Hippias of Elis

Hippias of Elis, Greek Sophist, was born about the middle of the 5th century BC and was thus a younger contemporary of Protagoras and Socrates.

He was a man of great versatility and won the respect of his fellow-citizens to such an extent that he was sent to various towns on important embassies. He was born in Athens. At Athens he made the acquaintance of Socrates and other leading thinkers. With an assurance characteristic of the later sophists, he claimed to be regarded as an authority on all subjects, and lectured, at all events with financial success, on poetry, grammar, history, politics, archaeology, mathematics and astronomy.

He boasted that he was more popular than Protagoras, and was prepared at any moment to deliver an extempore address on any subject to the assembly at Olympia. Of his ability there is no question, but it is equally certain that he was superficial. His aim was not to give knowledge, but to provide his pupils with the weapons of argument, to make them fertile in discussion on all subjects alike. It is said that he boasted of wearing nothing that he had not made with his own hands.

Plato's two dialogues, the Hippias Major and Minor, contain an exposé of his methods, exaggerated no doubt for purposes of argument but written with full knowledge of the man and the class which he represented.

Friedrich Ast denies their authenticity, but they must have been written by a contemporary writer (as they are mentioned in the literature of the 4th century), and undoubtedly represent the attitude of serious thinkers to the growing influence of the professional Sophists.

There is, however, no question that Hippias did a real service to Greek literature by insisting on the meaning of words, the value of rhythm and literary style. He is credited with an excellent work on Homer, collections of Greek and foreign literature, and archaeological treatises, but nothing remains except the barest notes. He forms the connecting link between the first great sophists, Protagoras and Prodicus, and the innumerable eristics who brought their name into disrepute.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.


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Hippias can also refer to a son of Pisistratus and a tyrant of Athens. See Hippias (son of Pisistratus).


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