304a5, logon as ‘speech’ at 304a7, and smikrologias as ‘pettifogging arguments’ at 304b4. It is only when we keep in mind that in the Greek Hippias speaks of logos in all these cases that it may dawn upon us that Hippias here turns upside down the relationship between dialectic and rhetoric as propounded in the Phaedrus. In the Phaedrus Socrates maintains that rhetoric can become truly persuasive only if it is properly founded on knowledge of truth, that is on dialectic (260c-e, 265d-266c, 270b-272b, 273d-274a), whereas Hippias views dialectic as the mere superficial ‘scrapings and shavings’ of argument gleaned from rhetoric.
In response, Socrates says that he is not impervious to the criticism of Hippias, but that he is more afraid of the critic who is always with him, ‘the son of Sophroniscus’ (ton Sôphroniskou, 298b11), i.e. himself, his critical self: ‘But when in turn I am convinced by you and repeat exactly what you tell me, that the height of excellence 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.’ (304c6-d3, tr. B. Jowett) Jowett’s words ‘but when ... I ... repeat exactly what you tell me’ are misleading. Plato’s words epeidan de ... legô haper humeis mean simply ‘when I say what you say’, which allows a slight variation in Socrates’ rendering of Hippias’ words, and in fact Socrates in his intimation to ‘the son of Sophroniscus’ does not repeat exactly what Hippias said. Firstly, Socrates omits any disparaging remark concerning dialectics. Secondly, instead of Hippias’ ‘in a law-court or a council-meeting or any other official body’ (en dikastêriôi ê en bouleutêriôi ê epi allêi tini archêi, 304a8-b1) Socrates says ‘in a law-court or any other assembly’ (en dikastêriôi ê en allôi tini sullogôi, 304c8-d1). This may appear to be a trifling difference, but on the dating of the Phaedrus and of the Hippias Major that I propose it is highly significant. For instead of ‘repeating exactly’ Hippias’ words Socrates echoes his own words from the Phaedrus where he defined rhetoric as the art of producing speeches ‘in law-courts and any other public assemblies’ (en dikastêriois kai hosoi alloi dêmosioi sullogoi, 261a8-9). This reference to the Phaedrus is important, for Socrates’ self-criticism appears here to be in tune with Plato’s own self-criticism: in his outline of rhetoric in the Phaedrus Plato was drawing on material alien to him, derived from his discussions with Isocrates. Further misleading are Jowett’s words ‘I am called every kind of bad name by some of the audience, including especially that man who is always cross-questioning me’, which suggest that Socrates’ criticized speeches were held by him at some public discussion, thus obscuring the reference to the Phaedrus. Equally misleading is Robin Waterfield’s translation in the Penguin Classics edition of Plato’s Early Dialogues: ‘I get every kind of abuse from whoever I’m with, but especially from this constant inquisitor of mine’ (Penguin Group, London, 1987). Jowett’s ‘by some of the audience’ and Waterfield’s ‘from whoever I’m with’ render Socrates’ hupo te allôn tinôn tôn enthade, which mean ‘by some other people from around here’. Plato chooses his words carefully so that an attentive reader can refer the words to the criticism of Socrates’ presentation in the Phaedrus by Socrates himself and by some unnamed other people in Athens.
At the time when Plato wrote the dialogue Hippias’ words about the beauty of an eloquent speech ‘at a council-meeting or any other official body’ that convinces the audience and wins ‘the greatest of all prizes, your own salvation and that of your friends and property’ would have sounded particularly hollow, for under the Thirty rhetoric ceased to be the key to the salvation of one’s life and property. As we know from Xenophon, Theramenes, the original leader of the Thirty became unhappy with the widespread executions and confiscations of property by the Thirty: ‘So they bade Theramenes also to seize anyone he pleased; and he replied: “But it is not honourable (kalon), as it seems to me,” he said, “for people who style themselves the best citizens (phaskontas beltistous einai) to commit the acts of greater injustice than the informers used to do. For they allowed those from whom they got money, to live; but shall we, in order to get money, put to death men who are guilty of no wrong-doing? Are not such acts altogether more unjust than theirs were?” Then the Thirty, thinking that Theramenes was an obstacle to their doing whatever they pleased, plotted against him, and kept accusing him to individual senators, one to one man and another to another, of injuring the government. And after passing the word to some young men, who seemed to them most audacious, to be in attendance with daggers hidden under their arms, they convened the Senate.’ (Xenophon, Hellenica II.iii.22-23) Critias opened the meeting of the Senate with a speech in which he accused Theramenes of being a traitor to the cause of the aristocrats. Theramenes responded with an excellent speech in which he convincedthe Senate that he was right and Critias and his followers were wrong. Then Critias took recourse to the young men with daggers.
Socrates’ confrontation with Hippias – Plato’s with Isocrates – although it pervades the whole dialogue, is of secondary importance in comparison to the main theme, which consists of Socrates’ internal struggle with his own ignorance vis-a-vis beauty as it is in itself, that is with the Phaedran Beauty.Plato’sfinal presentation of Socrates’ critical self in the Hippias Major is as follows: ‘That man who is always cross-questioning me ... 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 (tolmôn peri kalôn epitêdeumatôn dialegesthai, 304d6), when questioning makes it evident that I do not even know what beauty is. “And yet,” he goes on, “how can you know whose speech is beautiful or the reverse, and the same applies to any action whatsoever, when you have no knowledge of beauty? And when you are in this state (hopote houtô diakeisai), do you think that it is better for you to live than be dead?” (oiei soi kreitton einai zên ê tethnanai; 304d2-e3)’.
In the Hippias Major Socrates does not discuss a beautiful way of life; the criticism of his critical self concerning Socrates’ discussion of this topic points beyond the framework of the dialogue to the Phaedrus, which is fully devoted to the pursuit of ‘a beautiful way of life’. Does this then mean that Socrates’ critical self rejects all that Socrates said on the subject in the Phaedrus? In fact the criticism is aimed at Socrates for his audacity in talking about a beautiful way of life only insofar as it is inconsistent with his philosophic ignorance. The criticism targets Socrates’ ignorance, not what Socrates said of Beauty in the Phaedrus, on the contemplation of which the beautiful way of life depends. In the Hippias Major, by splitting Socrates’ mind into two opposing personalities in constant dialogue with each other, Plato gives a robust expression to the criticism with which Socrates greeted Plato’s presentation of him in the Phaedrus, redirecting it against Socrates’ ignorance, with Socrates on his side as his ally: throughout the Hippias Major Socrates is driven by his desire to know (hupo epithumias tou eidenai, 297e3) what beauty is.
The question which Socrates’ critical self-questioner addresses to him in his very last words deserves closer attention: ‘And when you are in this state do you think that it is better for you to live than be dead?’ Socrates addresses these words to himself because of his awareness of his ignorance; does he mean that all those who are in far greater ignorance, like Hippias and everyone else whose ignorance he had exposed in the course of his philosophic enquiries, deserved death in an equal, if not greater measure? To crown the realization that his ignorance of what beauty is prevents him from legitimately praising or criticizing anything by proclaiming that for every human being it would be better to be dead than alive would be very odd indeed. Socrates’ critical self addresses this final question quite specifically to Socrates, and on the dating that I propose it does so in a situation in which the prospect of Socrates’ imminent death was very real; in the Apology, retelling the incident of his not obeying the Thirty when they ordered him to imprison Leon the Salaminian Socrates says that he would probably have faced death because of it (kai isôs an dia tauta apethanon), had not the power of the Thirty been terminated shortly afterwards (ei mê hê archê dia tacheôn kateluthê, 32d7-8). In this respect, the situation within which Socrates stood when Plato wrote the Hippias Major was similar to that in which he found himself four years later, after he was sentenced to death. It is therefore legitimate to view the question in the light of what Socrates says on the theme of death on his last day in prison. On that occasion he says that as long as the soul is imprisoned in its body ‘and our soul is contaminated by such an evil, we shall never properly obtain what we desire (ou mê pote ktêsômetha hikanôs hou epithumoumen) – and that, we say, is truth’ (phamen de touto einai to alêthes, Phaedo 66b6-7). This is why, he insists, all true philosophers ‘pursue death’ (Phaedo 61b-c), ‘desire death and are worthy of death’ (thanatôsi kai axioi eisin thanatou, Phaedo 64b8-9), which does not mean that they think ofsuicide: they ‘must wait for someone else to be their benefactor’ (allon dei perimenein euergetên, Phaedo, 62a7).
On his last day Socrates does not discuss the way he perceives death as something that newly occurred to him, he views death Plato’s as something he has aspired to all his life in philosophy. In doing so he is not misrepresented by Plato. When Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds –staged in 423, that is almost a quarter of a century prior to Socrates’ trial and death – tells Strepsiades that if he becomes his true follower, he will resemble Chaerephon (a friend and admirer of Socrates’ from their early days, cf. Apology 20e-21a), Strepsiades exclaims in horror: ‘ O wretched me, I shall become half-dead’ (oimoi kakodaimôn hêmithnês genêsomai, 504). In Aristophanes’ Birds – staged in 414 – Socrates, like Odysseus in Homer’s Nekuia (Book xi of the Odyssey), is conversing with the souls of the dead (psuchagôgei Sôkratês, 1555), having sent to the underworlds Chaerephon (1564), his friend and disciple. In the light of Aristophanes’ Clouds and Birds on the one hand and of Plato’s Phaedo on the other, Plato in the Hippias Major confronted the Thirty with the question: ‘Do you want to become Socrates’ greatest benefactors’? The Thirty did not shrink from exposing themselves to charges of injustice and cruelty, and in that respect their putting Socrates to death would not have added much to their ill renown. What they most feared was ridicule, and by putting to death Socrates as Plato immortalized him in the Hippias Major they would have exposed themselves to it and become katagelastoi, that is laughable, far more so than Hippias becomes katagelastos in the dialogue. The Thirty did have enough time to dispose of Socrates, had they been bent on doing so. This becomes quite clear from Theramenes’ speech in front of the Senate convened by the Thirty, in which he refers to the execution of Leon the Salaminian as the main event that made him realize that the Thirty had embarked on a very wrong course: ‘but when these Thirty began to arrest men of worth and standing, then I, on my side, began to hold views opposed to theirs. For when Leon the Salaminian was put to death, – a man of capacity, both actually and by repute, – although he was not guilty of a single act of wrong-doing, I knew that those who were like him would be fearful, and, being fearful, would be enemies of this government.’ (Xenophon, Hellenica II.iii.38-39, tr. C.L. Brownson)
If Theramenes had time to profoundly reconsider his political position as a consequence of the execution of Leon the Salaminian, and if the Thirty had time to dispose of Theramenes because of it, they had plenty of time to execute Socrates after his refusal to take part in Leon’s imprisonment. Could Plato’s writing of the Hippias Major have played any role in saving Socrates? Read the dialogue! It begs to be read aloud. Imagine Plato reading the dialogue to his aristocratic friends scene by scene, as he was writing it, with Socrates in the audience, the reading punctuated with bursts of laughter. How could the Thirty have interfered with such good fun, with Socrates in its center?