The Exploration of Beauty in the Greater Hippias

Hippias of Elis was among a half dozen or so principally influential sophists from classical antiquity. He joins the ranks of Protagoras and Gorgias, among others. Surviving accounts of Hippias can be found in Plato’s ProtagorasHippias MinorHippias Major, and Xenophon’s Memorabilia. Apparently Hippias’s main struggle was for self-suffiency, and thus he decided to learn as many skills in life as possible. However, per the Greater Hippias dialogue, Hippias claims to value his skill in crafting beautiful speeches the most. He vainly proclaims his self-importance in Elis as a judge and orator.

The Greater Hippias dialogue is named due to its length, it is longer than Socrates’s earlier dialogue with Hippias. It takes place many years after their first encounter in the Lesser Hippias. Hippias has come to Athens on important business, perhaps with Protagoras, to negotiate the peace with Sparta in 420 BC. The dialogue is set against the backdrop of the Peloponnesian War.

The dialogue is a private conversation between Socrates and Hippias, and the principal subject of the conversation is “the beautiful.” In total three definitions are provided by Hippias (three accounts of beautiful things -“a maiden” “gold” and “something that will never be ugly to anyone ever”), and three definitions are offered by Socrates (three accounts of the beautiful). In many cases, the dialogue contains the usual Socratic jokes, as he routinely addresses Hippias as “beautiful” and “wise.” Additionally, Socrates protects his own inquiry by saying someone else, a name Hippias would not know, once asked Socrates: what is the beautiful? Much of the dialogue is exchanged between Hippias and this anonymous, hypothetical man, who refers to Hippias as a “stranger” or a “stranger from Elis.” Hippias, in his responses, is the epitome of opinion (doxa) by using phrases like “it seems so” or “we all agree that…” while the unknown interrogator represents truth.

Hippias is proclaimed ‘beautiful’ for his robe and shoes and exhibition of speeches. He is addressed at the opening of the dialogue as “Hippias, the beautiful and the wise,” while Hippias praises his own art of teaching virtue in order to gain money, and he boasts about his exorbitant wealth. As the dialogue progresses it moves from the easy to the difficult, from the appearance of the beautiful, to more precise and knowable accounts. In the end, Hippias’s opinions have not changed, but Socrates claims to have gained a better understanding of the beautiful things, and a new awareness that they are difficult.

The dialogue points to the relationship between the knower and the thing known. As a Kantian might say, the quest is for the “thing in itself,” or as a contemporary psychologist might say, they are bridging the gap between the subject and the object. The Greater Hippias touches on this epistemological problem, as perhaps the noble and philosophic life is one driven to pursue the beautiful things in an effort to gain knowledge of the ideas beneath the surface. Perhaps the beautiful is a kind of gateway to truth, and episteme. It cannot be denied that there is an element of relative subjectivity when it comes to beauty, as opposed to truth -each person has their own unique taste, but nevertheless we might say there is a kind of underlying order, harmony, timeliness, musical-nature to the beautiful. Beauty is dependent upon the human experience of things or imitations of things (i.e. experiencing a beautiful view of mountains, contra experiencing a beautiful painting of mountains. In either case the viewer meets the appearance or eidos of the object). The beautiful does not provide lasting satiety. It points to a deeper truth and a satisfaction beyond.

However, there is a danger to beauty, particularly with charming but vapid men like Hippias who see only the pleasant things and call them beautiful. In Plato’s Symposium a much more optimistic account of beauty is conveyed -as beautiful things lead up to the beautiful, while in the Greater Hippias beauty is suspicious, a temptress like the sirens in Homer’s Odyssey attempting to fix one’s gaze only upon the vain, charming things in life.

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 David R. Sweet.

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