Introducing Plato's "Hipparchus"

Greed and shame brought me to Plato's "Hipparchus."

Introducing Plato's "Hipparchus"

Remarks below are preparation for an Northeastern Political Science Association panel. Quotes are from Stephen Forde's translation of the "Hipparchus," available in "The Roots of Political Philosophy," ed. Pangle.

If you're interested in the dialogue, it is rather short, and Perseus has a copy here.

Introducing Plato's "Hipparchus"

Greed and shame brought me to Plato's "Hipparchus." Socrates opens the dialogue asking "So what is the love of gain?" I can try to be too smart about this question, try to not call it "greed." Maybe Socrates has been reading contemporary libertarian literature and thinks that if someone loves gain, their drive to accumulate more makes them incredibly efficient, ultimately useful to others and society. On a less refined note, maybe Socrates believes that if people don't love gain, they will be good-for-nothing.

If I try to be too smart, I miss what drives the drama. "So what is the love of gain? Just what can it be, and who are the lovers of gain?" This is Socrates' full opening, and it sounds to me like an interrogation. Not, perhaps, a harsh one, but definitely not meant to vindicate the person answering.

Socrates asks his interlocutor to be clear about greed. This task is almost laughably difficult. No one would ever recognize if they themselves were greedy. There must always be a justification, however brazen. "If I didn't take it, someone else would;" "they didn't deserve to have that in the first place;" "it's not my fault I spot opportunities." A lot of greedy behavior is panic-driven. "If I didn't act promptly, I wouldn't be able to survive." In the face of this, Socrates' companion gives a plausible and interesting answer about greedy, cheating people. He asserts that "[the lovers of gain] are those who think it worthwhile to make a gain from worthless things." Some people are shameless. They demand, unjustly, that a thing demonstrate far more worth than it actually has.

You can see why the "Hipparchus" has my attention. In general, we're a world torn on the matter of billionaires. Some see them as a problem, others see them as a consequence of the way things are structured. But, despite some rumblings here and there, I don't see anyone overtly teaching that they're bad, that children should not aspire to be one. You shouldn't be shamed for loving gain, we seem to believe. Maybe you'll benefit us all, or maybe you demonstrate some superior virtue.

So Socrates' companion & interlocutor has my full attention. That he's willing to shame people over what he assumes is greed—well, that's a portal to another world. To that end, Socrates' questioning is rigorous, radical in its own way. Maybe a philosopher has an unceasing lust for knowledge. Maybe he's a "lover of gain" and should not be shamed, and we need to deal with the deleterious consequences for political life which might result.


Still, I find the companion most interesting. It's easy to see him as just another victim of Socratic rhetoric (nerd point if you can identify the wrestler who said "just another victim" in regard to his opponents). But his attitude toward the greedy is a kind of piety, and seeing it in action should not be taken for granted. Socrates challenges the interlocutor to be precise about how people find something to be worthless, then try to pass it off as valuable. To demand this sort of precision is to play a game with words: if someone knows they can gain from something, is it really worthless? Follow Socrates' logic too closely and you, too, can believe no one actually cheats or acts in greedy ways. The companion tries to shut this down. “The lover of gain… thinks he ought to make a gain from everything,” a response dismissed as "aimless" by Socrates, is a just answer to those who are trying to cheat others. The actual worth of the object does not merit further discussion. What matters is that someone is eager and willing to scam someone else. Unless you're ready to cheat the cheater, you can't win this transaction.

—I don't think I've fully appreciated how much I live in a world where trying to "cheat the cheater" is necessary for survival. I remember how happy I was when I found a mechanic I could trust, and if you need car service in the Dallas area, let me know.—

There is an outstanding issue. If the companion has the right moral instincts, why does Socrates need to argue with him? To demonstrate something about philosophy? The problem, of course, is that the companion's instincts are imprecise to a fatal degree. Socrates often refutes him in arguments because he believes that what is decent is useful. This leads him to saying all gain is actually good and makes it very difficult for him to deal with the issue of ill-gotten gain. If one is tempted to think Plato has presented us with a problem specific to his age, I urge you to think about those who hoard bottled water when hurricanes hit, trying to price-gouge storm victims.

So Socrates needs to show the decent is not the useful in a way which the companion won't forget. He lets the interlocutor accuse him of cheating, then says he learned from a wise tyrant of Athens never to deceive a friend. Literally, this tyrant, one Hipparchus, put up statues with his short, pithy sayings inscribed, in the hope that people would appreciate his moral vision as opposed to that of the god Apollo. Hipparchus said "don't deceive a friend" and "walk thinking just thoughts," believing this to be wisdom poetically rendered. Obviously Socrates does not think this sort of thing to be wisdom, or we wouldn't have Platonic dialogues. Obviously, it is indirectly shameful to believe platitudes could suffice for wisdom. When I say that, though, it brings up a nearly incredible question regarding the love of gain. Many of us would say our religious traditions serve as a check on greed. Socrates seems to challenge both his interlocutor and us: no amount of insisting decency and utility go together stops tyranny. The invocation of piety does not actually stop impiety. The puzzle Socrates leaves us with is to consider what works—what, in truth, is a gain.