Gorgias and the Dissoi Logoi: Challenging the Platonic Philosophical Project

By: Parisa Ali

I. Introduction

In his Encomium of Helen, Gorgias argues that Helen ought to be blamed neither for her departure to Troy nor for the catastrophic events that took place soon after. According to Gorgias, the grounds of this blame do not warrant the valuation of such an ill-reputation—not one reason is sufficient for holding her responsible. Consequently, Gorgias calls for an entirely new reconstruction of her image and actions, attributing her blamelessness to one of following possible causes: Chance/the gods/Fate, force, persuasion by words, or love.

Though this might seem like an outrageous or shocking set of claims, one must take into consideration not only the speech but also the setting in which it took place. To begin with, because Gorgias had set up a school of rhetoric in Athens, it is likely that his audience was comprised of informed Athenian citizens as well as potential students. Gorgias’ methods of defending Helen revealed not only the power of language but also the art of persuasion—both of which had the ability to seduce the potential student into joining Gorgias’ school. The success of this seduction was especially important at the level of institution, for the rhetorical school of thought was directly at odds with a different school emerging at the same time: philosophy.

What remains of this tension can only be discovered in the texts themselves, which is the reason for which Gorgias’ speech is particularly fascinating: he, interestingly, chooses to give it a philosophical structure (e.g., consisting in deductively valid proofs with justified premises) while nonetheless playing relentlessly with the language and content, weaving in numerous instances of contradictory notions which appear to undermine his entire project (something that we would not see in an ‘institutionally’ philosophical practice). Though Gorgias’ “playing” might tempt one into dismissing the entirety of his project by rendering it unserious, meaningless, and futile (Gorgias himself calls his speech a “plaything” at the very end), I argue that this “playing” is actually quite subversive and profound. Not only does it take seriously the equivocality of language and the consequences that follow, it also transgresses the way in which truth is generally thought of (i.e., as singular and universal). With both of these subversive side effects, Gorgias puts himself in stark opposition to the emerging discipline of platonic philosophy, which, I argue, his speech successfully challenges.

In this paper, I will first briefly explain Gorgias’ arguments for Helen’s blamelessness. I will then shift my focus to some of the potential aims of his speech. I will argue that one of the aims includes absolving Helen of responsibility for her actions, for hers are of a certain kind. Incorporating the work of Rachel Barney, I will agree that Gorgias presents a paradigm case of “actions like Helen’s” for which no one should be held morally responsible should their action be irrational, self-destructive, and/or “wrong”—all of which are produced by forces of compulsion and thus are involuntary. Second, I will argue that Gorgias’ “playing” represents one of his larger and more philosophically interesting aims:  challenging and critiquing the contemporaneously emerging platonic philosophical project.

II. The Speech: Absolving Helen from Moral Responsibility

Gorgias begins with the seemingly outrageous assertion that we must necessarily honor Helen,[i] the individual who is unanimously regarded as the cause of the catastrophic Trojan War, with praise,[ii] for she has been wrongly blamed and it is wrong to blame the praiseworthy.[iii] According to Gorgias, Helen cannot be held responsible for her actions, for she was caused to act as she did by forces beyond her control. He provides us with four possible explanations: “she did what she did either (i) by the caprices of Chance, the counsels of the gods, and the decrees of Fate, or (ii) ravished by force, or (iii) persuaded by words, or (iv) captivated by love.”[iv] Since these possibilities are presented as exhaustive, Gorgias contends that Helen’s actions were caused by at least one of them; however, if her actions were caused by any of them, then, as Gorgias intends to show, she is unworthy of blame and must be absolved.

Gorgias proceeds by elaborating on each of the possible causes, beginning with Chance, the gods, and Fate, which he groups under the category of “divine predestination.” According to Gorgias, it is impossible for humans to prevent that which is divinely predestined from occurring. He writes, “It is natural for the stronger not to be thwarted by the weaker, but for the weaker to be ruled and led by the stronger…God is stronger than man in power, in wisdom, and in everything else.”[v] In this relation, the human, Helen, is the weaker and cannot overpower the will of superior divine predestination. Thus, should divine predestination be the cause behind Helen’s actions, then she is absolved from moral responsibility.

The second cause Gorgias presents is being taken by force: “but if she was violently ravished and lawlessly violated and unjustly assaulted, it is clear that her ravisher wronged her by assaulting, while the ravished suffered wrong by being assaulted…how is she not worthy of pity rather than abuse is?”[vi] If Helen was taken against her will, then she cannot be held responsible by any means. We would not blame a child for being kidnapped at a park, so why would Helen’s case be any different? Surely, the abductor or user of force should take blame—not Helen.

Interestingly, the third possible cause of Helen’s actions has an important similarity to the second. Gorgias spends the most time elaborating on this argument, fleshing it out by taking various angles on the matter and considering different points. This third cause is Helen’s being persuaded by words or, put differently, being a victim of the logos. For his first point, he writes: “Speech is a great potentiate, who by means of the tiniest and most invisible body achieves the most godlike results. For it is able to dispel fear, to assuage grief, to inculcate joy, and to evoke pity.”[vii] Gorgias compares the powers of speech to the powers of the gods—powers that humans cannot supersede by their own will. Moreover, Gorgias suggests that speech has a tangible, physical effect on the body. He supports this idea in his discussion of poetry: “All poetry I judge and define to be speech in verse; when the audience hears it, terrifying horror, tearful pity, and sorrowful longing enter them, and the soul experiences its own emotion at the actions and feelings of others in their fortunes and misfortunes, produced through words.”[viii] Language, he suggests, penetrates the body as sound enters through the ears and proceeds to act on the soul, manifesting as feelings and emotions.

For his second point pertaining to the power of speech, Gorgias compares persuasion to witchcraft. Using the example of religious songs, Gorgias argues that the words of the songs not only penetrate and act on the soul but they also transform it.[ix] These songs are “bearers of pleasure and banishers of sorrow,”[x] which is to say that their words have the power to not only affect the listener’s temporary emotional state (as when one listens to the fortunes and misfortunes of others) but to also entirely change the listener’s state of being. For example, the listener could be someone who suffers from a deep depression but who, after hearing one of these songs, feels the depression lift completely, undergoing a deeper transformation of the soul.

And so it is this transformative quality and power of persuasive speech that Gorgias attributes to witchcraft, of which he identifies two forms: “those producing errors of soul and those producing deceptions of judgement.”[xi] Persuasion, then, is always either deceiving the souls of others by acting on them and transforming them or by deceiving their faculties of judgement. He proceeds with the assertion that “everyone who has persuaded anyone about anything persuades him by fashioning false speech.”[xii] Since people do not have a complete memory of the past, do not examine the present sufficiently, and do not have access to the unknown future, Gorgias remarks that for the most part, humans take opinion as their soul’s guide: “but opinion, being unreliable and insecure, involves those relying on it in unreliable and insecure fortunes.”[xiii]

Humans, however, do not think about the persuasive forces acting on them as mere opinion. These “opinions” appear in the forms of logical, rational, and compelling arguments, which explain why we can so easily and involuntarily become helpless in the face of them-. This leads Gorgias to point out that there is no reason, then, for us to deny that Helen could have been persuaded by speech just as unwillingly as she could have been ravished by force.[xiv] He writes: “For speech which convinces the soul which it convinces, compels it both to accept its message and to agree to its deeds.”[xv] In the same way that one being taken by physical force would have to accept and agree to the deeds of the taker, one can be also forced by speech to do the same. In other words, speech is a physical force with powers of compulsion which we can so helplessly fall victim to.

Gorgias drives this point home asserting that speech has the same relationship to the soul as drugs do to bodies. Just as drugs alter the physical states of the body, speech alters the states of the soul by inducing grief, joy, fear, etc.[xvi] Upon taking a drug, we cannot do anything to stop its effects; it acts on our bodies as it is meant to. Similarly, upon listening to a persuasive speech, we cannot do anything to stop it from acting on us. How then, can Helen be at blame if she fell victim to the powers of speech?

The last cause for Helen’s actions that Gorgias considers is love. He demonstrates, however, that this cause is more directly linked to sight and its involuntary effects on the soul: “For the things we see have a nature that does not depend on our will, but on how each happens to be; and through sight the soul is impressed in its disposition.”[xvii] We cannot control how the things we see may affect us or drive us to take certain courses of action. For example, in the very first episode of Game of Thrones, a ranger of the “Night’s Watch” witnesses a horrible scene of dismembered body parts, guts, and blood all over what used to be a small village. He returns to warn his fellow comrades about the scene, only to then witness them get slaughtered as well by mysterious beings called the “White Walkers”. Even though he knows that abandoning his commitment to “The Wall” (the place that members of the “Night’s Watch” defend) can only result in his decapitation, the fear instilled in him at the sight of these horrific scenes drives him to flee instead of immediately returning to safety. As Gorgias states, “As soon as some see fearful things they abandon their present composure in the present time.”[xviii] What the ranger saw caused him to forego all rationality in that present moment by abandoning his post in an attempt to save his life—it did not even cross his mind that doing so would just result in his death. Had he the capacity to react to what he saw voluntarily, he would have just returned to the Wall and reported the scene–and he would still be alive. But as Gorgias suggests, we do not have voluntary control of our soul’s reactions to what we witness through sight. Some sights cause pain, fear, depression, etc. while others cause pleasure, desire, happiness, etc. Nonetheless, these sights impress upon the soul, compelling us to do extraordinary, irrational, incredible things. It is easy to see then how the sight of Paris could have acted on Helen’s soul, driving her to go with him fundamentally involuntarily. Gorgias adds that we can think of love in two ways: first, if the compulsive powers of love are god-like, then how could an inferior being such as herself refuse and resist? Second, if love “is a human sickness and error of soul, then it should not be blamed as wrong but recognized as a misfortune.”[xix] Either way, Helen cannot be held morally responsible if her actions were caused by love.

III. The Aims:

I will begin by addressing the explicit content of the speech: absolving Helen from moral responsibility for her actions. Instead of viewing this as an independent aim, I suggest we view it rather as a means to Gorgias’ “higher end”: challenging and critiquing the emerging platonic philosophical project.

I will now discuss the issue of moral responsibility in the Helen. One common interpretation takes Gorgias to mean that no one can be held morally responsible for any action. But given the self-consciousness evident in the text, which I will exemplify shortly, the crude blanket generalization this interpretation would give to Gorgias’ arguments, and the fact the that the four kinds of explanation offered for Helen’s behavior are not at all exhaustive explanations covering any action whatsoever, I do not suggest that this is what Gorgias was trying to convey. For instance, I could steal a bowl of cereal from my roommate in the morning just because I felt like it and not because I was particularly hungry: would this mean that I was caused to so by divine predestination, force, persuasion, or love? It would seem silly to attribute the cause of my eating to one of the four aforementioned causes.

Thus, in accordance with what Rachel Barney calls the “narrow interpretation,” I suggest we take Gorgias to be constructing not a general paradigm for explaining any action, but a paradigm for explaining  “actions like Helen’s”—that is, irrational, self-destructive, and/or “wrong” actions with “with such predictably disastrous results that rational self-interest can safely be excluded as their cause.”[xx] Such an interpretation allows us to see that “when people act irrationally and self-destructively they will be found, on examination, to have been compelled by some external force which renders the action involuntary and the agent not morally responsible.”[xxi] From the viewpoint of this narrow perspective, I do think that there are reasons to agree with Gorgias’ claims.  Extreme conditions can compel people to act in ways that look self-destructive and that undermine attempts to attribute full moral responsibility. In certain areas of Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, for instance, people still lose their limbs if caught stealing food. But to someone experiencing extreme hunger, the mere sight of food could drive the person to act without taking the potentially disastrous results into consideration. We can also consider the tragic ramifications of infidelity in many monogamous societies. People to this day, notably females, are still stoned to death for adultery. In the U.S., it is not uncommon to hear of people being murdered by their partners for cheating or leaving the relationship.

So, while I do not think convincing us of Helen’s blamelessness (or moreover, that of those who fall under the same paradigm) is the fundamental aim in the Helen, I do think that Gorgias succeeds at doing so from the narrow perspective. What is perhaps more interesting, however, is not the “convincing” itself but rather the intellectual consequences and possibilities that arise from such an endeavor.

This brings me to the “higher end” of the Helen: challenging and critiquing the emerging platonic philosophical project. We can see this challenge or critique through the application and demonstration of various rhetorical methods in the text that are at odds with certain philosophical practices. One of the ways that Gorgias does this is by employing the practice of dissoi logoi throughout the speech. In his lectures on the sophists, Professor Dale Carrico describes dissoi logoi first and foremost as “the characterization of truth-talk as a form of discourse.” He adds:

“[The dissoi logoi] is also a pedagogical construct; it is a proposal for instruction in sophistry. It is the simple proposition that there are at least two sides to every argument—and each of the sides of the argument will contain a truth to the matter at hand. There is no one right answer. The opposing position to the prevailing opinion will nonetheless contain a kernel of truth about the thing that is unavailable to the prevailing view and hence we must always pay attention to the views of our opponents and the experience out of which their views emerge.”[xxii]

What is striking about the conception of dissoi logoi is the idea that truth and meaning are not singular, but rather can be distributed across contradictory positions—something which goes directly against the platonic philosophical project of the time, the project of establishing one overarching and unitary hierarchy of truth grounded in the ultimate reality of the platonic “Forms.” Throughout the Helen, we see various instances of the dissoi logoi applied, often taking the form of apparent contradictions.

In platonic philosophy, contradictions are impossible: things are either true or false, Real or apparent, invisible or visible, etc. One term of the binary, the term that pertains to the ultimate reality of the eternal Forms, is always superior and privileged over the subordinate term, and the idea of having the opposing binaries reconcile, as though the world of appearance were somehow an equal to the unchanging ultimate reality of the Forms, would create a problem. For Gorgias, however, this is not the case. All the seemingly contradictory points displayed in the Helen are in fact not contradictory at all—rather, they exemplify the benefits of employing dissoi logoi. They allow us to take both sides seriously and see the truth contained within both. Moreover, they create an active listener/reader as opposed to a passive one. That is, the listener/receiver is then put in a position to consider both sides and to decide for himself/herself. One example of this is in regard to speech. In the opening line of the Helen, Gorgias establishes a set of conditions that he intends to follow throughout the speech: “The glory[xxiii] of a city is its citizenry; of a body beauty; of a soul wisdom; of an action virtue; and of a speech truth.”[xxiv] However, in the section on speech about halfway through the text, Gorgias writes, “Everyone who has persuaded anyone about anything persuades him by fashioning false speech…the compelling contests of words in which one speech captures the fancy of the crowd and having been composed artfully persuades everyone though it is done by fashioning false speech.”[xxv] To make matters more confusing, he finishes the speech by stating, “I have by this speech rescued a woman from dishonor while adhering to the conditions I set at the beginning of the speech.” We can reword the first two quotations as such: all successful speech is false (speech that succeeds at persuading) but good, proper speeches are true (speeches that do not persuade).

The three quotations in combination are interesting for several reasons: first, they demonstrate a certain self-awareness and self-consciousness in the text, an awareness of the fact that the text/speech itself is directed at a reader, forcing the reader to take an active position and reflect thoroughly on what is being presented. Second, they support the idea that convincing the audience of Helen’s blamelessness was not in fact one of Gorgias’ larger aims. That is, if Gorgias’ speech is good, proper, glorious, etc. as he says it is by telling us that he has adhered to the conditions he set in the beginning, then this would mean that the persuasive bits of his speech (the arguments in defense of Helen) were not meant to persuade at all, for this would be fashioning false speech. But at the same time, if we are to be convinced that he is telling the truth at the end, or rather, persuaded that he has in fact adhered to the conditions set at the beginning, then this persuasion alone is false and we ought not to accept it. That is, if he has persuaded us to believe that his speech adheres to the conditions, then he has done this by fashioning false speech, which would mean that we should not accept that he has adhered to the conditions set at the beginning. Just in the quotations alone, we have a series of apparent contradictions and paradoxes (depending on the perspective we take). If we try to separate the true from the false, we consequently have problems. But, if we do not worry about categorizing, defining, and making everything as univocal and fixed as possible and instead try to see the various angles of truth that can be held in the statements, we arrive at a much more full-blooded understanding of the text and/or ourselves as readers/listeners.

A less confusing example is that of the title of the speech: “Encomium of Helen.” Gorgias certainly knew that an encomium is a speech of praise. However, Gorgias’ speech is evidently not so much a praise of Helen as it is a defense—a defense of her and more importantly, a defense of rhetoric. Here we have another example of Gorgias’ “playing”—he plays with and subverts the denotation of encomium by giving us other possibilities for meaning. Despite this, the speech is also, in a way, a celebration of rhetoric in which the figure of Helen functions as the means to this celebration. Seen in this way (that is, as a figure), Helen rather has the role of a pawn (a word we often use in the paradigm of game pieces). This is particularly interesting because of Gorgias’ last line in the speech: “I have undertaken to write this speech as an encomium of Helen—and an amusement for myself.”[xxvi] At the sight of this, we might be tempted to dismiss the whole of Gorgias’ project. However, by stating this, we are presented again with seemingly contradictory ideas, all of which contain some portion of truth and thus should be taken seriously. Yes, his speech is an encomium of the figure of Helen as a rhetorical device for demonstrative purposes; yes, his speech is an encomium not of Helen at all but for rhetoric; yes the speech is not an encomium but rather a defense of Helen; and yes, the Helen was his “plaything”—but is this bad? Just because he calls the speech an amusement for himself, that does not mean we should not still take it seriously. If we take “amusement” or “plaything” in their singular senses, then we might be tempted to dismiss Gorgias. However, during the whole speech Gorgias makes efforts to get us not to do this—to see instead the abundant possibilities for meaning and play of language, the possibility to be receptive to multiple sources of truth. In other words, “amusement” or “plaything” could be at the same time a futile game as well as a possibility for the subversion of a restrictive philosophical interpretation of meaning and language.

To conclude, Gorgias is not trying to give us singular notions of truth and meaning; his speech reveals the way both truth and meaning can productively overflow the limits put in place by the restrictions and dichotomies of platonic philosophy. By subverting the specific notion of what counts (and what may count) as truth, Gorgias demonstrates that from an enlarged perspective with various lenses, we are able to see the conditions of possibility that exist outside of dichotomous thought. For this reason, it does not matter that the arguments for absolving Helen are not particularly persuasive: what matters is that they reveal that there will always be at least two sides to every argument and each side will always participate in truth. The consequence of Gorgias’ rhetorical perspective is that we are given a more inclusive understanding of truth and its role in human affairs, namely, the idea that the world external to us reflects the position from which we see it. Thus, to these ends, I maintain that Gorgias’ speech succeeds in its defense of rhetoric and critique of platonic philosophy.


Bibliography and Notesunnamed

[i] By choosing to absolve the most unanimously held responsible cause of the Trojan War (we could think Helen as being on one extreme of the “spectrum”), Gorgias is making a statement about rhetoric (e.g. if rhetoric can absolve her—of all people—rhetoric can do extraordinary things). While I do not agree with the view that interprets Gorgias as arguing that no one can be held morally responsible for anything, I do think that choosing Helen as the subject of discussion does make a statement about the powers of rhetoric.

[ii] Insodoing, Gorgias displays expertise of his craft. His outrageous thesis “hooks” us in, instilling in us the incentive and desire to see what follows. One of the still-held principles of good arguments is having theses that appear problematic/outright “wrong” or false, or rather, theses that we can easily initially disagree with, making us want to refute them.

[iii] Gorgias, Encomium of Helen, 755.

[iv] Ibid., 757.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid., 759.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid., 761.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Barney, Rachel, Gorgias: Encomium of Helen, 18.

[xxi] Ibid., 19.

[xxii] Carrico, Dale, lectures July 2014.

[xxiii] The word “glory” in other translations is substituted for “adornment,” “becoming,” and “order-proper.” What is interesting about all of these translations is that they all in some sense or another have a relationship to the external, the proper, the suitable, the attractive appearance, the appropriate, etc. Thus there is something about the external, the appearance, the superficial that takes primacy over the deep, the underneath, the uncovered, etc. demonstrating another interesting parallel between this rhetorical mode and that of philosophy.

[xxiv] Gorgias, Encomium of Helen, 755.

[xxv] Ibid, 759.

[xxvi] Ibid., 763.


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