Gorgias, "Encomium of Helen" - Notes

Bibliographical information and notes on Gorgias's "Helena."


English Translations (listed chronologically)


483? B.C.E.  Gorgias's birth (Leontini, Sicily)
469         Socrates's birth
436         Isocrates's birth
427         Gorgias arrives in Athens
            Plato's birth
414?        "Encomium of Helen"
399         Socrates's death
384         Aristotle's birth
376?        Gorgias's death (yes, Gorgias is said to have lived quite a long life)
347         Plato's death
338         Isocrates' death
335         Aristotle's Rhetorica completed
322         Aristotle's death

General Information

1. Gorgias's Helena is important as an example of Sophistic oratory; an example of Sophistic pedagogy (in that Gorgias is reported to have taught by example rather than by precept); and as a statement of the Sophistic belief in the power, or force of language to lead the mind (psychagogia).

2. Gorgias's best known (and most notorious) contribution to Sophistic thought is the set of ontological/epistemology claims made in On the Non-Existent, which many scholars regard as a parody of the Eleatic school's teaching that "being" (nous) is one, unchanging, and timeless (not unlike monotheism). In opposition to this position, Gorgias claimed,

  1. Nothing exists.
  2. If anything did exist, we would be unable to know it.
  3. If we could know anything, we would not be able to communicate it.

Knowledge, then, is limited to the beliefs and opinions (doxa) that a community accepts as knowledge (cf., Stanley Fish's concept of "interpretive community"); thus, the only interesting question becomes, how does a belief or claim come to be accepted as knowledge? (Or, in modern parlance, how is knowledge "constructed"?)

Notes on the Kennedy Translation

We are using the Kennedy translation because it is the most recent (1991) and is based on the most recent edition of the Greek text (Donadi). Another, often used translation is that of Kathleen Freeman in her Ancilla to the Pre­Socratic Philosophers, which is the only English translation of all the fragments in Diels-Kranz. (I've made this translation available on the following page: http://www.mtsu.edu/~jcomas/gorgias/helen.html)

Title: The term encomium (G. eulogy, lit. "good words") refers to an oratorical genre in which a person, event, or thing is praised. In Aristotle's Rhetoric, the encomium is included under "epideictic oratory" (lit. "showing forth" or "displaying"), one of three primary divisions of oratory, along with "forensic" and "legislative" oratory.

Kennedy has inserted headings to indicate the rhetorical structure of the text. The terms for these headings are traditional, with a mix of Latin and English terms typically used in English scholarship. Recently, however, there has been a move to use the Greek terms; and this may explain Kennedy's use of prooemion to name the first part of the text. I've added the Greek, Latin, and English terms where Kennedy omits them because you're likely to see them in our readings:

I find much of Kennedy's analysis confusing. First, there appears to be an omission of a second "proof" that would correspond to the second set of reasons. More importantly, the analysis doesn't correspond to Gorgias's own enumeration of arguments.

Specific Passages

¶1:"Fairest ornament [kosmos] to a city is a goodly army …": kosmos is an interesting word because, although it is used in the oldest texts to mean "ornament," it is used more frequently to mean "order" and the "visible, physical universe." If we translated Gorgias's use as "ornament," this should be understood not as mere "decoration" but as "a mark, or source of pride, honor."

¶2:"I wish by giving some logic to language [logismon tina tôi logôi] …." - A good example of how the Greek word logos means both "logic," or "reasoning" and "language." A more literal translation of logismon, here, is "reasoning power."

¶5:"I shall proceed to my intended speech [logos] and shall propose the causes for which Helen's voyage to Troy is likely [eikos] to have taken place." - As we saw in Hinks's "Tisias and Corax and the Invention of Rhetoric," a key feature of Sophistic teaching is the idea that arguments should be made from "probable reasons" (eikos, i.e., what seems probable, or likely). This position reflects the skeptical position held by Gorgias and other Sophists that the truth cannot be known and, thus, cannot serve as the basis for argument.

¶9: "All poetry I regard and name as speech having meter [logon ekhonta metron" - This statement is usually understood to mean that poetry differs from prose only in the former being metrical; thus prose has the same capacity as dramatic poetry to arouse emotion.

¶11: "it is easy neither to remember the past nor to consider the present nor predict the future" - Another statement of the skepticism typical of the Sophists.

¶11: "on most subjects most people take opinion as counselor to the soul." - Two important terms in Greek thinking about the relationship between language and thought:

  1. The Greek for "opinion" is doxa, which is often translated as "belief"; the conceptual dichotomy of belief and knowledge is a key opposition that drives the history of Western philosophy.
  2. The Greek for "soul" is psychê, which is translated as "soul," "spirit," or "mind." Aristotle, in On the Soul (Peri Psyche, De Anima), identifies two older trends in theorizing psychê: psychê as the principle of movement (kinesis) and of perception (aisthesis). This second trend may explain Gorgias's emphasis on perception in his final argument regarding the power of love (erôs).

¶14:"The power of speech has the same effect on the condition of the soul as the application of drugs [pharmaka] to the state of bodies …" - As we will see in our reading of Plato, this kind of analogy --which seeks to understand the mind by comparing it to the body -- becomes a central feature of Greek and Western thought. For example, just consider the phrase "body politic."And as the rest of the paragraph indicates, the pharmakon can be either a medicine or a poison -- a point that is crucial, we will see, to Derrida's reading of Plato's Phaedrus.


I. Works by Gorgias

On the Non-Existent, or On Nature
As with most writings of presocratic thinkers, there is no extant text of On the Non Existent; our knowledge of it comes from text believed to have been written approximately 600 years later in the second century c.e., Sextus Empiricus's Adversus mathematicos (Against the Professors).

"Encomium on Helen" (414?)

"The Defense of Palamêdês" (411?)
Scholars believe that both the "Helena" and the "Defense of Palamêdês" are what survive from Gorgias's textbook on oratory. In part, this belief is based on Aristotle's statement that Gorgias taught by example.

II. Scholarship on Gorgias

III. Scholarship on the Sophists

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