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Prodicus on the Rise of Civilization

Religion, Agriculture, and Culture Heroes
Stavros Kouloumentas
p. 127-152


Prodicus gained a reputation for formulating a novel theory concerning the origins of religious belief, sometimes labelled as atheistic in antiquity, notably by the Epicureans. He suggests that humans initially regarded as gods whatever was useful for their survival such as fruits and rivers, and in a more advanced stage they deified culture heroes such as Demeter and Dionysus. I first suggest that Prodicus’ theory can be connected with other doctrines attributed to him, especially the speech concerning “Heracles’ choice” and the keen interest in the etymology of words. Moreover, I argue that the different representations of his theory reflect the debate between the Epicureans and the Stoics concerning the involvement of gods in human and cosmic affairs. An examination of the fragmentary evidence shows Prodicus to be a thinker who was interested in the rise of civilization in general, and so his theory was part and parcel of a large-scale project to explain several interconnected aspects of social life in rational terms.

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Index terms

Cited Authors :

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Full text document will be published online on November 2019.


Ι. The emergence of religion
II. Reconstructing the Seasons: an account of cultural evolution?
III. Prodicus on the gods and his contemporaries
ΙV. Prodicus and the theological debates of Hellenistic philosophers
V. Conclusion

First lines

Three authors who were active in classical Athens seem to have been familiar with the ideas of Prodicus of Ceos (c. 465-395 BC), who was labelled as one of the first atheists in the Hellenistic era. Xenophon preserves a rhetorical display of Prodicus in which the young Heracles meets Virtue and Vice, two ladies of different appearance and character who in turn make cases for living in accordance with their moral principles. Aristophanes, on the other hand, describes him as an “expert in celestial things” and corruptor of citizens and constructs a fanciful cosmogony as an alternative to Prodicus’ account. For his part, Plato presents Prodicus as a successful teacher who attempts subtle distinctions between near-synonyms and is obsessed with the correct use of words. Each of these contemporaries of Prodicus provides valuable evidence concerning his wide interests, ranging from rhetoric and ethics to natural philosophy and language, but makes no explicit reference to his attempt to exp...

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Bibliographical reference

Stavros Kouloumentas, « Prodicus on the Rise of Civilization  », Philosophie antique, 18 | 2018, 127-152.

Electronic reference

Stavros Kouloumentas, « Prodicus on the Rise of Civilization  », Philosophie antique [Online], 18 | 2018, Online since 01 November 2019, connection on 16 October 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/philosant.1026

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About the author

Stavros Kouloumentas

Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University

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Licence Creative Commons
La revue Philosophie antique est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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