BMCR 2012.09.25

Prodicus the Sophist: Texts, Translations, and Commentary

, Prodicus the Sophist: Texts, Translations, and Commentary. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xxix, 272. ISBN 9780199607877 $75.00.


Plato, in the Protagoras, depicts the sophist Prodicus as “lying in bed, wrapped in a great number of fleeces and blankets” (315d). This is a veiled allusion to the argument between Virtue and Vice in Prodicus’ so-called Heracles speech, which comes down to us through Xenophon’s paraphrase. As Mayhew explains in his commentary on Prodicus, the speech exerted considerable influence in antiquity, and it contains some of the few ideas that we are able to attribute confidently to him. But what is it, precisely, that Prodicus thought?

This new text, translation, and commentary on the fragments of Prodicus are aimed at answering that question. Mayhew himself has worked out elaborate views on the thought of Prodicus, views to which I will return shortly. Whatever the merits of Mayhew’s interpretation, he has done us the service of painstakingly collecting and contextualizing the available testimonia about Prodicus. (It is exceedingly difficult to discern whether any of these give us Prodicus’ exact words. Thus, Mayhew does not differentiate between fragments and testimonia in the manner of Diels-Kranz. I will refer to them henceforth simply as “testimonia” or “texts.”). Following a brief introduction, Mayhew arranges all ninety testimonia (including some that are not included in DK) by topic, giving his readers the original Greek or Latin along with his own English translations. After the testimonia comes a detailed commentary on each, which breaks each testimonium down into its key lemmata. Mayhew concludes with a series of appendices that examine closely several uncertain testimonia, that is, testimonia that do not explicitly reference Prodicus but which nevertheless may contain substantial information about him.

There is precious little to criticize in Mayhew’s presentation and explanation of the testimonia and their respective contexts. No doubt he has produced the most exhaustive and careful collection of Prodicus’ “wisdom” to date. But now the real question presses. Do we need such an exhaustive and careful collection of Prodicean testimonia? If you believe, as I do, that the sophists are much more interesting and philosophically important than they are generally considered to be, then you will welcome the collection. If indeed it is the most complete and careful of its kind, then surely there is a need for it. If you do not believe that the sophists are worth studying, however, I fear this book will not make a believer out of you.

Herein lies my central criticism of Mayhew’s study. You will perhaps have noted the thrice-fold use of the adjective “careful” in the preceding paragraph. This was no product of stylistic carelessness. Mayhew is exceedingly cautious as a scholar, and this proves a virtue in the handling of testimonia and their contexts. But when it comes to constructing an interpretation of an ancient thinker, excessive caution can be a vice, as it threatens to become in Mayhew’s case. We want an interpreter to show us the man and mind behind the manuscript snippets. Though I sense Mayhew would like to meet our expectations (see his introduction, xiv-xxvi), he is inhibited by an interpretive conservatism that leaves his picture of Prodicus less vivid than it could be.

The testimonia supply information about Prodicus’ views on three topics of philosophical significance: the correctness of names, the origins of religious belief, and virtue. Mayhew’s treatment of each topic is sound, though he generally avoids sustained forays into the philosophical issues raised, and he is often reluctant to rely on the relevant aspects of the philosophical and sophistic milieu to fill in blanks. Consider Prodicus’ view on the correctness of names. Prodicus is reported to have made a practice of introducing fine distinctions between terms close in meaning. There is evidence from Aristotle and his commentator, Alexander of Aphrodisias, as well as from scholia on Plato’s Phaedrus, that he was especially well known for distinguishing between pleasure, delight, enjoyment, and gratification (see Mayhew 124-31). Famously, Plato imitates the sophist in the Protagoras, giving us further insight into Prodicus’ penchant for semantic hair-splitting (337a-c; 340a-341e). Mayhew does a fine job of elucidating the distinctions made by Prodicus. Further, he efficiently extracts from Prodicean practice three guiding principles of correctness: “1) no two (or more) words should have the same meaning; 2) no one word should have more than one meaning or connotation; 3) the etymology of a word should match its meaning, or at least should not contradict it” (xv). Should we be impressed by Prodicus’ attention to the correctness of names? Mayhew sees in the emphasis on difference a possible anticipation of Aristotle’s more rigorous approach to definition (127), and he stresses the philosophical merit of defining terms with obvious application to logic, psychology, and ethics (132-33). However, Mayhew seems to side with critics of antiquity such as Galen, who dismisses Prodicean correctness as a largely pedantic obsession with terminology (113), and Plato, who chides Prodicus for pointlessly flouting linguistic convention (138). Moreover, Mayhew stands with modern critics such as Barnes, who downplays Prodicus’ role in the development of logical analysis (135).

Doesn’t Mayhew owe Prodicus at least some semblance of a defense here? While it is true, as he points out, that “people can hold sophisticated philosophical discussions employing synonyms the meanings of which have not been teased apart and for which distinct meanings have not been stipulated” (139), we should at least countenance the possibility that Prodicus was concerned less with modeling natural language and more with creating the template for an ideal language capable of accurately representing reality. Mayhew gestures at this idea in his introduction (xxv), but he is unwilling to indulge in further speculation. He is correct that this is speculation, of course, but it is not baseless speculation. We are permitted to indulge in it, I would argue, insofar as we have a duty to try to explain how Prodicus justified his criticism of conventional usage. Mayhew resists plotting Prodicus on the spectrum of “naturalist” and “conventionalist” theories of the correctness of names (xvi), and his decision is accompanied neither by argument nor by an account of the debates about language that were swirling around the sophists in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. As a result, we are deprived of an opportunity to gauge Prodicus’ significance for the history of philosophy.

Mayhew misses still other opportunities in his discussion of Prodicus’ thoughts on religion. He admirably excavates the fundamental points: Prodicus hypothesized that the gods were invented by humans in two stages: “1) primitive people came to regard certain aspects of nature—“the nourishing and useful”—as gods; for example, the sun, the moon, rivers and springs, trees from which they gathered fruit, or vegetation generally; 2) primitive people also came to regard certain people (and their discoveries) as gods—those who first discovered and invented what is nourishing or otherwise useful” (180-1). Mainly on the basis of this genealogy of religion, Mayhew concludes that Prodicus was most likely an unqualified atheist (183). But this need not be true. Mayhew makes no mention of the fact that Prodicus is following in the footsteps of Xenophanes of Colophon, who noticed that the gods of various tribes and peoples tended to look like them (DK 21 B16) and suggested that, if oxen had hands, they would draw the gods to resemble themselves (DK 21 B15). The Prodicean account appears designed not to replace but rather to complement Xenophanes by analyzing the human need behind (not just the manner of) the invention of the polytheistic pantheon. But Xenophanes is no atheist, at least not by our standards (though he might have been by prevailing ancient standards, a semantic gap Mayhew fails to mind.) Instead, he argues for a single, unified god coeval and coterminous with the cosmos. It is entirely possible that Prodicus takes a similar position on the divine, one that would allow him to critique and “explain away” paganism as easily as any atheist. Combining this possibility with the observation that the testimonia Mayhew cites as evidence (texts 70 through 77) are all late (in some cases very late), often textually corrupt (70, 71, and 72), historically derivative (73, 76, 77), and composed with the air of inference rather than report (70 through 73), I see little reason to include Prodicus in the canon of ancient atheists.

To his credit, Mayhew perceives the tenuousness of his case, conceding that at least one of the key fragments (text 72) “leaves open the possibility that Prodicus believed in (or did not deny) the existence of, say, the god(s) of the presocratic philosophers” (184). But he shows no interest in developing the possibility, even though it clearly deserves such. This propensity to give competing interpretations short shrift affects also Mayhew’s lengthy discussion of the Heracles speech (text 84), which in itself presents a fresh and intriguing interpretation of what may be the most dependably Prodicean of all the texts. One gets the feeling that this is where Mayhew’s heart lies; his analysis of the relevant passages in Xenophon ( Memorabillia 2.1.21-34) is deeper and richer than most other parts of his commentary. After tracing the two traditional interpretations of the Heracles speech (it is usually considered either a shallow display piece or a straightforward, even mundane, defense of virtue), he outlines his own alternative: the speech, in which Virtue and Vice each take turns trying to persuade a young Heracles to follow her particular path, is sophistic. This means, according to Mayhew, that it adverts to “no objective moral truths and/or moral absolutes, by reference to which it can be said that everyone ought to pursue a life of Virtue” (205). I like very much Mayhew’s willingness to give Vice a voice. She gives formidable reasons for following her lead. Most of her argument centers around pleasure, and Mayhew correctly sees in her second speech a subtle distinction between bodily pleasure (her domain) and a kind of intellectual satisfaction (the domain of Virtue) (217). Still, I hesitate to write off Virtue as “just another choice” in Prodicus’ eyes. Virtue does stand on a solid foundation: the gods (2.1.27- 8). Any attempt to demote Virtue must explain away her theological associations. Unsurprisingly, Mayhew reminds us that Prodicus is an atheist, and so Virtue’s invocations ring hollow. Yet I wonder whether on this point Mayhew is in danger of confusing the content of Prodicus’ personal philosophical views with the content of the Heracles speech, which need not be identical. In any case, are we to suppose that Xenophon, who greatly admired the Heracles speech as a defense of virtue and was a rough contemporary of Prodicus, detected no contradiction between Virtue’s theism and Prodicus’ alleged atheism?

But Virtue’s argument may rest also on non-theological foundations. As Mayhew tells it, Virtue tries to beat Vice at her own hedonistic game: “1) if you want to feel the pleasure of being praised by gods and humans, you must be virtuous; 2) if you want to feel the pleasure of seeing yourself performing noble deeds, you must perform noble deeds (which requires virtue)” (219). Mayhew makes much of the fact that these are hypothetical: they may or may not appeal to Heracles’ self-interest, depending on the sort of person he is (215-17). Unfortunately, there is the very real possibility that the antecedents in 1 and 2 are necessarily true. All things being equal, could a person fail to want that which produces the pleasure, perhaps even the greatest pleasure? Neither Epicurus nor Mill thought so, and they regarded this as a perfectly adequate foundation for ethics.

My criticism, then, reduces to this: there is a better case to be made that Prodicus was a sincere advocate of virtue, reason, and truth than Mayhew admits. But even if I remain skeptical of his broader interpretive claims, I thank Mayhew for bringing Prodicus into the philosophical conversation and, especially, for the painstaking scholarship on the testimonia that will make it easier for us to disagree with him.