Things we learn from Plato’s dialogue Greater Hippias

* To fully appreciate the article a prior or a posterior reading of the dialogue is required.

In the series on the dialogues of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, we will go through his training in refutation. Only he who is trained in it can go to philosophy as a positive discipline; that is when one’s mind has an arbitrary form it cannot claim philosophical knowledge (wisdom) before they surrender themselves to philosophy as a negative discipline.

We want to direct readers’ attention to their consciousness at work so that it is not entirely preoccupied with an object or a question posed in Plato’s works.

What is the dialogue about?

Greater Hippias is concerned with the concept of the fine. Why is this an issue? Because to call any particular (thing) fine, one needs to understand what it is; otherwise, they will name things fine randomly and erroneously.

If the fine is what makes things fine, then what is it by itself? If it is a quality, then how should we define it?

GH is a conversation of Socrates and the sophist Hippias, where the first one is aware of his ignorance of the fine and the second believes that the fine is easy to understand.

What is here for us?

The ability to see our phenomenal (particular, non-reflected, accidental, arbitrary) consciousness at work, experience it as the mere appearance of the universal consciousness (genuine, true, reflected, essential, free), and give the former up after enough effort.

The structure of the dialogue.

Socrates wants to know what is the fine, but Hippias gives examples, that is, he thinks through particulars. 

When Socrates points out that a set of qualities of one thing cannot be ascribed to another thing, Hippias proposes an image of the appropriate, which is gold for him. But gold is still a thing that does not fit every other thing.

Then they come to the thought of the appropriate itself. The question arises whether the appropriate makes things both to be and seem to be fine or can be only one of them at a time. 

Next, Socrates wonders if the fine is the useful. After a quick discussion, they specify it as the beneficial. However, the beneficial is the maker (cause) of good and not good itself.

When they drop the case of the beneficial, Socrates proposes that the fine is what comes through sight and hearing. The question of a criterium arises. Pleasure cannot be a criterium of the fine for we would have to include other pleasures like eating and sexual pleasures into the definition. On the other hand, we need to interrogate whether both seeing and hearing are needed to define somethings as fine. 

From this Socrates comes to the stage when he inquires whether one does not change when it is present in two and two changes when it is present in one. The inference will be that pleasure by sight and hearing cannot stand the test. 

Hippias comes back to examples and says that the fine is fine speech. Though it will not stand the test either, we should notice that Plato wants to show us how hard it is for a phenomenal consciousness to drop its representational way of thinking. A dialectical training is necessary before one will understand that contradictions are inherent in all phenomenal world and its corresponding form of consciousness and only dialectic can lead us to the ideas or forms that are everlasting and identical (non-contradictory).

A run-through the dialogue

The Greek word that stands for fine is kalon that can mean physical beauty, excellence in all kind of affair, nobility, etc.

The dialogue is of value even today for even if one can easily abstract a quality from a thing, he cannot define it as quickly. It was difficult for people in the ancient time to think abstractly, while it is complicated for us to make our thoughts flexible and fluid; they tend to be rigid, and we cling to them as if they were the realities themselves.1

Naturally, when asked by Socrates about the fine, Hippias is unable to distinguish “the what” from a thing and says that a fine girl is a fine thing.2 Hippias believes that this is impossible to refute. However, the what or the quality is not some example; we do not accept examples as definitions. But it is even easily refutable on the side of its particularity – some beauty is relative to itself and others: it changes with time and depends on a culture that takes it as fine. Relativity means that each thing contains both fine and foul in itself.3 In any case, we see that the fine makes things fine when it is present in them, and it is not the rest of the qualities of a thing that makes it fine: being a girl is irrelevant to fine when we talk about a fine pot, a horse, and other things.

The fine itself should be that by which everything is beautified and seen to be fine when that form added to it.4 Not willing to let phenomenal thinking go, though partly parting ways with it, Hippias thinks of gold as a thing that can do the job. Let us concede that gold is fine. We will soon notice, though, that we cannot add gold to each thing to make it fine. Imagine everything completely made of gold, a book of Plato, for example. Will it be appropriate? A thing should serve a purpose, which it can generally do well without resorting to gold. Even art objects are not all made of gold; we should not forget that music and poetry are not made of gold; even pens and musical strings should not be gold to serve well. Socrates pushes Hippias to the thought that when something is inappropriate, it is foul, and something seems fine when it is appropriate to its end. Therefore, a golden spoon is not appropriate to a pot of bean soup while a fig-wood one is. The latter is finer to this end than the former.

Hippias gets now that the fine must be universally fine and seem fine to everyone. He proposes that to live rich, healthily, be honoured by each fellow citizen, bury his parents, and, in turn, been buried by his children is the definition of fine.5 Socrates argues that not every man should bury his parents, for example, a hero. He does not try to refute the first triad of riches, honour, and health as the criteria of fine that much.6 Socrates’ interlocutor appears to be made of stone and not remember the previous arguments when he puts forward a particular in place of the fine itself. We can surmise that he deemed that the particular was only a physical object and did not distribute it to the representational faculty of man. This kind meets the same fate as the physical did. Socrates helps him to realise that if something is added to another and makes it fine, then it should be the appropriate itself.7 Eventually, the dialogue arrived at the conversation of abstract thought.8

The appropriate is the fine. Does it make a thing seem to be fine, be fine, or neither?

If to seem fine, then the appropriate is deceit and not fine. If both, then we can argue from reality and appearance that perception quite often does not take something as fine although it is so. We can make our examples. Take philosophy. Does one take it fine and the best thing there is just because it exists? No. We keep looking for the best as some distant object and rarely look inside to make the most difficult, and, at the same time, the easiest, work done – to know YouRself.9 Thus, just because something does not immediately appear as fine, does not mean it is not fine.

Next, the fine is the useful. The fine becomes useful “in respect of the way it is useful, what it is useful for, and when it is useful.”10 The useless is foul. What can accomplish a particular thing is useful; ability is fine, inability is foul. So we reach the best ability by wisdom (highest knowledge). However, nobody does what they do not know how to do and are not able to; mistakes and bad thing are made because people can do so. Just the ability to do something is not going to be enough for the fine. Only the useful-and-able for making some good is fine, that is beneficial. But the beneficial is the maker or the cause of the good. Thus, the fine is the cause of the good. The cause does not cause itself but the effect (the thing that comes to be). If the cause and the effect are different, then it follows that “the fine is not good nor the good fine.”11 This inference is an awful prospect for Socrates and Hippias. They abandon it. Therefore, there is no way that the beneficial or useful can explain the fine. This mode of thinking is self-refuting.

Can we call fine the pleasant through hearing and sight? One problem is the criterion of demarcation between the senses: why only those two are fine? Socrates wants to give taste, smell, and touch only the ability to be pleasant but not fine. Whatever is not pleasant by sight and hearing is not fine. Another problem with this answer is that the source does not equal the definition; the criterium of the fine becomes washed out. It is how, but not what. However, Plato has an unusual and unexpected way to refute such a pleasant.

He makes Socrates inquire if the pleasant through sight is pleasant through sight and hearing and vice versa with the pleasant through hearing. What comes through one cannot come through both, in this case. Each is pleasant by itself. This situation leads to the uncertainty of the criterium of being fine – just being pleasant by sight or hearing does not say much about the fine because it can be pleasant by any sense indifferently. Even the choice of sight and hearing, among other senses, is not justified this way. There should be something in common between sight and hearing that belongs to both and each privately. If that something is attributed to both but not to each one, then it is not the right attribute. Hippias does not see how that could be the case that two things together can be something different than one separately. He even talks about the continuous bodies of being after putting forward his examples of being just separately and together. Hippias is adamant that his view is irrefutable. Socrates first goes to numbers. Each person is odd-numbered, but together is even-numbered, that is, together we keep an attribute that we do not keep separately. Also, vice versa, being both even-numbered we do not become even-numbered when separated. This example is enough for Plato. We can think of something less abstract as being friends, a couple, parents. One is not a friend separately, but only two or more can make friends. 

It turns out that things can be both ways – the same separately and together and not the same separately and together. Consequently, it is not entirely necessary that the attribute that makes both hearing and sight pleasant should adhere in each separately, and vice versa. The criterium had to be that both and each separately must have had that attribute. If the criterium that makes them both and each one fine is a pleasure, then it opens the gates to all the other senses back. We do not want to admit it.

Consequently, the only criterium we have left is that fine is pleasant through sight and hearing. We come at a halt. Such a criterium cannot make a fine thing through sight and hearing be fine through each source separately because the attribute of fine adheres in both senses taken together but not in each. In Socrates’s words – “each of them is not through both, but both through both, not each.”12 The hypothesis that adheres in “both” does not adhere in each, it lets us call both of them fine, but not each one separately.13 We could still suppose that only inseparably through eyes and ears pleasures are fine, but it would not agree with counterexamples that are easy to find. We would exclude public speech, music, pictures, and so forth, from the category of fine. We had to have only mixed arts where each part could still be fine on its own.

Socrates and Hippias valued those two sources of fine over the others because they were the most harmless and best (we call them theoretical senses).14 It prompts us to say that the fine is a beneficial pleasure, which, in turn, leads us way back to the discussion of the beneficial with its cause and effect structure.

At this point, the dialogue is about to end. Instead of coming to despair of his phenomenal consciousness, Hippias becomes a bit irritated with all the sophisticated discussions. He puts forward another example of the fine, which is a fine speech. Clearly, it is as flawed an argument of Hippias as the rest. Plato wants to show that the experience of thought has to be repeated many times before one comes to the conceptual grasp of things. We must give up the navie way of thinking, stop looking for the truth in phenomena, and move forward to dialectic and ideas.

Conclusion

Readers of Plato are often disappointed by his dialogues ending without solutions to the posed problems. It shows that they did not get the message. It is not about some external object and the result, but about each mind’s labour of being able to deal with the concept. If one is not good enough to appreciate a pure refutation, one should keep reading. Otherwise, their mind will always stay dogmatic, and all the practical affairs fall apart.


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  1. You can find more about it in Hegel’s philosophy.
  2. Plato. Complete works. p. 905| 287e
  3. The girl ages, after all.
  4. Ibid. p. 907 | 289e
  5. Ibid. p. 909 | 291e
  6. It is intriguing that a modern philosopher Spinoza in his “Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect” mentions sensual pleasure, riches, and honour as the greatest distractions of the mind. Each of them, being external and social, distracts us from the essential purpose of becoming for itself who we are in itself (acting on our potential, in other words), that is, intelligent and free creatures. The triad is hostile to philosophy when made into a purpose. Sensual pleasure captivates the mind and then enervates; riches engross the mind and create even more opportunities for sensual pleasures, false security in the outer, etc.; and honour puts the estimation of our worth into the hands of others, that is, we act on somebody else’s opinion. The freedom that is needed for philosophical life is all gone there.
  7. Ibid. p. 911 | 293e
  8. Which can be called a concept, pure thinking, and alike. We can even say that GH is one of the first works in the history of humanity, where the concept came to the fore. However, it is crucial to distinguish thoughts from each other because the first abstract thought is not a concept, let alone an idea, but a mere representation.
  9. We intentionally put “yourself” this way to mark the difference between the particular and the universal I. To know yourself is to know yourself as a universal I, to act as an individual is to act as a universal spirit.
  10. Ibid. p. 912 | 295e
  11. Ibid. p. 914 | 297c
  12. Ibid. p. 919 | 302a
  13. Ibid. p. 919 | 302a
  14. We may add that we find many things pleasant through sight and hearing, but they may not be fine. Foul things may cause pleasure of the ignorant.
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