Gorgias is such a silly guy

Posted: June 3, 2009 in Uncategorized
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Continuing on with the reading, I’m moving on to Gorgias and Encomium of Helen. From what I understand, this is a speech that he gave as a demonstration of his amazing rhetorical prowess. It was a show, meant to sell his services. The theory was that if he could convince people that Helen should be praised rather than looked down upon, then he could convince anyone of anything. For modern context, I suppose the closest we could think of would be convincing a congregation of Jews that Hitler really wasn’t a bad guy, and that while he did bad things, it wasn’t his fault.

So that’s what Gorgias does for Helen. He has four basic tacts for this: “For either by will of Fate and decision of the gods and vote of Necessity did she do what she did, or by force reduced or by words seduced or by love possessed” (6). Just from this, we can see the strength of his arguments.

For reference: I am using the Encomium as it is posted at http://www.phil.vt.edu/MGifford/phil2115/Helen.htm as far as citations and whatnot are concerned.

One of the interesting things is that Gorgias is not trying to say that Helen didn’t do bad things, nor that the things she did weren’t bad; instead, he’s saying that the things she did weren’t her fault. He is using the ideas of society to show that they shouldn’t blame her for her actions.

If it was the gods that did it, then Helen had no choice in the matter, “for god’s predetermination cannot be hindered by human premeditation” (6); it is impossible to go against the will of the gods. This was a generally accepted thing, and so the audience would be forced to accept that Helen was not at fault for her actions.

But Gorgias doesn’t stop there. He continues, in case she wasn’t forced by the gods. It’s possible, he says, that she was instead forced, either physically or by strength of argument. Women, in that culture, were seen as weak and inferior; no way Helen could have resisted physical force, and as a woman, she was not smart enough to resist the force of argument. The one forced is not to blame, rather it is the one who does the forcing. As Gorgias says, “it is clear that the raper, as the insulter, did the wronging, and the raped, as the insulted, did the suffering” (7). So if she was forced physically, it was not her fault. If she was forced by strength of word, it wasn’t her fault.

An interesting side note about the whole ‘forced by strength of word’ thing. I think Gorgias is very subtly selling his art here. He is suggesting that words cannot be resisted, that they cast a spell. While the language of spells and witchcraft is almost never popular, it still brings vivid imagery to mind. Since Gorgias is giving this speech to sell his own teaching, it makes sense to me that he wants people to accept that it is possible to give a speech so powerful as to force someone to do something as heinous as betraying their country; after all, if it can do that, it can do anything. And Gorgias can teach you how for the low low price of ten drachmas.

If it isn’t any of those solutions, maybe it was because of love, Gorgias says. Maybe she was in love, and that made her act the way she did. Love, he says, is either a god, and therefore unstoppable (as per the above reasoning why gods exonerate Helen) or it’s a disease, and should be pitied. “If, being a god, Love has the divine power of the gods, how could a lesser being reject and refuse it? But if it is a disease of human origin and a fault of the soul, it should not be blamed as a sin, but regarded as an affliction” (19). If it’s an affliction, she can’t be blamed for it. Blaming someone for being ill is unacceptable. We don’t yell at peopel for having cancer; it isn’t their fault. This was widely accepted, I think, even then.

So he excuses Helen by any of these reasons, exonerating her. And why? No reason. Just for fun. As he finishes the speech, he says “I have by means of speech removed disgrace from a woman; I have observed the procedure which I set up at the beginning of the speech; I have tried to end the injustice of blame and the ignorance of opinion; I wished to write a speech which would be a praise of Helen and a diversion to myself” (19). He did it to demonstrate what a great speaker he is (and what a great speaker he can make others), and just as a distraction. Something he figured he would do for fun.

I think it’s funny.

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