Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 7, Hippias Minor - or why virtue is knowledge and no one does evil on purpose

The Hippias Minor (named after the Sophist Hippias of Elis) is one of two Platonic dialogues featuring Socrates being his usual sarcastic self at the expense of the title character. We looked recently at the Hippias Major, on what it means to say that something is “fine,” and it is now time to tackle the next to the last chapter in the exquisite edition of the Early Socratic Dialogues curated by Trevor J. Saunders. The Hippias Minor is about two of the most fundamental ideas of Socratic philosophy, and arguably of the entire Greco-Roman tradition: that virtue is a kind of knowledge, and that nobody does evil on purpose. These are known as Socratic paradoxes, from the original Greek meaning of the term, “uncommon opinion.”

According to Socrates, virtue is a skill, and can, consequently, be taught. He uses the famous “craft analogy” here: moral learning is akin to learning a craft like carpentry or swordsmithing, and it is therefore possible to find people able to teach it, however rare they may be in practice (and Socrates, of course, never claims to be one of those people). More generally, virtue is a type of knowledge, but of a special kind, since it cannot be used for ill purposes (by definition), unlike knowledge from crafts (one can be a swordsmith and make weapons that can then be used for good or ill, by virtuous or unvirtuous people).

This in turn leads to the second paradox: Socrates maintains that since virtue is a type of knowledge, then if you have that knowledge you are ipso facto virtuous, just like if you know how to do carpentry you are therefore a carpenter. From which he derives the further conclusion (the actual paradox) that nobody does evil on purpose, but only out of lack of knowledge (i.e., virtue). These same two ideas were adopted, defended, and elaborated upon by the Stoics during the Hellenistic and imperial Roman periods.

The scene setting of the dialogue is historically interesting, as it tells us that debate competitions would take place on the side of the Olympic games, with the winner being whoever would first refuted his opponent by a variety of means, including paradox and fallacy. Of course Hippias begins with a typically boisterous claim:

[Hippias] Naturally that’s how I feel, Socrates: ever since I began to compete at Olympia, I have never been up against anyone who could beat me at anything. (364)

After an initial exchange about the moral characters of the two Homeric heroes, Achilles and Odysseus, the discussion shifts to geometry, of which Hippias claims -- of course -- to be an expert:

[Socrates] Well, isn’t it the case in geometry too that the same person, the geometer, is supremely capable of telling both lies and the truth about his diagrams? … So the good, clever geometer is supremely capable in both respects, isn’t he? Since he is capable of lying about diagrams, then if there is a liar in this subject, it is he, isn’t it, the one who is good – because someone bad, as we found, is incapable of lying? So this reaffirms our earlier conclusion that he who cannot lie will never become a liar. (367)

This is a prelude to the more general argument that only the person who has knowledge can decide whether to use it for good or not. The discussion then veers back to the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Socrates claims that Odysseus is “better” than Achilles because he is capable of both lying and telling the truth, which means he has to exercise knowledge of when to do either. That knowledge, of course, is wisdom, which makes Odysseus, often portrayed as deceitful and “complex,” actually virtuous. (Indeed, he was interpreted as such by a number of philosophical schools of antiquity.)

Plato's argument here is not at all airtight, and at some point he even briefly falls prey to a fallacy of ambiguity concerned with the use of the word “good.” However, as the translator/commentator notes, the main argument proposed by Socrates in the dialogue works: functional goodness goes hand in hand with functional badness for all skills (obviously), and that (less obviously) is true of moral skills as well. Morality, then, is such that one can be functionally good or bad at it. If one is functionally bad at morality that’s because one is “ignorant,” or, more precisely, unwise. He lacks the necessary skills. That’s why nobody does evil on purpose.

Let’s examine the general import of the two Socratic paradoxes as they emerge from Hippias Minor. First, virtue can be taught. It better, otherwise all our efforts at moral teaching and ethical self-improvement would be for naught. According to Socrates virtue can be taught because it is a type of knowledge, that is, it can be acquired by way of reasoning. Today we would say that ethical behavior is the result of a number of components, from a natural instinct to behave pro-socially (presumably inherited by our pro-social primate ancestors) to habits modelled by our caretakers early on in life and reinforced by practice, to yes, deliberate reflection on what is right or wrong, the bit that Socrates emphasized. The Stoic model of moral development is pretty much the one that I just described, as it turns out.

Second, and more controversially, people do bad things not on purpose, but out of lack of wisdom (the specific Greek word is amathia). But lack of wisdom is a form of ignorance, hence the only evil is “ignorance.” Many people I know seem to have a knee-jerk reaction to this notion, immediately explaining to me that of course people know that they are doing wrong. Yet this doesn’t seem to me apparent at all. Some people may realize that what they are doing is considered wrong by others, for instance the asshole (a technical philosophical term) that cuts in front of you on the highway. But from his perspective he is actually entitled to do so, because he is special. (Of course he isn’t, but that’s not the point.)

Even egregious instances of evil don’t actually present much of a challenge to the Socratic concept. Take the quintessential one, Hitler. Even he was convinced of doing what was right for the German people, as well as of the true superiority of the “Aryan race,” whatever that is. Of course he was wrong, and of course what he did was horrible. But the point is that he likely didn’t get up in the morning, went to the mirror and laughed a sinister laugh while asking himself “what sort of evil can I do today?”

The advantage of the Socratic-Stoic dual paradox that virtue is a type of knowledge and that nobody does evil on purpose is that we develop a more compassionate view of wrongdoing. Instead of dehumanizing criminals, thereby licensing awful actions of our own doing, we see them as defective human beings, to be opposed for sure, but also treated with pity. As Epictetus puts it:

“‘This man who has fallen into error and is mistaken about the most important matters, and thus has gone blind, not with regard to the eyesight that distinguishes white from black, but with regard to the judgment that distinguishes good from bad -- should someone like this be put to death?’ If you put the question in that way, you’ll recognize the inhumanity of the thought that you’re expressing, and see that it is equivalent to saying, ‘Should this blind man, then, or that deaf one, be put to death?’” (Discourses I, 18.6-7)

(next and final installment: Euthydemus and the difference between sophistry and philosophy)

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