A Play on Words: A Review of Zenon Culverhouse’s “Plato’s Hippias Minor: The Play of Ambiguity.”
Zenon Culverhouse. Plato’s Hippias Minor: The Play of Ambiguity. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2021.   Plato’s Hippias Minor is often characterized as one of Plato’s least satisfying dialogues, namely because it does not seem, at least on the surface, to present a clear, unifying argument. Moreover, the arguments it does present seem, on the surface, to… The post A Play on Words: A Review of Zenon Culverhouse’s “Plato’s Hippias Minor: The Play of Ambiguity.” appeared first on VoegelinView.




Zenon Culverhouse. Plato’s Hippias Minor: The Play of Ambiguity. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2021.


Plato’s Hippias Minor is often characterized as one of Plato’s least satisfying dialogues, namely because it does not seem, at least on the surface, to present a clear, unifying argument. Moreover, the arguments it does present seem, on the surface, to be equivocations that lead to unsatisfying conclusions. Zenon Culverhouse’s book Plato’s Hippias Minor: The Play of Ambiguity, is a careful and concise account that reclaims a dialogue which historically has been viewed uncharitably by most scholars. Resisting the typical scholarly accounts that either take Socrates’s arguments as ad hominem attacks against Hippias at the expense of their philosophical rigor or accept the philosophical nuances of Socrates’s positions at the loss of Socrates’s expressive playfulness with Hippias, Culverhouse combines these two stances to observe the “unique way in which the behavior of characters in the dialogue mirror the subject matter of the dialogue” about deception and hidden intention and reveal nuances about Socrates’s arguments (2). This allows him to read the dialogue for the arguments themselves as Socrates gives them while he messes with his interlocutor Hippias. The result is a satisfying analysis of the concept of δύναμις (“ability”), paired with the relevance of Homer to Socrates’s moral psychology and a nuanced reading of the theory of voluntary action.
Chapter 1 is the first of a two-part analysis of Socrates’s engagement with Homer in the dialogue. Culverhouse seeks to clear Socrates of two common criticisms that he misinterprets Homer. The first of these arguments is that Socrates invites Hippias to stop discussing Homer and instead discuss other questions that Socrates really wants to talk about. The second is that Hippias himself accuses Socrates of misunderstanding Homer, which lays the groundwork for the many accusations that Socrates is equivocating in his arguments to Hippias. Culverhouse argues that Socrates does not misinterpret Homer, nor does he need to (18). Rather, Socrates’s goal is to get the sophistical Hippias, who wants to maintain his reputation before his small audience, to say what he truly means. Hippias, in trying to maintain his reputation, claims to represent what Homer really says. So his interpretation of Homer attempts to get at a literal reading of Homer’s text, looking solely at the words Homer explicitly uses rather than any implied meanings. This raises a potential problem for Socrates that he is misrepresenting Homer when he gets a different understanding of Achilles’ character in the Iliad. While Hippias cites Homer as saying that Achilles was a straightforward speaker and the best (άριστος) while Odysseus was a man of twists and turns (πολύτροπος). Yet by objecting that Homer actually characterizes Achilles as polytropic and not straightforward, Socrates eventually gets Hippias to agree that Homer does not give everything explicitly and might indeed leave some meanings implicit. This, Culverhouse argues, allows Socrates to get Hippias to say what he truly means. Socrates is still unsure whether he agrees that Achilles is necessary better than Odysseus—an area where many accusations of equivocations of terms (‘better at’ vs. ‘morally better’) comes in for Socrates. In the Homeric world, a person is praised or blamed according to what they do. Yet Socrates is not yet clear which hero is better, Achilles or Odysseus, because Homer’s text implies that Achilles’ acts of bluntness do not match his internal state of rage (26). Put differently, even though Achilles is straightforward in speech, which would have been an ideal for Homeric society, his speech does not convey his true motive or emotional state, and indeed, his companions view him as acting irrationally rather than honorably. Hence, Achilles’ actions are not a perfect guide to understanding Achilles. This lends to Culverhouse’s illuminating reading of Hippias Minor where Socrates’s interpretation of the ambiguity of terms in Homer lends towards Socrates’s own moral psychology.
Chapter 2 explores the concept of δύναμις (“ability”), which seems to come out of nowhere, and shows how the ambiguity in Homer regarding Achilles’ and Odysseus’ ability informs Socrates’s analysis of δύναμις. Against the flurry of scholars who argue that Socrates’s introduction of δύναμις is further evidence of his equivocation in the dialogue, Culverhouse argues that ability and inability is somehow related to whether a man is good or bad. Specifically, Socrates “will focus on the sort of knowledge at work in the exercise of a false person’s δύναμις” (32). As Culverhouse phrases it, “does the false person simply know that what he says is false, or does he also know that he is behaving badly?” (32). Achilles contrasts his own bluntness and fearlessness with deception and cowardice, implying that “those who deceive do so because they lack power” (33). Homer uses δύναμις to refer to an absence of external restraints so that a person can act or do something without hindrance. So someone who is hindered by an external impediment lacks the “ability” in the Homeric sense. Socrates’s first question on ability focuses on whether false persons can act under constraint. Socrates eventually investigates the conditions for a false person to deceive someone at all, which must include 1) a lack of external impediments, 2) knowing that what he says is false, 3) knowing what he is doing, and 4) the desire to speak falsely. Achilles estimates that a person who hides one thing but says another lacks “ability” in a certain sense because his circumstances constrain him and he does not do what he wants. Hippias tries to say that this person is worse for being this way, but Socrates exposes an ambiguity in Homer’s argument. If the false man chooses to lie voluntarily, it seems that he willingly does something bad. Yet it is unclear whether he knows what he is doing and that what he wants is good. Socrates’s analysis of δύναμις also has implications for the Socratic understanding of virtue, establishing that “knowledge of good and bad must be its own δύναμις apart from other areas of expertise” (44).
Chapter 3 analyzes Socrates’s argument regarding calculation, which shows difficulties in explaining the connection between knowledge, desire, and action. While Socrates claims that the true and false person knows the same sorts of things, and are therefore the same, Hippias remains skeptical, and so do future commentators, including Aristotle. Culverhouse takes the argument within its dramatic context after the analysis of δύναμις and its ambiguities, and the return to Homer’s text where those ambiguities are resolved. This section of the dialogue explores what kind of knowledge an able person has that influences his decisions. It also sees Socrates provoke Hippias while making a serious philosophical point about the connection between knowledge, desire, and action. Socrates’s subsequent analysis of δύναμις reveals the questions that drive this section: what does the able person know, intend, and want when he speaks truthfully or falsely? Socrates eventually conveys the point that the false person, because he is able, will also know what he is doing (51). Yet the Hippias Minor’s analysis of δύναμις leaves it ambiguous whether the false person’s knowledge is of what is true, or also of what is good or bad—and if the latter, being a false person involves more than simply knowing whether what they talk about is true or false (53).
Chapter 4 returns to the debate on Socrates’s interpretation of Homer and refutes other accusations that Socrates was equivocating against Hippias. Hippias concedes that he can’t show that true and false persons are distinct, yet he objects to Socrates’s conclusion that Achilles and Odysseus are not so different either with regard to deception. Culverhouse notes that in this sense, Hippias is right; but his being right echoes Socrates’ point that having an expert’s knowledge about what is true or what is false does not necessarily mean that one would knowingly use that knowledge to deceive someone. By focusing on Hippias’ own abilities and leading him to absurd conclusions, Socrates gets him to recognize the philosophical problem about ability and action. While many scholars once again accuse Socrates of deliberating mischaracterizing Homer’s depiction of Odysseus as a deceiver, Culverhouse argues that Socrates uses the example of Odysseus to demonstrate to Hippias the difference between voluntary and involuntary deception. Socrates focuses on showing why he thinks Achilles speaks falsely to highlight the differences between simply saying something false and the active deception implied in a πολύτροπος. This chapter concludes by reflecting on Socrates’s conclusion that the voluntary liar is better than the involuntary liar. Culverhouse brings to light the relation between voluntary action and desire, reminding us of the Socratic puzzle that no one ever wants to do what is wrong (73).
Chapter 5 examines Socrates’s counterintuitive point that the voluntarily unjust person is better than the involuntarily unjust person. Yet Socrates also suggests that there is no such thing as a voluntarily unjust person. Culverhouse argues that “the final set of arguments appeal to the view that persons generally do not want to act contrary to their own interests” (77-8). Hence, Socrates is at once sincere and insincere in his waving to accept the conclusion of voluntary wrongdoing. He is sincere that reliance on expertise as a guide to morality can fail us. Socrates’s doubt reveals a problem for him because he wants to hold to the either that a person is good only when in possession of a δύναμις—that is, knowledge, intention, and desire to do something—yet Socrates does not figure out here what he is explicit about in the Gorgias, that the unjust person lacks a δύναμις, and hence does what he does not want. Culverhouse then takes up a subtle but important shift in Socrates’s word choice where he switches from ameinon (e.g., better at running) to beltion (morally better) to describe a “better” person. The arguments leading up to Socrates’s conclusion reveal that his doubt stems from confusion over what makes a person good, when a person is evaluated according to their δύναμις, and their δύναμις explains their actions. Culverhouse observes that Socrates begins his investigation of what makes a person good by examining actions in themselves, but then subtly switches to examining how those actions produce social disapproval (shame)—a move that catches the attention of Hippias the sophist, whose success and ability as a teacher of wisdom depends entirely on good reputation.
Yet the dialogue concludes with the mystery of Socrates’s doubt about the voluntarily unjust person left unanswered. Indeed, Socrates gives an answer similar, but not quite the same, as what he presents in the Gorgias, yet without the certainty he possesses in that dialogue. Culverhouse suggests that the nuances of the argument in the Hippias Minor, as well as the playfulness of Socrates to cajole Hippias into saying his real opinions, encourages the reader to give meticulous attention to every detail of the dialogue. Culverhouse himself accomplishes this in his meticulous and thoughtful examination of an often-dismissed Platonic dialogue.
Culverhouse concludes this work with a brief epilogue discussing the possible influence of the Hippias Major’s account of δύναμις on Aristotle. Culverhouse’s reading of δύναμις in the Hippias Minor as not equivalent with knowledge provides a sound basis for the dialogue’s influence on Aristotle. The expert calculator cannot be someone who behaves badly, and it is unclear what in his knowledge of calculation would motivate him to speak falsely. Reading the dialogue this way better fits Aristotle’s notion of knowledge (ἐπιστήμη) and virtue. Culverhouse concludes that Socrates’s notion that the person who can err voluntarily has a soul in a good condition because they can choose either fine or shameful things, and in keeping with the soul analogy those who are in the best condition can err voluntarily (115). Many of Aristotle’s early works are preoccupied with the misuse of virtue, and given that Plato’s Hippias Minor is Plato’s most extensive treatment of the misuse of virtue and how directing the soul to desire the good can be a solution, it is plausible that the Hippias Minor influenced Aristotle’s own thinking on the topic. Culverhouse ends with a compelling conclusion to his compelling reading of the Hippias Minor.
Far be it from this reviewer to offer criticisms to such a careful rendering of a notoriously challenging Platonic dialogue, this work could profit from a clearer outline of the narrative about Socrates’s cunning playfulness with Hippias from the introductory chapter. Each chapter seems somewhat disconnected in terms of telling a larger story, despite the concrete connections made from chapter to chapter. This is by no means the author’s doing but rather Plato’s, as the chapters closely follow the structure of the dialogue, which characteristically moves in a wandering manner that begs readers to give it a close examination.
And in giving the Hippias Minor a close examination, the author has succeeded. Culverhouse has produced a stunningly careful and convincing analysis of one of Plato’s often-forgotten works. The meticulous approach of this book profits anyone who gives it a close read.

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