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Page history last edited by Marcia Bost 12 years, 7 months ago

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The debate over the nature and value of rhetoric began with Gorgias, who questioned the possibility of knowing anything and conveying it to others (On Nature).  He has also been called “the father of sophistry,” the practical application of oratory to civic and political life; as such he was among the important public figures of the 4th and 5th centuries. (Internet Philosophy Encyclopedia).  Aristotle also writes that sophistry has characteristics in common with rhetoric. (On Rhetoric , 36).


Gorgias was born in Sicily in the Greek colonial city of Leontini between 487 and 483 BCE.  He possibly  studied with Empedocles and used the paradoxes of Zeno of Elea in his own arguments.  He may also have known the early rhetoricians Corax and Tisias. He is credited with bringing rhetoric to Athens, where he lived and taught for a period of time. He earned his livelihood by traveling and giving public demonstrations of his oratorical ability, which was described as legendary. In fact his “florid, rhyming style” was said to mesmerize his listeners (Philosophical Basics).  His style is also described as “overly antithetical and symmetrical in structure and overly alliterative and assonant in sound. ” In the oral culture of the Greeks, his speaking was “akin to magic” (Bizzell and Herzberg 42).  


In 427 BCE as part of a diplomatic delegation, he used this talent to convince the Athenians to come to the aid of his native city, which was being attacked by Syracuse. The resulting war effectively ended the Golden Age of Athens, according to Bizzell and Herzberg (23). They suggest that the linkage of sophistry with the failed war predisposed Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle against Gorgias.


Gorgias is said to have spoken extemporaneously on subjects suggested by the audience and performed by invitation at Olympia and Delphi. He taught how make the weaker argument the stronger one, as he illustrates in the Encomium of Helen (Internet Philosophy Encyclopedia). His performances and teaching workshops commanded a high price, so much so that he is reported to have constructed a solid golden statue to himself at Delphi. His student Isocrates suggests in Antidosis that Gorgias was not excessively  wealthy, but saved his earnings because he had no wife, children, or permanent home that obligated him to pay taxes (Bizzell and Herzberg 42).   He also reportedly taught Meno and Aspasia and died in Thessaly at the age of 108 (Internet Philosophy Encyclopedia).  Thessaly was one of the Greek city states near Mt. Olympus.


Gorgias wrote On Nature (ca. 444 BCE), which poses a series of paradoxes on knowledge and the Encomium of Helen (ca. 414), which suggests that speech is a more powerful seducer than sex. He also wrote the Apology of Palamedes and the Epitaphios or Athenian Funeral Oration. No other written works have survived, and there are different versions of On Nature, Palamedes and Helen (Internet Philosophy Encyclopedia).


His most famous critic was Plato, who in the dialogue under his name, forces Gorgias into a contradiction and thus (by the rules of dialectic) silences his viewpoint.  The viewpoint that Plato attributes to Gorgias is one of relativism, which does not care for truth or knowledge, but only appearing to know .  Aristotle also criticized Gorgias for his overly poetic diction, particularly compound adjectives such as “beggar-mused flatterers, forsworn and right-solemnly sworn” (202).  Aristotle also criticizes Gorgias for his unclear and far-fetched metaphors (204), but seems to excuse him for using mockery while giving passionate delivery (211).  On the other hand, Aristotle uses Gorgias’ work as examples of antithesis  (217), epideictic prooemia (232), an abrupt beginning (236), and praise incorporated within the speech (244). Kennedy also notes that Gorgias did use division (Aristotle’s ninth topic) in his Helen (177, n. 154).  Nineteenth century scholarship, particularly by Hegel and George Grote, as well as postmodern scholarship, have found value in the philosophy of Gorgias (Internet Philosophy Encyclopedia). See the resources for further scholarship on Gorgias.


Books consulted

Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. 2nd ed. Translator George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Bizzell, Patricia and Bruce Herzberg.  The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2001.


Web sites consulted

Internet Philosophy Encyclopedia http://www.iep.utm.edu/gorgias/

Philosophy Basics. http://www.philosophybasics.com/philosophers_gorgias.html


Further reading

  • ·         Analysis of setting for Gorgias


  • ·         Bibliography of scholarship on Gorgias and his works


  • ·         Excerpts of some of his works


  • ·         Information about historical periods


  • ·         Rhetorical society named for Gorgias (not updated in more than 11 years—may be defunct) at University of Texas at Arlington.


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