Gorgias on rhetorical theory

Most of what we know concerning Gorgias’ views on rhetoric comes from the Encomium. This work can be understood as a sophistical effort to rehabilitate the reputation of Helen of Troy. In it, Gorgias attempts to take the weaker argument and make it the stronger one, by arguing for a position contrary to well-established opinion: in this case, the opinion that Helen was to blame for the Trojan War. Gorgias argues that Helen succumbed either to (a) physical force (Paris’ abduction), (b) love (eros), or (c) verbal persuasion (logos), and in any instance, she cannot be blamed for her actions.

According to Gorgias, logos is a powerful force that can be used nefariously to convince people to do things against their own interests. It can take the form of poetry (metrical language), divine incantations, or oratory. Logos is described as a “powerful lord” (B11.8) and “[t]he effect of speech upon the condition of the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nurture of bodies” (B11.14). This should be contrasted with the view of Isocrates that logos is a “chief” or “commander” (Nicoles 5-9). The difference here is subtle, but Gorgias’ dynastic concept of logos clearly turns it into a despotic overlord, while Isocrates’ “commander” is a leader with delegated authority, an individual who fights alongside his troops.

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