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Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Encomium of Helen by Gorgias

One of the perks of having children in college is that I have been exposed to lots of great works of writing that I missed in my youth.  My youngest is an auditory learner and a classics major, so I have spent countless hours reading writings from the ancient world to him.  Many of the works of ancient Greeks and Romans have been lost forever or are only known because other writers have paraphrased their work.  Gorgias was luckier than that.  He was a Sophist of the 5th century BCE and four of his works survive to the modern age.  His defense of Helen is an interesting example of rhetoric that is disconnected from a moral and ethical stance.  The Sophists were slammed by Socrates and his acolytes for just this problem—no moral compass.  The good news is that his rhetoric is very accessible.
Helen was at the center of the disastrous war with Troy.  It went on for ten years,  led to the destruction of Troy, and spawned three epics (The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid).
Gorgias’ contended that Helen could have been bewitched by the gods so that it was her fate to leave her husband and go with Paris.  That is my assessment and I was surprised to  find out that she was blamed in the ancient world.  The other options that Gorgias considers are that she was forced to go against her will, that she fell in love with Paris (which he argues leaves her blameless—others might disagree) and then most interestingly, he argues that she might have been deceived by Paris’ rhetoric.  He gives a discourse on how a good persuasive speech can be dangerously effective.  He says that Helen should be forgiven if she fell for such a persuasive speech, because such rhetoric is overwhelmingly seductive to the point of being witchcraft.  I was initially quite skeptical, and then I thought about the current Republican candidates for president, and realized that Gorgias could easily be talking about Donald Trump.

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