Chapter 8: Socrates’ floundering in perplexity
Hippias Minor is one of the shortest dialogues, but short as it is, it confronts Platonic scholars with great difficulties, for Socrates in the dialogue argues that the truthful person and the liar are one and the same (365c3-369a3) and that a deliberate criminal is a better man than an unintentional one (371d8-376b6). In the dialogue Socrates confesses that face to face with these paradoxical theses he is ‘floundering in perplexity’ (376c2-3), as Vlastos translates, insisting that we ought to be ‘taking Socrates at his word’ (1):
‘The Socrates portrayed in this dialogue is in a muddle: he has gone as far as discovering a sense in which a man who cheats and wrongs voluntarily is indeed better than one who does so involuntarily, but not far enough to pin down that sense and contrast it sharply with the one in which ‘better’ is normally used when questions of right and wrong conduct are debated. And that residual failure vitiates the discovery, turns it from truth into flagrant error. Being the honest arguer we know him to be, Socrates does not try to conceal the failure from his interlocutor or from himself, and the dialogue ends in confessing it.’ (Vlastos, op.cit. p. 279)
The observation that Socrates has discovered a sense in which a man who cheats and wrongs voluntarily is better than one who does so involuntarily, but not the sense in which ‘better’ is used in questions of right and wrong means that in Vlastos’ view Socrates did not discover what morality is all about. Was Aristotle wrong then when he observed that Socrates devoted all his attention to ethical matters? (Aristotle, Metaphysics 987b1-3) Or was Socrates such a deplorable thinker that he was unable to discern the specific nature of being morally better despite concentrating his attentions upon it? In order to understand Socrates as the main character in this dialogue, and Plato as its writer, let us begin by following its course.
‘Better’ (ameinôn) is the concept on which the whole dialogue is focused and Socrates does indeed appear to be displaying a studied disregard of its moral connotations, which is emphasized by Hippias’ impotent accentuation of its specifically moral aspects. The term ‘better’ comes to the fore as soon as Socrates begins to speak; he says that he remembers hearing that Iliad is a more beautiful poem (kallion poiêma, 363b2) than Odyssey, just as Achilles, the hero of the Iliad, is better (ameinôn, 363b3) than Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey; he wants to learn which of these two men Hippias thinks to be better (ameinô, 363c1), and in what respect (kai kata ti, 364b4). By posing this question Socrates seems to be interested in the differences between the moral character of these two heroes, for in those days Iliad and Odyssey were recited, read, and debated as works in which questions of right and wrong conduct were powerfully illustrated. Hippias says that Homer portrays Achilles as the best man (ariston andra, 364c5) but Odysseus as the most complex and versatile (polutropôtaton, 364c7). Asked by Socrates what he means by ‘the most complex and versatile’ (2), he answers that he takes it as ‘being deceitful’, ‘being a liar’ (pseudê, 365b8-c1).
By thus contrasting the notion of cheating and deceitfulness with the notion of the best Hippias gives the terms ‘better’ and ‘best’ an unmistakably moral dimension. And it is this moral aspect of Hippias’ answer that Socrates is most anxious to impugn, for he notes that it then seems that Homer distinguished between a truthful and a deceitful man as not being the one and the same (heteros men einai anêr alêthês, heteros de pseudês, all’ ouch ho autos, 365c3-4), as if he were surprised that Homer could view these two as different. Hippias in his turn is surprised by Socrates’ way of thinking: how could Homer have possibly failed to make this distinction (Pôs gar ou mellei, ô Sôkrates, 365c5)? Asked whether he shares Homer’s opinion concerning this point, Hippias answers ‘Very much so, for it would be terrible if I did not do so’ (365c7). Consequently, Socrates subjects him to questioning in the course of which he proves the opposite. He does so by appealing to Hippias’ manifold spheres of self-proclaimed competence, for Hippias cannot but admit that as an expert mathematician he could give both true answers to any problem in arithmetic and to be a consistent liar concerning it, and that the same would be true concerning geometry, astronomy, and all the other spheres of knowledge and craft in which he is considered to be an expert (366c5-369a2). Reluctantly, he is compelled to agree to Socrates’ argument that the liar and the truthful man are one and the same (hoti ho autos pseudês te kai alêthês, 367c7-8), and that there cannot be found a sphere of human action, craft, and knowledge in which the truthful and the deceitful man would differ from one another (hopou estin ho men alêthês, ho de pseudês, chôris kai ouch ho autos … ouch heurêseis … ou gar estin, 368e4-369a2). What makes the two identical is their knowledge of truth. The liar is defined as the man who knows the truth, for only men who know the truth can deceive, that is have the power, knowledge and wisdom that enables them to deceive (tous pseudeis einai dunatous kai phronimous kai epistêmonas kai sophous eis haper pseudeis, 366a2-4), whereas an ignorant man would often unwittingly (akôn, 367a3) tell the truth.
Socrates then argues that in the Iliad it is actually Achilles who displays ‘a lordly disregard for telling the truth’ (panu gennaiôs oligôrôn tou talêthê legein, 370d5-6), whereas Odysseus ‘can be seen nowhere as lying’ (oudamou phainetai pseusamenos, 369e5-370a1), contrary to what Hippias had said: Achilles conveys to Odysseus his message to Agamemnon that he is determined to leave Troy, abandon the Greeks, and go home, when in fact he has no intention of doing so. In reply, Hippias maintains that when Achilles lies he does so without premeditation and ulterior motives (ouk ex epiboulês, 370e6), involuntarily (akôn, 370e7), whereas Odysseus lies deliberately (hekôn, 370e8) and with premeditation and ulterior motives (ex epiboulês, 370e9). But Socrates argues that Achilles could not have been unaware of what he was doing, for shortly afterwards, in Odysseus’ presence, he tells Ajax that he would not engage in battle until Hector routs the Greeks and reaches Achilles’ ships (371b-c): Achilles deliberately lied to Odysseus and succeeded in deceiving him. Hippias disagrees and maintains that what Achilles says to Ajax he does so ‘from goodwill’ (hupo eunoias), persuaded by his friends (anapeistheis), whereas Odysseus, whether he tells the truth or lies, in each case does so with ulterior motives (epibouleusas, 371e1-3). Instead of countering Hippias’ objection, Socrates gives the argument a surprising twist: ‘Then Odysseus is a better man (ameinôn, 371e4) than Achilles.’ When Hippias vehemently disagrees (Hêkista ge dêpou, ô Sôkrates), Socrates asks
‘wasn’t it recently shown that those who lie deliberately (hekontes) are better (beltious) than those who do so unwittingly (akontes, 371e7-8)?’.
Hippias protests that Socrates’ suggestion runs against the notions of right and wrong that form the very basis of human society:
‘How on earth can criminals who deliberately premeditate and carry out bad acts be better than people with no such intentions? A crime, lie or any bad act performed in ignorance is accorded plenty of indulgence, and the laws are far more severe on deliberate misdeeds and lies than on unintentional ones.’ (371e9-372a5, tr. Robin Waterfield)
In response to Hippias’ passionate rebuttal Socrates says that he is well aware that his views on practically everything are at variance with the views of men whom all Greeks admire for their wisdom, and that he considers this as a sure sign of his own ignorance (372a6-c1):
‘My view is quite the opposite of yours: it is not those who unintentionally cause injury, commit crimes, tell lies, deceive and make mistakes who are better; no, those who intentionally do all this are better than those who unintentionally do so, in my opinion.’ (Tr. Robin Waterfield)
Socrates nevertheless professes that he regards his current state of mind as an illness and is eager to be cured by Hippias; he insists that the only way he can be cured is if Hippias answers his questions (372e-373a).
Socrates proposes to Hippias to investigate which men are better (poteroi pote ameinous), those who err with intention to do so, or those who do so unintentionally (hoi hekontes ê hoi akontes hamartanontes, 373c7-8). He chooses as the most correct way of investigating it (oimai oun epi tên skepsin orthotat’ an hôde elthein, 373c8-9) the method that Aristotle in the Metaphysics calls induction (tous epaktikous logous) and ascribes to Socrates as his own invention (ha tis an apodôiê Sôkratei dikaiôs, 1078b27-8). Socrates asks: Are there good and bad runners? Is a good runner someone who runs well, a bad runner someone who runs badly? Isn’t a slow runner a bad runner, a fast one good? So in a race, speed is a good thing, slowness bad? After receiving positive answers to all these questions from Hippias, Socrates asks him ‘Who is a better runner, the one who runs slowly intentionally (ho hekôn bradeôs theôn) or the one who does so unintentionally (ê ho akôn)?’ Hippias answers ‘The one who does so intentionally (Ho hekôn).’ Hippias’ answer is followed by a new set of questions to which Socrates obtains positive answers: Now, isn’t running an action (poiein ti)? And if it is an action (ei de poiein), does it not achieve something (kai ergazesthai)? Is not that which a bad runner achieves in a race bad and contemptible? Is not slow running bad? So isn’t it the case that a good runner (ho agathos dromeus) deliberately (hekôn) achieves this bad and contemptible result (to kakon touto ergazetai kai to aischron), whereas a bad runner (ho de kakos) doesn’t mean to do so (akôn)? In a race, then, unintentional bad deeds are worse than intentional ones? Hippias answers that it is so, yet he attempts to prevent Socrates’ drawing any inference from this to problems of morality by insisting that this is valid only in the case of running (En dromôi ge). (373c9-374a1). Socrates therefore applies his inductive reasoning to other spheres of bodily activities, such as wrestling (374a7-b4), then to activities performed by the souls of animals:
‘Is it better (ameinon) for a man to own the soul of a horse (psuchên kektêsthai hippou) by virtue of which he will ride badly on purpose (hekôn), or the one by virtue of which he will do so against his will (akôn, 375a1-2)?’
Finally, Socrates comes to the point of discussing activities performed by the souls of human beings. Don't we want to have our own souls in the best possible condition? When Hippias replies affirmatively, Socrates asks whether our souls won’t be better if they deliberately do wrong and make mistakes than if they do so without meaning to do so (375c6-d2). But at this point Hippias revolts:
‘It would be monstrous, Socrates, if deliberate criminals (ei hoi hekontes adikountes) were to be better (beltious esontai) than those who don’t mean any harm (ê hoi akontes)’ (375d3-4).Socrates therefore argues once again and even more forcefully that voluntary wrongdoing is better than involuntary, and that a man who does the former is better than the one who commits the latter. He addresses Hippias with a salvo of questions: ‘Isn’t being just either an ability (ê dunamis tis) or knowledge (ê epistêmê) or both (ê amphotera)? Justice must be one of these, mustn’t it?’ ‘If justice is the soul’s ability (dunamis tês psuchês), isn’t it so that the more able a soul is, the more just it is? For we have agreed that greater ability is better.’ ‘And what if it is knowledge (ei epistêmê)? Isn’t the more knowledgeable soul (hê sophôtera psuchê) more just (dikaiotera) whereas the more ignorant one (hê de amathestera) is more unjust (adikôtera)?’ ‘And what if it is both? Isn’t a soul with both knowledge and ability more just, whereas a more ignorant soul is more unjust? Isn’t it of necessity so?’ ‘And didn’t we find that the more able and expert a soul is, the better it is and more capable of performing both well and badly in every kind of activity?’ (375d8-376a1)
Hippias answers positively to all these questions; Socrates therefore comes up with a set of conclusions: ‘So if the soul does shameful things (hotan ara ta aischra ergazêtai), it does so deliberately thanks to its ability and knowledge (dia dunamin kai technên), for justice appears to be characterized either by both ability and knowledge or by one of these two.’ ‘And to commit injustice (to adikein) is to do bad deeds (kaka poiein estin), whereas to refrain from committing injustice (to de mê adikein) is to do beautiful deeds (kala).’ ‘So the more able and better soul, if it ever commits unjust acts (hotanper adikêi), commits injustice intentionally, whereas the bad soul (hê de ponêra) will do so unintentionally?’ ‘Now, isn’t a good man the one who has a good soul, whereas a bad man is the one who has a bad soul?’ ‘Then, clearly (ara), it is a characteristic of a good man to commit injustice deliberately (agathou men ara andros estin hekonta adikein), but of a bad man to do so unintentionally (kakou de akonta), if it is the good man that has a good soul (eiper ho agathos agathên psuchên echei).’ (376a2-376b4) Although Hippias gave his assent to all these inferences, when Socrates finally concludes that ‘the man, if he exists (eiper tis estin houtos), who deliberately makes mistakes (ho ara hekôn hamartanôn) and acts contemptibly and criminally (kai aischra kai adika poiôn), can only be the good person’ (ouk an allos eiê ê ho agathos, 376b4-6), Hippias again revolts:
‘Socrates, I can’t agree with you concerning these things (Ouk echô hopôs soi sunchôrêsô, ô Sôkrates, tauta)’ (376b7).
Although Socrates in his final set of questions and inferences focused his attention on specifically moral issues, he treated these issues on the basis of the analogy of problems discussed earlier, having derived the meaning of better from bodily activities, such as running and wrestling. Socrates maintained that this procedure was the best one, but in the end he admits that he too could not agree with himself:
‘Nor can I agree with myself (oude gar egô emoi), Hippias. But this is the conclusion the present argument inevitably suggests to us (all’ anankaion houtô phainesthai nun ge hêmin ek tou logou). As I have remarked before, however, I am floundering in perplexity (egô peri tauta anô kai katô planômai), never having the same opinion concerning this matter’ (kai oudepote ta auta moi dokei, 376b8-c3).
It is because of Socrates’ admission of his being completely at a loss that Vlastos proclaimed that Socrates did not discover the specifically moral use of ‘better’. Where did it in Vlastos’ view leave Plato? Vlastos writes:
‘But why should Plato put his hero in that hole? Well, why not, if he had seen Socrates in it and had not himself hit on just the right move required to pull him out of it? For there is no reason to think that in this matter Plato’s own moral insight went farther than that of his teacher - no reason to believe that when Plato wrote this dialogue he had himself spotted the root of the trouble.’ (Vlastos, op.cit. p. 279)
Pace Vlastos, even a cursory glance at Plato’s other dialogues considered to be early makes it abundantly clear that at least in the case of Plato his judgment cannot be right. For in the Charmides Socrates says that without knowledge of the Good and the Bad (peri to agathon te kai kakon, 174c2-3) all the other branches of craft and knowledge are perfectly capable of performing their specific functions – medicine will make us healthy, shoemaking will make shoes, weaving will make clothes, piloting will prevent death at sea and military art will prevent death at war – but none of these will be done well and beneficially (to eu ge toutôn hekasta gignesthai kai ôphelimôs apoleloipos hêmas estai, 174c9-d1). In the light of this the whole reasoning in the Hippias Minor, which operates with the terms ‘good’ (agathon), ‘better’ (ameinôn, beltious) and ‘best’ (aristos ) as they are generally used within the framework of crafts and different branches of knowledge, that is without actual knowledge of the Good and the Bad, is illegitimate. In the Hippias Major Socrates’ own critical self maintains that he, Socrates, is not qualified to praise some things as beautiful and condemn other things as ugly as long as he is ignorant of what beauty itself is (286c8-d2). If he was thus sharply criticized by his own critical self for being incapable of knowing whose speech is beautifully composed, or any other action beautifully performed (Hip. Maj. 304d-e), how could he in his state of ignorance pronounce any legitimate judgments concerning right or wrong? The readers of the Hippias Major were therefore well prepared for judging the validity of Socrates’ questioning of Hippias in the Hippias Minor with a critical eye (3). It was because Plato viewed knowledge of the Good, and of Beauty, as the essential precondition for applying these terms to any sphere of activity that he was anxious to demonstrate that any attempt to approach moral problems without their prior knowledge led of necessity to dangerously flawed reasoning and unacceptable conclusions. The very fact that the inferences derived from the usage of ‘better’ in all the other spheres of human activity lead to absurd conclusions concerning the use of ‘better’ in question concerning justice and injustice shows that we must raise our eyes to the notion of the Good that transcends all other spheres. When we grasp this notion of the Good, we simply cannot do otherwise than act in accordance with it, and it is this notion of the Good to which both Socrates’ perplexity points. But the moment it becomes clear that Plato himself was not ‘in that hole’ in which Vlastos found him, we find ourselves faced anew with Vlastos’ question:
‘Why should Plato put his hero in that hole?’
Can there not be a simple answer to this question, namely that Plato did so in the interests of the truth concerning the historical Socrates? Xenophon’s Socrates is engaged in similar arguments: He begins by arguing that a just man often takes recourse to lying (pseudesthai), deceit (exapatan), and wrong-doing (kakourgein); he gives as an example a general who takes recourse to such actions against the enemy (Memorabilia IV.ii.14-15). Using induction, as Plato’s Socrates does, he argues that the same is true concerning friends and those whom one loves, as when a parent deceives a child refusing a dose of medicine by pretending that it is food, or when a man steals a sword from a friend suffering from depression and likely to commit suicide (IV.ii.17-18). Then he raises the question of those who practice deception on friends to their detriment (tôn de dê tous philous exapatôntôn epi blabêi), asking who is more unjust (adikôteros), the one who does so deliberately (ho hekôn) or the one who does so unintentionally (ho akôn, IV.ii.19). When Euthydemus, his young interlocutor, answers that more unjust is the one who does so deliberately, Socrates draws an analogy between justice and a branch of knowledge with which the young man is well acquainted. He asks him whether there is learning and knowledge of the just (mathêsis kai epistêmê tou dikaiou) as there is knowledge of letters (hôsper tôn grammatôn), and when he obtains a positive answer, he asks whether he views as more literate a man who makes mistakes in writing intentionally or a man who does so unintentionally. Euthydemus admits that more literate is the one who makes mistakes intentionally, for he could write correctly whenever he wanted (dunaito gar an, hopote bouloito, kai orthôs auta poiein). Socrates then asks whether it is the intentional liar and deceiver who knows what is just (ta dikaia) or the unintentional, and when the boy answers that it is the former, Socrates asks him whether he does not consider as more just a man who knows what is just than a man who does not know it. At this point Euthydemus is inclined to consider as more just the man who knows what is just, but confesses that he does not really know what to say ( IV.ii.20).
As can be seen, Socrates’ reasoning in the given passages in Xenophon’s Memorabilia is very similar to his reasoning in Plato’s Hippias Minor, and yet the reference to Xenophon only aggravates the problem. For in the Memorabilia it is Socrates’ young interlocutor who is perplexed, whereas Socrates in the course of his questioning does not show any sign of uneasiness. On Xenophon’s account Socrates in this way approached those who believed that they had received the best education and prided themselves on wisdom, as was the case of Euthydemus, a young aristocrat (IV.ii.1). By leading him into perplexity, Socrates showed to him that the state in which he found himself was that of slavish men (andrapodôdeis), for ‘does not this name belong to those who are ignorant of that which is beautiful, good, and just?’ (tôn ta kala kai agatha kai dikaia mê eidotôn to onoma tout’ estin, IV.ii.22). When Euthydemus realized and admitted that his state was contemptible and that he was indeed a slave (kataphronêsas heautou kai nomisas tôi onti andrapodon einai, IV.ii.39), Socrates ceased embarrassing him (hêkista dietaratten) and proceeded to expound to him plainly and clearly (haploustata te kai saphestata exêgeito) what he thought a man ought to know and to which pursuits he ought to devote himself so as to attain excellence (ha te enomizen eidenai dein kai epitêdeuein kratista einai, IV.ii.40). Clearly, in Xenophon’s view Socrates knew what was beautiful, good and just. But in Plato’s Hippias Minor Socrates does not know these things and is perplexed, whereas Hippias remains unshaken in his fundamental moral beliefs, although he proves unable to find flaws in Socrates’ arguments.
Robin Waterfield in his introduction to the Penguin edition of the Hippias Minor argues that
‘Xenophon and Plato can be reconciled, and a correct interpretation of the dialogue be reached, because the conclusion in Hippias Minor is hypothetical: if a deliberate criminal were to exist, he would be a virtuous person. In other words, while it is true, as Xenophon reports, that intentional injustice is only possible for a just person, nevertheless a just person who deliberately commits injustice cannot be found; so no one does wrong deliberately.’ (Plato, Early Socratic Dialogues, p. 269)
The problem with this solution is that few people would have agreed with Socrates that a person who deliberately commits injustice cannot be found. Hippias was certainly not among those prepared to agree with him, although Socrates towards the end of the dialogue suggests to him twice the hypothetical nature of the conclusion of their argument: ‘if a man ever does wrong deliberately’ (hotanper adikêi, 376a6-7), ‘if there is such a man’ (eiper tis estin houtos, 376b5-6). Although Plato does his best both in the Hippias Major and in the Hippias Minor to turn Hippias into a laughing stock, obtuse in spite of all his learning, in this case there is common sense on Hippias’ side. When Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics refers to Socrates’ view that people can act against what is the best only through ignorance (di’ agnoian) so that nobody can do wrong deliberately, he says that this view plainly contradicts the observed facts (houtos men ho logos amphisbêtei tois phainomenois enargôs, 1145b25-8).
Platonic scholars have duly noted the hypothetical nature of Socrates’ conclusion in the Hippias Minor. Thus Stallbaum instructs the reader that hotanper at 376a6 should be read as a hypothetical ‘if ever’ (4), and Pohlenz emphasizes that eiper at 376b5 indicates an unreal possibility as in Republic 381 where Socrates argues that God (ho theos), who is in every respect in the best state (pantêi arista echei, 381b4) can change only for the worse, if he changes (eiper alloioutai, 381c1), and thereby proves that God cannot change (5). Even more importantly, in the Hippias Minor itself Plato uses eiper in this sense, in the passage where Socrates argues that in astronomy too, as in arithmetic and in geometry, ‘if there is any other liar besides (eiper tis kai allos pseudês), the good astronomer will be a liar’ (ho agathos astronomos pseudês estai). The supposition ‘if there is any other liar besides’ is excluded by Socrates’ definition of ‘a liar’ as a man who is ‘capable of lying’ (ho dunatos pseudesthai, 368a4-5), where the ‘capability to lie’ is derived from and dependent on knowledge of truth, in the given case on the knowledge of astronomy. To make the exclusion of the hypothetical ‘if there is any other liar besides’ quite explicit, Socrates adds: ‘A man lacking the ability shall not be a liar, for he is ignorant’ (ou gar ho ge adunatos, amathês gar, 368a5-6) ... in astronomy too then the same man will be true and false’ (ho autos ara kai en astronomiai alêthês te kai pseudês estai, 368a6-7).
This rendering of eiper is essential for the widely accepted interpretation of the dialogue, for only thus can it be viewed as a mere plaything, a paignion. And yet Plato complicates the matter, for the crucial passage ‘if there is such a man’ (eiper tis estin houtos, 376b5-6), is preceded by ‘if a good man has a good soul’ (eiper ho agathos agathên psuchên echei, 376b3-4), where eiper is used in its usual sense ‘if as is the fact’. What may have been the reason for Plato’s presenting Socrates in such a confusing a manner?
Let us now view the Hippias Minor within the framework of the concrete historical situation in which Plato stood when he wrote it. We may begin by dating it according to the prevailing opinion of Platonic scholars. Robin Waterfield writes:
‘What shall we make of the dialogue as a whole? It comes across as somewhat naïve, which is a reason for dating it as one of the earliest Platonic pieces (written c. 395-390).’ (Plato, Early Socratic Dialogues, p. 270)
On Waterfield's dating, Plato wrote the Hippias Minor aged between 34 and 39, that is four to nine years after Socrates’ death; clearly, scholars ascribe to Plato a prolonged period of mourning, during which he could not take a writing instrument into his hand. The historical situation of those years was still presumably marked by Socrates’ death in 399. After his death Plato and other close friends and followers of Socrates sought refuge in Megara in the house of Euclides for fear of a widespread persecution of philosophers that they expected to follow (6). These fears proved to be unfounded, so Plato returned to Athens, and among the first things he writes is a dialogue in which he lets Socrates argue that the better and more capable a man is, the better and more capable he is of perpetrating evil deeds. If Plato wrote nothing else but this dialogue then on the currently accepted dating it would leave us with only one possible explanation: he wrote it to give substance to the accusation of Socrates’ corrupting the youth of Athens. Needless to say, against such an explanation militates the Apology.
Among twentieth century Platonic scholars Wilamowitz is a notable exception; he did take into account the historical situation as determined by the trial and death of Socrates, and came to the conclusion that the Hippias Minor was written prior to Socrates’ death (7). On this basis he asks what was Plato’s intention in writing the dialogue (8). He derives the answer from the closing words in which Socrates proclaims that he has no firm opinion, and that there is nothing remarkable in the fact that he and other ordinary men should wander in perplexity, but that it is bad if Hippias and other wise men are perplexed, for in that case they cannot liberate Socrates and others from their perplexities. From these words Wilamowitz infers that Plato intended to show that the sophistic universal wisdom was a deception (9). This is undoubtedly right, but it cannot explain ‘why should Plato put his hero in that hole’ as Vlastos has it, i.e. why Plato presented Socrates in such an untenable position vis-à-vis Hippias. Wilamowitz says that Socrates deliberately lies in the dialogue, and in this way he demonstrates his superiority in relation to Hippias. He insists that it is on this that the humour of this small dialogue is based, and that to appreciate its humour one must approach it in the appropriate mood, which requires that we leave morality completely out of account: Socrates in the dialogue lies deliberately and thereby demonstrates his superiority to Hippias (10). But on this point Wilamowitz must be mistaken, for if Socrates in the dialogue does lie deliberately, he is a very poor practitioner of the art of lying: Hippias refuses to agree with him and not only rejects steadfastly his paradoxical assertions, but maintains that the arguments do not justify the conclusions which Socrates draws from them. When Socrates maintains that the arguments appear to lead to the conclusion that the soul that perpetrates evil deliberately is better than the one that does so unintentionally, Hippias ripostes that ‘it would be monstrous (deinon), if those who do wrong deliberately were to be better than those who do so unintentionally,’ and when Socrates nevertheless insists that ‘the arguments make them appear to be so’ (Alla phainontai ge ek tôn eirêmenôn), Hippias answers firmly: ‘Not to me’ (Oukoun emoige, 375d1-6). The whole dialogue is focused on the problems of telling the truth and of deceiving, of justice and injustice, of good and evil, noble and ignoble activities, and when Socrates in his closing words says that it is terrible (deinon, 376c5) if there is nobody who could extricate us from our perplexities concerning these problems, his statement is a cry springing from a genuine moral anguish.
Socrates in the Hippias Minor ‘is in a muddle’, as Vlastos insists, and this ‘muddle’ goes right back to his philosophic beginnings and has its root in his view of the good, of which he speaks in his autobiographic reminiscences on his last day, in the Phaedo. The crucial passage is the following:
‘I heard someone reading from a book he said was by Anaxagoras, according to which it is, in fact, Intelligence (nous) that orders and is the reason (aitios) for everything. Now this was a reason that pleased me (tautêi dê têi aitiai hêsthên, 97c1-2) ... I thought that, if that’s the case, then Intelligence in ordering all things orders them and places each individual thing in the best way possible (tautêi hopêi an beltista echêi, 97c5-6).’
This means that in Socrates’ view the primary object of Intelligence is the Good, and that simply by virtue of knowing the Good Intelligence cannot do anything that is at variance with it. Socrates goes on, further explaining his view:
‘So if anyone wanted to find out the reason why each thing comes to be or perishes or exists, this is what one must find out about it: how is it best for that thing to exist, or to act or be acted upon (hopêi beltiston autôi estin ê einai ê allo hotioun paschein ê poiein, 97c8-d1). On this theory, then (ek de dê tou logou toutou, 97d1), a man should consider nothing else, whether in regard to himself or anything else, but the Best, the highest Good (to ariston kai to beltiston, 97d3); though the same man must also know the worse, as they are objects of the same knowledge (tên autên gar einai epistêmên peri autôn, 97d5).’ (11)
This idea underlies the whole discussion in the Hippias Minor: only a person who knows the Good knows the Bad, which implies that whoever knows the Bad must know the Good for ‘they are objects of the same knowledge’. We do not need to go to the Phaedo to discover this thought as authentically Socratic. In the Crito Crito claims that ‘the many’ (hoi polloi) are capable of doing the greatest evil to anyone who has lost their good opinion, as Socrates’ trial and death sentence clearly demonstrate (44d1-5). But Socrates forcefully rejects Crito’s contention:
‘I only wish it were so, Crito, and that the many were able to do the greatest evil (hoioi t’ einai hoi polloi ta megista kaka ergazesthai, 44d6-7), so that they would also be able to do the greatest good (hina hoioi t’ êsan kai agatha ta megista, 44d7-8); this would be fine (kai kalôs an eichen, 44d8). But in reality they can do neither; for they cannot make a man either wise or foolish; whatever they do is determined by chance (poiousi de touto hoti an tuchôsi, 44d9-10).’
Socrates’ remark that he only wishes that the many were able to do the greatest evil, for in that case they would also be able to do the greatest good, reinforced by his remark that this would be beautiful, clearly indicates that in his view in that case they could not do otherwise than simply do good: by virtue of their knowing the Good it would be impossible for them to do evil. The view that people therefore can do wrong only against their will is expressed as an undoubted certainty by Socrates in the Hippias major (pantes anthrôpoi ... hamartanousi akontes, 296c4-5). And Xenophon in Memorabilia III.ix.5 says of Socrates:
‘He said that Justice and every other form of Virtue is Wisdom (ephê de kai tên dikaiosunên kai tên allên pasan aretên sophian einai). “For just actions and all forms of virtuous activity are beautiful and good (kala te kai agatha). He who knows the beautiful and good will never choose anything else (kai out’ an tous tauta eidotas allo anti toutôn ouden proelesthai), he who is ignorant of them cannot do them, and even if he tries, will fail. Hence the wise do what is beautiful and good (houtô kai ta kala kai agatha tous men sophous prattein), the unwise cannot and fail if they try (tous de mê sophous ou dunasthai prattein, alla kai ean encheirôsin, hamartanein).”’ (Tr. E.C. Marchant)
If this is indeed so, if Socrates held this view of the Good from his philosophic beginnings to his death, how then could he plead ignorance in front of the jury, as he did in the Apology, and how could Plato portray him sinking into more and more pronounced ignorance in the sequence of dialogues: the Charmides, the Hippias Major, the Lysis, and the Hippias Minor? It is again Xenophon who can give us the clues we need if we are to understand both Socrates’ knowing and his self-proclaimed perplexity and ignorance.
As has been seen, Socrates’ questioning of Euthydemus in the Memorabilia closely resembles his questioning of Hippias in Plato’s Hippias Minor; the resemblance is so close that we may presume that Xenophon had Plato’s dialogue in his hands – a very likely supposition on the dating of the dialogue that I propose, for Xenophon was still in Athens at the time when Plato wrote it – and wanted to show that the dialogue was indeed true to Socrates, up to a point, in so far as it represented only the preliminary stage in Socrates’ approach to educating the young. This supposition is corroborated by the fact that Xenophon in the Memorabilia interrupts Socrates’ education of Euthydemus with a discussion on justice between Socrates and Hippias. Having arrived in Athens after a long period, the latter finds Socrates pointing out to some people how strange it is that if a man wants someone to be taught cobbling or building or smithing or riding he has no difficulty in finding where to send him, but if he wants to learn justice or to have it taught to a son or a servant, he does not know where to go for a teacher. Hippias addresses Socrates with scorn: ‘Are you still saying the same things (eti ekeina ta auta legeis) I heard from you so long ago?’, to which Socrates answers that he not only says always the same things, but he does so concerning the same things (ou monon aei ta auta legô, alla kai peri tôn autôn) (IV.iv.6). These words of Hippias at the same time mark Xenophon’s major correction of the Hippias Minor where Hippias complains that Socrates always causes confusion in discussions as if he were bent on doing evil (aei tarattei en tois logois kai eoiken hôsper kakourgounti, 373b4-5) and Socrates says that he is always changing his mind concerning all those things that he has discussed with Hippias (egô peri tauta anô kai katô planômai kai oudepote tauta moi dokei, 376c2-3). Plato in the dialogue presents us with Socrates who puts into play his philosophic ignorance, Xenophon presents us with Socrates who knows. Let me here point out that in the Gorgias, a dialogue written after the death of Socrates, Plato fully corroborates Xenophon’s view of Socrates. Like Xenophon’s Hippias, in Plato’s Gorgias Socrates’ interlocutor Callias complains: ‘You are always saying the same, Socrates’ (hôs aei ta auta legeis, ô Sôkrates), to which Socrates replies: ‘Not only that, Callicles, but about the same things too’ (ou monon ge, ô Kallikleis, alla kai peri tôn autôn, 490e9-11, tr. T. Irwin).
Xenophon’s Hippias boasts that he always tries to say something new and can now offer a proposition concerning justice (peri mentoi tou dikaiou panu oimai nun echein eipein) that neither Socrates nor anyone else can contradict (pros ha oute su out’ an allos oudeis dunait’ anteipein). To this Socrates replies:
‘You claim to have discovered a great good (mega legeis agathon heurêkenai), if jurymen are to cease from voting different ways, citizens from disputes concerning the justice of their claims, from litigation and from civic discord, and cities from quarreling about their rights and making war. And I don’t see how I could let you go till I have heard from you who have found such a great good (têlikouton agathon heurêkotos). (IV.iv.8)
These words end in irony, yet they clearly indicate what in Socrates’ view having knowledge amounted to. Knowledge cannot be contradicted, if it is true knowledge; it can be communicated to others; whoever it is communicated to acts in accordance with it. This is why Socrates can say that if Hippias has attained a view of justice that cannot be contradicted, it means the end of disputes concerning it, and the beginning of the reign of justice, for from now on all people would observe justice in all their activities. Socrates admits that he himself does not have this knowledge; his protestation that he wants to acquire it from Hippias are ironical as far as Hippias is concerned, but they are simply true in so far as they express Socrates’ awareness of his own not-knowing. Hippias does not question the criterion of knowledge implied in Socrates’ words, but instead of communicating to Socrates his new view of justice, he asks Socrates to reveal what he thinks on the subject:
‘But first declare your own opinion about the nature of Justice (ho ti nomizeis to dikaion einai); for it’s enough that you mock at others, questioning and examining everybody (erôtôn men kai elenchôn pantas), and never willing to render an account yourself or to state an opinion about anything.’ (IV.iv.8, tr. E.C. Marchant)
Xenophon’s Socrates does not plead ignorance in response to Hippias’ jibe but maintains that he never ceases to declare his own notions of what is just (egô ha dokei moi dikaia einai ouden pauomai apodeiknumenos). And when Hippias asks him what that notion (houtos ho logos) of justice is, that he thus claims to be declaring, Socrates replies that he declares it by his actions, if not by words (ei de mê logôi, all’ ergôi apodeiknumai) (IV.iv.10). In these words Socrates makes plain the extent to which he trusted his own view of justice; his view was good enough to guide him unerringly in his own actions, but not clear and powerful enough so as to enable him to communicate it satisfactorily to others. Of this powerlessness on his part he must have been painfully aware whenever he thought of Alcibiades and Critias, who were once his friends and followers, yet went to the bad.
Hippias regards Socrates’ answer as an evasion and presses on with his enquiry into Socrates’ views on justice. Socrates reluctantly gives in and says that what is lawful is just (phêmi gar egô to nomimon dikaion einai, IV.iv.12). In the ensuing discussion Socrates ably defends this view, and obtains Hippias’ assent: ‘I don’t think my opinion is contrary to what you have said about Justice’ (IV.iv.18), but this assent could have hardly persuaded Socrates that it transformed his view into knowledge, for as Xenophon himself explicitly states a little later, Socrates viewed as essential aspects of knowledge to be first its communicability – whatever one knows, one can expound to others (Sôkratês gar tous men eidotas, ti hekaston eiê tôn ontôn, enomize kai tois allois an exêgeisthai dunasthai, IV.vi.1) – and second its manifesting itself in right actions: when one knows what is right, one of necessity does what is right (III.ix.5). Socrates appeared to his friends and followers to be more knowledgeable than any of the sophists in spite of his protestations of ignorance. Xenophon viewed him as a man who had knowledge and was capable of communicating it to those who opened their souls to what he had to say and did not spring away from him to do politics as soon as they thought themselves superior to their fellow-disciples, as was the case for Critias and Alcibiades (I.ii.12-16). But although he thus minimized the tension between the knowing and the ignorant Socrates, the tension is present even in Xenophon’s account. He says that Socrates ‘instilled in many men a desire for goodness’ (pollous aretês poiêsas epithumein), ‘although he never professed to teach this’ (kaitoi ge oudepôpote hupescheto didaskalos einai toutou, I.ii.2-3), and yet just a few paragraphs later he speaks of him as a teacher capable of teaching citizens what was truly beneficial (ta sumpheronta didaskein tous politas, I.ii.10).
As for Plato, we have seen in the Charmides, Hippias Major, and the Lysis that after the publication of the Phaedrus he viewed Socrates’ protestations of ignorance as a debilitating aspect of his thinking, seriously diminishing his positive impact on others. In the Hippias Minor, by confronting Socrates with the moral and political dangers involved in his self-professed ignorance he steps up the pressure, tries to shake Socrates up and prompt him to overcome it. Written in the days of the newly restored democracy, the Hippias Minor arguments were to be read against the background of the misdeeds of the aristocrats during the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, who thought themselves to be the best men in the city, which did not prevent them from doing wrong, rather it gave them the license to do so. The arguments in the Hippias Minor can be read retrospectively as a behaviouristic recipe for Critias and his aristocratic associates. As such they present a powerful appeal to Socrates to rethink his philosophic position of ignorance, and could have been written by Plato only against the background of Socrates’ daring criticism of the Thirty and his refusal to obey their orders, untainted at that point in time by any accusation of Socrates for his corrupting the youth of Athens. In the Hippias Minor Socrates ends by deprecating his own ignorance and proclaiming that it is terrible (deinon, 376c5) if people considered as wise, too, are floundering in perplexity (ei de kai humeis planêsesthe hoi sophoi, 376c4). In view of Socrates’ intellectual superiority over Hippias, displayed in the dialogue, these closing words, as they come from Plato’s pen, present Socrates with the monstrosity of his recoiling into ignorance instead of fully accepting the responsibilities that derived from his exalted intellectual and moral position. Socrates’ firm conviction that nobody can do wrong voluntarily was based on the notion of what is right, beautiful and good, which could not be derived by induction from any realm of human activities, yet was open to his own eyes; on it all his own thinking, all his elenctic investigations of others, and all his actions were based. It was time for him to set aside his scruples, transcend his ignorance, and do his best to communicate it to others. This is Plato’s message to him in the Hippias Minor: tauta Sôkratei exangellô (to use Plato’s language from Phaedrus 279b2).
Chapter 8 Notes