The new nobility: A prolegomenon to Plato's “Greater Hippias”

Bryan Henry Smith, Fordham University


Plato's Greater Hippias is about “the noble” (τ&ogr; καλ&ogr;ν). The long prologue to this dialogue is not ostensibly about “the noble”. Instead, the prologue comically introduces Hippias of Elis: an extended portrait of a successful and popular “sophist” (a professional wise man). Hence, the Greater Hippias is in two parts, but what the one—the sophist—has to do with the other—the noble—is not immediately clear. Confronted with this and other difficulties, much of the scholarship ignores the prologue, thereby denigrating or dismissing the Greater Hippias as a whole. In contrast, this dissertation takes the dialogue and its strange presentation seriously, by undertaking a preliminary study of the Greater Hippias through a detailed examination of its prologue. Perplexities and puzzles are not dismissed but are assumed to be pedagogically purposeful and accepted as an appropriate invitation to a difficult philosophic inquiry. This study, then, is a preliminary step to understand Plato's most extensive presentation of “the noble” and thereby helps to contribute to future studies by making its strange beginning accessible. Studying the prologue in its presented order, each of its four parts teaches about the practice of politics in relation to the pursuit of wisdom. Clearly the subject of political philosophy, the prologue also turns out to be a Socratic introduction of the dialogue's subject study: namely an appropriate and helpful presentation of what is commonly recognized as noble by providing a comically pleasant portrait of Hippias. Sophistry's ascent into politics exemplifies and capitalizes on what is commonly recognized as noble but is also exposed as corrupt and debased. By comically magnifying false pretensions to nobility, “Hippias, the noble and wise,” helps us to recognize two difficulties: the common but problematic attachment to noble things and the nobility of the philosopher. These political teachings are timely and timeless, positive and perplexing, inviting us to consider contemporary academics and intellectuals by raising ourselves to Socratic self-awareness and ignorance, spurring the search for a nobility that is also good.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Political science

Recommended Citation

Smith, Bryan Henry, "The new nobility: A prolegomenon to Plato's “Greater Hippias”" (2009). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3353780.