Full Summaries Sorted


Gladys McLean

Dr. Leslie

WRI 101

January 24, 2012

In “Encomium of Helen” fifth century rhetorician Gorgias of Leotini makes several arguments in defense of the infamous Helen of Troy. However, the overarching goal of Gorgias’ encomium is not to free Helen from her title as a traitor, but to demonstrate the persuasive capabilities of language. Through the “Encomium of Helen” Gorgias seeks to give substance to his skill as a rhetorician by essentially disproving one of the most widely accepted notions of his time period. He does this through a series of arguments that incorporate the morals and values of the ancient Greeks and use them to victimize Helen, thereby removing the blame from her and onto her perpetrator. Gorgias’ central argument is that powers such as speech, persuasion, seduction, and love are unable to be transcended and therefore those influenced by them are irreproachable; however, Gorgias’ argument surpasses the tangible situation of Helen and her status among the Greeks and speaks to the persuasive and seductive powers of language.

Gorgias sets the stage for his argument by appealing to the moral standings of the Greeks with statements that could loosely be termed as truths. He states that “Man and woman and speech and deed and city and object should be honored with praise if praiseworthy and incur blame if unworthy…” and goes on to say, “…it is an equal error and mistake to blame the praisable and to praise the blamable.” He appeals to the ethos by acknowledging that it is wrong to reward the “blamable” with praise or to condemn the innocent. In doing this, Gorgias constructs a frame for his later argument of Helen’s innocence. If the audience accepts this as truth, this construction makes it difficult to disagree with Gorgias’ argument without contradicting oneself. Undoubtedly done purposefully, this is a clever move on Gorgias’ part. He captures the audience using something they will not deny, and uses it as the foundation of his argument.

Gorgias makes four arguments as to why Helen is the scapegoat of the Trojans and deserves no blame. In the first, he suggests that it was the will of God, a force that cannot be reckoned with or understood. He subsequently proposes that if Helen was “raped by violence” then she is “the insulted,” the one who has had to endure suffering. He argues that if Helen was forcibly taken from her country, then she as the sufferer is not at fault, it is her instead her attackers that should bear the burden. These first two arguments are completely concrete if/then situations relying upon the moral standard set by Gorgias at the beginning of the speech. The fourth and final argument Gorgias proposes is that love was the reason Helen pursued Alexander. He presents love as a divine that cannot be refused or rejected by a “lesser being.” It is within the third argument that Gorgias’ assertions become applicable outside of the context of Helen of Troy and relevant to speech, writing, and rhetoric.

The third argument of Gorgias states that the speech by which Helen was lured away was just as strong a coercion as divine destiny or brute force. He refers to speech as “a powerful lord,” insinuating that speech has just as much influence as predetermination and cannot be escaped. Gorgias says, “What cause then prevents the conclusion that Helen similarly, against her will, might have come under the influence of speech, just as if ravished by the force of the mighty?” He later establishes this force as the force of persuasion. In these two comparisons, Gorgias equalizes the power of an abstract power, speech, to the concrete powers of God and physical attack. Therefore, the fact that Helen yielded to the persuasion of words becomes less her fault and more the fault of the seduction of speech. It is here that Gorgias’ stated argument becomes intertwined with a hidden agenda. He is using the power of persuasion as an argument in the text while also using it as a device to convince and even manipulate his audience into believing what he is saying. According the Gorgias, speech is able to take a toll on one’s being that one cannot be to blame for succumbing to its demands. All the while, Gorgias is setting using examples pleasing and agreeable to the audience. He creates a logical progression by using examples relevant to the audience, such as the influence of poetry. These relevant examples serve to convince the audience that speech is powerful and persuasive and in doing so Gorgias has proven his point twice, once within the text and again outside of the text. By choosing specific examples, words, and arguments that would wrap the audience in his text, Gorgias proves himself as a rhetorician able to create a viable argument against a popular belief.

However the point still stands as to whether Helen being persuaded leaves her as an actual victim and removes her guilt. Gorgias has established that words and speech have uncontrollable authority because of their ability to sway ones opinion, however, allowing ones opinion to be swayed does not make him or her a victim. Persuasion is more akin to the predetermination of God than the force and “rape by violence” of an attacker. While force leaves one beaten and bruised, it does not change one’s mind. It may convince him or her to cooperate, yet, it is obviously not willingly or upon one’s own accord. Predetermination, on the other hand, gives the individual no choice in his or her fate. There is no way of stopping, preventing, or hindering the inevitable from happening and therefore the person to whom it happens, in the case Helen, is neither a victim or a participant but simply a subject to which things happen. A similar thing occurs with persuasion. Gorgias argues that Helen is a victim of persuasion but that is not at all true; Helen’s mind was changed by the persuasion, yet there was no way that she could have prevented it from happening and therefore she is neither a willing participant or a victim, she is simply a subject. The same is true for the audience, which Gorgias has persuaded that Helen is not the enemy. The audience has not been victimized by persuasion, they have simply been subjected to a mind-changing experience. Some would argue that changing someone’s mind is manipulative and thereby makes the unwilling persuaded a victim. However, to that is the fact that not all arguments are persuasive enough to change one’s mind. Therefore, if a speech or dialogue persuades the subject to adapt an opinion that is not his or her original opinion, it is not because the individual has been manipulated or victimized, it is because the subject, who is not willing because he or she did not enter with the intention of changing his or her mind, has been presented with an effective argument. An effective argument is so indisputable in the mind of the subject that the subject cannot resist the change brought about by it, the same way the subject cannot resist the fate they have been assigned by God. So, though Gorgias is incorrect in saying that Helen is a victim, he is spot on in saying that she is “unfortunate” because the circumstances could not be prevented.

At the end of the speech, Gorgias states, “I wished to write a speech which would be a praise of Helen and a diversion to myself.” In other words, Gorgias reveals that he has used this praise of Helen to highlight his talents in rhetoric. He has done so effectively, nevertheless. His arguments, according to the ethos and logic to which he compared them, were successful in placing the blame on some outside factor, thereby removing the blame from Helen. However, the larger context of Gorgias’ work is that writers and speakers have the power to influence crowds, change minds, and reroute fate by constructing compelling arguments that alter the opinions of even the most unwilling audience.

DMU Timestamp: January 13, 2012 00:39

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