Gorgias of Leontini

Assigned: Gorgias of Leontini. “Encomium of Helen” (40-42). Also read the editors’ introduction (39-40).

“Encomium of Helen” (circa 400 B.C.E.)

1. On 40 (“For a city the finest adornment…”), how does the celebrated sophist Gorgias of Leontini set up the argument to come—how does he align himself with the good qualities he mentions, and distance himself from what he calls “error and ignorance”? What does he identify as his “only wish” with regard to the purpose of this brief speech? Thus far, how would you describe the attitude Gorgias is taking towards his subject and his hearers? Provide evidence for your view.

2. On 40-41 (“That the woman I speak of…”), how does Gorgias initially describe the object of his praise, Helen of Sparta, Menelaus’ queen of incomparable beauty? What opinions about her does he attribute to others? How does he characterize the “erotic passions” (40) that she stirred up in many men of distinction? What is Gorgias perhaps suggesting here about human nature, and the place of beauty in the hierarchy of human values, or at least in ancient Greek culture?

3. On 41 (“Either she did what she did…”), Gorgias turns to defending Helen. What two main possibilities does he set forth regarding the reason for Helen’s leaving Sparta for Troy with the Trojan Prince Paris—an event that supposedly launched the ten-year-long Trojan War that serves as a foundational myth, as we would say today, for ancient Greek culture? How does Gorgias deal with the first of these possibilities—what reasoning underlies his defense of Helen in the event that she was constrained by the gods’ plan or by the power of “necessity”? (ἀνάγκη, anánkē, necessity and τύχη, túkhē, chance or fate are the two terms Gorgias uses.)

4. On 41-42 (“If she was forcibly abducted…”), Gorgias addresses the second of the two possibilities for Helen’s leaving Sparta for Troy with Prince Paris, which is that “she was seized by force, or persuaded by words, <or captured by love>” (41; the Greek text runs, ἢ βίᾳ ἁρπασθεῖσα, ἢ λόγοις πεισθεῖσα, <ἢ ὄψει ἐρασθεῖσα>, the final phrase in “<>” brackets meaning literally, “or having fallen in love through the power of the eyes,” as so commonly figured in the ancient Greek and Latin discourse of love). How, on page 41, does Gorgias defend Helen in the event that she was compelled by physical force (βίᾳ, bía)?

5. On 41-42 (“If speech {logos} persuaded and deluded her mind…”), Gorgias continues to address the second of the two possibilities for Helen’s leaving Sparta for Troy with Prince Paris. The variety of the second possibility he deals with here is that she may have been “persuaded by words” (41; λόγοις πεισθεῖσα, lógois peistheísa). It is clear that this possibility is the one that most interests Gorgias, so how does he advance his key defense of Helen in the event that she set sail to Troy with Prince Paris because of his tremendously persuasive words? What three instances of such persuasiveness does Gorgias briefly discuss in turn (42), and in the service of what defensive proposition does he place these instances? In what sense is Gorgias the sophist orator perhaps aligning his own seductive power with that of the words of Prince Paris, and even the epic bard Homer?

6. On 42 (“So if Helen’s eye, pleased by Alexander’s body…”), how does Gorgias handle the final variety of the second of the two possibilities for Helen’s leaving Sparta for Troy with Prince Paris? This variety is that Helen was stricken with love for Paris (here called Alexander), that her “eye” was “pleased by Alexander’s body.” Why is Helen still covered (i.e., blameless) whether love is a god or whether it is just “a human sickness and a mental weakness”? Moreover, if you are familiar with Greek mythology and the way it represents the coming-on and the power of love, how does Gorgias’ defense of a supposedly love-stricken Helen accord with the typical Greek way of describing love and analyzing its effects on people?

7. On 42 (“With my speech I have removed…”), Gorgias concludes, “I wished to write this speech for Helen’s encomium and my amusement.” That may seem an unflattering admission if the author is calling his own performance a “plaything” or a “trifle” (παίγνιον, paígnion, plaything or trifle), but how might it be understood as part of the sophist Gorgias’ rhetorical strategy? In what sense does it align his argument in this encomium (a species of epideictic or ceremonial rhetoric, which praises or blames someone or something) with the nature of the subject matter? Or, to put things another way, how does Gorgias thereby flatter his own persuasive powers as a rhetorician and performer? For those familiar with the misogyny inherent in a number of retellings of Helen’s story—one central to Greek culture—in what sense might Gorgias be said to have taken in his “Encomium of Helen” a courageous stance against a woman-hating strand of Greek society?

8. General question: As you follow Gorgias of Leontini’s way of proceeding in his argument favoring Helen in the “Encomium of Helen,” what assumptions (or perhaps even contradictions) about the value of truth seem to underlie his argument? Read through Plato’s dialogue “Gorgias” at least briefly, or look over a summary of it. In that dialogue, on what basis does Plato’s Socrates give Gorgias the sophist a dressing-down for the spurious claims he makes about rhetoricians? Why, given this criticism, would Plato’s Socrates find this orator’s attitude in defending Helen from obloquy somewhat distressing? Ultimately, what is the nature and purpose of the art of rhetoric, as Gorgias presents it in his “Encomium of Helen”?

9. General question: In his “Encomium of Helen,” the sophist Gorgias of Leontini argues cleverly on a theme lent him from Homeric epic and, more broadly, Greek mythology. Read our anthology’s brief excerpts from Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Books I, II, and III(Leitch 127-31). What rules, observations or insights in Aristotle’s text seem applicable to the rhetorical performance given by Gorgias? Towards what kind of audience do you suppose Gorgias aimed this performance—what might their expectations be, in terms of any potential knowledge to be gained, or any entertainment to be had? (Hint: Gorgias is sometimes said to have used this speech as a prime example of why students should hire him to teach them rhetoric—it was a performance-based portfolio sample. See Matsen, Patricia P., Philip Rollinson, and Marion Sousa. Readings from Classical Rhetoric. Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois: Southern Illinois UP, 1990. Pg. 33.)

10. General question: If you are familiar with what is said about and by Helen in The Iliad (mainly Books 3-7) and The Odyssey (Book 4, where she helps her husband King Menelaus of Sparta host Telemachus, who has sailed to Menelaus’ kingdom in search of news about his father, King Odysseus of Ithaca), to what extent does Homer’s representation back up Gorgias’ argument in his “Encomium of Helen”? In other words, how does Homer represent the virtue (or otherwise) of Helen, Queen of Sparta? To what extent does Homer portray Helen as having agency in her own right, or as being ruled by forces beyond her control?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake