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Socrates′ Defense of Polytropic Odysseus: Lying and Wrong-doing in Plato's Lesser Hippias

  • Laurence Lampert


Plato's Lesser Hippias asks who is the better man in Homer, Achilles or Odysseus. Socrates argues on behalf of Odysseus and his argument ultimately leads him to the conclusion that “he who voluntarily goes wrong and does what is shameful and unjust, if indeed there is any such person, would be no one else than the good man.” This conclusion is repellant to Hippias and Socrates agrees with him while insisting nevertheless that the argument requires this conclusion. But Socrates also says he “vacillates,” sometimes holding this view, sometimes its opposite. Why does Socrates argue for the superiority of Odysseus? Why does he insist on a repellant conclusion? And why does he say he vacillates? The answer to these questions points to indispensable elements in Socrates′ political philosophy.



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I am grateful to the Earhart Foundation for support during the initial research for this paper.

1. Hamilton, Edith and Cairns, Huntington, eds., The Collected Dialogues of Plato (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961), p. 200. See Friedländer, Paul: “without the explicit testimony of Aristotle, probably few critics would consider the Hippias Minor a genuine Platonic work” (Plato 2: The Dialogues, First Period, trans. Meyerhoff, Hans [New York: Pantheon, 1964], p. 146). See Aristotle, Metaphysics 1025a 213.

2. Polytropos means much-turned or much-traveled, much-wandering. It is the defining quality of Odysseus, used in the first line of the Odyssey and at 10.330. As used by Hippias with respect to Odysseus (365b) it includes being false or lying and carries the connotations of wily and shifty. Antisthenes, a follower of Socrates who wrote Socratic dialogues, also argued against the claim that Homer meant to blame Odysseus by calling him polytropos; Antisthenes claims that it is praise for being “good at dealing with men…being wise, he knows how to associate with men in many ways.” See Kahn, Charles H., Plato and the Socratic Dialogue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp.121–24.

3. I am grateful to Christopher Planeaux for indispensable help on the dramatic dates of the Platonic dialogues and their historical backgrounds.

4. Thucydides 3. 86; Diodorus 12. 53.1. Prodicus is present in the Protagoras which is set between 434 and 432, before the war broke out in 431.

5. See Taylor, A. E., Plato: The Man and His Work, 6th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1960), p. 29;Guthrie, W.K.C., History of Greek Philosophy 4: Plato, the Man and His Dialogues, Earlier Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 177;Sweet, David R., “Introduction to the Greater Hippias,” The Roots of Platonic Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Pangle, Thomas L. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), p. 340. The need for peace throughout Greece for Hippias to visit Athens was recognized by Athenaeus in the second century (Deipnosophistae v. 218c-d). Thucydides refers to the Elean embassy in 5. 4344.

6. Thucydides 5. 4950. The peace of Nicias may have made 420 the first Olympics Athenians could easily attend since the outbreak of the war; see Hornblower, Simon, “The Religious Dimension to the Peloponnesian War, Or, What Thucydides Does Not Tell Us,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 94 (1992): 169–98, especially 191–93.

7. See Protagoras and Alcibiades I and II, both probably set shortly after the Protagoras in the year Alcibiades turned eighteen and was therefore permitted to begin a political career by addressing the assembly.

8. Thucydides presents these events in great detail, emphasizing what Alcibiades thought while displaying the scope of his strategic plans and the forcefulness of his persuasive talents (5. 43–48).

9. Thucydides 5. 6574.

10. On reading Plato in the light of Thucydides, see Benardete, Seth, The Argument of the Action (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 381; see also 169, 262–65

11. Kalos can also be translated beautiful or fine but both the content of Hippias's speech and its audience of aspiring youth make it preferable to emphasize its meaning of noble.

12. Nothing is known of Eudicus apart from the Hippias dialogues. His name literally means “good justice.” It is reasonable to picture him as a young man because of what Socrates says about his father, because he seems to be a student at Pheidostratos's school, and because Hippias's speech is aimed at young men.

13. Hippias does not speak of Odysseus's son seeking out Nestor, an event described by Homer (Odyssey 3). The story of Philoctetes raises the chief issue of Lesser Hippias directly: Odysseus himself attempts to make Achilles’ son, Neoptolemos, a follower of his own polytropic ways but fails. In Sophocles's Philoctetes, Neoptolemos is unable to carry out Odysseus's ruse and blurts out the truth, betraying the Achaian cause and jeopardizing their whole effort at Troy. Only Herakles's miraculous intervention saves the Achaians from Neoptolemos's speaking the truth without regard to consequences.

14. The dramatic situation of the Protagoras (set twelve or more years earlier) has similarities: the famous old Sophist Protagoras who has never lost a verbal contest loses to Socrates before an audience of young Athenians; his defeat in the first extended dialectical exchange with Socrates is understood by only one of those present, young Alcibiades (Protagoras 336b-d

15. In the Republic Socrates refers to Odysseus as “the wisest of men” (390a).

16. The Protagoras makes a similar point: in introducing his exegesis of Simonides′ ode and in the exegesis itself (342a-347a), Socrates intimates that the innovations of Protagoras and the sophists generally are less wise than the practices of the ancient Greek wise.

17. The dramatic center of the Protagoras hinges on a similar dispute about “verbal contests” employing long speeches or short speeches (334c-335c); the deeper issue, however, concerns justice and moderation or Socrates’ almost direct suggestion that Protagoras’ moderation masks his actual teaching of injustice (333b-e).

18. In the Odyssey, “no man” is outis or mē tis (9. 366, 405414); the words translated “no man” in Lesser Hippias are oudenos…andros (373b).

19. In this context of Hippias's three-way comparison with its three superlatives, it seems necessary to understand aristos in its customary Homeric sense, bravest, while remembering that it also means best: it seems likely that for Hippias who has just given a speech on Nestor, wisest counts as best. Because Socrates′ restricted question had not asked him about the best simply, Hippias finds it necessary to make his position clear by adding Nestor.

20. Roslyn Weiss divides the dialogue into its three arguments and reasonably defends their validity against the customary charges of equivocation and abuse of language, “Ho Agathos as Ho Dunatos in the Lesser Hippias,” Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates, ed. Benson, Hugh H. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 242–62. For the view that Socrates’ arguments are themselves examples of sophism see Sprague, Rosamond Kent, Plato's Use of Fallacy (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), pp. 6579, and Howland, Jacob, The Paradox of Political Philosophy: Socrates′ Philosophical Trial (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), pp. 177–81

21. Mary Whitlock Blundell shows how this “strategically located speech” effectively trivializes Hippias's many skills while highlighting the absence of the skills of dialectic and argumentative subtlety (“Character and Meaning in Plato's Lesser Hippias,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 1992 Suppl. Vol. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), pp. 131–72; see 149–51)

22. Following Leake in preferring the manuscript reading of euetheias to the eunoias (kindness) of a less authoritative manuscript; The Roots of Platonic Political Philosophy, p. 292, n.13.

23. See the argument for this view of Achilles by James Leake, “Introduction to the Lesser Hippias,” in Roots of Platonic Political Philosophy, p. 302. See also Haden, James, “On the Lesser Hippias,” in Plato's Dialogues: The Dialogical Approach, eds. Hart, Richard and Tejera, Victorino (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997), pp. 160–61,163.

24. Gorgias 490e; see also 482a, 509a. In the Symposium (221e) Alcibiades makes this one of the ugly features of Socrates′ speeches. Remarkably, the single conversation between Socrates and Hippias presented by Xenophon in the Memorabilia shows Socrates virtually repeating the conversation between Socrates and Callicles in the Gorgias: when Hippias makes fun of him for still saying the same things after all these years, Socrates intensifies the charge: “And what is even more terrible than this, Hippias—I not only say always the same things but even say them about the same things” (4.4.6) (trans. Bonnette, Amy [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994]). Like the Lesser Hippias, the Memorabilia passage also mentions a discussion of the letters of Socrates’ name; cf. 366c and 4. 4. 6.

25. The Greater Hippias also ends with Socrates vacillating (304c). Looking back to Greater Hippias from Lesser Hippias it is apparent that Socrates approached Hippias polytropically, vacillating or doubling himself by making his relentless truth-seeking self seem like someone else to noble Hippias full of his dignity, some irritating other with rude questions and ugly examples with whom Hippias would not have deigned to speak. Socrates is both the man who appears to Hippias and the truth-seeking “son of Sophroniscus” who is very closely related to him and lives in the same house: because the son of Sophroniscus is concerned only with truth-seeking, Socrates must also be concerned with appearance. Looking forward to Lesser Hippias from Greater Hippias it is apparent that Socrates has learned that noble Hippias is ineducable and that there is nothing to be gained for himself by questioning Hippias on what the noble pursuits for young men are. It seems that Lesser Hippias can benefit Eudicus and his like whereas Greater Hippias benefited Socrates; while the son of Sophroniscus learns from his own relentless questioning, Socrates also needed to learn from the famously noble and wise what he holds about the noble. Socrates can say at the end of Greater Hippias, “What the proverbmeans that says, “The noble things are difficult, ‘I seem to myself to know.”

26. Taylor, A. E. takes this route (Plato: The Man and his Work, p. 37) and is followed by Shorey, Paul, What Plato Said (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 89;Sprague, R. K., Plato's Use of Fallacy, p. 76;Allen, R.E., Dialogues of Plato 3 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 29; and numerous others.

27. Perhaps Plato suggests Odysseus at the end by using planōmai (vacillate, wander around) four times in Socrates′ final speech, ending the dialogue with its noun, planē. Blundell entertains the possibility that “Odysseus is indeed ‘such a one’” (“Character and Meaning in Plato's Lesser Hippias,” p. 162), but she dismisses Odysseus as “one who does not really know what he is doing” and claims that “the earlier analysis of Odysseus [in Lesser Hippias] as a deliberate wrongdoer must therefore have been, in Socratic terms, mistaken.” Blundell's detailed and useful analysis of the dialogue fails to appreciate the depth of Socrates’ Odysseanism because it fails to appreciate the range and subtlety of Homer's Odysseus. For a profound appreciation of Odysseus that links him closely to the Platonic Socrates, see Benardete, Seth, The Bow and the Lyre (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997); Benardete states: “There is more to Socrates than either Achilles or Odysseus can encapsulate” (p. 156n50; see also, p. 38). On Odyssean themes in Plato see also Howland, Jacob, The Republic: The Odyssey of Philosophy (New York: Twayne, 1993).

28. The Euthydemus comes to one of its crises on this very point. Having been proven to know all things by Euthydemus's outrageous reasoning, Socrates says: “how shall I say that I know that good men are unjust?” (297a) Dionysodoros foolishly gives an answer that avoids Socrates′ distasteful or revolting proposition but at the cost of ruining his brother's argument. Dionysodoros blushes but redeems himself by changing the subject entirely (297b) thus leaving Socrates’ question unanswered. The argument of Lesser Hippias shows that this is something Socrates has come to know and to know is not fit to utter.

29. Christopher Bruell seems to repeat Socrates’ wavering at the end of his account of Lesser Hippias, praising Achilles in a way that seems to serve his own recognition of the necessity of the Odyssean. Stating that Achilles declares that “he has become sufficiently wise to choose for the correct reasons the right way of life,” Bruell notes that Achilles nevertheless proved not capable of making that choice, “at any rate, of sticking to it.” “The strength of his lion-like heart enabled him to grasp with admirable clarity what it entailed,” but such clarity seems after all to be the less than fully articulated awareness of merely generous or noble natures. That flawed awareness underlies their reluctance to do wrong and holds them back from intentional wrongdoing of the Odyssean sort, making them, potentially, unintentional wrongdoers. Bruell's final sentence allows Socrates’ wavering to appear genuine. On the Socratic Education: An Introduction to the Shorter Platonic Dialogues (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), pp.101102.

30. James Leake indicates how the Iliad and the Odyssey can be illuminated by reading them in the light of Socrates′ claims in the Lesser Hippias. After listing the occasions where Homer presents Odysseus lying, Leake concludes: “A favorable view of lying is the necessary concomitant of a recognition of the limits of reason” (Roots of Platonic Political Philosophy, p. 304).

31. Alcibiades′ speech in the Symposium (set in 416 about a year before public debate on the Sicilian expedition began) traces his break with Socrates to an early date for he says that “after [Socrates shamed him] we went together on the expedition to Potidaia” (Symposium 219e). It was in 433 and 432 that Athenians sent the two contingents that would remain in Potidaia through the siege that lasted until the battle in 05 429. Plato shows Socrates returning to Athens just after the battle in the Charmides. Alcibiades′ statement in the Symposium thus indicates that the Alcibiades of 420 had already been long lost to Socrates and long removed from the wise direction Socrates offered him in the two Alcibiades dialogues which are set before Potidaia.

32. Republic 620c.

33. Socrates is clearly concerned about his public reputation in the face of sophism. The Protagoras, arguably the temporally first of Plato's dialogues in dramatic setting, shows Socrates narrating his defeat of famous old Protagoras to a wider public not very engaged in such matters, given that they don't even know that world-famous Protagoras has been in town for three days after a long absence (309d, 310e). Viewed chronologically, the Platonic dialogues would open with Socrates actively seeing to his public reputation by making a wider public aware of a victory he had just won over the greatest sophist behind locked doors. Viewed chronologically, the Platonic dialogues end with the same concern: the Theaetetus is set in 369 as the reading of a text that Socrates dictated in 399 to Euclides with a view to his writing it down. Shortly before his death, therefore, Socrates saw to the wider dispersal of a private conversation with Theodorus and Theaetetus; in that conversation he once again defeated Protagoras, this time however the long-dead Protagoras living on posthumously in his books and still drawing the discipleship of talented young men like Theaetetus. By having Euclides write this conversation down Socrates sees to his own posthumous life in a book that extends to a still wider public his philosophic victory over sophism.

Socrates′ Defense of Polytropic Odysseus: Lying and Wrong-doing in Plato's Lesser Hippias

  • Laurence Lampert


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