Bryn Mawr Classical Review 3.5.11

Ivor Ludlam, Hippias Major: An Interpretation. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1991. (Palingenesia 37). Pp. 189. ISBN 3-515-05802-8.

Reviewed by David Sider, Fordham University.

Since the Hippias Major, a work of continuing interest, is of doubted authorship,1 Ludlam adopts and maintains the view that this Socratic dialogue should be analyzed entirely on its own terms. He makes almost no comparisons to the dialogues universally accepted as Plato's, and none to the historical Socrates and Hippias. One can sympathize with this approach: Too much of the scholarship on HM has directed itself towards, first, the question of authorship, and, second, its place (should it be regarded as genuine) within the Platonic corpus.2 These are, of course, important questions, but it is good to see an attempt to treat the literary form of HM and its philosophical content without distraction. (For one brief paragraph on the last page I thought that Ludlam was using his analysis to argue for Platonic authorship, but he immediately downplays any such attempt.) The result is a generally clear analysis of the dialogue's two characters and its seven definitions of TO\ KALO/N both in themselves and in relation with each other.

Ludlam's methodology is none the less open to criticism. His refusal, for example, to bring to bear what is known of the historical Hippias, deprives him of what may well be some pertinent information. ("External sources cannot help us to understand the speakers, Hippias and Socrates," p.22). Yet Plato or a near-contemporary imitator would have known something of Hippias himself, and would not have hesitated to credit his audience with the same knowledge. Although we must always be on guard against imposing historical facts of any sort on an author like Plato who seems to delight in introducing conflicting chronological clues,3 it would be rash to maintain that nothing of (say) Protagoras is to be found in Plato's picture of him, and that Plato would not take his audience's knowledge into account when composing the Protagoras. The best example of Plato's acting in this way probably occurs at the end of the Phaedrus, where, as Coulter has ably shown, Socrates' praise and predictions for the future success of the young Isocrates are completely undercut when one knows how in fact Isocrates turned out.4

L., however, argues that any such attempt to understand Hippias and Socrates from external sources "tends to depersonalize the dialogue, because the internal dynamics of the conversation must of necessity be overlooked or distorted in order to accomodate material which is alien and unnecessary to a self-standing drama" (p.24; my italics). This would be the case, however, only with a historicizing critic of a Procrustean sort who insisted that every fact known (to us) of a character was employed by Plato. A more sensitive analysis would cast a cautious eye over the external statements found in Platonic dialogues and elsewhere, looking for guidance in interpreting the character and dialogue in question. Not only need not every fact or anecdote fit, we would also allow for outright inconsistency between "fact" and characterization. One need not, therefore, be insensitive to the internal dynamics of a dialogue simply because external information is brought to bear.

In the case of HM, where both the first and the last attempts to define TO\ KALO/N are essentially esthetic, and where the last definition concerns the harmonious relationship between parts and individuals, it would be foolish to refuse even to consider the possible relevance of Hippias' introduction to (probably) his Synagogê: "It may be that some of this has been said by Orpheus, some briefly by Hesiod, some by Homer, and some by the rest of the poets; and some by prose writers both Greek and foreign. What I have done is to collect from all these writers the most important material of a like sort, and so will here produce a new and composite logos" (B 6 DK). Since Clement quotes this valuable fragment to demonstrate what he takes to be a particularly egregious example of Greek plagiarism, it seems reasonable to suppose that the first readers of HM came to the dialogue not only knowing that Hippias' writings (the Synagogê for sure, and of course all of his various published lists) were clearly composite in nature, but that he was also proud of them, claiming that thanks to his artistic arrangement of like with like the work was now "new" and hence his.

Knowledge of Hippias' method of composition and his attitude towards both method and finished product does more than merely give a little extra color to his characterization within HM: It provides background for what may in fact be the most important point point of departure from the dialogue's final aporia. The author, that is, in a way every bit as oblique as anything found in Plato, pits Hippias' attitude towards what is kalon -- which the dialogue understands to cover esthetic and moral ground -- against one which hints strongly that kalon entails a unity foreign to Hippias' method of composition. Consider merely the form of Hippias' prologue: First person, explicit, and boastful; contrasted with which is Socrates' opening sentence of HM: I(PPI/AS O( KALO/S TE KAI\ SOFO/S, where praise is directed elsewhere and the eventual subject of discussion is only hinted at. Also implicit in this contrast between the opening lines of Synagogê and HM is that the kalon is not present in the whole when the joints between parts show. The work challenges us, therefore, to find its own beauty, which, to seek guidance from the last definition, must somehow be found in the hidden relationship between its elements.

This is a challenge which L. never takes up as such; although he is properly concerned with the overall character of the work, his concluding remarks are more directed towards defining its genre, which turns out to be sui generis, as is determined largely through a process of elimination based surprisingly on Aristotle's Poetics (pp. 182ff.). For the bulk of his book, L. deals with a series of overlapping subjects, which he always links one with another, without, however tying them all up in one package. For all of the book's virtues (and there are more than enough to recommend it to anyone interested in this dialogue), its chief flaw in a failure to recognize that the philosophical point of the dialogue is embedded not only in its details but in its structure as a whole. That is, not only does the dialogue suggest, as many Platonic ones do, that, however difficult it may be to define the subject at hand, we can at least look to Socrates for the best living exemplar of this virtue or quality, the dialogue also puts itself forward as a more appropriate model for artistic harmony and unity than the kind of work written by Hippias. (There are parallels here with the Symposium and Republic.) Note first how the beauty of Hippias mentioned in the first sentence is contrasted with the rougher appearance and manners of Socrates. Hippias has all the answers; all that Socrates claims to know (EI)DE/NAI, a rare word for Socrates), is that XALEPA\ TA\ KALA/, a phrase that applies to Socrates in several ways. And since this phrase occurs in the very last sentence of the dialogue, the author (who I think is Plato) also seems to suggest that the unity of this dialogue -- difficult as it is -- exemplifies a beauty which Hippias' thought and writings can not.


  • [1] G.R.Ledger, Re-counting Plato (Oxford 1989) 156f., uses computer calculation to decide that "this certainly does not look like a spurious work, since it is so close to many of the major dialogues and does not include alien authors among its nearest neighbours. It is not as close as we might wish in order to make assurance double sure, ... but it still represents typical scores such as are achieved by the well-established dialogues, and there is no obvious evidence of abnormality, such as an allegiance to an outside work or to a later Platonic dialogue. On balance the evidence for genuineness is fairly convincing." He would date it 395-390 BC (pp. 223f).
  • [2] To refer only to recent work, C.H. Kahn, OSAP 3 (1985) 267-73, argues that it is spurious in his review of P. Woodruff, Plato: Hippias Major (Oxford 1982), who maintains that it is genuine; cf. 93-105. Interestingly, Woodruff relying almost exclusively on traditional ideas of Platonic development arrives at pretty much the same date as Ledger, "about 390 BC."
  • [3] E.g., most of the clues to the dramatic date of the Protagoras, which takes place in the house of Callias, place it ca. 433, when Callias would have been no more than 18 years old, too young to own a house while his father was still alive; cf. J.K. Davies, Athenian Propertied Families, 600-300 B.C. (Oxford 1971) 263.
  • [4] J.A. Coulter, "Phaedrus 279a: The Praise of Isocrates," GRBS 8 (1967) 225-236.