Thursday, August 6, 2015


Jan-Markus Pinjuh, Platons 'Hippias Minor': Übersetzung und Kommentar. Classica Monacensia, 48. Tübingen: Narr Verlag, 2014. Pp. 262. ISBN 9783823368496. €68.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Zenon Culverhouse, University of the Incarnate Word (

Version at BMCR home site


Plato's Hippias Minor has been described as "philosophically speaking… one of the most puzzling of all Platonic dialogues," and for good reason.1 It has Socrates argue for claims that not only go against common sense (e.g. the liar and honest person are identical), but also appear to contradict what Socrates maintains elsewhere in Plato's early dialogues. In the latter regard, perhaps most puzzling of all is what Socrates concludes: "the one who errs and does shameful and unjust acts voluntarily if there is such a person, is none other than the good person" (376b5-6). This, along with perceived logical flaws in its arguments caused many scholars in the 19th century to question the dialogue's authenticity, though now it is generally accepted without much argument. But even among those scholars (past and present) who accept it as Plato's work there are a wide variety of interpretations, which range from labeling it as mere "child's play" to immoral and everything between. Where there is such variation, there is usually a need for synthesis. Jan-Markus Pinjuh's translation and commentary addresses this need, for in it he shows that only by attending to all the dialogue's details can we get a coherent picture of the dialogue's main thread of argument and why Plato advances it. The picture that emerges takes into account much of the existing scholarship on HiMi, and in many places also improves upon it.

Pinjuh's monograph consists in a translation, seven introductory essays, and a commentary. The introductory essays discuss the dialogue's manuscript tradition, date, and authenticity, and treat of its main philosophical themes. Pinjuh's stated approach in the introductory essays is to "situate the Platonic paradoxes [of HiMi] synchronically within the philosophical discussion of the time and diachronically within Plato's works" (5).2 So in addition to comparing HiMi with related dialogues, Pinjuh also provides a relatively substantial comparison with other works such as Xenophon's Memorabilia 4.2, the Dissoi Logoi, some of Antisthenes, and Homer's epics.

The commentary makes up the bulk of the work, as it is designed to support the essays through a detailed examination of each step of the dialogue. Readers, however, should not expect a commentary in the line-by-line style of Cambridge's Greek and Latin Classics or Oxford's Clarendon Plato Series. Though Pinjuh's commentary does contain small sections in this style (titled "Anmerkungen"), the majority of it is a series of linked essays rather than a series of relatively self-contained entries with cross-references. That said, this approach is warranted, given that his aim is to find some unity among seemingly disparate parts of the dialogue.

Unlike most translations (and unlike all English translations), Pinjuh bases his on Bruno Vancamp's 1996 edition of the Greek. The advantage of this edition over Burnet's OCT of 1903 is mainly in its apparatus, which gives a much more comprehensive treatment of the manuscript tradition. Vancamp's edition has few variations from Burnet's, so its value for Pinjuh's translation lies mostly in providing further support for readings common to both editions.

Pinjuh does, however, contribute further justification for one of Vancamp's variant readings. This variation is important, for it comes at a crucial transitional point in the dialogue. At 371e7, Socrates makes a connection between the question under consideration up to this point in the dialogue, namely whether Achilles, being ἀληθής, is better than Odysseus, who is ψευδής, and the claim that will occupy the remainder of the dialogue, namely that the person who lies (or does wrong) intentionally (ἑκών) is better than the one who does so unintentionally. Socrates makes this connection in response to Hippias' preceding remark, and this remark contains the disputed reading.

The variation in question occurs at 371e1, in which Hippias objects to Socrates' suggestion that Achilles lies. After all, says Socrates, Homer has Achilles say one thing to Ajax (in Odysseus' presence) after he has just said the opposite to Odysseus (371d4-7, in reference to Il. 9.625 ff.). In Pinjuh's translation, Hippias defends Achilles against the charge of lying by insisting that "er spricht… aus Arglosigkeit zu Aias anders als er zu Odysseus redet." In this line Burnet reads εὐνοίας (LSJ: goodwill, favorable impulse), following ms. F, whereas Pinjuh follows Vancamp in reading εὐηθείας (Pinjuh's "Arglosigkeit"; LSJ: guilelessness or naïveté), given in TW (197-8). Pinjuh gives Vancamp's text-critical justification for this reading but he also offers contextual grounds. He states that εὐηθείας is preferred since "it describes a general character trait while εὐνοίας expresses a momentary disposition."3 Though Pinjuh does not explain this preference here, in an earlier section he states that Hippias thinks Achilles changes his mind between utterances because of his commitment to honesty and not because he is moved by his emotions (186-7).4 Since the Greek terms do not obviously imply this distinction, Pinjuh's conclusion is one of the many fruits borne out of his careful attention to the way in which Hippias' words reflect a plausible reading of Homer. Pinjuh takes seriously the fact that Hippias is, after all, a self-proclaimed Homer expert.

Pinjuh's reason for choosing this reading seems only to consider which word best fits Hippias' point of view. In doing so, he ignores how this word-preference also helps make sense of Socrates' response. In response to Hippias' remark, Socrates says "it seems, then, that Odysseus is better than Achilles" (371e4-5). Up to this point, the only ground for thinking this is that Achilles has somehow acted in ignorance, so Socrates might as well have heard εὐνοίας. But this is not at all what Pinjuh (rightly) has Hippias think. Socrates' response, therefore, turns on the fact that εὐηθείας, and not εὐνοίας, can be understood in two different ways, either as guilelessness or ignorance.5 Nevertheless, Pinjuh's translation of εὐηθείας as "Arglosigkeit" nicely preserves this ambiguity, which suggests that he is aware of its broader function in the dialogue.

On the point of translation, Pinjuh handles well of some of the other vexing terms and passages in the Greek. The first such term we encounter in the dialogue is πολύτροπος (364c6-7), which Hippias uses both to characterize and to condemn Odysseus. One of Homer's least frequent epithets for Odysseus, πολύτροπος can refer to Odysseus' ability to beguile or to the many unintended turns that Odysseus' journey takes. Pinjuh's "vielgewandt" commits to the former. By making a commitment from the start, readers must infer that Socrates' subsequent puzzlement over the term is about what the active sense of the term involves, rather than a question of whether the active or passive sense is intended. The same sort of commitment is also made in the case of ψευδής —Hippias' gloss of πολύτροπος—and its opposite, ἀληθής, which Pinjuh translates from the start as "lugnerisch" and "wahrhaftig" respectively.

One of the more controversial terms, both in HiMi and other early dialogues is ἑκών, particularly as Socrates uses it in connection with wrong-doing. English translations of ἑκών and its cognates in Plato vary between "intentionally," "voluntarily," and "willingly," and usually translators of HiMi stick with one of these throughout. Pinjuh's translation varies between "freiwillig" and "vorsatzlich." He has Socrates use "freiwillig" almost exclusively (with one instance of "Unabsichtlich"), while he has Hippias use "vorsatzlich." To explain this, Pinjuh considers whether Hippias' use of ἑκών matches any of its uses in Greek literature, then parallels these uses with German terms that most closely correspond to them (180-4). So, for instance, when Socrates states at 371e6-7 that the ἑκών liar is better than the one who lies ἄκων, Pinjuh translates "freiwillig" and "Unabsichtlich" respectively. When Hippias denies this claim with a legal example, ἑκών and ἄκων are translated as "vorsatzlich" and "unvorsatzlich" respectively. Pinjuh takes Hippias to use ἑκών in a legal sense, and his choice of "vorsatzlich" reflects the legal connotations this term has in German (180). The value in doing this is that the translation more clearly shows that what initially looks like an exercise in Homeric exegesis is actually an inquiry into the concept of ἑκών more generally. Readers are therefore given three possibilities: a ἑκών act is "freiwillig", i.e. it is not forced or coerced, it is "absichtlich", i.e. done with a specific aim in mind, or "vorsatzlich", i.e. the result of deliberation.

Central to the introductory essays as well as Pinjuh's overall interpretation of the dialogue is his view that its main purpose is to investigate whether virtue is a δύναμις (LSJ: "power" or "capacity"; Pinjuh: "fähig"). Pinjuh rightly observes that the notion of virtue as a δύναμις is given more consideration in HiMi than any other dialogue (45-8). Like most, Pinjuh recognizes the possible equivocation in the dialogue between treating virtue as an ambivalent capacity and a τρόπος or character trait. Where he goes beyond most is in suggesting that the two are treated as equivalent (243).

The focus on δύναμις, according to Pinjuh, also reveals two aims of the dialogue. First, it reveals that the dialogue raises the question whether a person can in fact do wrong voluntarily—the answer to which Pinjuh says Socrates leaves open— and secondly it exposes problems with Socrates' reasoning (244). According to Pinjuh, these aims are especially revealed in Socrates' conclusion that "the one who errs and does shameful and unjust acts voluntarily, if there is such a person, is none other than the good person" (376b5-6).

Scholarship on HiMi uniformly treats the if-clause in this statement as the key to making sense of the dialogue as a whole. On this, Pinjuh states: "A philosophical understanding of this sentence stands and falls with its philological foundation."6 Based on his consideration of the grammar of the conditional, Pinjuh infers that we should take Socrates' puzzlement seriously: Socrates is undecided as to whether a person could intentionally act unjustly, but he also thinks it is debatable whether this person is good, supposing justice is a δύναμις. Though Pinjuh gives these conclusions better justification, they are not new. Pinjuh does, however, recognize a flaw in Socrates' reasoning that others do not: Socrates mistakenly treats as equivalent the claim that the good man does wrong intentionally (a δύναμις claim), and the claim that the man who actually does wrong intentionally is none other than the good man (224 ff. and 244).

While readers may disagree on the details, Pinjuh's approach and methods are sound. He provides an assessment of nearly all existing scholarship on the dialogue. He does more than most English-language scholarship in comparing HiMi with other dialogues of Plato, as well as other contemporary works (the discussion of Dissoi Logoi is especially promising, cf. 50-3) and he advances existing scholarship on the central points of the dialogue. All together, this should set the groundwork for future discussion of HiMi.


1.   Charles Kahn, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue (Cambridge, 1996), p. 113.
2.   Here and in a few other instances, I provide my own translation of Pihjuh and include a footnote of Pinjuh's German for those who wish to see it: "Die Einleitung hat… zum anderen die Funktion, die platonischen Paradoxa synchron in die philosophische Diskussion der Zeit und diachron innerhalb von Platons Werk zu situieren."
3.   "Auch inhaltlich erscheint εὐηθείας passender, da es eine allgemeine Charaktereinstellung beschreibt, während εὐνοίας eine momentane Disposition ausdrückt" (198).
4.   Since the comments at 197-9 come in a separate section of the commentary—a section that functions more like the standard commentaries I mention above—a cross-reference here to pages 186-7 would have been helpful.
5.   Here HiMi resembles Rep. 1, 348c10-d2, where Socrates exploits this ambiguity in response to Thrasymachus.
6.   "Eine philosophische Interpretation dieses Satzes steht und fällt mit ihrem philologischen Fundament" (235).

1 comment:

  1. Next to the Parmenides the Hippias Minor is the most wronged and wrongly understood of Plato’s dialogues. I have repeatedly sought to defend these two ‘puzzling’ dialogues, so puzzling that bo less a Platonist than A. E. Taylor could describe the Parmenides as a ‘netaphysical jest’. Basically the error stems from our reading a work of Plato as if it were a scholarly dissertation and not a dramatic piece.
    In my recently published Plato’s Universe of Discourse (e-boo) I included a “Note on Plato’s Hippias Minor” which I reproduce below somewhat abridged:
    “The problem is set in the first substantive speech of Hippias at 364c where he states that Homer makes Achilles the best, Nestor the wisest, and Odysseus the craftiest. The problem arises simply from this partition of virtue into separate elements. Socrates proceeds to show that, taking this as our starting point, we necessarily end in unacceptable conclusions. The paradox of the Hippias Minor which the erudite find puzzling is in complete harmony with the pivotal Socratic doctrine of the unity of virtue with the knowledge that is simply self-knowledge and not knowledge of anything external. …
    Socrates clearly lays down and stresses the identification of ability or capability with will and knowledge: it is only when these three are combined that a person can be said to act. …
    … Hippias insists that he can prove that Homer makes Achilles the better man and a truthful man while making Odysseus crafty and untruthful (369c). …
    The arguments produced by Socrates to ‘prove’ to Hippias that intentionally (hekôn) doing what is bad is better than doing what is bad unintentionally (akôn) are certainly sophistical in nature. If the other party were to use such arguments, Socrates would be the first to take them to pieces and show, by going into the meaning of the terms used or by producing counter-examples, that they do not apply to the case we are examining. The purpose of these and other such arguments is not to establish a position but to shake the position Hippias so confidently maintains, namely, that – on the authority of Homer – Achilles, Nestor, and Odysseus each had a distinct ‘virtue’ or power. Another function – a dramatic function – that the arguments play in the dialogue is to blast the empty sophistical wisdom of Hippias who is unable either to counter the defective arguments of Socrates or to grasp the true point of Socrates’ criticism. …

    At the end of the argument Hippias protests: deinon mentan eiê, ô Sôkrates. ei hoi hekontes adikountes beltious esontai ê hoi akontes. Indeed it would be deinon. According to the argument they would be ‘better’ but only at the cost of impoverishing our ‘better’ by taking it apart from the rest of virtue. And that is just the point of Socrates’ argument: you cannot partition virtue as Hippias started by doing. To do that is to open the door to absurd conclusions.
    D. R. Khashaba
    Independent philosopher