Hippias Of Elide: Biography, Philosophical Thought And Contributions

Hippias of Elis (5th century BC) was an expert sophist and polymath of Ancient Greece. He is considered one of the first mathematicians to have information about and is noted for his great contribution to geometry by discovering the equation of the quadratrix . He is also for some historians the “father of mnemonics.”

He is identified with the group of intellectuals known as sophists. Among the most prominent are Protagoras, Gorgias, Prodigal of Ceos, Thrasymachus of Chalcedon, Antiphon or Critias. Known for being the initiators of the “Greek Enlightenment,” the Sophists were itinerant masters of oratory (art of dialogue) and eristics (art of argumentation).

His nonconformist thinking and his narcissistic personality were made known thanks to three of Plato’s dialogues where he appears: Hippias major, Hipias minor and Protagoras. In the first two he appears arguing with Socrates about beauty and ethics.

Among the main ideas of Hippias de Elide, the universality of virtue, moral relativism, the defense of the individual’s autarky and his defense of egalitarianism stand out.


Origins to being a speaker and teacher

Hipias was born in the 5th century BC. In Elis, city of the Greek state of Elis, which was located on the west coast of the Peloponnese peninsula. He was the son of Diopites and a disciple of Hegesidamus.

A young contemporary of Protagoras and Socrates, he was dedicated to teaching in the cities of Ancient Greece such as Ínico, Sparta, Olympia, Sicily and especially Athens.

A famous polymath, he had an aptitude for mathematics, astronomy, grammar, politics, poetry, music, and history. Thanks to his talent and skill, he on several occasions acted in political affairs and as an ambassador for his hometown, including a diplomatic mission in Sparta.

One of her most memorable anecdotes was her attendance at Olympia de Elis, the original site of the Olympic Games, where she presented herself with dresses, ornaments and utensils made with her own hands. From her ring and sterile, through her oil can, footwear, to her cloak and tunic.

On that occasion he proclaimed that he could debate on any subject and with anyone, which aroused resentment among thinkers of the time. However, this scene also led him to become an overnight celebrity and one of the most in-demand teachers.

The data on his personal life are brief, but it is known that he had a wife and three children. One of them was also a famous speaker and poet. The exact date of his death is unknown, although he is considered to have lived as long as Socrates. Therefore, it is possible that he passed away around 399 BC. C.

He traveled frequently, earning large sums of money as a speaker and teacher, for unlike the Socratics, the Sophists charged for their teachings. For Hipias the most important thing was not to provide knowledge to his students, but to teach them the weapons of argumentation (eristics). His intention was that they could discuss any subject and all topics equally.


Two great contributions can be highlighted from his life: the quadratrix equation and the development of the mnemonic. The first discovery is about a curve that allows the trisection of an angle and the squaring of the circle. The second contribution involves a set of techniques to memorize and recall through mental association.

Various works are attributed to him such as the Trojan Dialogue , the Scholios to Apollonius of Rhodes , a treatise on the Names of Peoples , an excellent work on Homer, collections of Greek and foreign literature, and archaeological treatises. However, none of his works survived to posterity and only a few fragments remain.

Philosophical thought

Through three works of Plato, ( Hippias major, Hipias minor and Protagoras ), you can learn much of the thought of this sophist, as well as his teaching methods.

In the Greater Hippias, one reflects on beauty and the essence that must underlie all things beautiful for them to be so. Hippias opposed Socrates’ distinction between “the beautiful” and “beautiful objects,” as well as the metaphysical position of Parmenides and Plato.

He confused the apparent and the real. Consider, then, that reality was composed of concrete physical objects and that all the qualities of these could be applied individually and to the group as a whole.

In the minor Hippias his ethical thinking is outlined, indicating that the fallacious man is not different from the true man. He explained that “being capable” is being able to do something when you want, both telling the truth and lying.

Therefore, an ignorant person could never be a liar, nor have the ability to deceive. He claimed that whoever was deceptive was also intelligent and aware of what he was doing.

In the Protagoras your ideal of individual self-reliance can be identified. He was a defender of autonomy, the autarky of the individual and his right to rebel against the laws, because “they always oppress the weakest.” Thus, natural law is proposed as the basis of morality.

For this sophist, nationality and citizenship were frivolous meanings. He thought that all the good and wise of all the countries were naturally similar, so they should consider each other as citizens of a single state.

Hence, he believed that virtue was universal and humanity was a “global village” with similar thoughts, regardless of ethnicity. This idea was later developed by the Cynics, the Stoic schools, and the Roman jurists.

Other contributions

It is considered that Hippias could have outlined the beginnings of mathematics, since it became the source of the early history of geometry, elaborated by the historian Eudemus.

He is also credited with recording the doctrines of Thales and outlining the history of the pre-Socratics. The first would serve as a reference to Aristotle and the second is later expanded in Plato’s The Sophist .

On the other hand, he raised theories about “archeology” and is credited with the invention of the term. This was probably the product of his need to systematize the information he handled, researched and collected on his travels.

Some observe in his ideas the germ of what would later become a new branch of study, Racial or Ethnic Psychology. The also known psychology of the towns, would begin to develop about 2500 years later, with the purpose of understanding the behavior of groups according to their ethnic identity.


  1. O’Grady, P. (2008). The Sophists: An Introduction. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
  2. Cappelletti, Angel. (2016). The “minor Hippias” and the primacy of knowledge in Plato. Universitas Philosophica, 2 (3). Recovered from magazines.javeriana.edu.co
  3. Britannica (2017, June 24). Hippias of Elis. Recovered from Britannica.com
  4. Encyclopedia of Philosophy (nd). Hippias of Elis. Recovered from Encyclopedia.com
  5. Ghent Dávila, GE (2018). Ἱππίαϲ ὁ πολυμαθήϲ: a study on the sophist Hippias of Elis. (Master’s Thesis). Universidad Panamericana, Mexico City. Recovered from biblio.upmx.mx

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