Prodicus of Ceos

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Prodicus of Ceos, the Greek Sophist, was probably born before 460 BCE and was still alive at the time of the death of Socrates in 399 BCE. He traveled widely as an ambassador for Ceos and also earned a great deal of money lecturing in various Greek cities, especially in Athens. His writings are known to have dealt with physical doctrines, with religious and moral themes, and above all with distinctions between the meanings of words usually treated as synonyms. Socrates attended a lecture by him on the last of these topics and regularly claimed to be a pupil of Prodicus in the art of synonymy (Protagoras 341a, Meno 96d).

In physics he appears to have treated the four elements of Empedocles as divine, and no doubt they formed the basis of the cosmology of Prodicus, to which Aristophanes refers in the Birds (1.692), although the fanciful cosmology that follows is probably not based on that of Prodicus. Prodicus further held that those natural objects and powers that are useful to human life were made the objects of cult and treated as gods by men. Inevitably, he was later classed as an atheist, but it is more likely that he offered an account of the origin of the gods that was not intended to deny their existence.

In a work titled the Horae (Hours) he included the since famous story "Heracles Where the Road Divides," of which we have a fairly full summary in Book II of Xenophon's Memorabilia. Vice and Virtue appear to Heracles personified as women and invite him to choose between them. Each describes what she has to offer, and Heracles chooses the arduous tasks of Virtue rather than the pleasures of Vice.

Of greater philosophic interest is the ethical relativism attributed to Prodicus in the pseudo-Platonic dialogue the Eryxias. There he is apparently quoted as arguing that what is good for one man is not good for another man, so that we cannot speak of anything as good simpliciter. On the other hand, the goodness of a thing does not depend on the goodness of the user (although some scholars have interpreted him this way). Rather, the value of a thing inheres in the thing itself in such a way that it will be good in relation to one person and not good in relation to another, according to the person and the way in which it is used.

The discussion of synonyms and the right use of words clearly involved fine distinctions of meaning between words. Many examples quoted are ethical, and a term of narrower application is commonly distinguished from one of wider application that includes in its range of meaning the meaning of the first term. The value of such distinctions is clear in rhetorical argument. But Prodicus was also eager to reject the kind of view found in Democritus, according to which there can be different names for the same thing since names are attached to things by convention only. Prodicus maintained, it would seem, that no two words have the same meaning, and in this he at least prepared the way for the search for precisely stated meanings that later fascinated Socrates and Plato.

See also Ethical Relativism; Sophists.


texts and translations

Diels, H., and W. Kranz, eds. Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. 10th ed. Vol. II. Berline, 1961.

Sprague, R. K., ed. The Older Sophists: A Complete Translation by Several Hands of the Fragments in die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, ed. by Diels-Kranz. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1972.


Guthrie, W. K. C. The Sophists. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Kerferd, G. B. The Sophistic Movement. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Kerferd, G. B. "The 'Relativism' of Prodicus." Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 37 (1954): 249256.

G. B. Kerferd (1967)

Bibliography updated by Paul Woodruff (2005)