Hippias Minor or The Art of Cunning
(Badlands Unlimited / DESTE Foundation, 2015)
Hippias Minor, one of Plato’s early dialogues, has been, if not controversial, one of his most misunderstood works. In it, Plato details a heated conversation between Socrates and Hippias, a renowned sophist polymath. The dialogue is prompted by their opposing ideas about what constitutes a “better man.” For Hippias, honesty is key. Following from this, he claims that Achilles is a better man than Odysseus—who is defined as the most cunning man of the ancient world. Socrates finds this argument bewildering. To prove that Odysseus is, in fact, the better man, Socrates sets out to define the qualities of such a man using what would seem like confounding arguments. In Plato’s depiction of the debate, Socrates contends that the better man can manipulate truth to his advantage—thus becoming better. Socrates goes even further, arguing that the man who willingly acts wrongly and unjustly is better than the man who unwillingly does so. In sum, Plato, in his portrayal of Socrates, grants cunning with virtue.
The dialogue’s controversy stems from Plato’s motives and his views on morality as expressed in other works. In Hippias Minor, Plato seems to be championing traits contradictory to his philosophy. The key concept in the dialogue is polutropos—the trait used to describe Odysseus—usually translated as “lying.” But polutropos, like many Greek words,has a range of meanings.
In 2014, Paul Chan, artist, author, and founder of Badlands Unlimited, first began exploring this “constellation of meanings,” as he calls it, in a lecture series called “Odysseus as Artist.” The lectures addressed a variety of themes, including Greek history and the relationship between art and cunning, ideas which inspired a new approach to Hippias Minor. Chan’s vision, along with work from scholar Richard Fletcher, and classicist and translator Sarah Ruden, renders a fuller, more complex reading of Plato’s classic text.
By conceiving of and translating polutropos as “cunning” (as it is also understood by poet Stephen Mitchell in his translation of the Odyssey), the content and meaning of Hippias Minor broadens the translation, allowing Plato’s argument to shine through. It’s possible to think about this translation portraying Socrates as Plato wanted him to be remembered: as the willing philosopher who, through cunning arguments, used creativity to follow reason through to its logical end.
While reframing our idea of Socrates, this new version of Hippias Minor also pays due homage to Plato. By reexamining the key concepts in this dialogue, Plato’s tone and intention gain lucidity. As the text unravels, it becomes clear that Plato is heralding the power of the creative act rather than mere deception—which may be one facet of creativity’s many elements and layers of complexity. The emphasis on the concept of cunning casts Hippias Minor in a new light, and it no longer appears contradictory to Plato’s moral philosophy.
I met with Chan this fall at the Badlands Unlimited headquarters to talk about the imprint’s new translation of Hippias Minor or The Art of Cunning.
Diego Gerard (Rail): At one point in your introduction you pose the question, “Is this Plato?” You wonder whether the voice and content you encounter in Hippias Minor are the same as those in the Republic. Was this a motivation in re-examining this text? As though wanting to find the Plato you know in this dialogue?
Paul Chan: It was one way to come to terms with how the dialogue is read and how it can be situated within the Platonic canon. Within classicism I think it’s called a developmentalist view.
Rail: “The Owl’s Legacy,” Chris Marker’s documentary film series, was one of the influences on this book. The speakers in the series repeatedly make the point that ancient Greece informs and shapes the world today. It set the parameters of modern thinking, serves as a foundation for our identities, and, as George Steiner points out in the film series, “she constantly imposes choices on us.” As you revisited Hippias Minor, did you feel that ancient Greece’s legacy had previously been misinterpreted? Is this new view on Hippias Minor an effort to shape new ideas in contemporary times?
Chan: Each generation finds new ways to interpret what came before to better grapple with what it means to be here, so to speak. It seems to me that history that is not misinterpreted, or debated, or contested, must not be that interesting of a history to begin with. As far as Hippias Minor is concerned, what I found remarkable was how it was largely regarded as a Platonic work that was more mysterious and enigmatic than illuminating and insightful. But this may have been more about how history—and Platonic scholarship in general—wants to remember Plato than anything else. If, however, one leaves behind a certain idea of what Plato is supposed to represent, then it’s possible to read Hippias Minor differently. And I think this is what we did.
Rail: As someone who is intrigued by ancient Greece, what do you think is the remarkable quality of that culture’s thought, philosophy, and literature?
Chan: Perhaps it’s how prescient the work continues to be. But this may have less to do with the power and quality of the work and more with the idea that we as a species have simply not evolved as much as we think we have.
Rail: Why are we always coming back to its themes and paradigms, and trying to find ourselves in them?
Chan: Seigniorial rights? Just a guess. He who represents and speaks on behalf of an origin tends to do so in order to justify his authority over that which the origin engenders. This is why I think the Tea Party relentlessly proclaims their fidelity to the American founding fathers: to speak for them is in essence to say that they have the authority to do what they please because they represent the power of what came before. I’m not suggesting our little book is like the Tea Party, but perhaps they are related, insofar as they are both exercises in how to use and abuse history to shape what it means to be present today.
Rail: Talking about the text itself, Hippias and Socrates differ about the definition of “the better man,” and we go on to see how masterfully Socrates counters Hippias in the delivery of his arguments. For Hippias, the better man is honest above all. For Socrates, though, it seems the better man can manipulate truth to his advantage. Is the main difference between their arguments only a matter of morality?
Chan: Not only. It is also a matter of style. And perhaps also a matter of humor, insofar as one has it and the other does not.
Rail: Hippias seems to gradually concede to Socrates’s argument. Socrates guides him through a series of examples that describe everyone from a mathematician to a doctor, all of whom behave poorly but willingly and yet, they are all better suited to society than those who unwillingly act poorly. Hippias agrees until Socrates challenges him to imagine a scenario with a criminal. Hippias refuses to concede that the willing criminal is better than the unwilling, even though the example follows the same logic. Why won’t Hippias concede in this instance?
Chan: It’s the step beyond that Hippias is not willing to take. But Socrates is at least willing to entertain the idea, which is how Plato artfully disparages Hippias: by showing that he doesn’t have the courage to follow reason to the very end.
Rail: Does the concept of “inner law” intervene?
Chan: If you mean by “inner law” the notion of morality then I think it does intervene in Hippias Minor. The whole dialogue is to me riven with the tension between the moral and the aesthetic.
Rail: The real element of cunning introduced by Plato lies in the way Socrates weaves his arguments, claiming he is less intelligent than Hippias, questioning and contradicting him from a place of apparent innocence, yet knowingly and surreptitiously making his points. Also, Plato embeds cunning traits within Hippias, who at first portrays himself as a man with a great memory, but then becomes forgetful at his own convenience. Do you think Plato’s argument about cunning comes across best through characterization and details attributed to the characters, or through the content of Socrates’s argument?
Chan: It does not seem to me to be either or. What I said earlier about style is apt here: style is the manifestation of the telling details that make up a character as an argument about what is worth believing about that character most.
Rail: Is Plato—through this characterization of Socrates—trying to empower the creative act through the concept of cunning?
Chan: In Hippias Minor, as we conceive and translate it in our book, it certainly reads as if Plato is more open to the idea than anywhere else in his work. But perhaps it is even more radical than what you suggest. It may be that he is trying to empower the act of reason through the concept of cunning, not just the creative act.
Rail: Is the concept of cunning in contemporary art going to replace the concept of creativity?
Chan: I doubt it.
Rail: Is freedom in art based on the concept of cunning?
Chan: No. But the concept of cunning wouldn’t be so enlivening and interesting without freedom in art.