Thursday, March 29, 2012


Ernst Heitsch (trans.), Platon, Größerer Hippias. Platon Werke. Übersetzung und Kommentar, VII 1. Göttingen; Oakville, CT: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2011. Pp. 145. ISBN 9783525304174. €48.95.

Reviewed by Albert Joosse, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität (

Version at BMCR home site


The latest installment in Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht's series of German editions of Platonic dialogues offers a translation and commentary of the Hippias Major. Ernst Heitsch succeeds well in his stated aim of making this dialogue accessible to the contemporary reader. Beyond that, he offers scholars working on the dialogue material to consider with respect to the authorship and dating of the dialogue, as well as various matters of philosophical interpretation.

The book opens with Heitsch's translation, then offers a compact commentary, a contribution by Franz von Kutschera, five appendices, a bibliography, and indices of passages cited, names, topics, and Greek terms.

The translation is based on Burnet's text, with deviations noted in the last appendix. The most significant of these are discussed in the commentary, notably 298b2-c4 and 298d1-5 (translated in italics), which Heitsch considers interpolations. The translation follows the Greek closely, but never at the expense of readability. Only in some cases would one like to have a more literal version. In the introductory section of the dialogue, for instance, before the question 'what is τὸ καλόν?' is posed in so many words, the author of the dialogue uses forms of the word καλός to describe things like actions or utterances. The connection between these descriptions and the general question is lost in the translation, which uses different words for different instances.1 But these are marginal comments.

The commentary (pp. 42-109) is largely a continuous narrative, with relatively few subheadings. This form matches Heitsch's announced intention to allow the reader actually to read the commentary (8). It does, however, make it more difficult quickly to check what Heitsch has to say about specific lines or passages. Heitsch's focus is the progression of the narrative and argument of the Hippias Major, with occasional asides about lexical and grammatical features of the text. For more detailed lexical commentaries, he refers his readers to Tarrant and Woodruff.2 The Greek in the main text of the commentary is translated throughout. Not so in many footnotes, which Heitsch addresses to the specialist reader. This is also where the (limited) discussion of existing secondary literature takes place.

Heitsch offers his reader clear guidance through the philosophical moves of the dialogue and the interaction between its characters, Socrates and Hippias. Among many valuable observations he registers that 'Socrates' criticism of Hippias after the latter's third attempted definition is surprisingly harsh (72-3). He notes that Socrates announces that the definition of the fine as the beneficial will appear to be most ridiculous, and that our interpretation must be geared towards that result (85). He helpfully points out that the refutation of the idea that the fine is what is pleasant through sight and/or hearing proceeds via an unexpected omission: the interlocutors first repeatedly appeal to some other features that these two cases share, but then dismiss them solely on the basis of their description as pleasure through sight and hearing (96).

The book also includes a guest contribution by Franz von Kutschera, Heitsch's Regensburg colleague. He offers a rival interpretation of the digression on collective and distributive properties near the end of the dialogue, and its role in the argument. With most commentators, Heitsch thinks the definition of the fine as what is pleasant through sight and hearing fails because Socrates insists on the 'and' here, so that what is pleasant through sight only, for instance, would not be fine. But this result has already been reached before the digression, which thus turns out to be unnecessary. In von Kutschera's view, however, the definition is rejected in the disjunctive form 'pleasant through sight or hearing'. This presupposes the digression, because the failure becomes apparent after both a collective and a distributive reading of this phrase prove unsatisfactory. Although the reader would have benefited from a more pointed presentation of it, the exchange itself usefully signals that there are often many possible readings of a Platonic dialogue – a point that the flowing style of the commentary may otherwise have risked underemphasizing.

An important concern for Heitsch is to establish that Plato did not write the Hippias Major, a minority view, nowadays. There are some scattered remarks in the commentary itself. Some of these argue from perceived authorial failings, implicitly making the assumption (a debatable one) that Plato could not have produced inferior work.3 In his first appendix, however, Heitsch presents the core of his case.4 Heitsch is remarkably confident about the powers of modern philology. Not only does he see it as the sole authority in matters of authenticity (ancient opinions don't count), its verdict in this case has the status of certainty. There are two grounds in particular, each of which he considers sufficient for the certain conclusion that Plato was not the author of this dialogue. In his view, Plato would never have written both the Hippias Minor and the Hippias Major, going out of his way to establish dramatic links between the dialogues (the speech that has just been held in the fictional world of the former is explicitly looked forward to in the latter), given that Hippias is such a different character in each of them (116-7). As his second decisive argument against Plato's authorship Heitsch presents the dialogue's use of the particle combination ἀλλὰ γάρ (117-9). In one of the five occurrences of this combination in the text, he claims, it cannot but have a purely adversative meaning ('but'). The text is: νῦν δὲ θέασαι αὐτὸ ὅ σοι δοκεῖ εἶναι τὸ καλόν. λέγω δὴ αὐτὸ εἶναι—ἀλλὰ γὰρ ἐπισκόπει μοι πάνυ προσέχων τὸν νοῦν μὴ παραληρήσω—τοῦτο γὰρ δὴ ἔστω ἡμῖν καλόν, ὃ ἂν χρήσιμον ᾖ (295b5-c3). Since elsewhere in Plato ἀλλὰ γάρ always requires the completion of a thought between ἀλλὰ and γάρ for which the sequel gives a reason (e.g. 'but (let that be,) for …), we can be certain that Plato did not write the Hippias Major, Heitsch says.

Not all readers will find these considerations equally decisive. One may not find Hippias that different in the two dialogues. But even if we do, how much does that establish? We would still need a plausible account of the difference regardless of who wrote the text. If a follower of Plato had his reasons to portray Hippias differently, then might not Plato have had the same reasons when he sat down to wrote whichever of the dialogues is later? As to Heitsch's second argument, it seems perfectly possible to regard the injunction as the ground for a suppressed thought between ἀλλά and γάρ – something like 'but it isn't relevant that it's me who says this, for you yourself must check it'. Note how λέγω ('I' versus 'you') is replaced by ἔστω after the parenthetical remark. One might ask how different this use really is from, e.g., Politicus 257c2-5: Ταῦτ', ὦ Θεόδωρε, ποιητέον (sc. discussing the statesman)· ἐπείπερ ἅπαξ γε ἐγκεχειρήκαμεν, [καὶ] οὐκ ἀποστατέον πρὶν ἂν αὐτῶν πρὸς τὸ τέλος ἔλθωμεν. ἀλλὰ γὰρ περὶ Θεαιτήτου τοῦδε τί χρὴ δρᾶν με; This passage shares with the one cited above that what follows γάρ is not a neat propositional sentence that provides a reason for the suppressed thought after ἀλλά; nevertheless, both are easily paraphrased into such a sentence.

The particular arguments Heitsch offers, then, fail to convince. Nor do they seem to be the types of argument that would yield more than plausibility. In claiming certainty for his conclusion, Heitsch claims more than he can deliver. A more important concern, however, is that the energy devoted to the authenticity problem distracts from other, some may think even more interesting, questions. Why, for instance, does Hippias answer the way he does, giving the impression that he is not very clever at all? Here we learn little more than that, apparently, the author wished it so. 5 But what we want to know, regardless of who this author is, is why? Also, the more general question about the relation between Socrates' invocation of his acquaintance and what this says about his or the author's views on how thinking works is hardly raised here at all. Is there a meaningful connection to be made with Hippias' insistence that he can find the answer easily if left to himself?

Heitsch follows von Kutschera in thinking that the Hippias Major was written during Plato's last years, by a member of the Academy. As his main evidence for this he sees the author's apparent interest in disjunctive definitions, which shows in the last definition of τὸ καλόν as that which is pleasant through sight and hearing. Aristotle's very similar definition in Topics 146a22 suggests that this was a definition current in the Academy of Plato's later years, says Heitsch, who also points to the definition of being as that which has the power to act or to be acted upon that we find both in Sophist 247de and in Topics 146a23. The idea is plausible, although it is of course very difficult to establish what comes from where in cases like this.

The bibliography does not aim at completeness. It contains the most important discussions of this dialogue in English and German. Among the items one would like to add are the three recent French editions of the dialogue, by Hazebroucq, Balaudé, and Pradeau and Fronterotta, respectively.6 Not taken into account are the valuable textual remarks in Slings 1998.7 The book unfortunately contains numerous typographical errors, as well as inconsistencies in its references to Platonic dialogues and other texts.

This edition is a welcome contribution to the study of a remarkable text. It should promote philosophical interest in its second half, and is particularly suitable for those reading the dialogue for the first time.


1.   We have eight different words in German ('hübsch', 'recht', 'Erfolg', 'schön', 'am besten', 'passend', 'angemessen' and 'geeignet') for ten instances of καλός (281a1, 282b1, d6, 282e9, 283a9, 285b8, 286a4, a5, b1, b4). The last four of these are particularly close to each other, and immediately precede the question 'what is τὸ καλόν?'
2.   Dorothy Tarrant (1928), The Hippias Major Attributed to Plato, Cambridge: CUP; Paul Woodruff (1982), Plato: Hippias Major, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
3.   E.g. on pp. 45, 100 ('Er ist eben auch hier kein Platon, wie sich immer wieder zeigt'), 108.
4.   This material was presented before in a 1999 publication entitled 'Grenzen der philologischen Echtheitskritik: Bemerkungen zum ,Großen Hippias'' (Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur Mainz: Abhandlungen der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaftlichen Klasse 1999.4), Stuttgart: Franz Steiner; reprinted (2003) in Gesammelte Schriften III, München/Leipzig: K.G. Saur, 87-124.
5.   pp. 66-9, 72, 75. There have, e.g., been readings in which Hippias appears more philosophically coherent or interesting than is the merely arrogant and obtuse Hippias in this book, such as those by Woodruff (see note 2) and Balaudé (see note 6).
6.   M.-F. Hazebroucq (2004), Hippias Majeur, Paris: Ellipses; J.-F. Balaudé (2004), Platon: Hippias mineur, Hippias majeur, Paris: Livre de Poche; J.-F. Pradeau and F. Fronterotta (2005), Platon: Hippias majeur, Hippias mineur, Paris: Flammarion.
7.   S.R. Slings (1998), 'De novis libris iudicia: Review of B. Vancamp (1996), Platon, Hippias Maior, Hippias Minor', Mnemosyne 51:5, 611-6.

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