77. Hippias Major by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

77. Hippias Major by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

Plot: Another dialogue, this time between Socrates and a sophist from Elis called Hippias, concerning the definition of fineness (meaning that which makes something fine as opposed to contemptible).

There are two dialogues featuring Hippias – this is known as Hippias Major simply because it is longer.
My thoughts:  Socrates seems more tongue-in-cheek and sarcastic than previously, perhaps because Plato paints Hippias as quite arrogant and immodest, but more offensive to Socrates, Hippias charges fees for his educational and public services.

The usual arguments abound, following  shaky logic examples based around if A equals B, and B equals C,  then A MUST equal C.  e.g. All dogs have four legs, and my cat has four legs therefore my cat is a dog (steady Kimmy). In chasing a definition of fineness, Socrates convinces Hippias that their initial definition (really an example) that a beautiful woman is a fine thing, in comparison to a pot but not to a God, means that a beautiful woman can be both fine and contemptible. Fineness is then suggested to be akin to appropriateness, meaning that for eating soup a wooden spoon is more appropriate and therefore finer than a spoon made of gold. And so on….
Favourite lines/passages:
Socrates : “Tread carefully, Hippias: we’re in danger of imagining that we are making some headway”

and later…

Hippias : “Listen, Socrates. This is all picking and whittling at words, as I said before – just splitting hairs.”

And I think Hippias unknowingly wins the more important point when he foreshadows the coming tragedy of Socrates’ trial

Hippias : “But the ability eloquently to deliver such a fine speech to the court, Council or whichever official body the speech is being delivered to, that you win them over and carry off not the most trivial but the greatest of all prizes – the preservation of yourself, your property and your friends – this is both fine and valuable and is what you should concentrate on.”

Diversions and digressions:  Hippias was a Sophist, a professional (ie paid) teacher who uses philosophy to teach virtue and excellence to young noblemen. It seems Socrates and his supporters greatest issue with the Sophists was their charging a fee for this service, thus making their education available only to the rich.
Personal rating:  Difficult but fun. Still only a 4.

Kimmy’s rating: Kimmy was schmoozing with my wife and daughter tonight, so I was accompanied by my lovely old longhaired tortoiseshell cat Belle – she of the buzzsaw purr and the needle claws. Like many cats, she disdains from silly human activities such as rating books.

Next : The rematch : Plato’s Hippias Minor

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