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Thursday, August 8, 2019

On Gorgias the Sophist

The philosopher Gorgias (483—375 B.C.E.) is regarded as one of the founders of the Sophist tradition in Ancient Greece. A native of Leontinoi in Sicily, Gorgias arrived in Athens in 427 B.C.E., when he was around 60 years old, as an ambassador seeking military assistance against the aggression of the Syracusans. He was soon able to win the admiration of the Athenians by his brilliant speeches and upon the completion of mission, he travelled throughout Greece, making a fortune by teaching students the art of speaking persuasively, and applying rhetoric to civic and political life.

In his the Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle notes that Gorgias was the main speaker at the Panhellenic festivals. In his dialogue named after Gorgias, the Gorgias, Plato portrays him as an eminent Greek sophist. Plato attacks Gorgias (through Socrates) by pointing out that the sophists, in practice of their art, ignore the criteria of truth and justice. Socrates says, rhetoric is "designed to produce conviction, but not educate people, about matters of right or wrong.” Gorgias accepts that he is imparting his students the training for speaking persuasively; he is not teaching them virtue. The dialogue ends with Socrates narrating a mythological story which affirms that the soul survives the body after death and is the recipient of the punishment or reward in the afterlife. The sophists regard the story as false, while Socrates regards it as true.

Two of Gorgias’s speeches that have survived—the Encomium of Helen and the Defense of Palamedes—offer examples of his style. The Encomium of Helen is a serious attempt to defend Helen of Troy by arguing against a well-established opinion that she was an adulteress who led to the Trojan war by eloping with Paris. Gorgias argues that Helen cannot be blamed for the choices that she made because she may have succumbed to physical force (Paris may have abducted her), or she may have succumbed to her love for Paris (eros), or she may have been persuaded by arguments (logos). This speech is also seen as a hymn to the power of persuasion.

In the Defense of Palamedes, Gorgias argues against the established opinion of his time by defending Palamedes. In the Odyssey, Odysseus tries to avoid serving in the expedition to Troy by pretending that he has one mad, but Palamedes reveals that Odysseus’s madness is a fiction. Odysseus does not forgive Palamedes for exposing him, and when they reach Troy he accuses Palamedes of treason. Palamedes is found guilty on the basis of the false evidence that Odysseus has planted and is executed by the army. Gorgias uses a set of arguments, all of which depend on probability, to exonerate Palamedes. He notes that Palamedes could not have committed treason because he speaks only Greek and no Greek seeks social power among barbarians.

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