Hippias Major (Synopsis – highlights & unredacted quotes lifted from the Socratic dialogue by Plato, Benjamin Jowett translation)

Theme: What is Beauty?

On the definition of Beauty- An endeavor to find the definition of beauty, the fine, the fine, or/and the beautiful… 

Why did the ancient wisemen refrain from the affairs of state, and none of those ancients ever thought fit to exact the money as payment (ironically unconscious of the fact that money is of the greatest value, for many people believe that the test for wisdom is who makes most money for himself) for his wisdom or to give exhibitions among people of various places? … 

If Hippias was wise, why was he unable to receive a lot of money from Lacedaemonians (Lacedaemon being a well governed state and highly value virtue) who like everyone else desire to be better and have ability to pay whoever could improve them? 

Law is not an injury to the state but a benefit. Those who make the law make it as the greatest good to the state, and without this it is impossible to enjoy good government… 

Those who know the truth think that in truth for all men that which is more beneficial is more lawful than that which is less beneficial

Then the Lacedaemonians in not giving you (Hippias) money and entrusting their sons to you, act contrary to law… 

Lacedaemonians are fond of listening to genealogies of heroes and men, about antiquity…  and not about things concerning letters and syllables, harmonies, geometry, processes of thought, the phenomena of the heavens, etc.… 

What are the most noble and beautiful pursuits are that a young man may pursue and become most famous…? 

What sort of things are beautiful and ugly, how can one say what the beautiful is? 

If by the beautiful beautiful things are infused with beauty, what is the beautiful?

Hippias’ (aided by Socrates’ elenchus method), attempts at defining what the beautiful is:

  1.  A beautiful maiden is beautiful.  “Sir, you are not aware that the saying of Heraclitus is good, that ‘the most beautiful of monkeys is ugly compared with the race of man,’ and the most beautiful of pots is ugly compared with the race of maidens, as Hippias the wise man says.” Is it not so, Hippias? “Then,” he will say, “when you were asked for the beautiful, do you give as your reply what is, as you yourself say, no more beautiful than ugly?”
  2. The beautiful is, by which all other things are adorned and by the addition of which they are made to appear beautiful… the beautiful, is nothing else but gold,” … Then,” he will say, “when you were asked for the beautiful, do you give as your reply what is, as you yourself say, no more beautiful than ugly?” “What then? Do not gold and ivory,” he will say, “when they are appropriate, make things beautiful, and when they are not appropriate, ugly?” Shall we deny that, or agree that what he says is correct?
  3. That whatever is appropriate to any particular thing makes that thing beautiful. “Well, then,” he will say, “when someone has boiled the pot of which we were speaking just now, the beautiful one, full of beautiful soup, is a golden ladle appropriate to it, or one made of fig wood?” “For if the wooden one is more appropriate than the golden one,” the fellow will say, “would it not be more beautiful, since you agreed, Socrates, that the appropriate is more beautiful than that which is not appropriate?” Shall we not agree, Hippias, that the wooden one is more beautiful than the golden?
  4. That the beautiful is something of such sort that it will never appear ugly anywhere to anybody. Is it impossible, then, for things which are really beautiful not to appear to be beautiful,… Shall we, then, agree to this, Hippias, that all things which are really beautiful, both uses and pursuits, are always believed to be beautiful by all, and appear so to them, or, quite the contrary, that people are ignorant about them, and that there is more strife and contention about them than about anything else, both in private between individuals and in public between states?
  5. That for every man and everywhere it is most beautiful to be rich and healthy, and honored by the Greeks, to reach old age, and, after providing a beautiful funeral for his deceased parents, to be beautifully and splendidly buried by his own offspring. “Perhaps, then, you are the man,” he will say, “who says that it is beautiful for every one and always to be buried by one’s offspring, and to bury one’s parents; or was not Heracles included in ‘every one,’ he and all those whom we just now mentioned?” “Are you not able to remember that I asked for the absolute beautiful, by which everything to which it is added has the property of being beautiful, both stone and stick and man and god and every act and every acquisition of knowledge? For what I am asking is this, man: what is absolute beauty?
  6. That the appropriate is that which, when it is added, makes each of those things to which it is added appear beautiful, or which makes them be beautiful, or neither of these? Then if the appropriate makes him appear more beautiful than he is, the appropriate would be a sort of deceit in respect to the beautiful, and would not be that which we are looking for, would it, Hippias? For we were rather looking for that by which all beautiful things are beautiful — like that by which all great things are great, that is, excess; for it is by this that all great things are great; for even if they do not appear great, but exceed, they are of necessity great; What would the beautiful be, by which all things are beautiful, whether they appear so or not? For it could not be the appropriate, since that, by your statement, makes things appear more beautiful than they are, but does not let them appear such as they are. Let us choose, then, whether we think that the appropriate is that which makes things appear or be beautiful.
  7. For I (Socrates) say, then, whatever is useful shall be for us beautiful.

– — Pretty well all these we call beautiful in the same way looking at each of them — how it is formed by nature, how it is wrought, how it has been enacted — the useful we call beautiful, and beautiful in the way in which it is useful, and for the purpose for which it is useful, and at the time when it is useful; and that which is in all these aspects useless we say is ugly.

  • Now that which has power to accomplish anything is useful for that for which it has power, but that which is powerless is useless, is it not? 
  • Power, then, is beautiful, and want of power is disgraceful or ugly. 
  • Decidedly. Now other things, Socrates, testify for us that this is so, but especially political affairs; for in political affairs and in one’s own state to be powerful is the most beautiful of all things, but to be powerless is the most disgraceful of all. 
  • Good! Then, for Heaven’s sake, Hippias, is wisdom also for this reason the most beautiful of all things and ignorance the most disgraceful of all things?
  • Well, then, this power and these useful things, which are useful for accomplishing something bad — shall we say that they are beautiful, or far from it? 
  1. Then that assertion, that the powerful and useful are beautiful without qualification, is gone; but was this, Hippias, what our soul wished to say, that the useful and the powerful for doing something good is the beautiful?

Then that assertion, that the powerful and useful are beautiful without qualification, is gone; but was this, Hippias, what our soul wished to say, that the useful and the powerful for doing something good is the beautiful?

  • So by this argument the beautiful persons and beautiful customs and all that we mentioned just now are beautiful because they are beneficial. 
  • But the beneficial is that which creates good.
  • Then the beautiful is the cause of the good.
  • But surely, Hippias, the cause and that of which the cause is the cause are different; for the cause could not well be the cause of the cause. But look at it in this way was not the cause seen to be creating?
  • The cause, then, is not the cause of the cause, but of that which comes into being through it. 
  • If, then, the beautiful is the cause of good, the good would come into being through the beautiful; and this is why we are eager for wisdom and all the other beautiful things, because their offspring, the good, is worthy of eagerness, and, from what we are finding, it looks as if the beautiful were a sort of father of the good.
  • Does it please us, and should we be willing to say that the beautiful is not good, and the good not beautiful?
  • Then there is a good chance that the statement that the beneficial and the useful and the powerful to create something good are beautiful, is not, as it appeared to be, the most beautiful of statements, but, if that be possible, is even more ridiculous than those first ones in which we thought the maiden was the beautiful, and each of the various other things we spoke of before.
  1. Just see; how would it help us towards our goal if we were to say that that is beautiful which makes us feel joy; I do not mean all pleasures, but that which makes us feel joy through hearing and sight?
  • Shall we say, Hippias, that beautiful customs and laws are beautiful because they are pleasing through hearing and sight, or that they have some other form of beauty?
  • “Hippias and Socrates, did you make the distinction that in the category of the pleasing that which is pleasing in the way you mention is beautiful, whereas you say that that which is pleasing according to the other senses — those concerned with food and drink and sexual love and all such things — is not beautiful? Or do you say that such things are not even pleasing and that there is no pleasure at all in them, nor in anything else except sight and hearing?”
  •  “Is, then, that which is pleasant through sight,” he will say, “pleasant through sight and hearing, or is that which is pleasant through hearing pleasant through hearing and sight?”
  • I ask not whether any pleasure is greater or smaller or more or less, but whether it differs by just this very thing, by the fact that one of the pleasures is a pleasure and the other is not a pleasure.”
  • For the reason why that which is pleasant through sight is beautiful, is not, I imagine, because it is through sight; for if that were the cause of its being beautiful, the other pleasure, that through hearing, would not be beautiful; it certainly is not pleasure through sight.” Shall we say “What you say is true”?
  • “They have, then, something identical which makes them to be beautiful, this common quality which pertains to both of them in common and to each individually; for otherwise they would not both collectively and each individually be beautiful.” 
  • For it appears to me that it is possible for us both to be so affected as to be something which I am not so affected as to be, and which I am not and you are not either; and again for neither of us to be so affected as to be other things which we both are.
  • Then it is not absolutely inevitable, as you said just now, that what both are, each is, and what each is, both are.
  • that pleasure through sight and through hearing were beautiful, not by that by which each of them was so affected as to be beautiful, but not both, nor both but not each, but by that by which both and each were so affected,… For this reason I thought that if both are beautiful they must be beautiful by that essence which belongs to both, but not by that which is lacking in each; and I still think so. 
  • Then it is not by that which does not belong to each that each of them is beautiful; for “both” does not belong to each; so that it is possible, according to our hypothesis, to say that they both are beautiful, but not to say that each is so; or what shall we say? Is that not inevitable?
  1.  “This, then,” he will say, “you say is the beautiful, beneficial pleasure?”
  •  “Well, then,” he will say, “beneficial is that which creates the good, but that which creates and that which is created were just now seen to be different, and our argument has come round to the earlier argument, has it not? For neither could the good be beautiful nor the beautiful good, if each of them is different from the other.”
  • But that other ability is beautiful and of great worth, the ability to produce a discourse well and beautifully in a court of law or a council-house or before any other public body before which the discourse may be delivered, to convince the audience and to carry off, not the smallest, but the greatest of prizes, the salvation of oneself, one’s property, and one’s friends. For these things, therefore, one must strive, renouncing these petty arguments, that one may not, by busying oneself, as at present, with mere talk and nonsense, appear to be a fool.
  • that it is by far the best thing to be able to produce a discourse well and beautifully and gain one’s end in a court of law or in any other assemblage…. 


I am not ashamed that I have the face to talk about beautiful practices, when it is so plainly shown, to my confusion, that I do not even know what the beautiful itself is.

But perhaps it is necessary to endure all this, for it is quite reasonable that I might be benefited by it. So I think, Hippias, that I have been benefited by conversation with both of you; for I think I know the meaning of the proverb beautiful things are difficult”.

Your Reaction!!!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s