Jul 20, 2016
Just a heads up, this is a re-recording of an earlier podcast, so it's not chronologically accurate. Like, I didn't just submit my dissertation, I got it approved, defended and bound on linen paper. Boom! Okay, anyway, that's the warning, but really, if you've recently finished a dissertation and think its as interesting as I think mine is, you should email us at email@example.com. That way I can be all, "hey, that's great!" and maybe we can do an episode on it. There you go.
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders
about the ideas, people, and movements
who shaped rhetorical history. I'm Mary Hedengren and I don't know how many of you actually noticed, but I actually was gone for a couple of weeks. I've been uh, eyebrow deep in my dissertation but I finally got it submitted to my readers so that means I have a little bit of time to come back and talk to you about Gorgias.
Now some of you who listen to my podcasts may think, wait a second, we've talked about Gorgias already. The Dialogue? Yeah, but this isn't the Gorgias. This is Gorgias himself. The actual man Gorgias. He was an actual person and he was extremely popular as a rhetorician. People loved him. He was like a rock star.
There are very few rhetoricians who get a shiny gold statue made of them. In fact, I personally don't know anybody who has a shining gold statue but there's one man specific - Gorgias who did. It was solid gold. This was one of the many honors that Gorgias was awarded that are usually reserved for citizens, but Gorgias was a foreigner. In fact he traveled from place to place. He never really stayed still -- a lot like a rock star. Because of this, he was also sort of had that rock star reputation of not really being the most level headed or moral, sort of a person. But he was really, really good at what he did. And when you're a rock star you have to find even greater challenges.
So one of the challenges Gorgias set for himself was to write and encomium of Helen. First let me explain a little bit about Helen. We're talking about Helen of Troy here whose position in Greek society was not eh.. great. [laugh] Helen of Troy was seen as sort of the personification of sort of just lustiness and sort of infidelity and things like that. She did not have a high position.
An encomium is a specific genre of speech or writing where you sort of praise somebody who maybe didn't get a lot of praise. So you can think of analogies nowadays would be something like, maybe an encomium of Eve if you were writing in the middle ages or you might do an encomium of Bella from Twilight. So why did he do this? Why did he attempt an Encomium of Helen? Well partially he said, it was fun. He says I wished to write a speech which would be a praise of Helen and a divergent to myself which is also a little bit cocky. He's saying oh, it's so easy. Look at me do something fun like an encomium of Helen. But there's also a deeper, philosophical meaning here with Gorgias, just like how people can find meaning in rock stars' lyrics that they think is far deeper than just something fun. Gorgias was also making an argument about the power of language. Arguing implicitly that his speech has been effective by saying that language is extraordinarily powerful and that was what was behind Helen's abscondence.
So while he's describing that Helen couldn't help herself, everybody else in the audience is being swept away too. This is a page [inaudible][00:03:19] . A really playful piece, not a serious piece of deliberative or judicial rhetoric. Something that's a little bit just you know, sort of fun and curious to think about. It's also sometimes called paradoxalogia which is sort of where you set up something that sort of is in contrast and because of this paradoxalogia, it does seem a little bit contrary to have an orator tell you to be wary of the things people say in beautiful ways because they can lead you astray. He's kind of saying watch out, I can make you do whatever I want you to do when he writes a speech talking about how powerful speech is. He's certainly not making a case for straight talking the way he's speaking. But he's mostly focusing that speech can be good and bad and immensely powerful and that makes Gorgias himself into a sort of you know, benevolent dictator of people's emotions and opinions.
So how does he do it? How does he persuade people that speech is so powerful? Partially because the beautiful way that he speaks it. He is known for devices like antithesis that are sometimes even called Gorgiatic. So the way that antithesis works is you have one thing and an opposite thing. So he'll say a lot of things that sort of balance. "Opinion is slippery and insecure" he says, "emptying it into slippery and insecure successes." So you have sort of this really clear parallelism that he uses a lot. He describes cities and [inaudible][00:04:45] power, body and beauty, soul and wisdom, action and virtue, speech and truth. By creating connections between these things, he sets the stage for his thesis about the necessity of the speaker to speak and potentially lead people astray against their inability to stop the speaker. So he uses two metaphors significantly when he talks about speech. One is that speech is a lord and the other is that speech is a drug. Two metaphors that describe the irresistible nature of speech as well as the speech's power to be both benevolent or maleficent.
So he uses a lot of antithesis to sort of argue that speech is a powerful lord and overall he says that if Helen was you know, physically taken away, if she was kidnapped and drawn bodily, we wouldn't judge her. But being persuaded by speech is just as powerful as being carried away physically. So he says if she was persuaded by speech, she did not do wrong but was unfortunate instead. Since speech and stop fear and banish grief and create joy and nurture pity, it has the power of drugs over the nurture of bodies. This is a really powerful view. With such a speech that sort of gaily twists the knife into his critics that say that what he's doing is useless or superficial, he creates a really fun speech that also makes a powerful argument for the power of rhetoric and lays the group for future rhetoricians and sophists. Now not everybody loved Gorgias as sort of the father of sophistry. Aristotle of course, criticizes Gorgias' showmanship and money grubbing. He is also Socrates’ foil in the Gorgias, but even so-called early sophists like Socrates felt like Gorgias didn't really write an encomium. Not really in praise of her, but in defense of her.
Next week we're going to talk about Isocrates' Encomium of Helen. And in the meantime, think to yourself, what are some institutions or people that are usually criticized that, through the power of rhetoric, can also be rehabilitated? Does rhetoric really have the possibility to sweep people away as powerfully as physical action? Well, we'll have to think about those questions next time when we think about Isocrates' Encomium of Helen.