Ancient History & Civilisation


Our knowledge of Prodicus is (as is that of too many of the Sophists) severely limited. We know that he was a famous and popular Sophist—famous enough in Athens to be mentioned in the occasional Aristophanic comedy1—but we have only one extended paraphrase of his work, and our available evidence focuses only on two or three of his interests. This makes it very hard to build up an overall picture of his work and his contribution to the Sophistic movement.

Nevertheless, he counts as a Sophist because he shared some of the essential features of the Sophists: he was a paid educator who worked, no doubt among other places, in Athens (T1, T2), and he focused on logos, the spoken word (T3–6). Here it is clear that what impressed Plato and Aristotle most was his attempts to establish the correct meaning of words, which may be seen as the first attempts to develop a Greek dictionary. The importance of a dictionary in fixing a language and so enabling proper communication between different parts of a country cannot be overestimated. Prodicus therefore stands out as an important reformer. It is likely, given Prodicus’ interest in words, that he also took part in the debate over whether the names of things were natural (i.e. that the word ‘cow’ somehow expresses the nature of cow-ness) or conventional (we have simply agreed to call a cow ‘cow’),2 but it is impossible now to reconstruct his position on this. In part it depends on whether he saw his work on words as having the passive aim of reflecting and sharpening distinctions that already existed in the Greek language, or the active aim of creating such distinctions, which would then definitely be conventional.

T7 has aroused some debate. The first Sophist, Protagoras, was a relativist, and some scholars regard relativism as one of the distinctive marks of the Sophistic movement as a whole. Is T7, then, evidence that Prodicus was a relativist? After all, he is made to say that wealth, for instance, is good for some and not for others. But in fact there is nothing in T7 to suggest that Prodicus is a relativist; he might just as well be saying that there is a right way to use things, and that the goodness of a thing which is used rightly is independent of a person’s knowledge about the right way to use it. When someone learns the right way to use a thing he does not make the thing good; it is always good, as long as it is rightly used. These are not the ideas of a relativist.3

Of more interest is T8, showing that Prodicus denied the possibility of contradiction, (like Protagoras—see T5, p. 213; and see also Gorgias T12, p. 238, and Double Arguments at p. 294), and for the same reasons that Plato attributes to Euthydemus and Dionysodorus (see pp. 281–2). We have here a definite Sophistic motif. In the case of Prodicus it is possible to speculate that it might have been his interest in words that also led him to the denial of the possibility of contradiction. If he believed that in distinguishing near synonyms he was picking out real features of the world—if he believed, that is, that any name is a name of something—then he might well have also held, as T8 suggests, that a true sentence also picks out facts in the world, while an untrue sentence corresponds to nothing in the world, and so says nothing. So, again, whereas for Protagoras the denial of the possibility of contradiction was part and parcel of his relativism, we have no real reason to call Prodicus a relativist.

Even Prodicus’ forays into medical science may sometimes have been stimulated by his interest in words, as T9 suggests. The description of professional speech-writers as occupying a domain halfway between philosophy and statecraft attributed to Prodicus inT10 has often been thought a good description of a Sophist, as if Prodicus applied it to himself; but if Plato has preserved the saying in the right context, it is meant to be derogatory, and Prodicus himself would no doubt have described himself as a philosopher. The long F1, the famous ‘Choice of Heracles’, is difficult to assess. It is bound to seem rather banal to us, but it falls within the tradition of Greek wisdom literature, and as a defence of traditional Greek morality it is not only charming and memorable (with Heracles clearly serving as a typical person, caught in a moral dilemma), but serves to remind us that the reputation the Sophists acquired as subversives was not always justified. It reveals Prodicus as a champion of nomos over physis, and as believing that virtue can be taught, because Virtue insists that Heracles should cultivate his natural abilities, while Vice wants him to indulge his natural appetites. Finally, T11 and T12 testify that Prodicus’ contribution to the fifth-century interest in origins was a cynical account of the origins of religion, and show that he extended this to a fully fledged atheism, at least as regards conventional Greek religion.4

T1 (DK 84A3) [Socrates speaking] Or take our eminent friend Prodicus, who often came here to Athens on public business, but the high point was his recent visit on public business from Ceos when he gained considerable fame in the Council as a speaker, as well as earning an incredible amount of money from giving lectures as a private individual and meeting with our young men. (Plato, Hippias Major 282c1–6 Burnet)

T2 (DK 84A3a) [Socrates speaking] As for people who strike me as not yet being pregnant [with ideas] and therefore as having no need of me, this is where my skills as a kindly match-maker come into play. Though I say so myself, I’m pretty good at guessing whose company would be beneficial for them. I have handed lots of them over to Prodicus’ care, and plenty to other wise and remarkable men as well. (Plato, Theaetetus 151b1–6 Duke et al.)

T3 (DK 84A11) [Socrates speaking] There’s an old saying, Hermogenes, that it is difficult to understand the nature of anything admirable, and it is certainly no small undertaking to come to understand the nature of words. Now, if I had heard Prodicus’ 50-drachma exposition, which provides one (as he himself says) with a thorough education on the topic, there would be nothing stopping you from immediately knowing the truth about how to use words correctly; but in fact I’ve heard only the i-drachma version. (Plato,Cratylus 384a8–c1 Duke et al.)

T4 (DK 84A13) When Critias had finished speaking, Prodicus said, ‘I think you’re right, Critias. Those who are present at a discussion like this should listen to the two speakers impartially, but not equally, the difference being that while one should listen to them both impartially, one should not assent to them equally, but should give more to the cleverer one and less to the less intelligent one. As for me, Protagoras and Socrates, I think you should agree with each other to address the issue in an argumentative, but not disputative fashion—for friends argue among themselves without loss of affection, but disputes arise between people who have fallen out and are enemies. If you do this, our meeting will proceed best, because you, the speakers, will then gain the most respect, but not praise, from us, your audience (for respect is an unfeigned feeling in the minds of the audience, while praise is often confined to the level of words and runs contrary to their true opinion), and we, the listeners, will gain the most satisfaction, but not pleasure (for satisfaction comes from learning something or from participating in some intellectual activity in the mind, while pleasure comes from eating or from some other pleasant activity confined to the body).’* (Plato, Protagoras 337aI–c4 Burnet)

T5 (DK 84A14) [Socrates talking to Prodicus] In fact, a proper defence of Simonides* requires the talent you have cultivated, which enables you to distinguish between ‘wishing’ and ‘desiring’, and to make all the other wonderful distinctions you made a short while ago [inT 4] (Plato, Protagoras 340a6–b2 Burnet)

T6 (DK 84A15) [Socrates speaking] Is there something that you call an ‘end’? By this I mean, for example, a ‘limit’ or a ‘boundary’—all three things being the same, as far as I’m concerned, though Prodicus might disagree. (Plato, Meno 75e1–3 Burnet)

T7 [Socrates is reporting a conversation between Prodicus and an unnamed young man] The young man asked him under what circumstances he thought wealth was bad or good, and Prodicus replied as you did just now: ‘It’s good for people who are truly good, who know when to use their property, but it’s bad for worthless people, who lack this knowledge. And the same goes for everything else as well: the nature of things is bound to depend on the nature of their users …’

‘It necessarily follows, then,’ the young man said, ‘that if someone were to make me an expert in the area of expertise at which truly good people are experts, he would simultaneously be making everything else good for me, despite the fact that those other things were not what he was concerned with at all, just because he has made me an expert instead of an ignoramus. And so, for instance, if someone were now to make me literate, he would also necessarily make everything else literate for me too; and if he made me musical, he would make everything else musical for me too. After all, when he made me good, he also made things good for me.’

Prodicus did not agree with these analogies, though he did concede the initial point. ‘And do you think’, the young man went on, ‘that making things good is like making a house, in that it’s something human beings are capable of doing? Or are things bound to remain in the same condition, good or bad, that they were originally in?’

I got the impression that Prodicus had an inkling of where their argument was heading, and so, in order to avoid being obviously defeated in argument by the young man in front of the assembled company (not that this would make any difference to him if he were alone with him), with extreme cunning he replied that it was something human beings are capable of doing.

‘And do you think that excellence is teachable or innate?’ the young man asked.

‘In my opinion,’ Prodicus replied, ‘it can be taught.’

‘Now, would you think it stupid of someone to imagine that he could become literate or musical by praying to the gods, or could use this method to acquire any other branch of knowledge which has to be gained either by learning it from someone else or by discovering it oneself?’

Prodicus agreed to this too.

‘Therefore, Prodicus,’ the young man said, ‘when you pray to the gods for success, and to gain good things, what you’re praying for is to become truly good, since good things are the property of truly good people and bad things are the property of bad people. Now, if excellence is teachable, it turns out that what you’re praying for is to be taught what you don’t know.’ (Ps.-Plato, Eryxias 397e3–398d8 Burnet)

T8 A paradoxical view of Prodicus has come down to us, to the effect that contradiction is impossible. What does he mean by this? It goes against the views and beliefs of all men, since in their daily lives and in the course of their intellectual pursuits everyone converses with people who contradict them. But Prodicus insists that contradiction is impossible, on the grounds that if two people are contradicting each other, they are both speaking, but they cannot both be speaking with reference to the same fact. Only the one who tells the truth, according to Prodicus, is speaking of facts as they are; the other person, who contradicts him, does not speak facts <…> (a fragment of Didymus the Blind, Commentary on Ecclesiastes; text in the article by G. Binder and L. Liesenborghs in C. J. Classen (ed.), Sophistik (Darmstadt, 1976))

T9 (DK 84B4) In On the Nature of Man Prodicus used the term ‘phlegm’ for the burnt and, so to speak, overcooked one of the four humours, since he derived the word from pephlekhthai (‘to have been burnt’), so that he used a different word to refer to something whose existence he recognized as much as anyone else. * Anyway, his innovative use of words has been sufficiently demonstrated by Plato. But the white stuff which is universally called ‘phlegm’ Prodicus called ‘mucus’. (Galen, On the Physical Faculties2.9.50.4–12 Kühn)

T10 (DK 84B6) Socrates. To which category does the man belong who approached you and criticized philosophy? Is he an orator, someone good at fighting cases, or is he one of their backroom boys, a writer of the speeches with which the orators do the fighting?

Crito. He’s certainly no orator at all; in fact, I don’t think he’s ever entered a law court. But, as God is my witness, he is reputed to understand the pursuit, as well as to be clever and to compose clever speeches.

Socrates. Now I understand. I was on the point of bringing up the subject of these people myself not long ago. They are the ones, Crito, whom Prodicus described as sitting on the fence between philosophy and state affairs.

(Plato, Euthydemus 305b5–c7 Burnet)

F1 (DK 84B2) [Socrates speaking] The same view of moral goodness is also expressed by the Sophist Prodicus in his story about Heracles, which is one of his most popular displays; it runs like this, as far as I can remember. When Heracles was on the cusp between childhood and manhood, at the age when the young become independent and show whether they are going to approach life by the path of goodness or the path of wickedness, he went out to a quiet spot and sat down to consider which way he should take. While he was sitting there, he seemed to see two women approaching him. Both were tall, but one was handsome in appearance, with a natural air of distinction, clean-limbed and modest in expression, and soberly dressed in a white robe, while the other was well fed to the point of fleshiness and softness, made up to have a complexion too red and white to be real, held herself more upright than was natural, had a brazen expression, and was robed in a way that revealed as many as possible of her charms. She kept on examining herself, and watching to see if anyone was looking at her, and glancing at her own shadow. When they drew nearer to Heracles, the first of the two continued to advance in the same way, but the other, wishing to forestall her companion, ran up to him and said:

‘Heracles, I see that you can’t make up your mind which way of life to adopt. If you take me as your friend, I will lead you by the easiest and pleasantest road; you will not miss the taste of any pleasure, and you will live out your life without any experience of hardship. In the first place, you will not be concerned with wars or responsibilities; you will constantly consider what food or drink you can find to suit your taste, and what sight or sound or scent or touch might please you, and which lover’s society will gratify you most, and how you can sleep most comfortably, and how you can achieve all these objects with the least trouble. And if there is ever any suspicion of a shortage of any of these benefits, you need not fear that I shall involve you in any physical or mental effort or distress in procuring them; you will enjoy the fruits of others’ labours, and you will refrain from nothing from which you can derive any advantage, because I authorize my followers to benefit themselves from all quarters.’

When Heracles heard this, he asked, ‘What is your name, lady?’ She replied, ‘My friends call me Happiness, but people who don’t like me nickname me Vice.’

Meanwhile, the other woman came forward and said, ‘I too have come to meet you, Heracles, because I know your parents and I have carefully observed your natural qualities in the course of your education, and this knowledge makes me hope that, if you will only take the path that leads to me, you may become a very effective performer of fine and noble deeds, and I may win much greater honour still, and brighter glory for the blessings I bestow. I will not delude you with promises of future pleasure; I will give you a true account of the facts, exactly as the gods have ordained them. Nothing that is really good and admirable is granted to men by the gods without some effort and application. If you want the gods to be gracious to you, you must worship the gods; if you wish to be loved by your friends, you must be kind to your friends; if you desire to be honoured by a state, you must help that state; if you expect to be admired for your fine qualities by the whole of Greece, you must try to benefit Greece; if you want your land to produce abundant crops, you must look after your land; if you expect to make money from your livestock, you must take care of your livestock; if you have an impulse to extend your influence by war, and want to be able to free your friends and subdue your enemies, you must not only learn the actual arts of war from those who understand them, but also practise the proper way of applying them; and if you want to be physically efficient, you must train your body to be subject to your reason, and develop it with hard work and sweat.’

Here, Prodicus says, Virtue was interrupted by Vice. ‘Do you realize, Heracles,’ she said, ‘what a long and difficult road to enjoyment this woman is describing to you? I will put you on a short and easy road to happiness.’

‘Impudent creature!’ cried Virtue. ‘What good have you to offer, or what do you know of pleasure, when you refuse to do anything with a view to either? You don’t even wait for the desire for what is pleasant: you stuff yourself with everything before you want it, eating before you are hungry and drinking before you are thirsty. To make eating enjoyable, you invent refinements of cookery and, to make drinking enjoyable, you provide yourself with expensive wines and rush about searching for ice in summer. To make going to sleep pleasant, you provide yourself not only with soft blankets, but also with bases for your beds, for it is not work but boredom that makes you want to go to bed. You force the gratification of your sexual impulses before they ask for it, employing all kinds of devices and treating men as women. That is the sort of training that you give your friends—exciting their passions by night, and putting them to sleep for the best part of the day. Although you are immortal, you have been turned out by the gods, and you are despised by decent men. You are robbed of hearing the sweetest of all sounds—praise of yourself—and you are robbed of seeing the sweetest of all sights, for you have never contemplated any act of yours that was admirable. Who would trust your word? Who would assist you if you needed someone? What sane person would have the face to join your devotees? When they are young they are feeble in body, and when they get older they are foolish in mind; they are maintained in their youth in effortless comfort, but pass their old age in laborious squalor, disgraced by their past actions and burdened by their present ones, because in their youth they have run through all that was pleasant, and laid up discomforts for their old age.

‘I associate with both gods and good men, and no fine action, human or divine, is done independently of me. I am held in the highest honour among both gods and men who are akin to me. I am a welcome fellow worker to the craftsman, a faithful guardian to the householder, a kindly protector to the servant, an efficient helper in the tasks of peace, a staunch ally in the operations of war, and the best partner in friendship. My friends can enjoy food and drink with pleasure and without effort, because they abstain until they feel a desire for them. Their sleep is sweeter than the sleep of the easy-living, and they neither are vexed when they have to give it up, nor make it an excuse for neglecting their duties. The young enjoy the praise of their elders, and the older people bask in the respect of the young. They recall their past achievements with pleasure, and rejoice in their present successes, because thanks to me they are dear to the gods, loved by their friends, and honoured by their country. And when their appointed end comes, they do not lie forgotten in obscurity, but flourish celebrated in memory for all time.

‘There, Heracles,’ she said, ‘child of good parents: if you work hard in the way that I have described, you can possess the most beatific happiness.’

That is roughly how Prodicus describes the education of Heracles by Virtue, except that he actually dressed up the sentiments in language still more splendid than I have used now. (Xenophon, Memoirs of Socrates 2.1.21–34 Marchant)

T11 (DK 84B5) Prodicus of Ceos says, ‘In the old days people regarded the sun, the moon, rivers, springs, and everything else which is helpful for life as gods, because we are helped by them, just as the Egyptians regard the Nile as a god.’ And that, he says, is why bread is worshipped as Demeter, wine as Dionysus, water as Poseidon, fire as Hephaestus, and so on for everything that serves some useful purpose. (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 9.18 Bury)

T12 He says that the gods worshipped by men neither exist nor have knowledge, but that the ancients exalted crops and everything else which is useful for life.* (PHerc 1428 fr. 19.12–19)

A. Henrichs, ‘Two Doxographical Notes: Democritus and Prodicus on Religion’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 79 (1975), 93–123.

G. B. Kerferd, ‘The “Relativism” of Prodicus’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 37 (1954), 249–56.

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