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This page is part of the "tools" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "tools" section provides historical and geographical context (chronology, maps, entries on characters and locations) for Socrates, Plato and their time. For more information on the structure of entries and links available from them, read the notice at the beginning of the index of persons and locations.
Prodicus, one of the sophists most often mentioned by
Plato in his dialogues, was born in the city of Iulis, in the island
of Ceos, an Athenian colony off the coast of Attica
east of Cape Sunium. The exact date of his birth
is not known, nor is that of his death, but, based on various indications about
his relative age compared to other sophists and philosophers of the time, he
must have been born around 460 and he most likely
died after Socrates, as the later talk about him in the present tense in the
Prodicus often came to Athens, either for public missions or for private business. He made a lot of money there, giving public readings of his works and expensive lessons to wealthy pupils (see Hippias Major, 282c ; see also Cratylus, 384b, where Socrates explains that he couldn't afford the fifty-drachma lecture about the correctness of names, but only the one-drachma course). Some of those who are variously mentioned as having attended his lessons include Isocrates, Euripides and the historian Thucydides. He must have been very famous there during his lifetime, as Aristophanes simply mentions him by name in the Clouds (v. 361), first staged in 423, and in the Birds (v. 692), first staged in 414, and he remained famous hereafter.
He seems to have specialized in the precise definition of words and subtle distinction between near synonyms and it is for this that he is most often mentioned, and made fun of, in the dialogues. Not much is left of his works except for two or three titles (On the Nature of Man , quoted by Galen, the Greek physician of the IInd century A. D. ; On Nature, mentioned by Cicero, De Oratore, III, 32, 128 ; Horai, that is, "Hours", mentioned in the Scholia on Aristophanes' Clouds, verse 361) and a few quotations or references here and there. Yet, based on what we know from these sources, he must have been an all-around sophist and rhetorician, writing on many subjects, including natural sciences. Sextus Empiricus, Against Mathematicians, IX, 18 ; 52, quotes him as saying that men made gods of what was useful to them, sun, moon, rivers, springs, meadows, crops, worshipping bread as Demeter, wine as Dionysus, water as Poseidon, fire as Hephaistus and so on, and thus counts him as an atheist. Galen quotes him about the definition of quite technical medical terms. And the closest we have to an excerpt of some length of one of his works is the summary of the most famous apologue of the choice of Heracles in Xenophon's Memorabilia, II, 1, 21-34 (which, according to the above mentioned Scholia, was part of the Horai). There, a young Heracles about to enter adult life is met by two women, one calling herself Happiness (Eudaimonia), though she must admit her critics call her Vice (Kakia), who describes an effortless road of endless pleasure in this life, the other, called Virtue (Arètè), who describes a long road of hard labor in which man must earn what he wants through his efforts in order to truly enjoy it and thus deserve rewards from the gods in the afterlife.
Prodicus is probably the sophist Plato feels most sympathetic toward. Though he often rdicules him, he also presents him as a teacher (eg.: Meno, 96d) and friend of Socrates (in the Hippias Major, at 282c, Socrates calls Prodicus his etairos, his "friend") in a way that doesn't owe everything to irony. He probably saw in his search for accuracy in words and rigorous definition of them a first, though limited, step toward Socrates' dialectic (Socrates may hint at that when, at the beginning of the Theætetus, at 151b, he says that he sent many youths, that didn't seem pregnant to him and worthy of his lessons, to Prodicus). And indeed, in the opening scene of the Protagoras (315c-316a) read along the lines of my introduction to the second tetralogy, Prodicus "plays" the "logos", the noblest part, of the soul of sophistry, isolated in a different room from Protagoras-epithumiai and Hippias-thumos. Yet, because of too "materialistic" his view of logos, he was bound never to reach his goal, which explains why Plato, to introduce him in this same scene, compares him to Tantalus with a quote from Odyssey, XI, 582. And, as explained at the end of the entry on Heracles elsewhere in these pages, Plato may have had Prodicus' apologue of Heracles in mind when choosing a Kalli-kles to defend the way of brute force and pleasure against Socrates' way of virtue and justice.
References to Prodicus in the dialogues are at : Charmides, 163d ; Laches, 197d Protagoras, 314c ; 315c-316a ; 317c-e ; 336d-337c ; 339e-342a ; 347a ; 357e-359a (Prodicus is an active participant in the Protagoras, dragged several times into the conversation by Socrates) ; Hippias Major, 282c ; Meno, 75e ; 96d ; Apology, 19e ; Symposium, 177b ; Phædrus, 267b ; Republic, X, 600c ; Cratylus, 384b ; Euthydemus, 277e ; 305c ; Theætetus, 151b. Prodicus is also mentioned in the apocryphal dialogues Axiochus, Theages and Eryxias, playing an important part in the latest.