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Topic #A14



10 October 2001

Scribes: Teesha Izzard and Oksana Werbowy


These minutes were spoken on 12 October; for another version,

go to the unspoken minutes



[Professor Hutchinson began with a few announcements.  As of Wednesday, scribes are required to aim for a 1200 word count for their lecture summaries so as to repeat ideas consistently and concisely. (This update is listed on the course website).  Also, starting October 12, 2001 the “Understanding Islam” Film Series will be presenting movies on Fridays at the Town Hall, Innis College.]


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         Affiliated with the Sophistic movement, Gorgias of Leontini, Sicily, shared many interests and occupations with his predecessors.  Gorgias was an ambassador who initially won fame for his “electric” speeches in the city of Athens.  Like Protagoras and also Prodicus, Gorgias was a marketing success.  He promoted his oratorical skills through impressive sample lectures to the public. The equivalents to modern-day ‘infomercials’, Gorgias’ orations were designed to encourage members of the audience to register for his seminars.  Like other Sophists, Gorgias charged students a hefty fee for his services and amassed a considerable fortune in his lifetime.


In addition to public speaking and teaching, testimonial evidence suggests that Gorgias had wider interests.   T13 and T14 allude to the theory of emanations- a physical explanation of sight attributed to Empedocles.  Alongside his knowledge of Empedoclean theories, evidence reveals that Gorgias was also familiar with the philosophical work of Zeno of Elea- another predecessor from western Greece, and responded to him in his writings.  While some scholars are inclined to dismiss Gorgias’ writings as playful and of little philosophical value, Professor Hutchinson suggests that the two paraphrased versions of Gorgias’ philosophical treatise: On What is Not or On Nature (T11 and T12 respectively), were directly intended to exploit or parody Zeno’s “technology” of argumentation. Using the same schematic of a destructive argument, Gorgias contradicts the monism of Parmenides and his followers and proves that nothing has being. Deducted in the same way every time, Gorgias’ logic accomplishes this by proving the falsehood of a given proposition and then affirming its negation. The argument is structured as follows:


whether P?


if P, then A or B

not A

not B

therefore, not P.



         An interesting point of departure that distinguishes Gorgias from other Sophists is the absence of any claim to teach virtue.  While other Sophists were committed to the idea that they could elevate their students to higher standards of morality, Gorgias only guaranteed that he would successfully transmit the technical skill of persuasion to others.  Never the less, Gorgias held these skills of rhetoric in the highest regard and applauded himself for his own mastery of what he considered to be the greatest of abilities. Thus, if Gorgias were to hypothetically teach students who possessed no virtue, and who went on to pursue improper ends- such as say, careers in advertising- this would not have troubled Gorgias too greatly.  He had no obligation to teach virtue- and rightfully so, even by contemporary standards. While we do believe in moral guidelines in public education, professor Hutchinson remarked, there are no moral prerequisites per se. For example, if we sign up for a course in “defensive biking” we are not expected to fill out a moral questionnaire or have our values scrutinized. Similarly, Gorgias presumes his students have already received moral education and so he assumes his only duty is to transmit to students how to become effective orators.  However reasonable this stance, Plato attempts to discount and humiliate Gorgias on the absence of virtue in his teaching through Socrates. In conversation, Gorgias is asked to consider a situation where a former student who acquires powers of persuasion goes on to use his acquired skills to commit a crime (Gorgias 456a-461b). As professor Hutchinson suggests, the discussion of culpability for immoral actions in this context reflects more on Plato than it does on Gorgias.  That Gorgias was baffled by the presumption that virtue accompanies skill acquisition is a perfectly legitimate reaction (Gorgias 456d-457c). It was Plato and Protagoras who believed that it was possible to train someone in “outstanding virtue”- an ideal of education we now retreat from at most institutions.  Tests at universities for example, are strictly of a technical nature and do not attempt to deconstruct our moral defects.  


The most evocative examples of Gorgias’ rhetorical skill were funeral orations- solemn, public speeches delivered over the fallen. The most famous and impressive speech was recited for the great statesman Pericles. Gorgias himself would not have read this speech aloud as this was not a privilege granted to foreigners. Professor Hutchinson quoted an excerpt from the speech in Dionysius’ On Types of Style (F2), as an example of Gorgias’ ostentatious style and clever use of rhetorical devices.  The speech includes many symmetrical clauses, such as: “May I be able to say what I want, and may I want to say what I should…”- a clever paradox.  Or the phrase, “Often they preferred gentle fairness to inflexible justice…” is read as adjective noun, adjective noun.  When delivered by a good orator, these speeches were quite intoxicating. To catch all the symmetries, paradoxes and inversions however, was intellectually taxing. The words were often so enticing that most listeners forgot to notice that the utterances themselves did not make much sense.  The speeches were designed to rouse and generate waves of euphoria. Such emotional appeals were persuasive but not in any way illuminating- somewhat similar to the speeches of  “Dubya” Bush…


Gorgias was a “trailblazer and innovator” in the use of effective language.  Many of his techniques are still used by contemporary writers, such as balanced clauses and assonants in poetry (words beginning with the same syllables). However, many devices eventually became obsolete, as they were excessive or too ‘flowery’. 


Gorgias was so confident in his persuasive powers that he took up most unlikely cases and argued against widely accepted Greek conventions. For example, he composed an elaborate speech in praise of salt- a worthless mineral of great abundance in the Aegean. Even his philosophical proof that nothing exists was ostensibly orchestrated to show the superiority of his rhetoric.  Gorgias’ most famous promotion of his expertise occurs in The Encomium of Helen, where he attempts to praise Helen of Troy- a legendary figure in Homer’s Odyssey who allegedly instigates a 10-year war by committing adultery and fleeing with her lover Paris of Troy.  Professor Hutchinson read from (F1) examples of the arguments Gorgias invoked in Helen’s defense:


“She did what she did either because of the desires of Fortune, the decisions of the gods, and the decrees of Necessity, or because she was abducted by force, or because she was persuaded by the spoken word, or because she was overwhelmed by love.” (p 228)


 This argument takes on the form of the “quadri-lemma”:


whether P?


if P, then A or B or C or D

not A

not B

not C

not D

therefore, not P.


Professor Hutchinson discussed in greater detail Gorgias’ fourth argument that defended Helen on the basis that she was unable to repel love:


“…If it was love that did all this, she will easily escape the charge of a crime she is alleged to have committed.  For the things we see do not have the nature we want them to have, but the nature each one actually has, and through organ of sight the mind receives an imprint even in its characteristics…and it disturbs the mind, and the upshot is that often people flee the danger which is looming as if it were actually present…So if Helen’s eye found pleasure in Alexander’s body and transmitted the eager flirtatiousness of love to her mind, why should that be found surprising?” (p 230)


Within this passage we see inklings of a discussion of free will that is later taken up by the Stoics, Epicureans and Aristotle.  Professor Hutchinson suggests that Gorgias had more than a playful intention in writing this piece.  The idea that what we see is generally mediated by our emotions and perceptions of a thing and that we are somewhat passive in our responses to stimuli, is a root explanation of human behavior as an effect of previous causes.  If we accept Gorgias’ argument, we commit to the belief that the agent is something passive. Similarly, the reasoning of the third argument- suggesting that Helen was persuaded by the spoken word lends support to the above conclusion:


“The spoken word is a mighty lord, and for all that it is insubstantial and imperceptible it has superhuman effects. It can put an end to fear do away with distress, generate happiness, and increase pity…When the power of the incantation meets the beliefs of a person’s mind, it beguiles, persuades, alters by its sorcery…techniques which cause the mind to err and deceive beliefs…For if everyone could remember everything that had happened in the past, could understand everything that was happening in the present, and could foresee everything that would happen in the future, the spoken word would not have the power that it has.” (p 229)


Gorgias argues that through speech, we are not able to communicate clearly.  Thus, we are all powerless at some level, and so Helen too must be exonerated for succumbing to persuasion. This poses problems for conceptions of freedom of the individual. 


A student inquired whether Athenians truly believed that Paris had duped Helen. Professor Hutchinson suggested that while the reference in The Odyssey was not particularly hostile toward Helen, all Greeks did not see her in the same light.  As a legendary figure, Helen’s most unsympathetic critics portrayed her as vicious, untrustworthy, guileful and deceitful.


Whether Gorgias was a ‘trickster’ or whether his works reflected his own beliefs is uncertain.  His use of formal modes of reasoning was most innovative and his infomercials would put the home shopping network to shame.