Hippias Minor (or On Lying) is thought to be one of Plato's early works. Socrates matches wits with an arrogant polymath who is also a smug literary critic. Hippias believes that Homer can be taken at face value, and that Achilles may be believed when he says he hates liars. Socrates argues that Achilles is a cunning liar who throws people off the scent of his own deceptions, and that cunning liars are actually the "best" liars. Socrates proposes, possibly for the sheer dialectical fun of it, that it is better to do evil voluntarily than involuntarily. His case rests largely on the analogy with athletic skills, such as running and wrestling. He says that runner or wrestler who deliberately sandbags is better than the one who plods along because he can do no better.
Despite Hippias Minor's relative unpopularity, its authenticity is the subject of virtually no doubt: Aristotle (in Metaphysics, V, 120), Cicero (in De Oratore, III, 32) and Alexander of Aphrodisias all reference it as genuine.
Socrates, who defends a thesis he explicitly rejects in Crito. Socrates says in the Crito that a man should never intentionally commit injustice. In this dialog, he says that a man who does wrong intentionally is better than the man who does it unwittingly.
Hippias of Elis: a famous sophist, originally from Elis. Known throughout ancient Greece, he was reputed to have mastered mathematics, astronomy and rhetoric; he boasted that he could speak on any subject at Olympia without preparation. Plato presents him as setting himself up as an expert on Homeric criticism, and over-reaching his expertise. Hippias is exactly the sort of man Socrates complains about in the Apology, a man who develops expertise in one or more areas, and then imagines he knows everything.
Eudicos: Hippias' host in Athens. He admires Hippias and his role in the dialogue is as a facilitator.
A conversation about lies
In Hippias Minor, Socrates argues with Hippias about which kind of liar is the best, the man who deliberately contrives a lie, or the man who lies unwittingly, from not paying attention to what he is saying, or changing his mind. Socrates argues that the voluntary lie is better than the involuntary lie.
The debate is rooted in a literary question about who Homer intended to portray as the better man, Achilles or Odysseus. Socrates says he has heard Eudicus' father, Apemantus, declare that there is a parallel analogy between the artistic quality of the Iliad and the moral quality of its main character, Achilles, and the quality of the Odyssey and the quality of its main character, Odysseus. The men do not pursue this thesis, that the moral status of the characters in a work of literature has some bearing on its artistry. Socrates does resurrect the idea in the Republic, however, when he argues that Homer's classics would be better books if Achilles and the other warriors were presented as always righteous. Socrates says that they ought to be rewritten to this effect.
The sophist Hippias is visiting Athens from his home city of Elis on the occasion of the Olympic festival. An artisan, poet, rhetor, astronomer and arithmetician, Hippias has also appointed himself an expert on Homer. He has been favoring the crowds with displays of his literary opinions. Hippias most recent display of oratory concerned who is the better man, Achilles or Odysseus. Socrates says that he could not follow his argument, but did not want to interrupt. Now that the three men are separated from the crowd, Socrates, encouraged by Eudicus, quizzes Hippias on the particulars of his opinion.
Socrates asks Hippias if Homer has not portrayed Achilles as a wily man. Hippias counters that Achilles is the most straightforward of men, simple and true, and cites a passage where Achilles declares his hatred for men who think one thing and say another, or who do not do what they say they will do. Socrates does not object to Hippias' literalism, and seems to abandon the literary question, saying that Homer is dead, and the thing cannot be resolved (365d). He tells Hippias that because he agrees with Homer that a simple and true man is better than a wily and cunning one, he will let him speak for Homer.
Socrates gets Hippias to agree that the more a man knows about a subject, the better position he will be in to lie about it. He argues that the man who knows the subjects about which he tells lies, whether arithmetic, geometry, or astrononmy, is twice as powerful as the man who does not know his subjects. Socrates never indicates what a man might stand to gain from lying about such matters, but brings the conversation back around to Achilles, and what kind of man Homer intended to portray.
Achilles is an expert liar
Socrates argues that Achilles is such a good liar in the Iliad that he fools even Odysseus, who never notices his duplicity (371a). Citing the scene where Achilles tells Odysseus that he will not rejoin the war but will sail away with the early dawn, and Ajax a different story, Socrates says this is a cunning man. (The Iliad, IX, 357-363) If Achilles' is so shifty that even Odysseus, whose middle name is cunning, cannot spot it, Achilles must be the better liar. Achilles, of course, never carried out his threat to leave, but remained at his camp. Hippias, quite foolishly, insists that Achilles told two different stories "in innocence."
Hippias objects, saying that the laws punish people who harm others deliberately with purposeful lies, and are more apt to excuse those who do harm by making mistakes. Socrates insists that those who injure people, tell deliberate lies, and err voluntarily are better than people who simply make mistakes (372d). Hippias suspects at this point that Socrates is being dishonest in the debate. Socrates counters that if he is troublesome, it is unintentional, that if he were being difficult deliberately, then he would be wily, which he is not. This is a kind of liar's paradox.
Debate and athletics compared
Socrates invokes a comparison between athletic competitions and debate. He argues that a runner or wrestler who throws the contest by doing worse than he is capable of doing is a more skillful combatant than the one who does his best and loses. Socrates multiplies the analogy, adding that whether it is a singer off key, a gymnast who appears ungraceful, or a man who pretends to be lame, it is always better to have the power to do it right and pretend to do it wrong than to be helpless to do it right.
Justice is power and knowledge
Socrates gets Hippias to agree that justice is a matter of both power and knowledge, and that the powerful (e.g. truly skilled) man is better than the clumsy one who makes mistakes from lack of knowledge and skill. The dialogue ends with Hippias incredulity and helplessness at Socrates verbal shenanigans. Socrates tells Hippias that he does not agree with himself, and is perplexed about his own conclusion.
Criticism of the Dialogue
This dialog is much dismissed because it seems to recommend clever evil over witless evil. This is not the real point however. Socrates is the impressario who sings off key, the boxer who throws the match not for money, but because he can. The dialog does not establish Socrates' absurd thesis, that the deliberate liar is better than the witless one, but it does prove that Plato is as clever as Homer. Socrates, who pretends to be a lover of good reasoning, is widely thought to be what he says he is, a rational man. Socrates is the literary equivalent of Achilles, whose speech against dissembling seems to fool everyone. Socrates is no more "rational" than Achilless is "honest and simple".
The moral argument of the dialog, a kind of red herring, can be summed up simply:
Socrates argument entail a gross confusion between the notions of being able to do evil, and wanting to do it. Socrates' apparent immorality has caused some scholars (notably Victor Cousin and Eduard Zeller) to doubt its authenticity. They argue that Socrates is uncharacteristically lacking in righteousness, and that this puts the dialog at odds with the main body of Socratic dialogs.
The fact is, however, that the opinions of Socrates in any given dialog not only often contradict conventional morality, they also contradict his own previous opinions. For example, in the Apology, Socrates praises "the son of Thetis" (Achilles) for making light of death because he was so obsessed with getting revenge on Hector for killing his boyfriend. In this scene, Achilles does not go in to fight, but agrees to his mother's command that he wait until she gets special battle gear made for him. Socrates invocation of Achilles as a model for his own fearlessness is misplaced because Achilles was a crybaby and a coward in that scene. In the Republic Socrates has a different opinion of Achilles. He calls him emotionally overwrought, and greedy (for taking bribes - which he did not do, according to Homer). Socrates famously argues that the Iliad needs to be rewritten. Socrates' opinions about the character Achilles are not only in conflict, they prove him to be a semi-literate literary critic.
What must not be overlooked, however, is that Plato is the mastermind, and must be given full credit for arranging the match. Socrates wins the debate with Hippias, and then throws the trophy back at the sophist, who never knew what hit him. Readers for centuries have been hard pressed to judge the match.
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