Gorgias (/ˈɡɔːrdʒiəs/; Greek: Γοργίας, Ancient
Greek: [ɡorɡíaːs]; c. 485 – c. 380 BC) was a Greek
sophist, Siceliote, pre-Socratic philosopher and rhetorician who was a
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 that practiced 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
ask miscellaneous questions from the audience and give impromptu
replies." He has been called "
Gorgias the Nihilist" although the
degree to which this epithet adequately describes his philosophy is
His chief claim to recognition is that he transplanted rhetoric from
Sicily to Attica, and contributed to the diffusion of the
Attic dialect as the language of literary prose.
3 Rhetorical innovation
4 On the Non-Existent
5 Rhetorical works
Encomium of Helen
5.2 Defense of Palamedes
5.3 Epitaphios (or the Athenian funeral oration)
7 See also
9.1 Primary sources
9.2 Secondary sources
10 External links
Gorgias originated from Leontini, a Greek colony in Sicily, and what
is often called 'the home of Spartan 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
Delphi (Consigny 6-7).
He was around sixty years old in 427 BC when 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,
Alcibiades who were young, and
Pericles who were
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 one hundred and eight years old
(Matsen, Rollinson and Sousa, 33). He won admiration for his ability
to speak on any subject (Matsen, Rollinson and Sousa, 33). He
accumulated considerable wealth; enough to commission a gold statue of
himself for a public temple. After his Pythian Oration, the Greeks
installed a solid gold statue of him in the temple of
Apollo at Delphi
(Matsen, Rollinson and Sousa, 33). He died at
Larissa in Thessaly.
Gorgias has been labelled "The Nihilist" because some
scholars have interpreted his thesis on "the non-existent" to be an
argument against the existence of anything that is straightforwardly
Nihilism is the belief that all
values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It
is associated with pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns
Gorgias presented his nihilist arguments in On Non-Existence; however,
the original text is no longer extant. We only know his arguments
through commentary by
Sextus Empiricus and Pseudo-Aristotle’s De
Melisso, Xenophane, Gorgia. Ostensibly
Gorgias developed three
sequential arguments: first, that nothing exists; second, that even if
existence exists, it is inapprehensible to humans; and third, that
even if existence is apprehensible, it certainly cannot be
communicated or interpreted to one’s neighbors.
That being said, there is consensus in late 20th century and early
21st century scholarship that the label 'nihilist' is misleading, in
part because if his argument were genuinely meant to support nihilism
it would be self-undermining. The argument, of course, is itself
something, and has pretensions to communicate knowledge, in conflict
with its explicit pronouncement that there is nothing and that it
can't be known or communicated. Gisela Striker argues: "I find it hard
to believe that anyone should ever have thought that
advocated the view that nothing is and that he was, therefore, a
'nihilist.' Similarly Caston states: "
Gorgias would have to be not
merely disconsolate, but quite dull-witted, to have missed the
conflict between his presentation and its content" Finally, Wardy
says, "This sadly mistaken reading overlooks the most obvious
consequence of Gorgias' paradoxologia (παραδοξολογία):
his message refutes itself, and in consequence, so far from
constituting a theory of logos, it confronts us with a picture of what
language cannot be, with what it cannot be assumed to aspire to
be." Gigon and Newiger make similar points.
Gorgias ushered in rhetorical innovations involving structure and
ornamentation, and the introduced paradoxologia – the idea of
paradoxical thought and paradoxical expression. For these
Gorgias has been labeled the "father of sophistry"
Gorgias is also known for contributing to the diffusion of
Attic Greek dialect as the language of literary prose.
the first orator known to develop and teach a "distinctive style of
speaking" (Matsen, Rollinson and Sousa, 33).
Gorgias’ extant rhetorical works—
Encomium of Helen (Ἑλένης
ἐγκώμιον), Defense of Palamedes (Ὑπέρ
Παλαμήδους ἀπολογία), On Non-Existence (Περὶ
τοῦ μὴ ὄντος ἢ Περὶ φύσεως), and Epitaphios
(Επιτάφιος) —come to us via a work entitled Technai
(Τέχναι), 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 (technē) 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 intended to be both rhetorical (persuasive)
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 (poiêsis-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
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). The Encomium
"argues for the totalizing power of language."
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).
Unlike other Sophists, such as Protagoras,
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 the same as virtue in a
statesman. He believed that rhetoric, the art of persuasion, was the
king of all sciences, since he saw it as a techné with which one
could persuade an audience toward 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
Gorgias presents a counter-argument to
Gorgias’ embrace of rhetoric, its elegant form, and performative
nature (Wardy 2). The dialogue tells the story of a debate about
rhetoric, politics and justice that occurred at a dinner gathering
Socrates and a small group of Sophists.
Plato attempts to show
that rhetoric does not meet the requirements to actually be considered
a technê but rather is a somewhat dangerous "knack" to possess, both
for the orator and for his audience, 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
(also On Non-Existence). 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
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
skeptical argument, which has been extracted from the sources and
translated as below:
Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and
Even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can't be
communicated to others.
Even if it can be communicated, it cannot be understood.
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. Regardless of how it
"has largely been seen" it seems clear that
Gorgias was focused
instead on the notion that true objectivity is impossible since the
human mind can never be separated from its possessor.
"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 5th century BC, 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 no-thing",
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.
Encomium of Helen
Helen of Troy
Helen of Troy by
Evelyn De Morgan
Evelyn De Morgan (1898, London)
Encomium of Helen is considered to be a good example of epideictic
oratory and was supposed to have been Gorgias' "show piece or
demonstration piece," which was used to attract students (Matsen,
Rollinson and Sousa, 33). 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
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 seen by the
Trojans as 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.
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" (
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 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. He states that Helen
has the power to "lead" many bodies in competition by using her body
as a weapon (Gumpert, 74). This image of "bodies led and misled,
brought together and led apart, is of paramount importance in Gorgias'
speech," (Gumpert, 74).
Gorgias primarily used metaphors and paradox, he famously used
"figures of speech, or schemata," (Matsen, Rollinson and Sousa). This
included balanced clauses (isocolon), the joining of contrasting ideas
(antithesis), the structure of successive clauses (parison), and the
repetition of word endings (homoeoteleuton) (Matsen, Rollinson and
Sousa, 33). The
Encomium shows Gorgias' interest in argumentation, as
he makes his point by "systematically refuting a series of possible
alternatives," (Matsen, Rollinson and Sousa, 33). It is an encomium of
the "rhetorical craft itself, and a demonstration of its power over
us," (Gumpert, 73). According to Van Hook, The
Encomium of Helen
abounds in "amplification and brevity, a rhythm making prose akin to
poetry, bold metaphors and poetic or unusual epithets" (122).
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
Menelaus to bring Helen back to
Sparta – pretended to
have gone mad and began sowing the fields with salt. When Palamedes
threw Odysseus' son, Telemachus, in front of the plow, Odysseus
avoided him, demonstrating that he was sane. Odysseus, who never
forgave Palamedes for making him reveal himself, later accused
Palamedes of betraying the Greeks to 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
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).
Epitaphios (or the Athenian funeral oration)
This text is considered to be an important contribution to the genre
of epitaphios. During the 5th and 4th centuries BC, such funeral
orations were delivered by well-known orators during public burial
ceremonies in Athens, whereby those who died in wars were honoured.
Gorgias’ text provides a clever critique of 5th century propagandist
rhetoric in imperial Athens and is the basis for Plato’s parody,
Menexenus (Consigny 2).
Plato was one of Gorgias’ greatest critics and a student of
Socrates. Plato’s dislike for sophistic doctrines is well known, and
it is in his eponymous dialogue that both
Gorgias himself as well as
his rhetorical beliefs are ridiculed (McComiskey 17).
In the Gorgias,
Plato distinguishes between philosophy and rhetoric,
Gorgias as an orator who entertains his audience with
his eloquent words and who believes that it is unnecessary to learn
the truth about actual matters when one has discovered the art of
persuasion (Consigny 36). In the dialogue,
Gorgias responds to one of
Socrates’ statements as follows: "
Rhetoric is the only area of
expertise you need to learn. You can ignore all the rest and still get
the better of the professionals!" (
Gorgias, whose On Non-Existence is taken to be critical of the Eleatic
tradition and its founder Parmenides, describes philosophy as a type
of seduction, but he does not deny philosophy entirely, giving some
respect to philosophers (Consigny 37).
Gorgias by reaffirming the Parmenidean ideal that being
is the basic substance and reality of which all things are composed,
insisting that philosophy is a dialectic distinct from and superior to
rhetoric (Wardy 52).
Aristotle also criticizes Gorgias, labeling him a mere
primary goal is to make money by appearing wise and clever, thus
deceiving the public by means of misleading or sophistic arguments
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Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Encomium on Helen: Greek text and English translation
Gorgias, selected texts (from Plato's Gorgias) in Greek (with German
translation and vocabulary notes)
Gorgias, entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
On the Nonexistent in Sextus Empiricus, Adv. Ac. VII, 65-87
Encomium on Helen: public domain audiobook
Mappa concettuale del ragionamento di Gorgia (Italian)
Works by or about
Gorgias at Internet Archive
LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
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