History of Literature



Ancient Greek literature. Philosophical prose




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Gorgias (Greek: Γοργίας, ca. 485-c.380 BCE) "the Nihilist", Greek sophist, pre-socratic philosopher and rhetorician, was a native of Leontini in Sicily. Along with Protagoras, he forms the first generation of Sophists. Several doxographers report that he was a pupil of Empedocles, although he would only have been a few years younger. "Like other Sophists he was an itinerant, practicing in various cities and giving public exhibitions of his skill at the great pan-Hellenic centers of Olympia and Delphi, and charged fees for his instruction and performances. A special feature of his displays was to invite miscellaneous questions from the audience and give impromptu replies."

His chief claim to recognition resides in the fact that he transplanted rhetoric from his native Sicily to Attica, and contributed to the diffusion of the Attic dialect as the language of literary prose.

Gorgias originated from Leontini, a Greek colony in Sicily, and what is often called the home of Greek rhetoric. It is known that Gorgias had a father named Charmantides and two siblings – a brother named Herodicus and a sister who dedicated a statue to Gorgias in Delphi (McComiskey 6-7).

He was already about sixty when in 427 he was sent to Athens by his fellow-citizens at the head of an embassy to ask for Athenian protection against the aggression of the Syracusans. He subsequently settled in Athens, probably due to the enormous popularity of his style of oratory and the profits made from his performances and rhetoric classes. According to Aristotle, his students included Isocrates. (Other students are named in later traditions; the Suda adds Pericles, Polus, and Alcidamas, Diogenes Laërtius mentions Antisthenes, and according to Philostratus, "I understand that he attracted the attention of the most admired men, Critias and Alcibiades who were young, and Thucydides and Pericles who were already old. Agathon too, the tragic poet, whom Comedy regards as wise and eloquent, often Gorgianizes in his iambic verse").

Gorgias is reputed to have lived to be over one hundred years old. He accumulated considerable wealth; enough to commission a gold statue of himself for a public temple. He died at Larissa in Thessaly in 376 BC.

Rhetorical Innovation
Gorgias ushered in rhetorical innovations involving structure and ornamentation and the introduction of paradoxologia – the idea of paradoxical thought and paradoxical expression. For these advancements, Gorgias has been labeled the ‘father of sophistry’ (Wardy 6). Gorgias is also known for contributing to the diffusion of the Attic dialect as the language of literary prose.

Gorgias’ extant rhetorical works (Encomium of Helen, Defense of Palamedes, On Non-Existence, and Epitaphios) come to us via a work entitled Technai, a manual of rhetorical instruction, which may have consisted of models to be memorized and demonstrate various principles of rhetorical practice (Leitch, et al. 29). Although some scholars claim that each work presents opposing statements, the four texts can be read as interrelated contributions to the up-and-coming theory and art (technę) of rhetoric (McComiskey 32). Of Gorgias’ surviving works, only the Encomium and the Defense are believed to exist in their entirety. Meanwhile, there are his own speeches, rhetorical, political, or other. A number of these are referred to and quoted by Aristotle, including a speech on Hellenic unity, a funeral oration for Athenians fallen in war, and a brief quotation from an Encomium on the Eleans. Apart from the speeches, there are paraphrases of the treatise "On Nature or the Non-Existent." These works are each part of the Diels-Kranz collection, and although academics consider this source reliable, many of the works included are fragmentary and corrupt. Questions have also been raised as to the authenticity and accuracy of the texts attributed to Gorgias (Consigny 4).

Gorgias’ writings are both rhetorical and performative. He goes to great lengths to exhibit his ability of making an absurd, argumentative position appear stronger. Consequently, each of his works defend positions that are unpopular, paradoxical and even absurd. The performative nature of Gorgias’ writings is exemplified by the way that he playfully approaches each argument with stylistic devices such as parody, artificial figuration and theatricality (Consigny 149). Gorgias’ style of argumentation can be described as poetics-minus-the-meter (poięsis-minus-meter). Gorgias argues that persuasive words have power (dunamis) that is equivalent to that of the gods and as strong as physical force. In the Encomium, Gorgias likens the effect of speech on the soul to the effect of drugs on the body: “Just as different drugs draw forth different humors from the body – some putting a stop to disease, others to life – so too with words: some cause pain, others joy, some strike fear, some stir the audience to boldness, some benumb and bewitch the soul with evil persuasion” (Gorgias 32).

Gorgias also believed that his "magical incantations" would bring healing to the human psyche by controlling powerful emotions. He paid particular attention to the sounds of words, which, like poetry, could captivate audiences. His florid, rhyming style seemed to hypnotize his audiences (Herrick 42). Gorgias' legendary powers of persuasion would suggest that he had a somewhat supernatural influence over his audience and their emotions.

Unlike other Sophists (with Protagoras in mind especially) Gorgias did not profess to teach arete (excellence, or, virtue). He believed that there was no absolute form of arete, but that it was relative to each situation (for example, virtue in a slave was not virtue in a statesman) His thought was that rhetoric, the art of persuasion, was the king of all other sciences, since it was capable of persuading any course of action. While rhetoric existed in the curriculum of every Sophist, Gorgias placed more prominence upon it than any of the others.

Much debate over both the nature and value of rhetoric begins with Gorgias. Plato’s dialogue entitled Gorgias presents a counter-argument to Gorgias’ embrace of rhetoric, its elegant form, and performative nature (Wardy 2). The dialog attempts to show that rhetoric does not meet the requirements to actually be considered a technę but is a somewhat dangerous "knack" to possess both for the orator and for his audience. This is because it gives the ignorant the power to seem more knowledgeable than an expert to a group.

On The Non-Existent
Gorgias is the author of a lost work: On Nature or the Non-Existent. Rather than being one of his rhetorical works, it presented a theory of being that at the same time refuted and parodied the Eleatic thesis. The original text was lost and today there remain just two paraphrases of it. The first is preserved by the philosopher Sextus Empiricus in Against the Professors and the other by the anonymous author of On Melissus, Xenophanes, and Gorgias. Each work, however, excludes material that is discussed in the other, which suggests that each version may represent intermediary sources (Consigny 4). It is clear, however, that the work developed a sceptical argument, which has been extracted from the sources and translated as below:

1.Nothing exists;
2.Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and
3.Even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can't be communicated to others.

The argument has largely been seen as an ironic refutation of Parmenides' thesis on Being. Gorgias set out to prove that it is as easy to demonstrate that being is one, unchanging and timeless as it is to prove that being has no existence at all.

“How can anyone communicate the idea of color by means of words since the ear does not hear colors but only sounds?” This quote, written by the Sicilian philosopher Gorgias, was used to show his theory that ‘there is nothing’, ‘if there were anything no one would know it’, ‘and if anyone did know it, no one could communicate it’. This theory, thought of in the late 400s BCE, is still being contemplated by many philosophers throughout the world. This argument has led some to label Gorgias a nihilist (one who believes nothing exists, or that the world is incomprehensible, and that the concept of truth is fictitious). For the first main argument where Gorgias says, “there is nothing”, he tries to persuade the reader that thought and existence are not the same. By claiming that if thought and existence truly were the same, then everything that anyone thought would suddenly exist. He also attempted to prove that words and sensations couldn’t be measured by the same standards, for even though words and sensations are both derived from the mind, they are essentially different. This is where his second idea comes into place.

Rhetorical Works
Encomium of Helen
In their writings, Gorgias and other sophists speculated "about the structure and function of language” as a framework for expressing the implications of action and the ways decisions about such actions were made” (Jarratt 103). And this is exactly the purpose of Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen. Of the three divisions of rhetoric discussed by Aristotle in his Rhetoric (forensic, deliberative, and epideictic), the Encomium can be classified as an epideictic speech, expressing praise for Helen of Troy and ridding her of the blame she faced for leaving Sparta with Paris (Wardy 26).

Helen – the proverbial “Helen of Troy” – exemplified both sexual passion and tremendous beauty for the Greeks. She was the daughter of Zeus and Leda, the Queen of Sparta, and her beauty was the direct cause of the decade long Trojan War between Greece and Troy. The war began after the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite asked Paris (a Trojan prince) to select who was the most beautiful of the three. Each goddess tried to influence Paris’ decision, but he ultimately chose Aphrodite who then promised Paris the most beautiful woman. Paris then traveled to Greece where he was greeted by Helen and her husband Menelaus. Under the influence of Aphrodite, Helen allowed Paris to persuade her to elope with him. Together they traveled to Troy, not only sparking the war, but also a popular and literary tradition of blaming Helen for her wrongdoing. It is this tradition which Gorgias confronts in the Encomium.

The Encomium opens with Gorgias explaining that “a man, woman, speech, deed, city or action that is worthy of praise should be honored with acclaim, but the unworthy should be branded with blame” (Gorgias 30). In the speech Gorgias discusses the possible reasons for Helen’s journey to Troy. He explains that Helen could have been persuaded in one of four ways: by the gods, by physical force, by love, or by speech (logos). If it were indeed the plan of the gods that caused Helen to depart for Troy, Gorgias argues that those who blame her should face blame themselves, “for a human’s anticipation cannot restrain a god’s inclination” (Gorgias 31). Gorgias explains that, by nature, the weak are ruled by the strong, and, since the gods are stronger than humans in all respects, Helen should be freed from her undesirable reputation. If, however, Helen was abducted by force, it is clear that the aggressor committed a crime. Thus, it should be he, not Helen, who should be blamed. And if Helen was persuaded by love, she should also be rid of ill repute because “if love is a god, with the divine power of the gods, how could a weaker person refuse and reject him? But if love is a human sickness and a mental weakness, it must not be blamed as mistake, but claimed as misfortune” (Gorgias 32). Finally, if speech persuaded Helen, Gorgias claims he can easily clear her of blame. Gorgias explains: “Speech is a powerful master and achieves the most divine feats with the smallest and least evident body. It can stop fear, relieve pain, create joy, and increase pity” (Gorgias 31). It is here that Gorgias compares the effect of speech on the mind with the effect of drugs on the body.

The Encomium demonstrates Gorgias’ love of paradoxologia. The performative nature of the Encomium requires a reciprocal relationship between the performer and the audience, one which relies on the cooperation between the deceptive performer and the equally deceived audience (Wardy 36). Gorgias reveals this paradox in the final section of the Encomium where he writes: “I wished to write this speech for Helen’s encomium and my amusement” (Gorgias 33). Additionally, if one were to accept Gorgias’ argument for Helen’s exoneration, it would fly in the face of a whole literary tradition of blame directed towards Helen. This too is paradoxical.

Defense of Palamedes
In the Defense of Palamedes Gorgias describes logos as a positive instrument for creating ethical arguments (McComiskey 38). The Defense, an oration that deals with issues of morality and political commitment (Consigny 38), defends Palamedes who, in Greek mythology, is credited with the invention of the alphabet, written laws, numbers, armor, and measures and weights (McComiskey 47).

In the speech Palamedes defends himself against the charge of treason. In Greek mythology, Odysseus – in order to avoid going to Troy with Agamemnon and Menelaus to bring Helen back to Sparta – pretended to have gone mad and began sowing the fields with salt. Palamedes got Odysseus to disclose this information by throwing his son Telemachus in front of the plow. Odysseus, who never forgave Palamedes for making him reveal himself, later accused Palamedes of working with the Trojans. Soon after, Palamedes was condemned and killed (Jarratt 58).

In this epideictic speech, like the Encomium, Gorgias is concerned with experimenting with how plausible arguments can cause conventional truths to be doubted (Jarratt 59). Throughout the text, Gorgias presents a method for composing logical (logos), ethical (ethos) and emotional (pathos) arguments from possibility, which are similar to those described by Aristotle in Rhetoric. These types of arguments about motive and capability presented in the Defense are later described by Aristotle as forensic topoi. Gorgias demonstrates that in order to prove that treason had been committed, a set of possible occurrences also need to be established. In the Defense these occurrences are as follows: communication between Palamedes and the enemy, exchange of a pledge in the form of hostages or money, and not being detected by guards or citizens. In his defense, Palamedes claims that a small sum of money would not have warranted such a large undertaking and reasons that a large sum of money, if indeed such a transaction had been made, would require the aid of many confederates in order for it to be transported. Palamedes reasons further that such an exchange could neither have occurred at night because the guards would be watching, nor in the day because everyone would be able to see. Palamedes continues, explaining that if the aforementioned conditions were, in fact, arranged then action would need to follow. Such action needed to take place either with or without confederates; however, if these confederates were free men then they were free to disclose any information they desired, but if they were slaves there was a risk of their voluntarily accusing to earn freedom, or accusing by force when tortured. Slaves, Palamedes says, are untrustworthy. Palamedes goes on to list a variety of possible motives, all of which he proves false.

Through the Defense Gorgias demonstrates that a motive requires an advantage such as status, wealth, honour, and security, and insists that Palamedes lacked a motive (McComiskey 47-49).



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