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Between Hesiod and the Sophists: Prodicus’ Heracles at the Crossroads

Katherine Lu Hsu

Heracles’ prominence as an admirable figure among the Sophists, Cynics, and Stoics is a surprising turn for a hero famously prone to insanity, rage, and buffoonery. During the fifth century, tragic Heracles’ violence threatens friends and enemies alike; in comedy, his voracity and stupidity are worthy of mockery. Yet in Xenophon’s Mem. 2.1.21-34, Prodicus’ “Choice of Heracles” presents Heracles as the paradigmatic youth at a crossroads who must choose between the figures of Kakia and Aretē to lead him on one or another path of life. In examining the broad outlines of Prodicus’ tale, I argue that Prodicus’ unlikely selection of Heracles as judge finds its roots in the epinician promotion of Heracles, whose capacity to benefit the community through his strength is his greatest glory.

Prodicus’ story belongs to a rich tradition of tales that describe an allegorical life choice represented in a choice of paths (Alpers 1912). Indeed, before recounting Prodicus’ tale, “Socrates” quotes Hesiod’s Works and Days 287-292, the poem’s most frequently quoted passage in antiquity and the likely origin of this allegory in the Greek literary tradition (Koning 2010, 145). This deliberate comparison between Hesiod’s allegory of the hard and easy road and Prodicus’ illuminates the latter’s major innovations: 1) a single figure judges between two women who represent opposing lifestyles; 2) that figure is Heracles.

The competition between women who offer different rewards recalls the myth of the Judgment of Paris. This myth details Paris’ allegorical life choice as represented by a choice of goddesses in a beauty contest (Stinton 1965). It is inevitable that Paris will choose poorly and bring destruction on his people, from inherently weak character and/or because he was destined to be a cause of ruin. The Judgment of Paris thus provides Prodicus with the model of an ethically deficient judge committing to a life story through his selection of a woman. Prodicus then develops this pattern into a didactic allegory that features an ethical judge situated at the intersection of Hesiodic crossroads.

How Heracles comes to be that ethical judge remains unexplained. Galinsky argues that Prodicus chose Herakles “because the most popular hero of Greece…most readily suggested himself as Everyman” (1972, 102); Kuntz proposes that Prodicus invents the story wholesale, a process which represents a “pointed reshaping of Herakles’ traditional story on the pattern of other well-known myths” (1993, 165). But Heracles was no Everyman – his entire life is exceptional – nor does Prodicus’ Heracles materialize out of thin air.

I argue that a comparison of the values espoused by Hesiod with those of Prodicus reveals an adapted definition of excellence, one that Heracles of the late fifth century can represent. In the context of WD’s concern for justice over fraud and violence, Hesiod praises the hard work (hidrōta, 289) that leads to material wealth, and thereby social status and honor (West 1978, 229). For Prodicus, however, paramount is the glory obtained by individual ponos that benefits one’s community, e.g., gods, friends, city, all of Greece (2.1.28); excellence is to be defined through civic virtue (Wolfsdorf 2008, 7–8). These values come to the fore in the epinician tradition, which seeks to integrate the returning victor into his household and community (Kurke 1991). And Heracles becomes the central hero of epinician, as in Pindar’s third Olympian ode, which emphasizes Heracles’ service to the larger community by linking his defeat of the Golden Hind (a moment of individual glory) to his transplantation of the Hyperboreans’ olive trees in Olympia (a lasting communal benefit).

But even Pindar must acknowledge Heracles’ problematic violence – e.g., his anti-social slaying of Geryon – however briefly (frr. 169a, 70b). In Prodicus’ formulation, though, such dangerous behavior is completely elided, for the dichotomy between Aretē and Kakia does not allow for strenuous efforts gone awry. Thus, Prodicus’ appropriation and transformation of the epinician Heracles highlights his own vision of aretē for a new audience of Sophists.

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Philosophical Poetics

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