Gorgias is believed to have lived from 485 to 380 BCE. He is regarded as one of the greatest Sophists and teachers of rhetoric in Athens. Gorgias was renowned for his power of persuasion. His skill in persuasion was so great, he convinced the Athenians to construct a gold effigy of him although he was a foreign ambassador, and the honor was usually reserved for Greeks. Gorgias amassed a considerable wealth through his work as a Sophist, teacher, and ambassador (Herrick 45).
Rhetoric for Gorgias was akin to poetry, or magic. As a public art, speechmaking and persuasion had the ability to alter reality. Gorgias employed logos to sway audiences to his way of reasoning. He also carefully constructed his speeches with the sound of words in mind. In ancient Greece, poetry was believed to be divinely inspired, and Gorgias’s talents with rhythm and style contributed to his powerful influence and supernatural reputation (Herrick 45–46).
Encomium of Helen
An encomium is a speech dedicated to the praise of an individual, and Gorgias’s Encomium of Helen praises the controversial woman central to the Trojan War. Gorgias’s encomium displays his power of persuasion and ability to apply rhetorical devices to captivate his audience. In the encomium, Gorgias states that
The power of discourse stands in the same relation to the soul’s organization as the pharmacopoeia does to the physiology of bodies. For just as different drugs draw off different humors from the body, and some put an end to disease and others to life, so too of discourses: some give pain, others delight, others terrify, others rouse the hearers to courage, and yet others by a certain vile persuasion drug and trick the soul.
This passage illustrates the drug-like, mystical qualities Gorgias believed language to possess, as well as Gorgias’s ability to adapt speeches for a desired outcome in his audience. Charles Segal writes that Gorgias’s Encomium “served as a kind of formal profession of the aims and methods of his art, a kind of advertisement” (102). That Gorgias could clear Helen of her blame after Greece concretely determined her guilt points to the spellbinding power of his rhetoric.
Gorgias is a dialogue composed by Plato around 380 BCE, shortly after Gorgias’s death. The dialogue follows conversations between Socrates, Gorgias, and Gorgias’s students about the nature of oratory, or rhetoric. In response to Socrates’ questions, Gorgias explains his ability to teach others how to craft speeches and improve their influence through oratory. In Gorgias, Gorgias describes rhetoric as “the greatest of human concerns” (451d) and “the source of freedom for mankind itself and at the same time it is for each person the source of rule over others in one’s own city” (452d). Gorgias acknowledges the power of rhetoric to improve an individual’s quality of life and recognizes the need for rhetoric in political matters of city and state. Gorgias continues to offer his definition of rhetoric itself as “the ability to persuade by speeches judges in a court of law, councilors in a council meeting, and assemblymen in an assembly or in any other political gathering that might take place (452e). For Gorgias, the role of rhetoric is to improve one’s social and political standing, advance the causes of the polis, and persuade an audience to align with one’s goals.
- Gorgias. “The Encomium of Helen.” Translated by Brian R. Donovan, 1999.
- Herrick, James A. The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction. 6th ed., Routledge, 2018.
- Plato. Gorgias. Translated by Donald J. Zeyl. Hackett, 1987.
- Segal, Charles P. “Gorgias and the Psychology of the Logos.” Harvard Studies in Classical Psychology, vol. 66, 1962, pp. 99–155.