Ancient History & Civilisation


Hippias was most famous as a polymath, who claimed to be able to answer any question on any topic (T1). Plato portrays him, for this reason and others, as somewhat big-headed, but if we remove that veneer, we glimpse a kind of fifth-century Renaissance man—a man of remarkable and wide-ranging accomplishments in subjects as diverse as mathematics and pottery (T2, T3; see also Protagoras T2 on p. 212). His art of memory was particularly famous, though we do not know enough about it to begin to speculate what kind of system he might have used and taught.1 Apart from all these other attainments, we are also told (T2) that he composed a model speech with a moral purpose, and we hear of a number of book titles whose subjects range from geography and history to Homeric criticism, taking in astronomy and cosmology on the way. And it is peculiarly relevant to this book to mention that he may (see F1) have been the first to create anthologies of passages from poets and philosophers, and to group them under certain headings of his own devising; this was effectively the start of the doxographic tradition which was continued by Aristotle, Theophrastus, and the later doxographers—and which so bedevils the study of the Presocratics. Even by the standards of the Sophists, our evidence for Hippias is unusually thin, but we can begin to glimpse a certain depth to his thought in T4, which is an important contribution to the fifth-century debate on the merits of nomos and physis. Hippias shows himself to be an advocate of nature over convention, and he may have been the first to speak (as in T6) of ‘natural law’, or, in his terms, the ‘unwritten laws of nature’, which have a greater claim on our obedience than man-made law (T5), and are supposed to be universal and unbreakable. A natural law, we may say, is descriptive—it states what simply and unalterably is the case—while a man-made law is prescriptive, since it states what should be the case. Heraclitus’ F12 (p. 39) is perhaps the ancestor of this view; compare also Antiphon F18 (pp. 264–6), and the passage in Sophocles’ Antigone (produced in 441BCE) where Antigone proclaims and acclaims the permanence of the unwritten laws of the gods (450–60).2 This is an emotively powerful, but legally dangerous argument, since it allows a defendant to claim that he was obeying a superior law in breaking a man-made one, and it had clearly gained enough currency in Athens by the end of the fifth century for it to be found necessary to pass a law forbidding reference to unwritten laws in court (Andocides, On the Mysteries 87). Nevertheless, just as we have found reason to believe that the Sophistic movement in general was a democratic or liberal movement, appeal to unwritten laws (whether seen as stemming from a superior, divine realm, or as the unwritten code and customs of a given society) can play an important role within a democracy, to allow debate and prevent the laws becoming rigid and tyrannical. For instance, if a state’s laws enshrine the death penalty, one might appeal to an unwritten law of humanitarian clemency or to the notion that only God has the right to take a human life, in order to stimulate debate about the death penalty.

Finally, T7 affords us a tantalizing glimpse of a Hippian theory which has been called ‘the continuity theory of reality’. Details are necessarily obscure, but it seems as though Hippias held that every whole has all the same properties as its parts: if you and I are both swarthy, we are a swarthy pair, and so on. This is an odd theory, and easy to demolish (a crowd of small people is not necessarily a small crowd), so what might have led Hippias to hold it? He possibly held that anything is no more than the sum of its properties (what we call ‘kitten’ is made up of ‘small’, ‘furry’, ‘cute’, ‘playful’, and so on), assimilated the relation between properties and the object possessing those properties to the relations between parts and wholes, and so inferred that any whole has the same properties as its parts. There is also a suggestion (at Plato, Hippias Minor 369b–c;) that this continuity theory of reality was Hippias’ justification for preferring long speeches and Sophistic displays to short, Socratic question-and-answer sessions: a long speech can more accurately represent reality, if reality is continuous and not to be chopped up into small pieces.

T1 (DK 86A8) Socrates. Well, Eudicus, it’s true that there are some questions I’d like to ask Hippias in connection with what he was just saying about Homer …

Eudicus. Of course Hippias won’t refuse to answer any question of yours. You’ll answer Socrates’ questions, Hippias, won’t you?

Hippias. It would be monstrous of me to evade Socrates’ questions, Eudicus. After all, every time the Olympic Games are on, I leave my home in Elis and go to Olympia, to the sacred precinct there, and make myself available to the assembled company of all the Greeks, to expound any subject on which I’ve got a lecture prepared, and to answer any question: people only have to ask.*

Socrates. What a happy feeling, Hippias, to enter the sacred precinct at every Olympic festival with such confidence in your mental expertise. I very much doubt that any athlete goes there to compete with such sanguine confidence in his physical prowess as you claim you have in your intelligence.

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.*

(Plato, Hippias Minor 363a6–364a9 Burnet)

T2 (DK 86A9, A11) Socrates. But what do the Spartans praise you for, and enjoy hearing about? I suppose it must be your special branch of knowledge, astronomy.

Hippias. Not at all. That’s a subject they don’t even tolerate.

Socrates. But does geometry give them any pleasure?

Hippias. No. It’s barely an exaggeration to say that many of them can’t even count.

Socrates. Then they won’t put up with you lecturing on arithmetic.

Hippias. Certainly not.

Socrates. Then they must enjoy the subject in which your analytical abilities are so exceptional, the significance of letters, syllables, rhythms, and intonations.

Hippias. My dear Socrates! Intonations and letters! Ha!

Socrates. So which lecture-subject of yours gives them pleasure and wins you their praise? You’ll have to tell me yourself, because I’m stuck.

Hippias. The genealogies of heroes and men, and how cities were founded in the distant past: in short, antiquarianism in general is what they most enjoy hearing about, and so I was obliged to make a thorough study of the whole subject until I’d mastered it.

Socrates. Well, Hippias, you’re certainly lucky that the Spartans don’t enjoy the enumeration of Athenian arkhontes from Solon onwards, otherwise you’d have had a job mastering it.*

Hippias. Why, Socrates? I can reel off fifty names after hearing them only once.

Socrates. You’re right. I wasn’t taking your mnemonic technique into account. Now I understand the situation: the Spartans treat you as children do old women, to tell them pleasant stories; so naturally they enjoy you and your vast store of knowledge.

Hippias. Yes, and I tell you, Socrates, I acquired quite a reputation by an exposition I gave there recently of the fine practices to which a young man ought to devote himself. I’ve got an exceedingly fine lecture composed on the subject; its choice of language is particularly good. The scene is subsequent to the sack of Troy and I start the lecture off with Neoptolemus asking Nestor which fine practices bring fame to a young man, and then Nestor gives him plenty of advice on the finest rules of life.*

(Plato, Hippias Major 285b7–286b4 Burnet)

T3 (DK 86A12) [Socrates to Hippias] In my hearing, you have bragged of being altogether more of an expert at more areas of expertise than anyone. I remember you in the city square by the bankers’ tables enumerating your considerable and enviable expertise. You said that once you went to Olympia with nothing on your person which you hadn’t made yourself. You started with the ring you were wearing, claiming to know how to engrave rings; not only it, but the rest of your jewellery too, and your strigil-and-flask set—all your own work, you said. Then you went on to the shoes you were wearing—cobbled by yourself, you claimed—and your cloak and tunic, woven by yourself. Then—and this struck everyone as most remarkable and as clear evidence of outstanding expertise—you said that although your tunic belt was in the Persian style of the expensive kind, you had braided it yourself. But that wasn’t all. You had brought epic, tragic, and dithyrambic poetry, you said, and many prose speeches in a variety of styles. And you had come equipped not only with exceptional expertise in the areas I mentioned just before, but also in matters of rhythm, intonation, orthography, and very many other things besides, I seem to remember—oh, but I was forgetting what was apparently your technique of remembering, on which you really pride yourself. I reckon I’ve probably forgotten lots of other things too! (Plato, Hippias Minor 368b2–e1 Burnet)

F1 (DK 86B6) Some of these things may perhaps have been said by Orpheus or, in a brief and scattered fashion, by Musaeus; some may have been said by Hesiod or Homer or other poets; some by Greek or foreign prose-writers. But from among all these sayings I will make a collection of the most important and closely related passages, and I will make out of them a new and multifaceted account. (Clement, Miscellanies 6.15.2 Stählin/Früchtel)

T4 (DK 86C1) After Prodicus, the wise Hippias spoke: ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I regard you all as relatives and family and fellow citizens—by nature, not by convention.* For by nature like is akin to like, but convention is a tyrant over humankind and often constrains people to act contrary to nature.’ (Plato, Protagoras 337c6–d3 Burnet)

T5 ‘But Socrates,’ said Hippias, ‘how can anyone take laws seriously or believe in them, when often the same people who established them repeal them and change them?’ (Xenophon, Memoirs of Socrates 4. 4. 14. 1–4 Marchant)

T6 ‘Do you know what is meant by “unwritten laws”, Hippias?’ Socrates asked.

‘Yes, those which are observed in every country with respect to the same circumstances.’

‘Can you claim that it was men who laid them down?’

‘How could it be, considering that they couldn’t all meet together and don’t speak the same language?’

‘Then who do you think are the authors of these laws?’

‘I suppose that these laws were ordained for men by gods. At any rate, among all peoples the first established custom is to worship gods.’

‘Isn’t it a custom everywhere to honour parents?’

‘Yes, that too.’

‘And that parents shouldn’t copulate with their children or children with their parents?’

‘I don’t think that this is a god-given law like the others, Socrates.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I observe that some people break it.’

‘In point of fact they break a good many other laws. But those who transgress the laws laid down by the gods pay a penalty which no man can escape in the way that some transgressors of man-made laws escape paying the penalty, either by escaping detection or by the use of force.’ (Xenophon, Memoirs of Socrates 4.4.29–21 Marchant)

T7 Socrates. Are you sure, Hippias? I suppose you’ve got a point but I don’t understand. Let me explain more clearly what I’m getting at: it seems to me that both of us together may possess as an attribute something which I neither have as an attribute nor am (and neither are you); and, to put it the other way round, that neither of us, as individuals, may be something which both of us together have as an attribute.

Hippias. Socrates, this is apparently even more preposterous than the response you made a little while ago. Look here: if both of us are just, then each of us must be too, surely? If each of us is unjust, aren’t both too? If both are healthy, isn’t each too? Or if each of us were tired, wounded, bruised, or had any other attribute, then wouldn’t both of us also have this attribute? Or again, if both of us happened to be golden, silver, ivory, or well-born, if you like, or clever, or respected—yes, or old or young or anything else which a human being can be, isn’t there an overwhelming necessity that each of us would be too?

Socrates. Yes, absolutely.

Hippias. The fact of the matter is, Socrates, that you and your usual interlocutors fail to take account of things at the general level: your method of analysis is to isolate fineness or whatever it may be, and dissect it verbally, so of course these obvious points pass you by, and you fail to take account of the continuity of physical reality. Your oversight in the present case is so great that you think there is some attribute or essential quality which obtains simultaneously for both the things we’ve been talking about, but not for each individually—or, conversely, for each but not for both. How mindless, careless, senseless, and thoughtless can you get!

Socrates. That’s in keeping with the saw one is always hearing, Hippias: ability, not desire, dictates human achievement. But your constant criticism is helpful. I mean, just now, before your scolding about how foolishly we were behaving—well, shall I tell you even more of what we thought on this issue, or should I keep quiet?

Hippias. Go ahead, if you want, Socrates, just so long as you understand that you’ll be speaking to an expert: I know all the ways discussions are conducted.

Socrates. Yes, I do want to. You see, before you spoke, my friend, we were so inane as to believe that each of us—you and I—is one, but that both of us together, being two not one, are not what each individual is. See how stupid we were! But now we know better: you’ve explained that if both together are two, then each individual must be two as well; and if each individual is one, both must be one as well. For this necessarily follows from Hippias’ theory of ‘continuous’ reality.

(Plato, Hippias Major 300e1–301e5 Burnet)

M. L. Morgan, ‘The Continuity Theory of Reality in Plato’s Hippias Major’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 21 (1983), 133–58.

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