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Philosophia and Philotechnia: Hephaistos in the Platonic Dialogues

Emily Hulme

Princeton University

         In Plato's Critias, Hephaistos is set apart from the other gods for his philosophia and philotechnia. As philosophia is a loaded term for Plato, this raises the question: what makes Hephaistos philosophical? And, can exploring this throw light on Plato’s conception of his own philosophical project?

         I argue that studying Hephaistos cult sheds light on three features of Platonic philosophy. It has always been understood that techne as a model for moral knowledge plays an important role in the dialogues. In brief, Plato comes back time and time again to the idea that the goal of philosophy is to find a kind of techne for living well. In the Protagoras, for instance, this is described as an ability to weigh future pleasures and pains. If we had this techne, we would (allegedly) know exactly what we should do in any situation. This theme has particularly been studied in the so-called "early" dialogues (Irwin 1977; Nussbaum 1986; Roochnik 1996).

         So far, no one has fully captured the cultural resonances of this theme. I approach this topic via a study of Hephaistos, a god quintessentially associated with techne. In my presentation, I will lay out three features of the characterization of Hephaistos in the 5th and 4th centuries that are important for our understanding of the techne theme in the Platonic dialogues. First, Hephaistos cult was almost exclusively centered on Athens and grew in popularity during the 5th century. While the evidence for the worship of Hephaistos outside of Athens is very slim, the temple of Hephaistos in the Athenian Agora and the existence of two festivals celebrating Hephaistos—the Hephaisteia and the Chalkeia—suggest that Hephaistos worship was far more important in Athens than elsewhere. The prominence of Hephaistos in Athens relates to the status of craftsmen (and the technai they practice) in Athenian society, especially from the 5th century on, when the Hephaisteia seems to have been founded or re-organized and the Hephaistos temple was built (Barringer 2008). Plato’s treatment of Hephaistos, then, should be understood in light of this.

         Second, Hephaistos is regularly characterized by the juxtaposition of his external ugliness and his internal knowledge or skills. In Iliad 18, for example, his crippled, sweaty physical body contrasts with his capacity to make the beautiful shield for Achilles. This makes him an important symbolic predecessor to a figure like Socrates, whose flawed physical body is sometimes contrasted with his intellectual prowess. The most well-known example of this is in Alcibiades’ speech in the Symposium, which contrasts the famous good looks of the young statesman with the astounding internal beauty of the old philosopher (218e).

            Finally, the kind of intelligence that Hephaistos and the actual craftsmen in Athens have is different than the kind of intelligence that other Athenian elites--and particularly Plato's educational rivals--have. Plato generally criticizes poets, rhapsodes, sophists, and rhetors for not being able to explain how their skills actually work (Gorgias; Ion; Phaedrus). Their skills, thus, are more like magic or witchcraft than techne. In contrast, according to Socrates in the Apology, the craftsmen did actually know something and could explain what they were doing (22d). For that reason, then, Hephaistos and the craftsmen in Athens are intelligent and philosophical. Plato, by comparing his project to the skills of these craftsmen, indicates that he, too, is in the business of rational explanations rather than pretentious quackery. Plato’s praise of Hephaistos, then, should be understood as a way he can define his discourse against those of his rivals.

         By fleshing out the symbolic associations of Hephaistos in the fourth century, we get a clearer picture of the Platonic project. For a philosopher whose school’s grounds included an altar to Hephaistos (FGrHist 244 F 147; cf. Billot 1989), this is entirely fitting. 

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