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Summary Article: Gorgias from The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

Gorgias of Leontinoi in Sicily (ca. 485–early fourth century bce) was a highly acclaimed rhetorician and teacher of rhetoric. Although often labeled a Sophist, Gorgias appears to have made no claism to be a teacher of virtue, the common professional self-designation of Sophists (see Sophists, Greece). He may have been a student of Empedocles (Plato Meno 76c–e). In 427 Gorgias made a famous visit to Athens as leader of an embassy from his city, an occasion on which he took the city by storm with a dazzling display of his rhetorical prowess. Summaries and actual parts of several speeches survive: a Funeral oration, an Olympic oration, a Pythian oration, an Encomium to the Eleans, an Encomium to Helen, and a Defense of Palamedes. These were evidently showpieces intended to demonstrate his rhetorical skill and methods and to attract students — to his considerable profit. His general aim in these speeches was "to make the weaker argument the stronger," in other words to make a case in support of a position widely believed to be indefensible. Thus in his Encomium to Helen Gorgias argues that this fabled beauty not only deserves no blame for her adultery and the ensuing destruction that her actions brought upon the Greeks at Troy, but that she is worthy of our sympathy, and even pity. All this is offered as an exercise in "entertaining [him] self" — and no doubt his audience as well.

Running through his defenses of Helen and Palamedes is the concept of Logos ("speech," "language," "argument," "reasoning"). Logoi have the power to deceive and play on human emotions, their persuasive effect acting like a drug on the souls of listeners. Moreover, most people, lacking knowledge, base their views on doxa ("opinion"), and doxa is vulnerable to the persuasive controversion operated by logos.

An extended "philosophical" treatise titled On not-being also survives. in it Gorgias argues that (i) nothing is (exists); (ii) even if something were (existed), it could not be known; (iii) even ifit could be known, such knowledge could not be communicated to others. it is disputed whether this, too, is a diversion — an exercise in philosophical parody — or a serious philosophical argument for some kind ofnihil-ism, possibly in response to Parmenidean monism. There is no evidence of any consideration that subsequent philosophers gave to this argument.

In the dialogue bearing Gorgias' name, Plato decries as socially dangerous the Sophist's view of rhetorical practice. Because it is a form of persuasion that eschews knowledge and is indifferent to truth, it has the potential to do great harm. in the hands of unscrupulous practitioners it is an instrument designed to promote their own self-centered goals instead of the public good by flattering and gratifying audiences instead of soberly instructing them.

SEE ALSO:

Philosophy, Classical Greece; Plato; Rhetoric, Greek; Sicily; Sophists, Greece; Soul, Greece and Rome.

References and Suggested Readings
  • Dodds, E. R. (1959) Plato, Gorgias: a revised text with introduction and commentary. 6-10. Oxford.
  • Kerferd, G. B. (1955-6) "Gorgias on Nature or that which is not." Phronesis 1: 3-25.
  • Kerferd, G. B. (1981) The sophistic movement. 78-82. Cambridge.
  • Zeyl, D. J., ed. and transl. (1987) Plato: Gorgias. Indianapolis.
  • Donald J. Zeyl
    Wiley ©2012

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