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«Socrates Talks to Himself in Plato’s Hippias Major1 Halsten Olson §1 Socrates Meets His Match At Last It is almost a rule that the mature Socrates ...»

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Socrates Talks to Himself in Plato’s Hippias Major1

Halsten Olson

§1 Socrates Meets His Match At Last

It is almost a rule that the mature Socrates of Plato’s puzzle-raising dialogues

never converses with a philosophical equal. But it is not quite a rule: the exception is an

ongoing conversation with himself of which Socrates gives us fragments in the Hippias

Major.2 From the fragments we learn that in talking to himself, Socrates is, while of

course his own equal, also his own superior and his own inferior. He at once refutes his interlocutor and gets refuted.

The central conversation of the Hippias Major is between Socrates and Hippias on the question, “What is the fine?”. But during his questioning of Hippias Socrates alludes to someone who has asked questions of Socrates. Socrates acts the part of this person, who is first presented as an annoying questioner, “not refined” (ou kompsos) and “rabblerubbish” (surphetos, 288d4), “a real plague” (mermeros, 290e4), who would try to give Socrates a thrashing if Socrates could not remember what question he was supposed to be thinking about, then as someone who takes pity on Socrates and occasionally makes a suggestion to help discussion along, then as the person Socrates would be most ashamed to make pretensions to, then as the “son of Sophroniscus”, and finally as “a close relative of mine”, who “lives in the same house”. Before the dialogue ends, readers realize that Socrates’ annoying questioner is none other than Socrates himself.

The device of Socrates’ acting out these second-hand questions for Hippias somewhat insulates Socrates from seeming discourteous to Hippias. The questions he relays from the third party can be more simple and straightforward than the questions which the self-admiring Hippias would expect Socrates to address to his face. For his part Hippias can more frankly grumble about the unadorned questioning of the absent third party than would be polite for Hippias to grumble directly to Socrates.

Socrates’ acting out the annoying questioner’s questions in the Hippias Major may be compared to and contrasted with Socrates’ acting out speeches of the Laws of Athens in the Crito. In the conversation with the Laws Socrates imagines himself as speaking briefly (50c) contrary to fact, as though he proposed to escape from prison; he then speaks the Laws’ reasoning opposing escape. It seems that only one side of the discussion gives Socrates’ actual views.3 The Hippias Major’s conversation is different in that Socrates is narrator, questioner, and answerer.4 It may reveal Socrates’ own views better than Socrates’ narrations of his conversations withothers.5 My deliberately chosen modality ‘may’ presents a revelatory possibility, not a certainty; for there is the further possibility that the depicted Socrates is, as we might say, ironic. What Socrates says on occasion may not be directly revelatory of anything.

But I shall avoid the word ‘ironist’. Although it sounds like a straightforward translation and hence a synomym of the Greek ειρων, its relation to its Greek ancestor, which doesn’t have quite the flavor of our word ‘ironist’, is complicated and may be misleading.

Since neither ‘ironist’ nor words related to it occur in the Hippias Major, rather than speak of irony, I will simply state what everyone would agree to -- that Socrates is not always depicted as saying flatly and directly what Plato intends us, Plato’s readers, to understand.6 The sort of self-conversation Socrates reports will be familiar to many of us who talk to ourselves and try out objections on ourselves. For example, the Socrates of the Theaetetus (189e) says that the soul’s carrying on a discussion (dialegesthai), questioning itself and answering itself, is what he calls ‘thinking’.7 Socrates’ report of what the annoying questioner has said to him, if we believe it, gives us a rich picture of Socrates as a self-questioner. The report tells us what the questioner has asked Socrates in the past (286d). The report tells us what the questioner is in the habit of asking (287c). The report predicts what the questioner will say (293d;

303e-304). But in so predicting, Socrates is making use of prediction to reveal a tendency, not just to point to an isolated future event. So even these future tense claims give some information about how Socrates has questioned himself.

There is a complexity in the picture the dialogue gives us of Socrates as answerer, for Socrates sometimes assumes the part of Hippias to give answers in the conversation.

For example, at 289c-d Socrates says, in effect, that if he said that the finest girl is shamefully ugly compared with the gods (as Hippias has just agreed), and is no more fine than shamefully ugly, then the annoying questioner would say that Socrates had only answered the question ‘What is both fine and shamefully ugly?’, instead of answering the question the questioner has asked. In this passage Socrates is not himself asserting the view which he has taken over from Hippias. He is just considering what the questioner would discover to follow if Socrates asserted the view of Hippias.

So we need to separate Socrates’ genuine answers, in his own person, to his questioner from those answers that Socrates says he would give in the contrary to fact condition that he were to answer as Hippias does. When we make that separation, we find that Socrates gives only a fragmentary picture of how, speaking for himself, he has answered the questioner. But the fragmentary picture is, if we trust what Socrates says, of great interest.





I will, in fact, trust Socrates; I will take as a starting point that there is some, but not much, Socratic dissembling and indirection in Socrates’ report to Hippias. I will then ask in the rest of this paper what we learn about Socrates from his description of his conversation with himself. Others who take as a starting point the thought that there is a great deal of dissembling in Socrates’ self-description will not find the Hippias Major as informative as I do. My starting point that Socrates is reporting quite accurately how he talks to himself has this interesting consequence: the Hippias Major gives us Plato’s picture of how the most philosophically adept answerer responds to the most philosophically acute questioner.

§2 Socrates, Self-Questioner, Asks ‘What is the fine?’ We learn from Socrates’ conversation with himself that Socrates questions himself in just the way he questions others in the short dialogues of inquiry. Socrates reports at 286c-d that the questioner has asked Socrates, “How do you know (pothen oistha) what sorts of things (hopoia) are fine and ugly?” and “Are you able to say (echois eipein) what the fine is?” At 287d, Socrates, who has proposed to question Hippias in the same way the annoying questioner questions Socrates, asks Hippias what the fine is. At 289c Socrates rephrases, asking, “Whatever is the fine itself?” Although Socrates does not use the word ‘definition’ here, I’ll say that Socrates is asking for a definition in this sense: to ask what the fine itself is is to ask what it is for anything to be fine.

That Socrates moves from the question “How do you know what sorts of things are fine and ugly?” to the question, “What is the fine itself?” shows the point of the latter, definitional, question. The answer to this definitional question will also give Socrates the answer to his initial question, “How do you know what sorts of things are fine?” The connection between a definitional question, such as the question what the fine is, and a question about knowledge, such as, ‘How do you know when something is fine?’, is straightforward to see in some cases. If a learner in an ordinary learning situation asks of an acknowledged expert the question, ‘How do you know that that figure is an octagon?’, the expert might answer, ‘Because the octagon itself -- that is, what it is to be an octagon -- is a figure with eight sides. And this figure indeed has eight sides.’ Here the person who knows that this is an octagon is able to say what an octagon is, or what it is to be an octagon. To say what it is to be an octagon is to cite the octagon itself in giving, as reasons for knowing that this is an octagon, what a teacher would say in teaching someone else what an octagon is.

At the end of the dialogue, at 304d, after the failure of all their attempts to answer, ‘What is the fine?’, Socrates again makes the connection between ‘What is the fine itself?’ and ‘How do you know what is fine?’ There Socrates says that if he tries to converse (304d,dialegesthai) about fine activities when he is ignorant about what the fine itself is, his questioner will ask him, “How will you know (pôs su eisê(i)) whose speech or any other activity is finely presented or not, when you are ignorant of the fine?” §3 Socrates Asks ‘What is the fine?’ When Hippias Commends Fine Actions to the Young We learn from Socrates’ self-conversation, as well as from Socrates’ conversation with Hippias, exactly what moves Socrates to ask about the fine by itself. Although previous to 286c Socrates has used the word ‘fine’ or close derivatives several times, and Hippias has used it once (282d6), these earlier uses have not moved Socrates to ask, in general, what is the fine. The turning point in the conversation occurs when Hippias uses ‘fine’ to make life-guiding recommendations about pursuits for a life, practices (epitêdeumata). At 285e10-286b5 there is this exchange.

S: The Spartans enjoy you, predictably, because you know a lot of things, and they use you the way children use old ladies, to tell stories

–  –  –

H: Yes, and by God, Socrates, about fine pursuits. Just now I made a great impression there speaking about the pursuits which a young man should take up. I have a speech about that that I put together really finely.

... My setting and the starting point of the speech are something like this:

after Troy was taken, the tale is told that Neoptolemus asked Nestor what sort of pursuits (epitêdeumata) are fine (kala) -- the sort of pursuits that would make someone most famous if he adopted them while young. After that, the speaker is Nestor, who teaches him a great many altogether fine

–  –  –

Hippias’ speech presents the advice of Nestor, a Greek elder, to the young Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. The advice hints at an account of one type of fine things, namely, “fine pursuits”, or, apparently equivalently, “the sort of activities that would make someone most famous if he adopted them while young”. That Hippias is, by telling his story, giving advice to the young is what moves Socrates to the general inquiry at 286c. Socrates recalls that the questioner has questioned Socrates precisely when Socrates has praised or found fault with speeches. The speeches that Socrates has in mind are the instruments of political advice, as his reference at the end of the dialogue to speeches and getting things done “in court or some other gathering” (304c8d1) implies.

–  –  –

stuck when I was finding fault with parts of some speeches for being shameful, and praising other parts as fine. He questioned me...,

–  –  –

At 287b5-8 Socrates emphasizes that what would provoke the questioner to ask the question about the fine itself is Hippias’ recommendation of fine pursuits.

If you displayed that speech to him, the one you mentioned about the fine pursuits, he’d listen, and when you stopped speaking, he’d ask

–  –  –

When Hippias says that doing what will lead to becoming famous is a fine pursuit, Hippias is recommending conduct, or even a way of life, to his hearer. If you, the hearer, believe that what Hippias says is fine is fine, you have some reason to undertake the commended activity yourself. But on the important topic of life-absorbing activities in which you will invest yourself, it seems a bad idea to trust in a recommendation of examples without having something to say about what explains why the examples of the fine are fine. For life-guiding recommendations you want, from someone who presents himself as an expert, a way to understand his examples. You do not want to take his word for one example after another. That is why Socrates asks Hippias how he knows.

§4. Socrates Wants A Certain Kind of Explanatory Answer to “What is the fine itself?” We learn from Socrates’ self-conversation that he wants, from himself as well as from Hippias, a certain kind of answer to the question what the fine is. At 293d-294 Socrates gives for Hippias an example of an adequate answer to a different definitional question, ‘What is the large?’ The large, or that by which something is large, is the going-beyond. That is, if something goes beyond (some other thing), then it is a necessity that it is large (that is, larger than that other thing).

What all large things are large by is by the going beyond. For by that, they are all large.... If they go beyond... it is a necessity [anagke] for them

–  –  –

Socrates would ask himself, “All those things you say are fine, will they be fine if the fine itself is what ?” (288a6-10). He wants to know that by which or in virtue of which or because of which all fine things are fine. The answer to ‘What is the fine?’ will tell us something that necessitates being fine. The answer Socrates expects is what we would call a necessary truth that is somehow explanatory.

In giving his example of that by which or because of which things are large, Socrates does not here say what entitles his example to count as explanatory of why something is large. Examples that the Socrates of other dialogues has accepted as adequate definitions suggest that explanatory analyses are fuller, simpler, and more obvious than what they analyse. Theaetetus 147c tells us helpfully that mud is earth mixed with moisture. The Laches 192b tells us that quickness is the power of doing much in a short time. The Hippias Major’s account of the large as the going beyond does not, however, seem especially explanatory or helpful, although it is a necessary truth.



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