Abstract – Wily Socrates: How Seriously Should We Take The Arguments of Hippias Minor?

How seriously should we take the problematic conclusions of Socrates in the Hippias Minor, particularly the claim that only the just man will do injustice voluntarily? If we view the dialogue broadly as an attempt by Socrates to beat Hippias at his own game of speechmaking in front of an audience rather than an attempt to gain greater intellectual understanding, then we can begin to doubt Socrates’ commitment to his own arguments. Of the dialogue’s three main arguments, two possess serious flaws, while the third, for the conclusion that the just man is the one who does injustice voluntarily, possesses a limited degree of plausibility. Taking into account the generally deficient quality of the arguments, Socrates’ purpose in engaging Hippias in dialogue can be regarded as being to provide his audience of young men interested in philosophy with a chance to diagnose faulty reasoning and to shame Hippias in front of an audience. A likely motive Socrates has for this shaming is to make Hippias aware of his own ignorance, a motive that Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith, in their book Socratic Moral Psychology, suggest induces Socrates to shame other interlocutors. This motive becomes particularly relevant when the frustration of Hippias in Hippias Minoris contrasted with his apparent, blissful obliviousness of his own ignorance in Hippias Major. While the evidence indicates that Socrates’ conclusions need not be taken seriously, this does not preclude the dialogue from serving as a pedagogical exercise in diagnosing poor argumentation for Plato’s literary audience.

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