The great sophist Hippias is losing his patience. Hippias had given what was proclaimed to be a fine (kalon) speech, and Socrates had remained silent. Afterward, Hippias agreed to entertain questions from those in attendance. Socrates sees his opening.
During the speech, he couldn’t understand how Hippias could insist, if only in passing, that in Homer’s eyes Achilles was a better man than Odysseus, Achilles being brave and truthful, Odysseus wily. Now, asks Socrates, do you hold the liar to be one kind of person and the truthful person another, distinct kind? Oh, yes, Hippias agrees.
Not so. After systematic examination, it is revealed that the liar must have knowledge of the truth in order to lie, thus putting him in the same camp as the truthful person. Therefore, these two figures cannot be two different kinds. Defeated by the argument, tired of Socrates’s persistent questioning, and niggled perchance by the thought (albeit unstated) that he may not be as wise as he thought, Hippias exclaims,
Oh, Socrates! You’re always weaving arguments of this kind. You pick out whatever is the most difficult part of the argument, and fasten on it in minute detail, and don’t dispute the whole subject under discussion…. (369c)
Is this ad hominem? A charge of injustice? Of nit-picking? Of unfairness, i.e., not playing by the rules? Socrates answers:
Hippias, I don’t dispute that you are wiser than I, but it is always my custom to pay attention when someone is saying something, especially when the speaker seems to me to be wise. And because I desire to learn what he means, I question him thoroughly and examine and place side-by-side the things he says, so I can learn. If the speaker seems to me to be some worthless person, I neither ask questions nor do I care what he says. This is how you’ll recognize whom I consider wise. You’ll find me being persistent about what’s said by this sort of person, questioning him so that I can benefit by learning something. (369d-e)
Hippias, a man of considerable power and influence, a man of great words and burgeoning wealth, professes to be wise and so what he says is to be taken very seriously. Only by placing what he says ‘side-by-side’ with what else he says can his statements be shown to be consistent, inconsistent, far-fetched, or deeply implausible.
I believe that there is a crucial point that Socrates is making. Powerful, influential, wealthy, purportedly ‘wickedly intelligent’ people make all kinds of statements, only to hand-wave time and again through the difficult parts. Because of their power, intelligence, or influence, they are often given a free pass. What they say sounds pleasant, is clever, rings true–but is it true? Why so fast? What must be made plain is that there is violence inhering in any forceful utterance, in many utterances that pass by our attention and that we, out of poor training, inattention, or fear, give our unconsidered assent to. By doing so, cowards or fools we show ourselves to be.
But Socrates, displaying courage, will not nod merely out of custom. He will not chuckle just because others are chuckling over professedly fine things. He cares nothing for losing or saving face, nothing for others’ reputations, for he only wants–and wants this utmost–to be wise and therefore to learn what wisdom is. Like powerful figures in our day (whether they be politicians, businessmen, or academics), Hippias wants not to be wise but to remain invulnerable.
He is unlucky this day.