Hippias of Elis


Hippias, son of Diopeithes, was a philosopher-sophist born in the city of Elis around the fifth century B.C., a contemporary of Protagoras and Socrates, and the youngest of the sophists. Most of what is known about the life and thought of Hippias is thanks to Plato, who, in his Dialogues, places him as an interlocutor of Socrates.

It is not known for sure how he died, but Tertullian, in his Apology, reports that it would have happened after he organized a conspiracy against the State of Élis.

He considered himself an authority in several areas of knowledge: astronomy, history, grammar, poetry, politics, music, and mathematics, a true encyclopedic knowledge. He traveled to many cities in Greece teaching and lecturing.

In mathematics, Hippias discovered the curve known as the quadratrix. He would have been the first philosopher to develop the idea of a natural law, universal and in which all men participate.


None of his writings have survived, but there are ancient accounts that he is said to have written:

  • Trojan Dialogue;
  • An Elegy: for a boy from Messana who drowned;
  • And a list of the winners of the Olympics;

Hippias and the mnemotechnic

Among his diverse knowledge, Hippias was also well known for having taught the art of memory (mnemotechnics). However, we have no accounts of the methods and techniques he developed for this art.

Laws of nature and positive laws

The interest of the sophist, Hippias of Elis, was mainly in mathematics and the natural sciences, because he believed that knowledge of nature was the way to good conduct in life.

He said it was better to follow the laws of nature than human laws.

He rigorously questioned the requirement to abide by laws. In Memorables, a work by Xenophon, we read the following speech by Hippias:

How can one take laws seriously, how can one believe it is necessary to obey them, if the lawmakers themselves break and change them?

Nature is responsible for uniting men, while positive law divides them. Therefore, he devalued laws that somehow contradicted nature.

Nature’s law is universal

In Plato’s Protagoras, there is a quote that illustrates well Hippias’ thoughts about the law, he said:

for like is akin to like, but law, the tyrant of mankind, often constrains by violence in contravention of nature.

With this, we have a division of law into two parts: natural law and positive law, imposed by man. Natural law is eternally valid and universal, human law is not.

Consequently, this idea of Hippias denies that human laws are sacred, they are purely arbitrary laws.

The Cosmopolitan Ideal

From this, Hippias draws some interesting ideas. For example, by stating that, based on the law of nature, one could not create laws that would divide the citizens of one city from the citizens of another. It is known that in ancient Greece, there were certain prejudices against individuals from other peoples.

Hippias of Elis initiates, so to speak, the cosmopolitan and egalitarian ideal, something new for the Greeks.

Cite This Work

Vieira, S. (2021, December 07). Hippias of Elis. Filosofia do Início. Retrieved from https://filosofiadoinicio.com/en/hippias-of-elis/.

Vieira, Sadoque. “Hippias of Elis.” Filosofia do Início, December 7, 2021. https://filosofiadoinicio.com/en/hippias-of-elis/.

Vieira, Sadoque. “Hippias of Elis.” Filosofia do Início, 7 Dec. 2021, https://filosofiadoinicio.com/en/hippias-of-elis/.


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