Thursday, July 10, 2014


One of the tests, perhaps the most important test, that Schleiermacher used to determine whether allegedly Platonic dialogues were spurious or not was whether it individualizes the interlocutors. We've already seen two dialogues, De Justo and De Virtute, which don't, and which no one really regards as going back to Plato himself. There are two dialogues in the Thrasyllan canon, however, that fail this test: Hipparchus and Minos. Socrates speaks with an interlocutor who is thoroughly anonymous. These two share other peculiarities: they are the only dialogues in the canon named not after an interlocutor (which makes sense, given that the interlocutor is not named) but a figure of legend, and they are the only two dialogues in the canon in which Socrates simply opens the dialogue asking for a definition (in the case of Hipparchus, the unexpected question, "What is greed?"). For these reasons, the dialogue is almost always classified as spurious these days, a piece from the Academy, no doubt, but not going back to Plato himself. But it's worth keeping in mind that almost all the evidence for its being spurious rather than authentic is stylistic, which is often the weakest of evidences when it comes to Plato. As I've said before, the mere fact that a dialogue is different in some way from other dialogues tells us nothing; all of Plato's dialogues do things you would not expect if you only had the other dialogues to go on. It's just the sheer degree of uniqueness that is persuading people here. The dialogue is also interesting in that it is deliberately shocking and paradoxical -- Socrates argues that greed or profit-seeking or love of gain (any of which can translate philokerdia: the word literally means love of profit) can be good by arguing that a legendarily wicked and greedy ruler (Hipparchus) was good. For all these reasons, there is no consensus on how to interpret the dialogue.

You can read Hipparchus online in English at the Perseus Project and in French at Wikisource.

The Background

Solon gave Athens law, and then left for a journey that lasted ten years. During that time, Athens descended into confusion as faction fought faction. Pisistratus, a war hero and one of Solon's relatives, backed by the poor of the city, managed to impose order and become tyrant, sole ruler of Athens. One of his major accomplishments was exiling the Alcmaeonids. As it happens, he was quite effective: matters of government were run well, taxes were cut, the class tensions in Athens were diffused. He was a patron of the arts, and under his government they thrived -- dithyramb, tragedy, and more. He also had Homer copied and archived. He was fairly popular. When he died and his sons, Hippias and Hipparchus took over, they were not so popular, and the Alcmaeonids were plotting to return. The exact details of what happened are not clear, and our main sources (Herodotus' Histories, Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War and Aristotle's Athenian Constitution) disagree on a number of important details; Thucydides himself makes clear that the Athenians actually had several different versions of the story floating around, since he uses the story at the beginning of his work as an example of the historical ignorance of most Athenians. But the common story seems to be that Hipparchus had made advances on a young man named Harmodius and been rebuffed. In retaliation, Hipparchus chose Harmodius's sister to carry the basket in the Panathenaeia (a great honor), but when it came time to do it, he refused to allow it, claiming in public that she was not, as the ceremony required, a virgin, and then chasing her away. In response, Harmodius and his lover/mentor (erastes) Aristogeiton decided to kill Hippias and Hipparchus. As it happens, they only managed to kill Hipparchus. Hippias initiated a very strict regime in response, which decreases his popularity. In the meantime, there was a fire at Delphi, and the wealthy Alcmaeonids paid for rebuilding; this gave them an opportunity to suborn the Oracle at Delphi. They bribed the Oracle into telling every Spartan who came to the Oracle that Athens must be freed from Hippias. Sparta was an ally of Hippias's government; but even the Spartans were not cautious and stubborn enough to ignore the repeated insistence of the god Apollo. So they invaded and Hippias was forced to flee. The Alcmaeonids came back and instituted the democratic regime (they probably wanted an aristocracy, but they had to compromise). In Athens, therefore, the Tyrannicides, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, came to be celebrated as heroes who had liberated Athens and made the democratic regime possible, in part due to the influence of the Alcmaeonids. Pericles, of course, was a member of the Alcmaeonid family, as was Alcibiades.

The Characters
(in order of appearance)

  Socrates converses with an anonymous interlocutor.

The Plot and The Thought

Socrates opens the dialogue asking what greed is, and who the greedy people are. His interlocutor responds that they are people who treat as gain things of no value. This is puzzling, Socrates points out, because if they treat valueless things as gains without knowing that they are valueless, then it seems greedy people are stupid; but if they treat valueless things as gains while knowing that they have no value, there doesn't seem to be anyone like that. To this the interlocutor replies that the greedy are those with an insatiable desire to gain, regardless of the value of things. But this just raises the same point, so greed must be a kind of ignorance.

But the puzzle gets more complicated. Greedy people love gain, which is the opposite of loss, which harms people; and to get a good is a gain, so the greedy people are the people who love what's good. But if that's the case, it seems that everyone's like that. The interlocutor protests that good people don't want gains from which they suffer harm. But this simply creates another puzzle: how can it be a gain if it harms you? Socrates accuses his interlocutor of trying to deceive him by saying the opposite of what he means; the interlocutor replies that it's Socrates who is deceiving him.

Socrates says that it would be wrong of him not to obey a wise man. This brings us to the tale of Hipparchus. According to Socrates, Pisistratus's son, Hipparchus, was the oldest and wisest of his chidren. He was the first to bring in Homer's works, and he made the rhapsodes recite them at the Panathenaea; he enticed Anacreon and Simonides to Athens. In addition, he set up Herms (statues of Hermes, god of travel) along the sides of the road, and put his own wisdom on them:

He did this in order that, first, his citizens would not be impressed by those wise Delphic inscriptions, "Know Thyself," and "Nothing in Excess," and other things of this sort, but would instead regard the words of Hipparchus as wiser. And, second, he did this so that when they travelled back and forth they would read and acquire a taste for his wisdom and would come from the country to complete their education. There are two sides to the inscriptions: on the left side of each Herm, it is inscribed that the Herm stands in the middle of the city or the deme, whereas on the right it says: "This is a monument of Hipparchus: walk with justice in mind." There are many other fine inscriptions of his poetry on other Herms. There is one in particular--on the Stiria road--on which it says: "This is a monument of Hipparchus: do not deceive a friend." So, since I am your friend, I would never dare to deceive you and disobey such a great man. (228d-230b)

After the death of Hipparchus, Hippias ruled for three years, which were in the ancient days the only years of tyranny, and "during the other times the Athenians lived almost as when Cronus was King" (229b). Socrates denies the basket story, saying that more sophisticated people claim that Harmodius had become the favorite of Aristogeiton, and the later prided himself on educating Harmodius, regarding Hipparchus as a rival. Harmodius in the meantime had become lover of someone-or-other; Socrates can't remember his name. The youth had thought Harmodius and Aristogeiton wise, but when he began associating with Hipparchus, he was no longer impressed by them; so Harmodius and Aristogeiton killed Hipparchus.

The interlocutor replies that Socrates either does not regard him as friend, or is disobeying Hipparchus, since Socrates will never persuade him that he is not deceiving him with these arguments. Socrates says he'll let the interlocutor take back anything he wants from the previous discussion. Socrates goes through a list of possible things the interlocutor could take back, and finally suggests that instead of taking gain to be good, they say that some gain is good and some bad. Since they are both, by supposition, genuinely gain, we have to determine what makes them both so. Socrates suggests that it might be either getting things without spending anything or receiving more when one spends less. But again, not just anything you could get would count as a gain; for instance, if you 'gain' sicknesss at a feast for which you do not pay. So it seems we are back to the claim that only good things can be gains. Likewise, it's not just 'more' that is important: to give gold and get double the weight in silver is not a gain if gold is worth by weight twelve times what silver is. It needs be valuable. But if the valuable is what gain is, then we need to know what's valuable to possess. But it seems that what is valuable to possess is whatever is beneficial. So people are greedy when they want what is beneficial; which all virtuous people do. And so it seems that both the wicked and the virtuous are greedy.


* Thucydides explicitly denies that Hipparchus was the oldest of Pisistratus's children; Hippias was. This fits what we know from other sources. Likewise, Hipparchus never actually ruled; only Hippias did. Likewise, Pisistratus was tyrant before Hippias. But the claim that the Athenians, outside of Hippias's 'three years', lived like they did in the Golden Age is so absurdly exaggerated, and the over-the-top terms in which Socrates describes Hipparchus's 'wisdom' are clearly not intended to be taken seriously. And while it's not wholly surprising that Socrates reads the erastes/eromenos relations primarily in their educational sense, the more 'sophisticated' story about why Hipparchus died is so obviously implausible it has to be deliberate. (It's worth noting that the very brief allusions to it in Plato's Symposium are also inconsistent with it.) So we seem to have a case of Socrates deliberately telling his friend a lying story with the moral 'do not deceive a friend'.

* The road to Stiria is a nice touch; apparently it went out to a stone quarry, which Socrates as stonecutter would no doubt have known.

* Aristophanes mentions in The Wasps that Simonides received payment from Hipparchus for his poetry, and regards it as a scandal; so Hipparchus's patronage of the arts also fits with the theme of greed.

* In Thucydides the Hipparchus story is closely linked with the Syracusan expedition -- and Alcibiades, of course, was accused of mutilating the Herms on the eve of that expedition. It is unlikely that the same association would not have occurred to the author, so perhaps part of the point of the dialogue is to link the Syracusan expedition to philokerdia? That's remarkably subtle, if so.

* I think it's worth remembering Gorgias, and Socrates's insistence there that what people like (or prefer) is not what they want; it seems to be closely related to the issues related by this argument. On the account there, everyone wants what is genuinely good, so unjust people necessarily are not getting what they want, even if they get what they like to have.


Quotations are from Nicholas D. Smith's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., pp. 609-617.


  1. Greta2:31 PM

    Despite all the marking I've been doing, I have managed to catch up and while I am never sure if I should comment (particularly when I think I am about to yak on and on), I would like to say once again how grateful I am for this series. I doubt I would have the stamina at this time to continue to read through these dialogues without it, and reading them in succession is so fruitful.
    This week I was reminded of what translator Jowett wrote to his intro to Phaedrus that Plato presents a picture, not a system. While a picture of a person can contain their essence, that essence might nonetheless be more apparent to the person who has seen many such pictures.
    Two comments on this dialogue: it seemed to me that it is an argument against the kind of malice that occurs when someone feels they have been wronged by the worldly-for this leads to a 'deception' through incorrect definition.
    Socrates' 'incredible' myth of H. (a false appearance but not deception) leads to the not-misleading lesson that one is not to deceive/compromise the truth. Too much righteous indignation will inspire one to deny the gains made by the wicked to the extent that one 'deceives' by not seeing the complexity (human complicity!) of good/wicked.
    The other thing I found interesting and wanting of more context was the emphasis that the Hermes statue inscriptions were not Delphic maxims but H's "testimonies to his own wisdom". Was that practice extant? Is this a comment about how sometimes wisdom is 'discovered' empirically: how, if one has figured out one wants to 'walk with just intent' one will probably still end up with the Delphic saying listed and 'know oneself' by seeing one's complicity in not such good things though one desires the good.
    To take a lesson from Laches the truths need to be described if they are to be obtained-hence the importance of not being deceived.
    Finally, to add something from Menexenus for fun, it can be seen that a description that errs towards the laudatory even if undeserved can inspire better imitations. For how often do people look at those on television and say, well, if they can act so irresponsibly, why should I care!

  2. branemrys9:35 PM

    I've been finding the quick succession fruitful myself. I had known that there was criticism of Pericles in Plato, but I had never realized just how often it occurs.

    I like the link you suggest between deception and false definition -- it makes sense of why Socrates is the one who brings the topic of deception up (saying the opposite of what one means).

  3. Now that you mentioned Pericles I see he even comes up in the Xenophon we are now reading. But since I was not as astute to this theme in our previous readings, I do hope you might feel inspired to write a post about it.
    With continued thanks!

  4. branemrys7:40 AM

    I'm hoping at some point to do a post exploring the idea that Plato's dialogues (perhaps for reasons going back to Socrates himself) can be read as (in part) a criticism of the behavior of Athens before and during the Peloponnesian War, so it should come up at some point!

  5. That sounds like a very useful post, I will be looking forward to it.

  6. Enbrethiliel10:28 AM


    This was fun to read, even if it was another open-ended one. Well, sort of open-ended: Socrates very definitely says that gain is good, but I feel that something has been left unsaid. =P

    What I wonder is how this stacks up against his criticism of the sophists, who take money for teaching. (I confess that I don't remember this from any of the dialogues I read with you, but from the Gatto book I told you about. I've just finished the section in which Gatto argues that schools don't exist to educate students but to keep existing, even if it is at the expense of students, and it includes this passage: "It was this philistine potential--that teaching the young for pay would inevitably expand into an institution for the protection of teachers, not students--that made Socrates condemn the sophists so strongly long ago in Ancient Greece.")


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