Being Good At Being Bad: The Hippias Minor on Rule-Following



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Agnes Callard

forthcoming in Festschrift for Nicholas Smith, ed. Rusty Jones



Being Good At Being Bad: The Hippias Minor on Rule-Following
In the Hippias Minor Socrates argues, by way of a variety of examples, for the general principle that the expert in any domain is also the person who has the power to go wrong in that domain. So, for instance, the expert archer can ensure that his arrow misses the target. Likewise, claims Socrates, the expert in justice—the just man—is the only person who can, if he likes, make sure that he does something unjust. He concludes the dialogue with the claim that good men, and only good men, have the power to do evil. Why does Socrates draw this conclusion, instead of taking its prima facie absurdity as grounds for denying the analogy between archery and justice?
I claim that he does so because he takes himself to have an argument that the just man’s power to be unjust, like the archer’s power to miss the target, or the mathematician’s power to give the wrong answer, is precisely what distinguishes each of these men from someone who conforms to the norms of each activity merely by chance. I argue that the Hippias Minor offers a presentation—the first in the history of western philosophy—of the distinction between following, as opposed to merely conforming to, some rule.

Immoralism in the Hippias Minor?

The argumentation in the Hippias Minor (HM) comes in two waves, and each wave culminates in an ethically dubious conclusion—first, that voluntary evildoers are morally superior to involuntary ones; and, second, that the voluntary evildoer is none other than the good man:


(1) Those who harm people and commit injustice and lie and cheat and go wrong voluntarily, rather than involuntarily, are better than those who do so involuntarily1. 
 (372d4-7)

(2) So the one who voluntarily misses the mark and does what is shameful and unjust, Hippias—that is, if there is such a person—would be no other than the good man. (376b4-6)

These claims are asserted with some hesitation but also evident seriousness by Socrates. Indeed, it is his very hesitation that underscores his seriousness: Socrates presents himself as having been driven, by arguments he cannot fault, to conclusions whose counterintuitiveness he is willing to acknowledge. It is, as Russell Jones and Ravi Sharma (forthcoming) have recently argued, difficult to read the Socrates of the HM as ironically detached from his statements. And yet these statements are so unSocratic-sounding, that, as Paul Friedlander once noted, they would long ago have relegated the dialogue to apocryphal status were it not for Aristotle’s testimony (1964, p.146).

Attention to the precise wording of (2) reveals an escape valve. That sentence is in fact a conditional, one whose antecedent (“if there is such a person”) Socrates elsewhere claims to be necessarily false. Thus Taylor:



“On reflection we see that the key to Plato's meaning is really supplied by one clause in the proposition which emerges as the conclusion of the matter : "the man who does wrong on purpose, if there is such a person, is the good man." The insinuation plainly is that there really is no such person as "the man who does wrong on purpose," and that the paradox does not arise simply because there is no such person. In other words, we have to understand the Socratic doctrine that virtue is knowledge, and the Socratic use of the analogy of the "arts," in the light of the other well-known Socratic dictum, repeated by Plato on his own account in the Laws, that "all wrong-doing is involuntary." It is this, and not the formulated inference that the man who does wrong on purpose is the good man, which is the real conclusion to which Plato is conducting us.”2 (emphasis original)
Like most interpreters3, I follow Taylor in understanding the phrase “if there is such a person” as a way of squaring the claim in the HM with Socrates’ many famous assertions that no one does wrong willingly. And Taylor is right that this softens both (1) and (2): if there are no voluntary wrongdoers, then the claim that voluntary wrongdoers are good, or better than involuntary wrongdoers, stops sounding like a paean to wickedness. But Taylor is wrong to conclude that ‘no one does wrong willingly’ is the ‘real conclusion’ of the HM4.
The subject of the HM is not the willingness of wrongdoing, but rather the power to break rules. The HM is filled with examples of rule-breakers: people intentionally giving the wrong answer to a math problem, running slowly on purpose, choosing to fall down while wrestling, shooting an arrow with the goal of missing the target, etc. Socrates’ method of argumentation in the HM suggests that he thinks those cases shed some light on the case of the just man—that the just man, too, has a kind of power to break the rules, even if, as Socrates will argue elsewhere, he won’t use it. The thesis that no one does wrong willingly is, at best, gestured at in the HM. We can invoke it to contextualize the shocking conclusion of that dialogue, but it neither supplants the conclusion nor does it entirely remove its sting. Even if Socrates is not actually claiming that good men do evil, the claim he is making—that good men (alone) are equipped or empowered or enabled to do evil—is difficult enough. Why does Socrates think this?
The standard answer, found in the quote from Taylor above, as well as in more recent work, is to take (1) and (2) as dividends of the craft analogy5. Most commentators take Socrates to establish, by looking at a variety of crafts such as archery, running, and mathematics, that
(3) Those who voluntarily err in some craft are better at it than those who make unintentional errors.
These commentators then understand (1) and (2) to follow from (3) by way of the assumption that virtue is a craft, or can be understood on the model of a craft. Weiss (p.142-7) takes this conclusion as a reductio of the craft analogy, which she ascribes to Hippias rather than to Socrates. Jones and Sharma6, who take the conclusion, as well as commitment to the validity of the craft analogy, to be genuinely Socratic, do an admirably careful job of exposition on Socrates’ hesitant language in relation to (1) and (2), arguing persuasively, against Weiss, that these statements are best read as sincere avowals of his views. They go on to defend Socrates’ commitment to (1) and (2) against the charge of amoralism by invoking an “interest” thesis that they find in other dialogues (forthcoming, pp.28-33). Having noted that one chooses to err with respect to crafts only because one takes doing so to promote one’s interests, they then assert that Socrates holds that injustice never promotes a person’s interests.
Jones and Sharma’s approach is in much the same spirit as Taylor’s: they suggest a way of legitimating the conclusion of the HM by reading it through the lens of Socratic commitments outside that dialogue7. As such, they lessen the offensiveness of, rather than offering a principled philosophical defense of, the fact that Socrates concludes (1) and (2). Granting that Socrates may think that he has an argument for (1) and (2) grounded in the craft analogy, why should we think he has one? Indeed, the Jones and Sharma rescue strategy makes this question especially difficult to answer. For the interest principle on the basis of which they secure just action for the just man relies, as they acknowledge, on a disanalogy between morality and craft. Violating the norms of some craft can be in one’s interest, whereas violating the norms of justice never is. Why not take that very disanalogy to speak to the falsity of, rather than securing the innocuousness of, (1) and (2)? That is, why should one conclude from (3) to (1) or (2), rather than taking the invalidity of that inference as grounds for rejecting the applicability of the craft analogy on this point?8
Jones and Sharma’s project of showing how (1) and (2) are consistent with Socratic doctrines expressed outside the HM is an important one, but it is not the same as showing that (1) and (2) are justified within the confines of the dialogue. That is the project of this paper. Unlike most commentators, I do not take (1) and (2) as conclusions drawn on the basis of an analogy between morality and craft. This is, first, because a number of the non-moral examples in the HM argument also fail to be examples of craft, and, second, because I do not take (1) and (2) to have the status of conclusions, but rather of examples on par with that of the archer, the mathematician, the wrestler. Socrates is using both the craft examples and the non-craft examples to make a more general point about normativity. The moral case is of special interest because it allows him to illustrate a feature of normativity that would otherwise be hard to pick out. On the reading of the HM for which I will argue, there is a powerful philosophical truth contained in (1) and (2), one that does not rely on, but instead itself underwrites, the craft analogy.

Flouting and Flubbing

Socrates and Hippias discuss a wide variety of opposed pairs: the truthful man and the liar, the fast runner and the slow runner, the strong man and the weak man, the archer who hits the target and the one who misses the target, the horse that one rides badly and the horse that one rides well, eyes that see well and eyes that see badly and finally, the just man and the unjust man. Socrates argues that all of these ‘opposites’ are unified: it is the same man who speaks the truth and lies, the same man who hits and who misses the target,. Or rather, it is the same man who willingly does both actions, because willingly doing something badly presupposes the ability to do it well.


Socrates calls on us to distinguish between two ways of violating the norms of a given activity. The person who lacks mastery over the rule errs by, as I will call it, flubbing the activity. He doesn’t control whether he breaks or follows the rule. Consider the norms associated with archery or race-running: hit the target, run fast. The flubber is the one who misses the target because he cannot keep his hand steady, or who runs slowly because he has a lame foot. When the person with mastery violates such a rule, I will say she flouts it. The expert archer can intentionally miss the target because she prefers to hit a deer running in the background. The Olympic runner might run slowly on purpose in order to allow his friend to win.
We can contrast intentionally/ purposefully/ willingly erring and accidentally/ unintentionally/ unwillingly erring in any domain; and this is exactly how Socrates draws the contrast in cases of running, archery, vision etc. But there are domains in which we do not need to introduce terminology to mark the distinction, because we already have the conceptual and linguistic resources to acknowledge the distinctiveness of the flouted activity, or the flubbed one. Examples of the former are losing at a sport because one ‘throws’ the match, cheating at a game, breaking the law as an act of civil disobedience, and the phenomenon of disobedience or rebellion more generally. Examples of the latter: negligence (as in a legal context), fumbling the ball (in a sports game), wardrobe malfunctions, ‘glitches’ of any kind.
Plato begins the dialogue with what may be the most striking example of a domain in which the distinction is, as it were, built-in: speech. Speakers aim at speaking truly, which is why it is appropriate to correct someone who says something false. Successful speech is truthful speech. But there is a very important difference between violating the norm of truthfulness accidentally, and violating it with the knowledge that what one is saying is false. Liars flout the norm of truthful speech. Our distinction between merely saying something false and lying is, then, an instance of Socrates’ distinction between flubbing and flouting. Socrates’ opening argument uses the distinction between flouting and flubbing to distinguish the mathematical falsehoods uttered by a mathematical expert such as Hippias from those uttered by an ignorant person:
T1 “Don’t you think the ignorant person would often involuntarily tell the truth when he wished to say falsehoods, if it so happened (εἰ τύχοι), because he didn’t know; whereas you, the wise person, if you should wish to lie, would always consistently lie?” (367a2-5)

Those without mastery succeed, when they do succeed, by mere chance (εἰ τύχοι), and fail, when they do fail, by the same chance. If I say something true by chance, then I am also the kind of person whom chance leads to say false things. Likewise, if I had the mastery to speak falsely about math it follows that I had the mastery to speak truly. The basic principle to which Socrates wishes to secure Hippias’ agreement is one that I will call flouting over flubbing:


Those who flout some norm are better in relation to the activity governed by that norm than those who flub it.

“ψεύδος” vs. “lie”

Someone might object on linguistic grounds to a reading of the HM on which Socrates is staking out a position on lying as opposed to speaking falsely. Greek does not have a distinct word for lying: in T1, “falsehood” and “lie” are translations of the same Greek word, ψεύδεσθαι. I want to insist that Socrates is able to capitalize on the flouting-specific concept of a lie, even if he and Hippias do not have available to them a single word corresponding specifically to that concept. We are right to translate ψεύδεσθαι differentially depending on context; and it is clear that not only Socrates but also Hippias distinguishes between two senses of ψεύδεσθαι in this passage. It figures importantly in Hippias’ defense of the superiority of Achilles to Odysseus.

ἃ μὲν γὰρ ὁ Ἀχιλλεὺς ψεύδεται, οὐκ ἐξ ἐπιβουλῆς φαίνεται ψευδόμενος

ἀλλ’ ἄκων, διὰ τὴν συμφορὰν τὴν τοῦ στρατοπέδου ἀναγκασθεὶς καταμεῖναι καὶ βοηθῆσαι· ἃ δὲ ὁ Ὀδυσσεύς, ἑκών τε καὶ ἐξ ἐπιβουλῆς.


T2: HIPPIAS: When Achilles says false things (ψεύδεται), he’s portrayed as doing so not on purpose but involuntarily, forced to stay and help by the misfortune of the army. But the lies of Odysseus (ψεύδεται) are voluntary and on purpose. (370e5-9)

Nicholas Smith has chosen to translate the first ψεύδεται as “says false things” and the second as “lies.” This is somewhat awkward, since if Hippias had the word “lie,” he wouldn’t have had to add the qualifications “voluntary and on purpose.” And yet there is also something right about this translation: Hippias is drawing precisely our distinction between saying false things and lying, as grounds for the moral distinction between Achilles and Odysseus. Greek speakers, like English speakers, have ample reasons to draw a conceptual distinction between lies and mere falsehoods; Socrates does so in order to distinguish between mathematical experts and mathematical novices, and Hippias does so in order to distinguish moral Achilles from immoral Odysseus. Socrates and Hippias are able to distinguish the practice of lying from that of speaking falsely even though they must use the same word for both.


And there is at least one respect in which the Greek way of putting the point—voluntary vs. involuntary senses of ψεύδεσθαι—has an advantage over the English ‘lying vs. speaking falsely.’ An English speaker could (arguably) describe someone who intends to speak falsehoods but accidentally tells the truth, or someone who says true things with an intention to deceive, as a “liar.” The word “lie/liar” thus threatens to pick out a slightly broader category than the one in which Socrates is interested. Socrates’ attention is focused on the category of floutings of the norm of speaking truly, and the Greek ψεύδεσθαι channels this focus well: it does not leave room for a case in which one says true but somehow deceptive things.
ψεύδεσθαι is narrow enough to allow Socrates to restrict discussion to cases in which what is said is false, but flexible enough to allow for the introduction of the “intentionally” / “unintentionally” distinction. In this way, Socrates’ vocabulary facilitates rather than obstructs his argument for the principle I have called flouting over flubbing. Indeed, perhaps Greek makes things a little too easy for Socrates.
In T2, Hippias wants to contrast the case of Achilles and Odysseus, on the one hand, with the mathematical case described above. Hippias granted the mathematical superiority of the flouter, but he wants to assert the moral superiority of the flubber. Hippias wants to insist that precisely because Achilles merely flubs the rule of truth-telling, whereas Odysseus flouts it, Achilles is morally superior to Odysseus. Socrates responds by insisting that the mathematical and moral cases are parallel:
T3: SOCRATES: Then it seems that Odysseus is better than Achilles after all.

HIPPIAS: Not at all, surely, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Why not? Didn’t it emerge just now that the voluntary liars

are better than the involuntary ones?



HIPPIAS: But Socrates, how could those who are voluntarily unjust, and are voluntary and purposeful evil-doers, be better than those who act that way involuntarily? For these people, there seems to be much lenience, when they act unjustly without knowing, or lie, or do some other evil. The laws, too, are surely much harsher towards those who do evil and lie voluntarily than towards those who do so involuntarily. 371e4-372a5
When he compares the voluntary lies of Odysseus to voluntary injustice, Hippias is suddenly moved to recognize the distinctiveness of the category of intentional false speech that is immoral. He finds himself a moral context in which the claims he had been moved to agree on in the mathematical domain no longer seem true. He feels the tables have been turned on him, and this is difficult to convey in translation: if we speak of someone “lying” about mathematical facts we are already in the territory of moral assessment.
It is not that the word ‘lie’ must signify immoral false speech. For we are able, e.g., to ask a question such as “are all lies immoral?” But such a use in English requires us to explicitly cancel the negative moral association. In Greek, the situation is reversed9. Because the base meaning of the word is false speech, the negative moral assessment must be explicitly attached. Thus it is not surprising that when he granted the superiority of the one who “lies” about math, Hippias allowed the context to present the word ψεύδεσθαι in a nonmoral way. He took himself to be being asked simply whether someone who, as we have to put it, intentionally but not immorally lies about math is superior to someone who unintentionally (but not for moral reasons) makes true mathematical statements. In T3, by contrast, Hippias wants to promote Achilles’ unintentional and moral false speech over Odysseus’ intentional and immoral false speech. Hippias would not be wrong to protest that he agreed to the superiority of flouters on the assumption that moral norms were not under discussion. He has good grounds to resist extending his conclusion from the mathematical case to the moral one.
I believe that this slide accounts for at least some of the many charges of equivocation that have been leveled against Socrates’ argument against the superiority of Achilles10. Panos Dimas has defended Socrates by insisting that he uses ‘liar’ in an exclusively nonmoral sense: “Socrates is not interested in, and, most importantly, not addressing Hippias’ moral assessment of these Homeric characters…he is concerned with the descriptive aspect of the proposition that someone is truthful or untruthful.” (2014, p.109) But it is clear, surely even to Socrates, that Hippias does attach a moral sense to the ψεύδεσθαι of Odysseus in T3; if Socrates means to use ψεύδεσθαι only in a nonmoral sense, he is speaking, at best, misleadingly. Nor can we take the opposite path from Dimas, and insist that Socrates uses ψεύδεσθαι in a moral sense throughout. For the geometrical example is not naturally heard as a reference to the superiority of clever but evil geometers to decent but stupid ones.
To charge Socrates with equivocation is nonetheless unfair, because it ignores the conversational nature of the discussion. The exchange in T2-3 exposes a difference that needs to be further explored. Socrates goes on to do precisely that: the distinction between moral and nonmoral cases of flouting is the central topic of the rest of the dialogue. The Greek word ψεύδεσθαι does allow Socrates, initially, to gloss over an important distinction—but neither he nor Plato leaves it at that. Socrates cannot be accused of subterfuge on this point in the second half of the dialogue, for he makes absolutely explicit the fact that he is discussing both nonmoral cases and moral ones. What might have been an equivocation if the dialogue had ended halfway is vindicated by Socrates’ upcoming argument for a principled assimilation of the two kinds of cases.

Bivalence, Moral and Non-Moral

Let us, then, turn to some of the examples featured in what I have called the second wave (373c and following) of argumentation in the HM:


Which one is the better runner, then: the one who runs slowly voluntarily, or the one who does so involuntarily? 373d5-6
So also in wrestling, one who voluntarily has worthless and shameful accomplishments is a better wrestler than one who has them involuntarily. 374a1-2
Isn’t the physically better person able to accomplish both sorts of things: the strong and the weak, the shameful and the fine? So whenever he accomplishes worthless physical results, the one who is physically better does them voluntarily, whereas the one who is worse does them involuntarily?” 374a7-b3
What about gracefulness, Hippias? Doesn’t the better body strike shameful and worthless poses voluntarily, and the worse body involuntarily? 374b5-7
So then one statement embraces them all, ears, nose, mouth and all the senses: those that involuntarily accomplish bad results aren’t worth having because they’re worthless, whereas those that do so voluntarily are worth having because they’re good. 374d8-e2
Is it better to possess a horse with such a soul that one could ride it badly voluntarily, or involuntarily? 375a3-5
In these passages Socrates tries to establish that the point he made in the first section with reference to various forms of mathematical and scientific knowledge is, in fact, a general point about flouting and flubbing. Those who have the power to act well in some domain not only do not but even cannot flub the rule. They can pretend to flub it, using their mastery to act exactly as one would act without it, but their pretend flubbing is real flouting. The flouter cannot violate the norm in a way that would indicate a defect in his capacity to obey the norm. It follows that if you criticize someone for a norm violation, you must be criticizing him for flubbing rather than flouting that norm. For flouting of the norm is a sign of excellence in respect of that very norm. So, for instance, if I criticize someone who runs slowly on purpose, I do not really criticize his running, rather I think he has to get his priorities straight, or is being a bad friend. I criticize him for flubbing norms of competition or friendship, not for flouting norms of running. This line of reasoning leads to a shocking conclusion when Socrates extends his ‘unification of opposites’ from these explicitly nonmoral cases to explicitly moral case of justice and injustice:
So the more powerful and better soul, when it does injustice, will do injustice voluntarily, and the worthless soul involuntarily? 376a6-7
Therefore, it’s up to the good man to do injustice voluntarily, and the bad man to do it involuntarily. 376b2-4
So the one who voluntarily misses the mark and does what is shameful and unjust, Hippias—that is, if there is such a person—would be no other than the good man. 376b4-6
Hippias and Socrates both recoil at the conclusion that the just man and the unjust man are the same person. And yet, this conclusion does seem to follow by analogy with the other cases: real injustice—violating the rules of justice by flouting and not mere flubbing—is the province of the one who has mastered justice. The principle flouting over flubbing is a consequence of a more fundamental principle to the effect that excellence in some domain entails the power to flout the rules of that domain. I will call this bivalence, and I’ll use moral bivalence as a label for the claim that the person who has the power to be moral alone has the power to be immoral.
It has not been clear to all interpreters that Socrates’ assertions of moral bivalence in the HM warrant considering the view a genuinely Socratic one. For he also expresses sympathy with Hippias’ rejection of the claim that the (truly) good and (truly) bad man are the same person. He describes himself as vacillating with respect to the conclusion of the argument: “I waver back and forth and never believe the same thing” (376c2-3). We might be tempted to classify the HM as an experimental dialogue (“an early, false start” 11), one in which Socrates tries out a line of argumentation that is revealed as a dead end by the absurdity of the conclusion. But there is evidence outside the HM that this is not the case. Consider this exchange from the Crito.
CRITO: Your present situation makes clear that the majority can inflict not the least but pretty well the greatest evils if one is slandered among them.
SOCRATES: Would that the majority could inflict the greatest evils (τὰ μέγιστα κακὰ ἐργάζεσθαι), for they would then be capable of the greatest good, and that would be fine, but now they cannot do either. They cannot make a man either wise or foolish, but they inflict things haphazardly (ὅτι ἂν τύχωσι). (44d1-10)
As in the HM, Socrates here connects the power to act well in a masterful (as opposed to haphazard) way with the power to inflict the greatest evils. Indeed, he implies that the two powers are the same power. This passage is important, because Plato represents moral bivalence in the form of a casual avowal of an established belief, rather than as a tentative (and suspect) conclusion. It seems that Plato, at least at some point in his development, took moral bivalence not as a view with which Socrates briefly experimented, but as a view on which he landed at the end of his life. Which is to say, the vacillation at the end of the HM gets resolved in favor of, rather than against, moral bivalence. There is a passage from the Republic that also attests to this interpretation. Socrates makes use of moral bivalence to argue against Polemarchus’ definition of justice in Republic I. Polemarchus says that the just man benefits his friends and harms his enemies. Socrates points out that each craft allows one to benefit and harm in some area:
SOCRATES: And who is most capable of treating friends well and enemies badly in matters of disease and health?

POLEMARCHUS: A doctor.

SOCRATES: And who can do so best in a storm at sea?

POLEMARCHUS: A ship’s captain. (332d10-e2)


Every craft can produce opposites, because the craftsman is the one who knows how to produce the distinctive kind of damage that is proper to the kind of benefit he also knows how to produce. A doctor can produce both health and sickness. After they identify the just man’s particular province of benefit as the guarding of money, Socrates concludes: “If a just person is clever at guarding money, therefore, he must also be clever at stealing it… A just person has turned out then, it seems, to be a kind of thief.” (334a7-10)
In lieu of dissociating Socrates from moral bivalence, some interpreters are inclined to try to distance Plato from it. One might take this passage of the Republic together with the HM argument as evidence that moral bivalence reveals the limits of the ‘craft analogy.’ Justice is not like archery, or running, or medicine, or navigation. In those cases, intentional rule-breaking is a mark of mastery, but in the case of justice, intentional rule-breaking is a mark of lack of mastery. C.D.C Reeve 1988 (p.22-4) takes Plato to be using Polemarchus’ definition to expose the faulty reasoning characteristic of early Socratic dialogues.
Perhaps Plato does reject moral bivalence, and perhaps he suspects the craft analogy12. But Rep. I contains its own resources for explaining the error that has produced the conclusion that the just man is a thief. The problem, at least according to Socrates, is not that the craft analogy is invalid but that Polemarchus’ definition of justice is wrong. Socrates thinks that justice cannot entail harming one’s enemies because the just man never harms anyone. (Rep. 335e1-5) Socrates’ critique of Polemarchus can, the, easily be read as being of apiece with the line adopted in the Crito and HM: the just man does not actually harm, but merely has the ability to harm13. No one harms anyone on purpose, though the just man (alone) has the power to do this. Again, it may be true that materials Plato supplies later in the Republic give one reasons to suspect the validity of Socrates’ refutation of Polemarchus, on the grounds that Plato rejects moral bivalence. Since Plato also rejects the idea that justice involves harming one’s enemies, he would then have to supply an independent argument against Polemarchus. But I set all this aside, in favor of concentrating on the internal coherence of the Socratic position.

Rule-Following vs. Rule-Conforming

I have mentioned that both the defenders and the skeptics of the argument in the HM tend to see moral bivalence as a product of the craft analogy. But only the Republic passage supports the craft-analogy construal of the argument for moral bivalence. In the Crito passage, Socrates simply asserts moral bivalence. He seems to take the principle to be intuitively plausible on its own terms, or at any rate to expect Crito to acknowledge that it is something that he (Socrates) is accustomed to finding intuitively plausible. The HM does provide an argument for moral bivalence, and, moreover, one which makes reference to the bivalence of craft, but it cannot be taken to employ a craft analogy. For Socrates also makes reference to the bivalence of many activities or states that are not crafts: the practice of truth-telling (366aff.), having good eyesight (374d2-5), having good tools (374e3-6), possessing healthy horses or dogs (375a1-7), owning slaves with good souls (375c3-6). Even if some of these (e.g. the quality of one’s tools) play a role in the practice of some craft, Socrates does not emphasize that fact. He doesn’t seem to be employing a craft analogy so much as a normativity analogy, exploring the structure we find present whenever we speak of that in virtue of which someone is good or bad at something that she does. Crafts show up in this context, I suggest, because they are the most familiar arena of norm-application. It is evident to all, not merely to the practitioners of the craft, that in craft it is possible to do something well or badly. Socrates is, I believe, making a point about the bivalence of a more general arena, of which both morality and craft are parts. That arena is rule-governed activity.


The distinction between flouting and flubbing describes two ways of violating a rule, but Socrates also takes it to illuminate two ways of conforming to a rule. The grounds of the distinction, both on the side of conformity and on the side of violation, is the question of whether the activity is based on desire or chance. Recall T1:
Don’t you think the ignorant person would often involuntarily tell the truth when he wished to say falsehoods, if it so happened (εἰ τύχοι), because he didn’t know; whereas you, the wise person, if you should wish to lie, would always consistently lie? (367a2-5)

The expert, Hippias, tells the truth when he wants to tell the truth, and does not tell the truth when he does not want to tell the truth. A non expert, by contrast, says what is true when chance favors his saying the truth, and fails to tell the truth when chance fails to favor that outcome. The fact that it is chance that is the alternative to mastery comes out also in our Crito passage, where the majority’s lack of expertise is described in terms of their acting in a chance fashion (ὅτι ἂν τύχωσι, 44d10). 14


Desire-dependence, by contrast with chance-dependence, is what Socrates characterizes as power: “each person who can do what he wishes when he wishes is powerful.” (Δυνατὸς δέ γ’ ἐστὶν ἕκαστος ἄρα, ὃς ἂν ποιῇ τότε ὃ ἂν βούληται, ὅταν βούληται) 366b7-c1 This conception of power is prevalent in the Socratic dialogues15, but it is articulated with special care and precision in the HM. For Socrates takes the time to spell out what it takes to be in a position to do what you want to do: physical strength and, more generally, bodily health (no lame feet), skill at various handicrafts, cognitive endowment (memory), bodies of knowledge (geometry, arithmetic, medicine), well-functioning sense organs (eyes, ears, nose), well-crafted tools (rudder, bow, lyre) and animate helpers (dogs, horses, slaves) who themselves must have souls in good conditions in order to be of use. Socrates’ list of examples is not unified by any relation in which they stand to craft. Rather, what the quality of one’s eyes, one’s memory, one’s bow, and one’s dog’s soul have in common is that they are all forms of empowerment, which is to say, avenues of agency. Power consists in the tightness of the connection between what you do and what you want.
The argument of the Hippias Minor serves both to distinguish two forms of dependency, and to establish the one as superior to the other. Socrates, in effect, invites us to consider the following fourfold normative classification
fig.1:





Conformity

Violation

Powerless

Mere conformity (chancy)

Flubbing (chancy non conformity)

Powerful

Rule-following (desire-based)

Flouting (desire-based failure to conform)

Hippias is initially inclined to use the columns of this chart to classify agents as better and worse: Achilles is better than Odysseus because he does not lie. Socrates wants to show him that, given normative bivalence, the division between columns is not so fundamental as the division between rows. The important comparison is not between those who follow rules and those who violate them, but between those who have, and those who do not have, the mastery that would allow their performance to depend on their desire. Agents on the left are not (necessarily) superior to those on the right; whereas agents on the bottom are necessarily superior to those on top. Whether one conforms to a rule is less important than why one conforms to or violates it. Hence flouters are better than flubbers.


We might, however, doubt whether this structure can be unproblematically applied to the special kind of normativity present in moral action. We have not necessarily made that much argumentative progress by associating bivalence with normativity generally as opposed to craft specifically. It could still be argued that moral normativity represents a sui generis pocket of normativity to which Socrates’ points don’t apply. Let me raise and the reject two ways of defending the Socratic position in the light of this objection. The first is to use an escape valve. Taylor (1937) couples moral bivalence with the thesis that everyone desires the good, Jones and Sharma (forthcoming, p.28-33) with the thesis that injustice is never in a person’s interest; Irwin (1995, 69-70) with the conception of virtue as superordinate craft and a commitment to psychological eudaimonism; they thereby avoid ascribing to Socrates the conclusion that just people do injustice. By this means one can show that Socrates’ adherence to moral bivalence doesn’t force him to assert the outright immoralism to which the HM has, to some, suggested. But they do not explain why he thinks good people (alone) are empowered to do evil.
Another strategy would be to explain moral bivalence as the result of a policy evident in a number of early dialogues and explicitly articulated at Theaet. 176d 1-2: “If, therefore, one meets a man who practices injustice and is blasphemous in his talk or in his life, the best thing for him by far is that one should never grant that there is any sort of ability about his unscrupulousness (τὸ μὴ συγχωρεῖν δεινῷ ὑπὸ πανουργίας εἶναι).” It is a persistent theme in Socratic dialogues that Socrates denies to wicked people even the trappings of goodness. He argues, against Meno, that wealth cannot be power (78c5-e5). He undermines Polus’ veneration of tyrants and orators: the fact that they can put someone to death if they feel like it does not amount to power: “I think that orators have the least power of any in the city.” (466b9-10) In Rep. I, he argues that even a band of thieves requires justice, because injustice makes it impossible to achieve any kind of goal. (351c7-352a8) And moral bivalence certainly gives him a neat way to deny power to bad people: the unjust do not have the power to be unjust, because just people are the ones who have that power. But wouldn’t it be simpler and more intuitive to assert that no one has the power, because there is no such power? Why is it so important to think that there is such a thing as a power to be immoral?

Doing and Avoiding

I suggest we begin to work from the other direction. Instead of asking how we can stretch Socrates’ discussions of bivalence in craft to cover the moral cases, let us ask how we might read his craft examples so as to see some common ground with the moral case. What would have to be true about Socrates’ conception of the power of expert archers to miss the target, for the fact that just people never do injustice to serve as no obstacle to his claiming that they have, in the same sense as the expert archers, the power to do injustice? If Socrates ascribes a power to someone absent the corresponding activity, the power to flout must be somehow exercised not only in the activity of flouting the rule, but also in the activity of following it. And this suggests that Socrates’ references to flouters may have a somewhat different bearing on his argument than we might have initially assumed.


When Socrates says that rule-followers are the same people as rule-flouters, his point is not that these two activities happen to be performed by the same group of people16. It is impossible, he thinks, to be a rule follower without also having the power to flout. His references to experts who intentionally run slowly or miss the target, are, I suggest, intended to bring out a feature present but less obvious when those same people run quickly or hit the target. There is something in the activity of rule following to which the activity of flouting draws our attention. I suggest that this present but invisible element is the avoidance of error. Socrates thinks that the power of rule-followers to flout the rule exposes the fact that, when they follow the rule, their following is at the same time an active avoidance of rule-violation. Socrates’ initial example of lying about math (366c ff.) makes this clear. The reason the person with mathematical rules can also flout the rule is that when he follows the rule, he is avoiding the very cases he will gravitate towards when flouting.
To illustrate his point, suppose that I say to you “choose a number greater than 5,” and you answer, “6.” If someone were to ask, “why didn’t you choose 3?” you would say that 3 is too small. You didn’t choose it because it violates the rule, and you were following the rule. You would give a different kind of answer if you were asked why you didn’t chose 7. There you might say “no reason” or “I don’t know.” There needn’t be a specific reason—that is, a reason relevant to the rule—why you didn’t choose 7 in the way there is a specific reason why you didn’t choose 3. Notice that this has nothing to do with whether the numbers consciously occurred to you. We can assume it had occurred to you to answer 7. 7 was on the tip of your tongue, but then you said 6 instead, whereas 3 made no appearance on your mental stage until I asked you about it. Nonetheless, the explanation of why you didn’t chose 7 will be along the lines of “I picked randomly” or “on a whim” or “no particular reason.” If there was a reason—“6 is my favorite number”—it will have nothing to do with following the rule in question; by contrast the explanation of why you didn’t pick 3 will include a principled invocation of the rule. If you were following the rule in answering “6,” then your relation to the act of saying 3 was that of avoidance. When you said “6,” there were many numbers you didn’t say. But there is a subset of those numbers you were avoiding saying, and 3 is among them. Someone whose answer of “6” conformed to the rule merely by chance would expose this fact by explaining her non-selection of 3 in the same way you explained your non-selection of 7. She chose 6 without avoiding 3.
Likewise, consider two archers. One hits the bullseye area accidentally, and the other does so from expertise. The expert archer was specifically avoiding having his arrow end up in the area outside the bullseye. This fact is exposed when, under other circumstances, he has reason to deliberately hit those spots. The one who hit the target accidentally, without expertise, did not control where his arrow went, and so he cannot be said to have avoided hitting the outer rings of the target.
Following the rule means avoiding, i.e. steering your action out of the way of, rule-violations. That is the first premise of Socrates’ argument. The second premise is that avoiding something presupposes the power to do it. I can only avoid what I can also bring about. This would not be the case if I counted as avoiding everything I didn’t do. For then the lucky archer would also count as having avoided the outer rings on the target. But avoidance is not merely a failure to do, it is the exercise of agency in not doing something. The avoider opts against doing something: her non-doing is desire-based, rather than chance based. For instance, ignoring is a form of avoiding in which I exercise my agency so as to not interact with someone: when I ignore my nemesis at a party, I am engaged in not-bumping into, not-staring face to face with, not-talking to, and not-coming into conflict with him. We can also see such negative agency in the phenomena of refusing, passing up, or spurning. For instance, consider the case of declining an invitation or a romantic advance: these are indeed actions, but they are expressive actions. What they express is avoidance, making clear that not-attendance or non-intimacy is the object of a person’s agency. She opts-out.
Now notice that I cannot ignore someone unless it is also up to me whether I encounter him; nor can I decline an invitation when I have not been invited. I can believe that I am ignoring someone, or declining an invitation, because I believe that he is at the party, or that I have been invited. But the fact that I must believe he is there in order to believe that I am ignoring him suggests that I cannot actually ignore him unless he is there. If he were, unbeknownst to me, absent from the party, then my desire not to talk to him would not explain why I am not talking into him. When asked why there was no “scene” between me and my nemesis at the party (“I can’t believe you invited both of them, don’t you know they can’t stand each other!”), the host wouldn’t point to my furtive movements in skirting the person with whom I have confused him. Rather, she would say, “he didn’t come, so it was all fine.” In order to avoid some eventuality, I must have the power to bring that same thing about. Which is to say, I must do it if I want to, and avoid it if I want to do that. If non-doing is a form of agency, it presupposes the power to do. It presupposes, as Socrates says, that were I to want to bring -ing about, it would be happening. -es happening is not to be explained with reference to anything outside myself. (“not prevented by disease or other such things” 366c)
If Socrates only spoke about archers, mathematicians and eyesight, we might think that his point was about the fact that the person with the power in question characteristically engages in two independent activities. Because he extends the point to the virtuous man, who doesn’t actually do two different kind of things, we are encouraged to see the cases of flouting he cites as illustrative of something contained in rule-following. My suggestion is that Socrates uses the moral case to reveal the true nature of bivalence: bivalence is not a fact about what you would do under other occasions, but rather about what you are (not) doing on the occasion when you are following the rule17. The ethical case allows him to expose the internality of bivalence to the practice of rule following, precisely because no one flouts the moral law. Ethical bivalence is not the product of a questionable extension of craft bivalence into the ethical sphere, but rather an especially helpful illustration of nature of the kind of bivalence Socrates is talking about.
If we turn back to the original dispute over the contrast between Odysseus and Achilles, we see that Socrates was, from the start, trying to key Hippias in to the importance of what a person doesn’t do. In protesting Hippias’ understanding of the two men, Socrates cites exclusively negative facts about their agency: Achilles doesn’t make any effort to drag the ships after saying that he will leave (370d2-4); Odysseus isn’t portrayed as noticing that Achilles lied (371a7-b1); Achilles doesn’t say to Ajax what he said to Achilles (371b3-5) If we want to get a conception of Achilles’ or Odysseus’ excellence in view, we have to attend not only to what they do, but also to what they don’t do, and further to how (i.e., by desire or by chance) they don’t do those things.
Given that the craft analogy itself needs defense, it would be tendentious to conclude moral bivalence on the basis of craft bivalence. Socrates’ strategy in the HM is the opposite, using the moral case to point us to the shared normative structure underwriting the craft analogy. Both craft-agency and moral-agency contain avoidings: the person who acts well does what he does in part by actively (i.e. desideratively) not-doing some other things. The power to flout is the structure present whenever someone is following a rule, whether in craft or morality. The things avoided in what was done cast a negative shadow that reveals the shape of the rule followed.
Works Cited:

Benson, H. 1997: “Socratic Dynamic Theory: A Sketch.” Apeiron.

Dimas, P. 2014: “Knowing and Wanting in the Hippias Minor.” Philosophical Inquiry.

Gould, J. 1955: The Development of Plato’s Ethics. Russell and Russell: New York, NY.

Friedländer, P. 1964: Plato: The Dialogues. Vol. II, trans. H. Meyerhoff. Bollingen Series: New York, NY.

Hoerber, R. G. 1962: “Plato’s Lesser Hippias.” Phronesis.

Irwin, T. 1995: Plato’s Ethics. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.

Jones, R. and Sharma, R., “The Wandering Hero of the Hippias Minor: Socrates on Virtue and Craft.” forthcoming in Classical Philology

Kahn, C. 1996: Plato and the Socratic Dialogue. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.

Mulhern, J. J. 1968: “Tropos and polytropia in Plato's Hippias Minor.” Phoenix 22

Cooper. Indianapolis.

Penner, Terry. 1973. Socrates on Virtue and Motivation. In Exegesis and Argument, ed. E. N. Lee, A. P. D. Mourelatos, and R. M. Rorty, p.140

Reeve, C.D.C. 1988: Philosopher-Kings. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.

Shorey, P. 1903: The Unity of Plato’s Thought. University of Chicago Press: Chicago,

Shorey, P. 1933: What Plato Said. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL.

Smith, Nicholas D., trans. 1997. Lesser Hippias. In Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Sprague, R.K. 1962: Plato’s Use of Fallacy, London: Routledge.

Taylor, A. E. 1937: Plato, the Man and His Work, Methuen: London.

Vlastos, Gregory., 1991: Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY.

Weiss, R. 2006: The Socratic Paradox and Its Enemies. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL.

Weiss, Roslyn. 1981. Ὁ Ἀγαθός as Ὁ Δυνατός in the “Hippias Minor.” Classical Quarterly 31.




1 All translations of Plato are from Cooper 1997. All references to Plato not preceded by the name of a work are to the Hippias Minor.

2 A. E. Taylor, Plato, the Man and His Work, London 1937, p.37.

3 This way of taking the conditional is widespread. See Kahn 1996, p.117; Shorey 1933; p. 471 (Shorey observes with evident relief at the escape clause: “Plato never forgets himself.”); Hoerber 1962 fn. 2; Sprague, p. 76; Irwin 1995 p.69; Penner 1973, p.140. Shorey and Hoerber both point us to helpful parallels at Gorgias 480e and Euthyphr. 7d. See also Crito 47d1-2 (cited in Weiss 2006).

4 Gould 1955, criticising Taylor: “There is more in the dialogue than a rather labored joke.” (p.42)

5 Jones and Sharma, forthcoming, p. 18-25, and Weiss 2006 pp.120-147, Irwin 1995, p.69, Penner 1973, p.136.

6 Along with most interpreters: Irwin 1995, Hoerber 1962, Penner 1973, Shorey 1903, Gould 1955.

7 Likewise Penner 1973, whose interpretation aims to remove the appearance of “philosophical monstrosity” from th claim that justice is a craft by pairing it with the claim that no one errs willingly. (p.135)

8 Penner 1973 adresses this worry (pp.144-148) by arguing that virtue is an unusual art, having some but not all the features of other arts. He hopes thereby to discount the fact that justice is never used to to evil as disqualifying it from counting as an art. But by this same argument someone might contend that justice is an art, but unusual in a different respect, namely, by not being able to be used for ill.

9 See Vlastos 1991 p. 276, and fn. 130.

10 See Sprague 1962, pp. 65-70; Hoerber 1962 p. 127; Mulhern, J. J. 1968, 283-8. See also Weiss’ 1981 defense of Socrates against these various charges, with special emphasis on Mulhern.

11 Jones and Sharma forthcoming, p.1, who argue to the contrary.

12 As many believe: see Gould 1955 p.43, Shorey 1903 fn. 38, Shorey 1933 p.89-90, Reeve 1988 pp.22-4, Hoerber 1962 p.131. Shorely, like Irwin 1995, p.71-2, reads Aristotle’s critique of the HM as emblematic of the failure of the craft analogy.

13 For this way of reading the exchange with Polemarchus see Jones and Sharma, forthcoming p.34, and Penner 1973 p.136-8.

14 Similar language is applied to the chancy (as opposed to good-dependent) quality of a low kind of love in Pausanias’ speech in the Symposium (181b1-8): “he strikes wherever he gets a chance (ὅτι ἂν τύχῃ) . This, of course, is the love felt by the vulgar, who are attached to women no less than to boys, to the body more than to the soul, and to the least intelligent partners, since all they care about is completing the sexual act. Whether they do it honorably or not is of no concern. That is why they do whatever comes their way, sometimes good, sometimes bad; and which one it is incidental to their purpose. (ὅθεν δὴ συμβαίνει αὐτοῖς ὅτι ἂν τύχωσι τοῦτο πράττειν, ὁμοίως μὲν ἀγαθόν, ὁμοίως δὲ τοὐναντίον) Likewise Prot, 353a7-8, where Protagoras protests the need to investigate the opinion of hoi polloi, since they do not speak from expertise but rather from chance; they are people who say whatever strikes them (οἳ ὅτι ἂν τύχωσι τοῦτο λέγουσιν).

15 Gorg. 466d8-e2: If tyrants are shown not to do what they want, they are shown not to have power. This conception of power as doing what one wants also lies behind Glaucon’s account of the state of nature in Rep. II 359b1-4: someone who has the power to do justice and avoid suffering it does not form laws and covenants with others but simply does what he wants. In Alcibiades I, 134e8-135a2, a different word for power (ἐξουσία) is also glossed as amounting to ‘doing whatever one likes’ (δρᾶν ὃ βούλεται). At Laws 687a7-b8, wealth and strength and more generally, powers, are seen as attractive because they will get us what we want. See also Rep. VI, where the two things that are given as possibly preventing someone from doing something are lack of willingness and lack of ability (497e3-4), and Theaet. 177e5-6 where judgment and capacity stand in for willingness & ability.

16 “But, as I say, look both at your own crafts—for they are sufficient—and also those of others, and tell me, in accordance with what you and I have agreed upon, if you find any case in which one person is truthful and another (distinct, not the same) person is a liar. Look for one in whatever sort of wisdom or villainy you like, or whatever you want to call it; but you will not find it, my friend, for none exists.” 368e1-369a2

17 Hugh Benson 1997, p.81 argues that “a thing does not have a dunamis simply in virtue of the fact that it acts in certain ways. It does not have a dunamis simply in virtue of what it does. Rather, for Socrates, a dunamis is that state or feature of the thing by which the thing does what it does. Socrates is not a behaviorist with respect to dunameis; he is a realist.” I am in agreement Benson’s conclusion, but not his premises; for he assumes that, e.g., the expert archer who intentionally hits the bulls-eye and the person who hits it by chance “does” the same thing. Socrates’ argument in the HM shows us that these are very different actions, the first better than the second.



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