Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 7, Hippias Minor — or why virtue is knowledge and no one does evil on purpose
The Hippias Minor (named after the Sophist Hippias of Elis) is one of two Platonic dialogues featuring Socrates being his usual sarcastic self at the expense of the title character. We looked recently at the Hippias Major, on what it means to say that something is “fine,” and it is now time to tackle the next to the last chapter in the exquisite edition of the Early Socratic Dialogues curated by Trevor J. Saunders. The Hippias Minor is about two of the most fundamental ideas of Socratic philosophy, and arguably of the entire Greco-Roman tradition: that virtue is a kind of knowledge, and that nobody does evil on purpose. These are known as Socratic paradoxes, from the original Greek meaning of the term, “uncommon opinion.”
According to Socrates, virtue is a skill, and can, consequently, be taught. He uses the famous “craft analogy” here: moral learning is akin to learning a craft like carpentry or swordsmithing, and it is therefore possible to find people able to teach it, however rare they may be in practice (and Socrates, of course, never claims to be one of those people). More generally, virtue is a type of knowledge, but of a special kind, since it cannot be used for ill purposes (by definition), unlike knowledge from crafts (one can be a swordsmith and make weapons that can then be used for good or ill, by virtuous or unvirtuous people).
This in turn leads to the second paradox: Socrates maintains that since virtue is a type of knowledge, then if you have that knowledge you are ipso facto virtuous, just like if you know how to do carpentry you are therefore a carpenter. From which he derives the further conclusion (the actual paradox) that nobody does evil on purpose, but only out of lack of knowledge (i.e., virtue). These same two ideas were adopted, defended, and elaborated upon by the Stoics during the Hellenistic and imperial Roman periods.
The scene setting of the dialogue is historically interesting, as it tells us that debate competitions would take place on the side of the Olympic games, with the winner being whoever would first refuted his opponent by a variety of means, including paradox and fallacy. Of course Hippias begins with a typically boisterous claim: