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Topic #A14



10 October 2001

Scribes: Claire Binks and Anushki Bodhinayake


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The discussion on Gorgias began with Prof. Hutchinson contrasting the common features between him and Protagoras.  He noted that Gorgias was an ambassador who like Protagoras achieved his initial fame by speaking to the entire city of Athens.  Like Protagoras and Prodicus, Gorgias made a lot of money by giving his speeches, as he used a similar technique of alluring students to register with him after he gave an impressive speech.  Next, Prof. Hutchinson noted that Gorgias had wider interests, including a theory of vision, which he used T13 and T14, on page 239 in The First Philosophers, to illustrate to us that Gorgias’ theory was much like the theory that Empedocles used.


 Gorgias also had knowledge of the work of other Western Greek philosophers, including Zeno.  Evidence of this can be seen in T11 and T12.  In T11, Gorgias’ work entitled On What is Not, provides us with his line of reasoning to the conclusion that the only thing that can exist is nothing.  Prof. Hutchinson used an example to illustrate Gorgias’ reasoning.  It goes as follows: P is called into question.  If P, then either A or B, and if both A and B are negated, P must also be negated.  Similarly, if A is called into question and the premise is also if A then X or Y, it follows that if both X and Y are negated, A must also be negated. This line of reasoning shows the schematics of a destructive argument.  One could use this line of reasoning to argue forever and they will always come to the same conclusion, that the only thing that can exist is nothing.  This contrasts with the view of Protagoras.   Prof. Hutchinson also noted that Gorgias’ arguments seem to be an exploitation of the method Zeno used.     


Prof. Hutchinson then went on to compare Gorgias and Protagoras in another way.  He noted that Gorgias neither desired nor claimed to teach virtue.  Instead, he claimed to be a pure technician, focusing on the art of how to persuade people, which he thought was a most valuable skill. Prof. Hutchinson drew a parallel to this “virtue less persuasion” by noting, for example, advertising agencies do not include virtue as a driving force behind their work.  Those criticizing this would argue that this technique allows for those practicing it to pursue bad ends.  Plato was one of the Philosophers who criticized Gorgias’ work.  In Gorgias, Socrates argues with Gorgias that it is possible his students could use their new found knowledge of persuasion to commit crimes*  Gorgias replied by saying that is something he has to take into consideration (see lines 447a-461b of Gorgias found in Plato Complete Works).  Prof. Hutchinson stated that the criticism of Gorgias does not say much about him, but rather says more about Plato himself.  There is something idealistic about Plato’s criticism.  Prof. Hutchinson compares the way U of T is structured with the fact that Gorgias did not feel the need to teach virtue.  When one enters the university, he is not tested on his moral virtues, rather he is taught more technical skills.  This contrasts with the teaching styles of Plato and Protagoras, who claimed to be teachers of the outstanding. 


Prof. Hutchinson next went on to discuss a traditional type of text found in many ancient works having to do with passages, which were read at funerals.  F2 found on page 231 illustrates what Gorgias thought should be said at a funeral of those who displayed outstanding bravery in war.  Regarding this, Prof. Hutchinson noted that Gorgias himself would not be one to read these types of passages at the funerals, but he would call on a fellow Athenian to do the job.  Prof. Hutchinson also illuminated that his speech was constructed in symmetrical clauses and used clever inverses.  For example, by reading to us the passage, “For which of those qualities that men should possess was not possessed by these men?   And which of those qualities men should not possess was possessed by them?” it is easy to see how people would be impressed with such speeches, but while they were trying to figure out what each clause meant, they did not realize that the speech in its entirety made no sense at all.  This is true about most rhetorical speeches and Prof. Hutchinson used President Bush’s last speech as an example of how the style is still used today.  Gorgias was an innovator in the use of effective language, but there are also many useless devices that are no longer used.  One device that is still used today is the balanced clause, which is still used in the Greek language. 


Prof. Hutchinson next went on to discuss the Encomium of Helen, which refers to Helen of Troy.  This can be found in F1 on page 228.  He began this part of the discussion by stating that it would most likely be impossible to convince us that there exists nothing.  He linked this notion with two other ideas, one being that is just as hard to convince people to praise Helen of Troy who was accused of some pretty terrible things, and the other being the notion that salt to the Greeks was thought to have no value and shouldn’t be praised because it was so widespread.  Gorgias wrote a number of speeches in which he began with the weaker end of an argument and went on to prove how it could be the stronger end.  One of his speeches was on the goodness of salt, and how it is something that should most definitely be praised.  Another one of his speeches was regarding why Helen of Troy should be exonerated.  What we learn from these speeches is that perhaps Gorgias was a trickster, who pretended to be able to show that he could pull off an outrageous argument.  Prof. Hutchinson noted that Gorgias used a quadlema in order to argue that Helen should not be blamed for her actions.  He argues that there are four possible reasons for Helen’s actions, and none of them lead to her being blamed.  The first reason could be that the gods caused her to fall in love with someone else and leave her husband.  He argues that is this is true she cannot be blamed for, “God is stronger than man in might and wisdom and all other aspects.  Therefore, if responsibility is to be assigned to Fate and to the gods, Helen is to be acquitted from her ill reputation.”(228).  The second reason is force.  Gorgias argues that if she was forced to do what she did, then it was her forcer who should be blamed and not Helen.  The third reason is love.  Gorgias argues that we do not plan or prepare to fall in love.  He states that “when it comes, it comes as a result of Fortune’s snares rather than planned decisions, and as a result of Love’s compulsions rather than contrived preparations” (p. 231 from The First Philosophers).  The final reason is the notion that the spoken word is a mighty lord.  Gorgias argues that the spoken word has magical like powers over us, thus it should be the persuaders fault and not Helen’s.  The basic conclusion that can be derived from this is that Helen should be exonerated because to some level we are all powerless.  Prof. Hutchinson used this idea to elaborate more on the difficulty that arises when trying to blame people for their actions.  If it is argued that we don’t control what effect things have on us, then one can say that we are passive in that way and thus responsibility must lie elsewhere.  He then noted that if we are speaking of either speech or emotion guiding our actions, and these are external factors, how is it possible to blame the actor and not blame the cause of the action instead?  Prof. Hutchinson drew a parallel between this idea and that of Aristotle’s, who argued that when we are emotionally distraught we are passive and thus should not be held responsible for our actions.  Epicureans also discussed the notion of passiveness and argued how can it be possible for human beings to be responsible for external events afflicted upon us.  A student then asked whether people actually believe Gorgias’ speeches, especially concerning the one regarding Helen and Prof. Hutchinson replied that people did not for the most part believe him, and he noted that Helen of Troy is widely seen as a figure of someone who is untrustworthy.