restricted access 1 The Question of Beauty in the Hippias Major
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one The Question of Beauty in the Hippias Major The Hippias Major appears to be one of those many dialogues, often called ‘‘Socratic’’ dialogues or, by a further leap of speculation, ‘‘early’’ dialogues, in which Socrates pursues a given topic with the apparent aim of achieving a definition of the relevant term. It is sometimes yet further speculated that such dialogues are more or less accurate accounts of the historical Socrates, and that these ‘‘early’’ dialogues and their definitional concerns are ‘‘later’’ superseded by the more ‘‘mature’’ Plato’s interest in forms. This book will join any number of other recent books in calling this speculative set of interpretive principles into question, but this much is certainly the case: Socrates, for a good chunk of his life (at least as dramatically portrayed by Plato) seemed very interested in defining terms, especially terms designating what the Greeks considered virtues. Now a definition, particularly of the sort that Socrates seems to seek, could be said to make a notably bold claim: to comprehend (in the literal sense, to take entirely together) the meaning of a term, and to do so fully and adequately. Socrates’ procedure in these definitional dialogues clearly implies that he demands of such definitions that they be able to successfully withstand all putative counter-examples and other refutational arguments. It remains questionworthy whether Socrates, the great spokesman for aporia, is genuinely confident that any definition of the massive issues with which he concerns himself could in principle accomplish this bold feat. That is why I say that Socrates ‘‘seems’’ interested in definition, because it is hardly certain that the Platonic Socrates has 8 ⭈ plato and the question of beauty as his serious goal in these dialogues to succeed in discovering an unimpeachable definition. If he did, then the portrayal of Socrates in the dialogues threatens to become not just comedy but farce: Socrates, going from conversation to conversation, whether with young men, pompous acquaintances, or sophists, always trying to define this or that quality, and never succeeding. But also, comically, never learning from his failures: he simply continues in the next dialogue, with his next partner, in the quixotic e√ort to finally get a definition of something right. If Socrates were that slow a learner, are we to take Plato to be teaching that we should be that slow as well? Or is the e√ect of this series of failures not rather to finally drive the reader to the recognition that the understanding of a virtue, whatever it may be, cannot be reduced to a definition, a logos in that highly focused sense? Indeed, the Platonic Socrates himself may have come to this recognition: there is ample enough evidence to suggest that his apparent concern with definitions may be a surface concern, one intended only to open up deeper issues. Socrates, and surely Plato, may have other, more complicated motives—motives in light of which such dialogues could hardly be called failures. We shall see this in the Hippias Major. As we turn to that dialogue let us begin, as we must in every dialogue, with a consideration of the cast of characters. Surely one of the most striking features of the dialogues is that none of them addresses ‘‘everyman,’’ as if the same issues could be discussed in the same way with anyone. Instead, in every dialogue in which a particular virtue or quality is addressed thematically, the specific topic of discussion is always occasioned by an existential situation. That is, one might say that the Platonic dialogues never present philosophy as ‘‘abstract,’’ with no reference to an occasion out of which the given topic arises. (Though characters within a given dialogue may assert a conception of philosophy as abstract: one thinks here of Parmenides, or the Eleatic Stranger.) Socrates almost never picks a philosophic issue out of thin air, as it were, and says ‘‘let’s talk about x today.’’ Rather, the topic is always occasioned, sometimes even demanded, by the existential or dramatic situation. A few examples: in the Charmides, the young Charmides (who is of course the future tyrant) is troubled by ‘‘morning headaches ’’ for which Socrates claims that the cure must be a cure both of the body and the soul, namely, sophrosyne. Socrates, that is, gleans from the fact that the headaches come ‘‘in the morning’’ that the cause of Charmides’ headaches is precisely his lack...