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  • Pierre Destrée (a1)


Plato's Hippias Major has usually been taken to be a comic dialogue, and rightly so. Its main theme is the καλόν, but what is primarily targeted and harshly mocked throughout the dialogue is Hippias’ pretence of having σοφία, which should allow him to define what the καλόν consists in. Yet, καλόν is an ambiguous term since, besides its aesthetic meaning, it also usually means the ‘morally right’. Not being able to define what καλόν is therefore also amounts to being unable to define what the right is. And indeed, the genuine σοφία, as Plato will tell us explicitly, is the σοφία that helps people, especially the youth, to become morally better (see especially 283c4, where Socrates has Hippias wholeheartedly admitting that his σοφία is supposed to aim at εἰς ἀρετὴν βελτίους ποιεῖν). Thus, the serious conclusion Plato wants his reader to draw is, first, that the well-known sophist Hippias (and perhaps all the sophists, more generally) have no real σοφία despite their very name, and second, and most importantly, that they cannot help anyone become virtuous, and that therefore their claim of educating people in moral goodness proves to be specious.


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1 Especially noteworthy in this regard is Woodruff, Paul's title of his Hackett translation of the Ion and Hippias Major: Plato. Two Comic Dialogues: Ion; Hippias Major (Indianapolis, 1983). Let me also point out that the main reason why the Hippias Major has often been taken to be spurious is precisely because it sounds too funny to be from Plato's own hand—a rather weak reason once one has recognized the importance of humour in Plato's work (which indeed has been done relatively recently). On this, see most recently Trivigno, F., ‘The moral and literary character of Hippias in Plato's Hippias Major ’, OSAPh 50 (2016), 3165 .

2 See also 286a3−6, where Hippias, who is just back from Sparta, reports that he delivered ‘a very finely made speech’ (παγκάλως λόγος συγκείμενος) before the Spartans ‘about the fine activities’ (περί γε ἐπιτηδευμάτων καλῶν) young men ought to take up.

3 It may be interesting to note that the word σοφιστής is actually used three times at the beginning of the Hippias Major (281d5, 282b5 and 282e8), while it does not appear in the Hippias Minor where the paradox of sophists who in fact lack σοφία is not at stake.

4 That Hippias must be seen as a young man comes from 282d8−282e2, where he himself says that Protagoras is much older than himself.

5 Interestingly, this link between being handsome and composing fine speeches is also to be found in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, where Agathon humorously depicts Phrynichus as handsome and beautifully dressed up, which made him compose fine plays (164−66: καὶ Φρύνιχος […] | αὐτός τε καλὸς ἦν καὶ καλῶς ἠμπίσχετο· | διὰ τοῦτ’ ἄρ’ αὐτοῦ καὶ κάλ’ ἦν τὰ δράματα).

6 Another such humorous passage where his good looks and σοφία are paralleled is 291a5−9: ‘It wouldn't be appropriate for you to be filled up with words like that, when you're so finely dressed, finely shod, and famous for your wisdom all over Greece’ (καλῶς μὲν οὑτωσὶ ἀμπεχομένῳ, καλῶς δὲ ὑποδεδεμένῳ, εὐδοκιμοῦντι δὲ ἐπὶ σοφίᾳ ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς Ἕλλησιν, trans. Woodruff). In Hp. mi. 368b−d, Plato also reminds his readers of Hippias being well dressed. On Hippias’ σοφία, see also  Hp. mi. 364a−b and 368b−e; and Prt. 315b−c and 318e, where Hippias is presented as a teacher of natural philosophy and astronomy as well as mathematics, geometry and music. At Prt. 337c6, Hippias is emphatically called a σοφός (μετὰ δὲ τὸν Πρόδικον Ἱππίας ὁ σοφὸς εἶπεν) without any humorous implication, and this is also the case in Xen. Mem. 4.4.6, where he is described as πολυμαθής—but compare these seriously minded descriptions (which acknowledge the remarkable intellectual skills of Hippias) to the humorous description made by Socrates in our dialogue: ‘The Spartans enjoy you, predictably, because you know a lot of things (πολλὰ εἰδότι), and they use you the way children use old ladies, to tell stories for pleasure’ (285e10−286a2).

7 Contrary to what many translators have suggested, there is no reason to supply a verb (such as ‘here comes’), as if Hippias were a nominative subject; the nominative here is equivalent to a vocative. See Kühner, R. and Gerth, B., Ausführliche Grammatik der griechischen Sprache, 2 vols. (Hannover, 1898−1904), 2.46 n°3: ‘Der Nominativ wird oft als Ausruf gebraucht. […] So auch bei einem Ausrufe in der Form einer Apposition’, of which they give our passage as an example.

8 As far as I am aware, the only commentator who has noticed this is Ernst Heitsch, who writes that this phrase ‘variiert offenbar die feste Bezeichnung für das Ideal des perfekten Mannes καλός τε καὶ ἀγαθός’ ( Heitsch, E., Platon. Grösserer Hippias, Übersetzung und Kommentar [Göttingen, 2011], 42). However, Heitsch does not see any humour being involved here, and takes the first sentence as a straight description (‘Feststellung’) of Hippias. While he does not seem to have noticed this variation, Paul Woodruff rightly states that, ‘[t]hough Socrates is polite on the surface, his irony is intense from the first line’ ( Woodruff, P., Plato. Hippias Major. Translated, with Commentary and Essay [Indianapolis, 1982], 35).

9 Tht. 142b3; 185e3−5; Phdr. 246b2−3; Lys. 205e1, 216d4−5; Resp. 451a7, 531c7−8, 561c1; Euthyd. 284d4; Phd. 77a4; Alc. I 116c2; Grg. 474d1; Epin. 359b8−9.

10 On this rather striking passage, see Woodruff (n. 8), 76 for a detailed discussion.

11 I am grateful to Elizabeth Belfiore, Malcolm Heath, Franco Trivigno, Arnaud Zucker and CQ’s anonymous referee for their comments and suggestions.

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The Classical Quarterly
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