Saving Face Socratically: Honor, Irony, and Conversation in Plato’s Hippias Major

Kendall Sharp

What does Plato mean, at the beginning of the Hippias Major, by having Socrates ask Hippias why the Seven Sages and other pre-Socratic figures “plainly refrained from political affairs” (281c)?  Does Socrates not know that all the sophoi of earlier times were notable, at least in part, precisely for their political activity?  Different scholars have dealt with this passage in different ways, from athetizing the text to trivializing its import, but in this paper, I show how Plato’s fourth century readers could have accepted this question as an invitation for themselves to come to share an irony with Socrates, and thereby to understand more fully what are his aims, and what is at stake, in the brief introductory section of this dialogue.

Accordingly, I will focus not so much on the contents of the short sentence itself, as on its verbal context and the role it plays in the dramatized interpersonal situation.  By making sense of this sentence as a move made by Socrates in an implicitly competitive conversation, Plato’s readers can notice and re-orient themselves among the careful self-presentations of both Hippias and Socrates. In particular, Plato’s Socrates uses irony throughout this passage to excite Hippias’ sense of social honor, and thereby to articulate the otherwise tacit contrast between the goals each character pursues in this conversation.

In closing, I will indicate how this way of reading the Hippias Major has implications and consequences for understanding Plato’s literary characterization of Socrates in general, and, indeed, for understanding the poetics of Plato’s Socratic dialogues.

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