On Truth and Lies in the Lesser Hippias

The “Lesser Hippias” or “Hippias Minor” dialogue is a performed dialogue, not a framed or narrated dialogue, and it begins en media res. Hippias, the famed sophist from Elis in the northwest Peloponnese, has apparently just delivered a beautiful series of speeches (or an “exhibition”) on Homer and the poets, pleasant to the guests listening. Hippias is famous for his incredible memory, and powerful oratory. He was once chosen to represent Sparta on several occasions during the Peloponnesian War (as we also see in the Greater Hippias dialogue). Hippias embodies the polymathia, composed of “much learning,” however he is also incredibly vain, as evidenced in the dialogue (a sub-theme which Socrates exploits). Hippias is also found in exchanges with Socrates in Plato’s Greater Hippias as well as Xenophon’s Memorabilia. A subtitle was later added to the dialogue: “On the Lying” or “On the Lies.”

The dialogue begins as Eudicus redirects the conversation to Socrates – ‘do you have nothing to say in praise of these fine speeches Hippias has just given?’ He acts as mediator between Hippias and Socrates. We not receive the text of the speeches Hippias has apparently delivered just moments before the start of the dialogue.

Socrates, initially hesitant to question Hippias in fear of the crowd and also not wanting to break impropriety by interrupting his “exhibition,” begins by asking Hippias about Homer – how do you distinguish the two men of Homer: Achilles of the Iliad and Odysseus of the Odyssey? (364b-364c).

Hippias claims that Achilles is best of men in Homer (or perhaps most “courageous”) while Odysseus is the most versatile (or perhaps “well-turned” or “well-traveled” or even “cunning, in many disguises”). Nestor is also distinguished as the wisest. Hippias clarifies that Achilles is the most simple man (citing verses from “The Prayers” -the ancient name for the section of the Iliad, in which Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix all go to convince Achilles to relinquish his anger at Agamemnon -a failed attempt). Hippias claims these verses justify his claim that Achilles is simple and honest, while Odysseus is complex and a liar. Hippias further reveals to Socrates that those who are liars, can be prudent and even wise.

According to Hippias’s claim, Odysseus is inferior to Achilles because of his deceitfulness, however the conclusion of the first part of the dialogue has Hippias reluctantly agreeing with Socrates that the liar and the truth-teller are sometimes the same, for the honest man must sometimes disguise himself in mystery. Perfect honesty is an impossibility.

In the second part of the dialogue, Hippias (urged on again by Eudicus who appears to be trying to preserve Hippias’s reputation) claims that there is a difference between voluntary and involuntary lies. He introduces intentionality to the question -and thus he claims that when Achilles lies, he does so involuntarily, while Odysseus wittingly lies on many occasions through the Homeric texts.

The second part of the dialogue turns to the questions of justice. Since the topic discussed up to this point led us to a puzzlement regarding truth and lies, perhaps honesty and justice are not perfect bedfellows. Socrates is concerned with the lies of high-born men, like Odysseus, not the mere fibs told by people to escape responsibilities. Socrates is concerned with the art of politics, the telling of lies for the sake of a greater good. For as one rises above convention, it becomes clear (as stated in the Republic) that the most honest man is also the best liar, and the best doctor is also the best poisoner. For the most good and noble man must also possess the knowledge and art of evil inside him, otherwise he is innocent, ignorant, and therefore he cannot be the most good and noble man.

The conclusion of Socrates’s dialectic shows that the man who performs unjust acts shows to be none other than the good man. To this, Hippias cannot agree, and neither can Socrates, as he shows hesitation, or “vacillation.” Socrates closes the dialogue with his disappointment that Hippias, who boasted about his wisdom and reputation at the outset of the dialogue, has been unable to help him clarify this question of truth and lies, touching on questions of nobility, goodness, and justice. Socrates’s exchange with Hippias invites comparisons between the corpus of Plato and the Homeric corpus to further illuminate the passages cited by Hippias (some of which Hippias repeats with deliberate obfuscation -perhaps even a lie to impress the small group around him in the hopes that Socrates will not catch his entangled web).

For this reading I used the Agora Edition of “The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues” and edited by Thomas Pangle. This translation was completed by James Leake.

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