Hippias

Hippias was an ancient Greek philosopher born in Elis (the city of the Olympic festivals) in 460 BC. He was a sophist, someone who teaches higher learning for pay, and he taught on every conceivable subject. Unlike other sophists, like Gorgias who focused on rhetoric, Hippias taught everything. He was seen as an authority on poetry, grammar, history, politics, math, music, and more. As someone interested in many things (polymath), he was a champion of universality (“everything”) in contrast to those who specialized in this or that (ex: poetry or medicine). For this reason, Plato saw him as arrogant and he is treated lightly as a philosopher, characterized in the dialogues Hippias Major and Hippias Minor.

Hippias represented his hometown of Elis on official missions. He became wealthy traveling to various Greek cities, including Athens, and lecturing on all sorts of topics including at the Olympic festivals (which were held in his hometown). He would encourage the audience to ask him any question and he would answer it. He also had a great memory and could remember 50 names after only hearing them once, and taught mnemonics as a part of his curriculum.

His knowledge was so broad, he is said to have written in every literary form known at the time including pic poetry, tragedy, dithyrambs and orations (speeches). He is also said to have made everything he wore. He is also credited with the discovery of the quadratix, a curve that allows an angle to be divided in three parts, which was used in attempts to “square the circle” (i.e. create a square with the same area as a given circle). He also started the doxographical tradition (recording what others said or did) by writing down the names of the victors at the Olympic games, which gave the Greeks a way of dating events.

Hippias also stressed the difference between human laws and conventions (nomos) and the laws of nature (physis). Like Antiphon, he believed that human laws do an injustice to nature, for example, the despotic (tyrannical) government in Sparta. Unlike the different laws that humans come up with, he saw physis as uniting all people. In this way, he saw physis as a way of creating a morality that applies to all people, in contrast to the particular conventions of this or that city (polis). He believed that the good and wise people throughout Greece should see themselves as citizens of the same state (pan-Hellenism), a principle which would influence Roman law. In this way, Hippias moved beyond the specifics in order to grasp a larger picture.