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Topic #A12

Antiphon, Prodicus, and Hippias


5 October 2001

Scribes: David Dagenais and Lukasz Felczak


These minutes were spoken on 10 October.


Announcement of two talks by David Sedley: Thursday 11 October, UC 179, 4-6, on “Democritus and the Origins of Greek Atomism”.  Friday 12 October, Ignatieff Theatre, Trinity College, 4-6, on “Platonist commentators and the uniqueness of Socrates”.


After reporting on the School of Philosophy (mentioned in the previous lecture) and clearing up some confusion with respect to the scribes, Professor Hutchinson re-introduced Protagoras and the new style of education that began to emerge in Ancient Greece. This was the teaching of practical knowledge for money; introduced by the first sophists. Protagoras contrasts fruitful and unfruitful perceptions and he believes that there is no value in discussing the truth of one perception over another. We shall come back to the issue of relativism in November when we examine Plato’s Theaetetus.


Prodicus shared many of the characteristics attributed to Protagoras.  He also charged money for his teaching, with the same practical focus of convincing speech with the power of words. His main interests were the language arts.  Poets, philosophers, intellectuals, and luminaries served as ambassadors and were sent to the councils of neighbouring cities.  Prodicus was sent from Ceos to Athens.  After Prodicus’ presentation, the Athenian council was so impressed, that word of his intellectual prowess quickly spread throughout Athens.  Thus, it established his reputation in Athens and this allowed him later to procure young men for his lecture series and allowed him, like Protagoras, to become quite wealthy.


Plato’s portrayal of Prodicus was next discussed. In Plato’s testimony (T3), Professor Hutchinson wanted to point out Plato’s sarcasm, when poking fun at Prodicus’ 50-Drachma exposition and his obsession with the topic of how to correctly use words.  As we can see from his showpiece “The Choice of Heracles” paraphrased by Xenophon in his Memoirs of Socrates II.1, his writing is vivid with a mellifluous unity. Secondly, he showed great interest with apparent synonyms and made it his mission to draw distinctions between different words.


Professor Hutchinson then read from Plato’s Protagoras starting at 335c.  At 337a, Prodicus is made out to be a pedant; he is excessively fussy in his view of words. Although Prodicus’ belief is that in sharpening our use of words, we can become better speakers, it is not accepted warmly by Plato. As a final note attached to Prodicus, he belonged to the camp of philosophers that doubted the true existence of gods.


(In reference to T12, preserved in Pherc1428, we were told the story of the twin cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, which were buried in AD 79 by a volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  When workers were laying the foundation of a new house in 1757, they came upon a villa which had been buried in the eruption.  Since the villa contained several texts written on papyrus, it became known in the 18th century as ‘the villa of the papyri’.  Unfortunately, the texts of papyrus were barbecued in the volcanic eruption.  When researchers tried to open the scrolls, the papyrus merely crumbled to dust.  They, therefore, stopped doing that.  In the last 5 to 6 years, chemists have discovered a technique (which took decades to develop) whereby dipping the papyrus in chemical solutions it can become usable.  Thanks to this breakthrough, the researchers are proceeding to unroll and read new books from the ancient world.  The scholar Dr. David Sedley, who is lecturing this week, has worked on the Herculaneum papyri and is an expert on the preserved scrolls.  Sometimes scholars even have to dig classical texts out of volcanoes.)


Professor Hutchinson went on to explain why Prodicus said skeptical things of the gods.  We worship them because of a feeling of gratitude in life.  For example, when water quenches our thirst, we are grateful and therefore we pray to the god of water.  This, however, undercuts the main reason for believing in God which is to talk to Him.  Similarly, Democritus of Abdera proposed physical explanations of our visions of the gods.  These mechanical explanations undermined the conventional religion.


         In his Hippias Minor, Plato’s criticism of Hippias is nastier and less enjoyable than it is in the dialogue Protagoras.  Professor Hutchinson then read from T1 on page 253 of The First Philosophers: “What a happy feeling, Hippias, to enter the sacred precinct at every Olympic festival with such confidence in your mental expertise.  I very much doubt that any athlete goes there to compete with such sanguine confidence in his physical prowess as you claim you have in your intelligence.  Naturally that’s how I feel, Socrates: ever since I began to compete at Olympia, I have never been up against anyone who could beat me at anything.” (The First Philosophers 253)  


Evidently Hippias is represented as an appallingly conceited man. Socrates mentions that Hippias cobbles his own shoes, makes his own clothing, developed his own system of memory, wrote his own poetry, etc.  Although he knows everything, Hippias has a complete lack of self-understanding of the disagreeability of his self-praise to those around him.


         Socrates. But what do the Spartans praise you for, and enjoy hearing about?  I suppose it must be your special branch of knowledge, astronomy.  Hippias.  Not at all.  That’s a subject they don’t even tolerate.  Socrates.  But does geometry given them any pleasure? Hippias.  No.  It’s barely an exaggeration to say that many of them can’t even count.  Socrates.  Then they won’t put up with you lecturing on arithmetic.  Hippias.  Certainly not.  Socrates.  Then they must enjoy the subject in which your analytical abilities are so exceptional, the significance of letters, syllables, rhythms, and intonations.  Hippias. My dear Socrates!  Intonations and letters!  Ha!  Socrates.  So which lecture-subject of yours gives them pleasure and wins you their praise?  You’ll have to tell me yourself, because I’m stuck.  Hippias.  The genealogies of heroes and men, and how cities were founded in the distant past: in short, antiquarianism in general is what they most enjoy hearing about, and so I was obliged to make a thorough study of the whole subject until I’d mastered it.  Socrates. Well, Hippias, you’re certainly lucky that the Spartans don’t enjoy the enumeration of Athenian arkhontes from Solon onwards, otherwise you’d have had a job mastering it.  Hippias. Why, Socrates?  I can reel off fifty names after hearing them only once.  Socrates.  You’re right.  I wasn’t taking your mnemonic technique into account.  Now I understand the situation: the Spartans treat you as children do old women, to tell them pleasant stories; so naturally they enjoy you and your vast store of knowledge.” (Plato, Hippias Major 285b-286b = T2 Waterfield, The First Philosophers , “Hippias of Elis”)


Hippias is ridiculed by Plato for being appallingly conceited.  He does not even realize that Socrates is insulting him by comparing his lectures to the Spartans to the pleasant stories that old women tell children.  Hippias is portrayed as having the ambition to know everything.


F1 gives a different impression of Hippias: "Some of these things may perhaps have been said by Orpheus or, in a brief and scattered fashion, by Musaeus; some may have been said by Hesiod or Homer or other poets; some by Greek or foreign prose-writers.  But from among all these sayings I will make a collection of the most important and closely related passages, and I will make out of them a new and multifaceted account." (The First Philosophers 255)   F1 shows that Hippias undertook a campaign to go as far back as possible in the Greek speaking world and to put these texts together in “a new multifaceted account”.  This fragment reveals Hippias’ effort to go and collect writing.  This is the first time someone has gone out to do a systematic selection of philosophical writings.  Aristotle had supposedly bought Hippias' library.  Aristotle, like Hippias, had a love of books; he reputedly had a standing order that he would compensate anyone who bought books in other cities which could add to his collection.  If Protagoras, therefore, was the first professor, Hippias was the first scholar. 


Antiphon was one of the thinkers concerned with the subject of Nature vs. Convention.  The evidence that we have, however, of Antiphon’s writings is tricky given the fragmentary state of the material.  Before Antiphon began examining the subject of Nature vs. Convention, people were already beginning to argue over Natural Laws versus Man's Laws.  People realized that the laws which were imposed on them were not natural.  How can people take laws seriously when the same people who make the laws repeal them?  The issue of where laws get their authority when they are not natural is a perennial question.  When do laws have authority when they are not natural, not universal?  To this day, some philosophers are still debating this question.  (Some of Antiphon’s fragments were found at Oxyrhunchus in Egypt, in a papyrus-recycling depot of sorts, which contained mostly bills, lawyers' documents, etc., but also several works of philosophical and scientific interest.)


Clearly the Sophists were asking important questions, they made money, and they used sophisticated language arts.  A student then commented that Plato and his character Socrates make the Sophists sound like tele-evangelists.  Professor Hutchinson explained that Plato did not invent the prejudice against the Sophists.  A dislike for Sophists was already present before Plato wrote his dialogues.  Sophists, with their mastery over language, were not liked by those who lost to them in court.  The people who did not like the Sophists were mainly those who did not have their ideas; they, therefore, resisted both the Sophists and their ideas.