Gorgias of Leontini (c. 485–c. 380 BCE)

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(c. 485c. 380 BCE)

Gorgias of Leontini (in Sicily) was a leading Greek rhetorician and Sophist of the fifth century BCE. He came to Athens on an diplomatic mission on behalf of Leontini in 427 B.C.E. and made an enormous personal success, delivering public orations as well as his official speech. He also toured the Greek cities as a celebrated teacher and public speaker, giving orations at the Olympic and Pythian games. Ancient sources associate him with the philosopher Empedocles (who may have been his teacher) and the rhetorician Isocrates (possibly his pupil). In addition to various sayings and fragments, three complete works by Gorgias have survived: Encomium of Helen, Defense of Palamedes, and On Not Being or On Nature. Gorgias is also depicted as a character in Plato's Gorgias, though how much evidence we can extract from this for his ideas or character is unclear. Whether Gorgias should be counted as a sophist is debatable. He was first and foremost a rhetorician, a teacher of public speaking, whereas the central subject of sophistic teaching was virtue. But the distinction was somewhat blurred, and Gorgias's ideas clearly belong to the sophistic movement, broadly construed.

Gorgias was not the first professional rhetorician; but his style was novel, and he was later seen as the real founder of the discipline. His language was notoriously elaborate, with a heavy use of antithesis and alliteration (see especially the Helen and the fragmentary Funeral Oration ). At the same time, he specialized in improvisation: he would offer to answer any question posed by his audience or to speak extemporaneously on a suggested topic. He seems to have understood rhetoric as an all-powerful, value-neutral art (technē ), consisting in a set of verbal techniques for the manipulation of an audience. As Plato reports it, he claimed that the art of persuasion was superior to all others because it enslaves all the restnot by force, but with their own consent (Philebus 58ab). Plato's Gorgias presents Gorgias as a genial, self-satisfied old gentleman, basically unreflective and blind to the morally problematic nature of such a craft. Plato's Meno also provides some intriguing scraps of information about Gorgias (who was Meno's teacher): he (a) disclaimed the teaching of virtue (95c), (b) held scientific views, including a theory of how vision takes place (76cd), and (c) held that the virtue of each kind of person (man, woman, child, slave, and so on) is different (71c2b), suggesting that he may have advocated definition by an enumeration of species, in opposition to the Socratic search for a common denominator.

Of Gorgias's surviving works, the Palamedes is notable as an example of the rhetorical genre of epideixis : a set-piece speech presented as an advertisement, and perhaps used as a template for students to study. It argues on the basis of probability (to eikos ), a characteristic rhetorical form of argument. Gorgias's other two surviving speeches might also have served as epideixeis : the sophists were traditionally described (for example, in Aristophanes' Clouds ) as "making the weaker argument the stronger," and it is hard to think of a better way to display that skill than by proving that Helen of Troy was blameless (the Helen ) or that nothing exists (On Not Being ). But these texts are also more ambitious and philosophically interesting.

Gorgias's Encomium of Helen undertakes to free Helen of Troy from blame for having abandoned her husband for the Trojan prince Paris, triggering the Trojan War. His method is argument by the exhaustion of alternatives. Helen's action must have been caused either by fate, necessity and the will of the Gods, by force, by persuasion, or by erotic love. That an action caused by the force of another person cannot be blamed is hard to deny; Gorgias's strategy is to assimilate the other possible causes to cases of force. Divine forces are stronger than human will, so if Helen's action was caused by them she cannot be blamed. As for persuasion, Gorgias here launches into a hymn to the powers of speech (logos )a passage that is outsized relative to the whole and may well give away the real purpose of the Encomium. Logos, he says, is a "mighty ruler," and though a small body it controls the actions of many larger ones. (Gorgias seems to assume a scientific account of speech as composed of tiny sound particles that physically enter the audience's body through sensory poresas in Plato, Meno 76cd.) Speech is to souls as drugs are to bodies, causing involuntary reactions: So persuasion is a kind of compulsion. What gives logos this power is, somehow, the reliance of the human mind on fallible opinion (doxa ), which is necessitated by our limited access to the truth. Finally, eros is assimilated to involuntary perceptual reactions. We cannot help the way things appear to us: some sights terrify, others seduce, and actions driven by such reflexes are again compulsory.

The quality of argumentation in the Helen is inevitably uneven, but its ingenuity is remarkable. The upshot of the argument as a whole is much debated. The causes of action itemized by Gorgias, such as fate and the way things appear to us, are extremely general and able to cause a wide range of our actions. So the upshot seems to be that any one of our actions would appear as involuntary, if only its causal origins were known in fulla claim that still figures in arguments about determinism and free will.

But this claim is far from explicit in Gorgias's text. To complicate matters, Gorgias opens the speech by saying that the "adornment" (the virtue or best state) of a speech is truth; but he closes by describing the encomium as "a plaything for myself." This playful, self-subverting presentation leaves us to judge the arguments and their implications for ourselves. If anything about the Helen is unequivocally serious, it is the miniencomium to logos, with its conception of language as an instrument of manipulation, a conception the Helen itself aims to display.

The On Not Being has a complex structure, comprising three parts: Part I argues that nothing exists, Part II that if anything did exist we could not know it, and Part III that even if something existed and we could know it, we could not communicate it to one another. (In summarizing, I will freely combine points from the two somewhat garbled versions of the text that have come down to us: One is in the pseudo-Aristotelian On Melissus, Xenophanes and Gorgias (MXG), the other in Sextus Empiricus, Adversus Mathematicos VII. The two differ substantially in places and neither can be exactly what Gorgias wrote.) Part I argues by the exhaustion of alternatives: for instance, Being (or "what is" or "the existent") must be eternal or generated or both, but each option leads to an impossibility; similarly, if Being exists, it must be either one or many, but each is argued to be impossible. Part II argues that things thought are not existent, and that, therefore, Being is not thought. Here Gorgias raises the perennial philosophical problem of reference to nonexistent objects: We can think of a man flying or chariots running over the sea, but it does not follow that any such things exist. Gorgias seems to infer, fallaciously, that existent things and objects of thought differ in the sense that nothing can be both. But perhaps his real point is just that thoughts and their objects are different in kind, and the connections between them are unreliable: contra both Parmenides and Protagoras, we can and do think what is not (Caston 2002). (The very obscure fragmentary saying of Gorgias on being and seeming, DKB26, must be relevant here, but it is difficult to say what it adds.)

Part III of the ONB deals with language, and as with the Helen, we may here approach the real point of the exercise. Gorgias argues that just as sight and hearing have their own proper contents (colors, sounds), so speech is of words, which are different from sensory contents and from the things themselves. So how can speech make clear things different from itself? How can it reveal objects or sensations we are not already familiar with? And how can the same thought be shared by two different people?

The ONB has often been read as a parody of Parmenidean philosophy. There are clear echoes of certain arguments made by Parmenides and the other Eleatics, particularly in Part I. And the overall upshot of the ONB is, as Kerferd (1981) has noted, to sunder three things that Parmenides had argued must coincide: what is, what can be thought, and what can be spoken. The question, then, is whether the ONB is merely satirical, both satirical and serious (cf. DK82B12) but purely negative and critical, or intended as positive doctrine in its own right. As positive doctrine it seems to be self-refuting. Nevertheless, scholars have attempted to find interpretations of its conclusions which lend them some plausibility. Mourelatos (1987) has noted that Part III can be read as arguing for conclusions that complement those of the Helen. Language cannot communicate either the natures of things or the thoughts of the speaker; the remaining possibility is that it is to be understood not as a system of representations but simply as an instrument of behavioral manipulation. Alternatively, Parts II and III could perhaps be read as arguing only that mental and linguistic items are by nature distinct and different in kind from their referents (and from each other), and, therefore, are inherently fallible and defective in representing them.

Parts II and III are also often likened to Protagorean relativism as presented in Plato's Theaetetus, our other most important source for sophistic epistemology. However, the two positions are very different. There is nothing relativistic about Gorgias's conclusions; moreover Gorgias in effect denies the possibility of true opinion and speech, whereas for Protagoras their falsity is impossible. Nevertheless, there is a family resemblance insofar as both can be read as essentially critical positions. They repudiate the metaphysical ambitions of philosophers like Parmenides, denying the possibility of a knowledge distinct from opinion and a reality distinct from appearance.

See also Parmenides of Elea; Protagoras of Abdera; Sophists.


The standard edition of Gorgias's texts and fragments is Diels-Kranz (1952) (though see also MacDowell [1982] for the Helen ). However, Diels-Kranz prints only the text of the Sextus Empiricus version of the On Not Being ; Dillon and Gergel (2003) usefully give translations of both versions and a comprehensive assortment of other texts.

Caston, V. "Gorgias on Thought and its Objects." In Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, edited by V. Caston and D. W. Graham. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002.

Cole, T. The Origins of Rhetoric in Ancient Greece. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1991.

Diels, H. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. 3 vols. 6th ed. Revised by W. Kranz. Berlin: Weidmann, 19511952.

Dillon, J., and T. Gergel. The Greek Sophists. London; New York: Penguin, 2003.

Kerferd, G. B. "Gorgias on Nature or That Which Is Not." Phronesis 1 (1955): 325.

MacDowell, D. M. Gorgias, Encomium of Helen. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1982.

Mourelatos, A. P. D. "Gorgias on the Function of Language." Philosophical Topics 15 (1987): 135170.

Verdenius, W. J. "Gorgias' Doctrine of Deception. In The Sophists and their Legacy, edited by G. B. Kerferd. Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1981.

Wardy, R. The Birth of Rhetoric: Gorgias, Plato, and Their Successors. London: Routledge, 1996.

Woodruff, P. "Rhetoric and Relativism: Protagoras and Gorgias." In The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy, edited by A. A. Long. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Rachel Barney (2005)