Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 6, Hippias Major and what it means when something is “fine”

One of the features of my writings here is a book club, where I invite readers to follow me, chapter by chapter, through selected books ranging across a variety of topics in philosophy or science. So far I have covered Paul Feyerabend’s Philosophy of Nature, Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason, Harry Frankfurt’s On Inequality, and Kevin Laland’s Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony. The current series concerns Early Socratic Dialogues, edited by Trevor J. Saunders (here is the book), and this is the 6th instalment (we have two more to go, after which, new book!).

The Hippias Major (just like its Minor counterpart, to which we will turn next time) is named, yet again, after a Sophist: Hippias of Elis (image above), a younger contemporary of both Protagoras and Socrates. The primary reason Plato wrote so often about the Sophists was not in order to give a detailed refutation of their mode of philosophizing, but to defend the memory of Socrates. Plato thought that a major reason for the trial of 399 BCE that led to the execution of his teacher was that he was confused, in popular understanding, with the Sophists.

Originally the term “Sophist” was not a disparaging one, it just meant teacher. These were itinerant instructors, who would make demonstrative “displays” of their art, hoping to attract good paying pupils from the upper classes, to whom they would teach knowledge of some specialized field or other. Plato disliked them for a couple of reasons: their being overly concerned with money (everyone’s gotta make a living, but within reason), and especially the fact that they were teaching rhetoric, not philosophy. They appeared not to be interested in discovering and communicating truth, but in allowing people to defend whatever position happened to suit them at the moment.

The Hippias Major is one of the aporetic dialogues, in which Socrates inquires on the meaning of a particular philosophical term, but his quest ends in “aporia,” or confusion. He manages not to find an answer to the question, but rather to discard a series of proposed answers, usually while at the same time showing that one or more of his interlocutors are far less wise than they seem to think they are.

The concept du jour in the Hippias Major is a tough one: the Greek term is kallos, and is broadly translate as “fineness.” In the dialogue it is used to praise things as disparate as soup (yeah, the liquid, edible stuff) and argumentation, and also to describe the beauty of girls and the moral propriety of certain behaviours. The word has an intrinsic aesthetic quality to it, which is an interesting insight into the Greek mind of the time: a “fine” argument, for instance, was considered a thing of beauty, just like a “fine” girl (or boy).

One of the reasons this dialogue is interesting is because Plato here is clearly beginning to formulate his notion of a world of Forms, or Ideas, which he will develop fully in the middle dialogues, such as the Republic. In previous early dialogues, Socrates was conducting his inquiries on epistemic grounds (how do we know X?), without committing to a particular metaphysical position about the nature of the concepts under investigation. In Hippias Major, however, Socrates begins to generalize at a theoretical level, arguing that anything that is responsible for other things having some characteristic is an existing entity: if all “fine” things have something in common, this must be an entity that embodies “fineness.” It is only a short step from here to the theory of Forms.

Another reason Hippias Major is fascinating is that it can be read as a sort of handbook on how to arrive at Socratic definitions, something that will hopefully become clear through the following commentary.

The dialogue begins in a very lively manner, where Socrates’ sarcasm is on clear display, even though Hippias is so full of himself that he doesn’t realize he is being mercilessly made fun of. After a discussion of Hippias’ failure to teach in Sparta, because the Spartans don’t appreciate foreign ways of teaching, the two begin to talk about the major topic: fineness.

Socrates directly asks Hippians to define the concept, but Hippias seems to acknowledge that he can’t, and gives an example instead: a fine-looking girl. But Socrates replies that an example of X can never provide a definition of X, as that confuses the particular with the general. He also argues that there are two criteria which an X itself must satisfy: that it must be responsible for other things being X, and that it must never be not-X. (In the following exchanges, see if you can spot examples of Socratic sarcasm…)

[Socrates] Explain to me, as well as you can, what fineness itself is, and try to answer my questions as accurately as possible. I don’t want to make a fool of myself. ... I’m sure you’re crystal-clear on the subject and that it must be only a fraction of your vast knowledge.

[Hippias] Yes, indeed it is, Socrates, and not a particularly important part either. (286)

[Hippias] As I said just now, it’s an easy question: I could teach you how to become unassailable by anyone – anyone at all – on far more difficult issues.

[Socrates] This gets better and better. (287)

[Socrates] Well, obviously you have a finer knowledge of the matter. But still, since the question is not what is fine, but what fineness is, please apply your mind to that.

[Hippias] I see, my friend; I will tell him [Socrates’ imaginary alter-ego] what fineness is, absolutely incontrovertibly. Well, you can be sure of the truth of this, that a fine–looking girl is a fine thing! (287)

After Socrates dispatches of this attempt, Hippias proposes that fineness is gold, the metal. This strikes modern hears as definitely odd, but it was not uncommon in ancient times to provide what we would today regard as an extremely materialistic interpretations of abstract concepts (the Stoics, for instance, thought that virtue is made of matter).

Despite the oddness of it, this is actually progress on Hippias part, since he realizes that he can’t just give examples, he has to find a general principle of what makes things fine. But Socrates dispatches of this second attempt rather quickly, by showing that some things made of gold are not fine, and so the proposal fails the criterion of never covering not-X instances.

[Hippias] Here’s your reply to him [the alter-ego]: when he’s asking about fineness, he’s asking about gold. That’ll confound him; he won’t try to refute you. I mean, everyone knows that the presence of gold makes even things which previously seemed contemptible look fine. Yes, gold’s what makes them attractive. (289)

[Socrates] Which of the ladles [wooden or gold] is appropriate for the pot and its soup? Evidently the wooden one, isn’t it? It improves the aroma of the soup, not to mention the fact, my friend, that it won’t break the pot and so spill the soup, put out the fire, and deprive the prospective diners of a splendid soup. But since the golden one would do all that, to my mind, unless you raise any objections, we have to say that the wooden ladle is more appropriate than the golden one. … You see, if I avail myself of your last solution and say that fineness is gold, it will, in my judgement, be proved that gold is no more fine than wood. But how do you define fineness now? (290-291)

At this point Hippias understands that the definition they are looking for has to exclude all cases of non-X, so he proposes a number of things that most people would think are “fine,” including health and wealth. Socrates, however, points out that just because the majority of people thinks something it doesn’t make it true, that Hippias’ new definitions are not unitary (i.e., they don’t apply to all cases), and moreover that he is sneaking in “fine” into the definition itself, thus committing the logical fallacy of petitio principii.

It is now Socrates’ turn, in the form of his imaginary alter-ego, to suggest a definition: fineness is appropriateness. But appropriateness may either make things fine, or appear to be fine, which is not the same thing, obviously. Appropriateness is context dependent, and Hippias leans toward the option that it makes things appear to be fine. But this leaves out all the cases in which things do not appear to be fine (i.e., they are not recognized to be fine by people), and yet they are. A modern would probably not buy into this objection, since we think of “fineness” as an aesthetic judgment, and therefore as intrinsically subjective.

[Socrates] If appropriateness makes things appear finer than they are, then in a sense it misleads us about fineness, and can’t be our quarry, Hippias, can it? I mean, our quarry has always been whatever is responsible for all fine things being fine, analogous to excess, thanks to which all big things are big. (294)


[Socrates] So it must be the case, Hippias, that everything which is in fact fine – a law, say, or a practice – is thought to be fine, and universally and everlastingly appears so. But is this the case, or the exact opposite, that ignorance prevails and that such things are the prime cause of strife and contention in the private affairs of individuals and in the public life of states?

[Hippias] The latter, rather, Socrates: ignorance prevails. (294)

Next Socrates suggests that maybe fineness is usefulness. But something may be useful to bad ends, so the definition is amended to usefulness for good action, i.e., fineness is a benefit.

[Socrates] Take any living creature – a fine horse, cock or quail; take any artefact; take any vehicles for land, and boats and ships on the sea; yes, and take any instrument, whether it is musical or used in some other skill; and, if you like, take practices and laws – all of these we invariably call ‘fine’ in the same sense. We consider the nature, construction or constitution of each of them, and call it ‘fine’ if it is useful in some way or for some purpose or at some time; but if it is useless in all these respects, we call it ‘contemptible.’ Don’t you agree, Hippias? (295)


[Socrates] [But] bad actions and unintentional errors are far more common among humans than good ones, from childhood onwards.

[Hippias] True.

[ Socrates] Well then, shall we describe this ability as fine? Shall we say that things whose usefulness is to contribute towards some bad result are fine? Or would that be quite wrong?

[Hippias] Quite wrong, I think, Socrates.

[Socrates] Therefore, Hippias, ability and usefulness are apparently not fineness. (296)

[Socrates] What about usefulness and ability for good action? Was this the definition of fineness that we actually had in the back of our minds, Hippias?

[Hippias] I think so.

[Socrates] ‘Beneficial’ is another way of putting it, isn’t it?

[Hippias] Certainly.

[Socrates] In that case it’s because they are beneficial that fine bodies, fine laws, expertise and everything we mentioned a short while ago are fine.

[Hippias] Obviously.

[Socrates] Apparently, then, benefit is fineness, Hippias. (296)

[Socrates] If, then, fineness is a cause of good, goodness would be generated by fineness. And it apparently follows that when we pursue wisdom or any other “fine” thing, what’s really stimulating us is its product or offspring, goodness. The conclusion seems to follow that fineness is in the position of father, as it were, of goodness. (297)

And this dispatches of the new definition, since a father isn’t the same thing as his offspring, so fineness cannot be goodness.

Next, the two consider the possibility that maybe fineness is aesthetic pleasure (which is very close to the way we would think of the concept today). This too is rejected, but as the result of a fallacious argument. Socrates considers the pair of visual and auditory pleasures to be fine, but argues that this is incompatible with the notion that if something obtains for a pair of things then it must be true for each of the two things separately. As the translator of the dialogue puts it: 

“The property of being visual and auditory only obtains for the pair, not for each member of the pair, as it would have to if the property in question were fineness; so the definition is rejected. The error here is confusing ‘and’ and ‘and/or.’ The original hypothesis used ‘and’ in the sense of ‘and/or’: visual and/or auditory pleasures are fine; hence it is agreed that each individually is fine as well as the pair. But the later stages of the argument take ‘visual and auditory’ to join the two terms together inseparably.”

[Socrates] Therefore, this [aesthetic pleasure] is not what is responsible for each [pleasure] being fine, since it doesn’t apply to each of them (for ‘both’ does not apply to each); therefore we may say ex hypothesi that both are fine, but not that each is fine. Aren’t we forced to that conclusion?

[Hippias] I suppose so. (302-303)

We are now at the end of the dialogue, which, as I said, concludes in aporia. What is Plato’s point here? Twofold. First off, just because Socrates has rejected all proposed definitions it doesn’t mean that we haven’t learned anything. Not only we have learned what fineness is not (a good looking girl, gold), but we have contemplated some definitions that are treated more seriously and appear to be closer to the truth (benefit, aesthetic judgment). Second, Plato wants to contrast Hippias’ self-aggrandizement and disinterest in the truth with Socrates genuine (if sarcastic) search for it.

(next up: the Hippias Minor, or why virtue is knowledge and no one does evil on purpose)

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