Naming it

Naming it

Socrates farcically laments his lack of education in the opening to Plato’s dialogue Cratylus. If he had only taken the fifty-drachma course in language and grammar from Prodicus rather than the one-drachma course he might be able to settle the dispute on the naming of things. Plato was always quick to slight Prodicus; in Symposium Xenophon observes that the Prodicus was always in need of cash. Money as an opposite to wisdom flows through most histories. Fame creates its own currency, a currency somehow more palatable and permanent than the stain of money.

No texts from Prodicus survive. There is only a fragment, retold by Xenophon in his Memorabilia, the story of “Heracles on the Crossroad.” The archetypal hero must choose between two beautiful women— a noble one dressed modestly in white named Virtue, and another in more revealing costume, dressed up in cosmetics and luxury, who proclaims her name to be Happiness, though others call her Vice. According to Prodicus, the hero chooses Virtue, because by doing so he will be befriended by the gods, beloved by friends, and celebrated by his community. When the time comes for him to die, he will not lie forgotten and his glory will live forever “in the memory of the race and its poetry.”

The ascetic nature of the hero who chooses modesty and nobility over the shorter route to happiness, artifice and disguise, is a deeply classical tradition. Through the milky-white lens of history we view the players on the stage, and the scenery recedes through carefully selective histories. Naming heroes reduces them to the symbolic. Cratylus debates the importance of names, questioning if there can be proper, “natural” names to represent things. In a profound sense, Cratylus marks the first crisis in representation.

How Prodicus would have responded to the question is uncertain. Contemporary accounts suggest that Prodicus was deeply concerned with the nature of definitions, of synonyms, and of the way we represent thoughts through words. As a sophist, it seems likely that he would have opposed Socrates’ assertion that there was a static ideal behind any name. In the comical exploration of Cratylus, Plato’s parallel definition of the hero emerges through creative etymology. For Socrates, the hero is born of love or rhetoric:

All of them sprang either from the love of a God for a mortal woman, or of a mortal man for a Goddess; think of the word in the old Attic, and you will see better that the name heros is only a slight alteration of Eros, from whom the heroes sprang: either this is the meaning, or, if not this, then they must have been skilful as rhetoricians and dialecticians, and able to put the question (erotan), for eirein is equivalent to legein (speak). And therefore, as I was saying, in the Attic dialect the heroes turn out to be rhetoricians and questioners. All this is easy enough; the noble breed of heroes are a tribe of sophists and rhetors. (398d)

The rhetoric of naming becomes more complex with the development of accurate imaging technologies. The interaction of images and words raises new questions on how we represent reality. At the most fundamental level, the name is the smallest particle of a representation or proposition— the smallest particle of truth. Though Cratylus is comical, the debate between an essential “objective” nature to be named precisely and a shifting community standard, a “subjective” practice of naming marks the deepest essence of what it means to represent humanity through text and image. Documentary practice sits at this nexus, and its heroes are indeed a tribe of sophists and rhetors.

Plato eclipsed Prodicus in history. A similar shadow has obscured people involved in the development of documentary photography in America in the 1930s. The myth of objectivity that has pushed them out of historical accounts must be examined in detail to provide an etymology of the modern American hero. Such an account cannot be free of the taint of commerce, nor can it be free of the whims of love. It also cannot discount the impact of sex and race, and the history of representation.