Gorgias. “Encomium of Helen”

Gorgias. “Encomium of Helen.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. 2nd ed. Boston & New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 42-46. Print.

Intro to Gorgias (480-380 BCE):

  • best known of sophists
  • born in Leontini in Sicily (considered by many to be birthplace of formal study of rhetoric)
  • brought Sicilian rhetoric to Athens, Greece
  • style characterized as overly antithetical and symmetrical in structure and overly alliterative and assonant in sound
  • power of his words akin to magic

Encomium [in praise] of Helen notes:

  • Man and woman and speech and deed and city and object should be honored with praise if praiseworthy and incur blame if unworthy, for it is an equal error and mistake to blame the praisable and to praise the blamable (44).
  •  … or by force reduced or by words seduced [or by love possessed] (45).
  • But if it was speech which persuaded her and deceived her heart, not even to this is it difficult to make and answer and banish blame as follows, Speech is a powerful lord, which by means of the finest and most invisible body effects the divinest works; it can stop fear and banish grief and create joy and nurture pity (45).
  • Sacred incantations sung with words are bearers of pleasure and banishers of pain, for, merging with the opinion in the soul, the power of the incantation is wont to beguile it and persuade it and alter it by witchcraft (45).
  • All who have and do persuade people of things do so by molding a false argument. For if all men on all subjects had [both] memory of things past and [awareness] of things present and foreknowledge of the future, speech would not be similarly similar (45).
  • What cause then prevents the conclusion that Helen similarly, against her will, might have come under the influence of speech, just as if ravished by the force of the mighty? (45)
  • … persuasion has the form of necessity, but not the same power (45)
  • The persuader, like a constrainer, does the wrong and the persuaded, like the constrained, in speech is wrongly charged (45).
  • The effect of speech upon the condition of the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nature of bodies (46).
  • How then can one regard blame of Helen as just, since she is utterly acquitted of all charge, whether she did what she did through falling in love or persuaded by speech or ravished by force or constrained by divine constraint? I have by means of speech removed disgrace from a woman (46).

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