Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Monday, February 1, 2010

Gorgias of Leontini

This is a revision of one of a number of pieces I wrote for Bruccoli Clark's Dictionary of Literary Biography series. Though it betrays its reference book parameters, I did seek to make some original observations about a fascinating figure.


Although Gorgias made major original contributions to philosophy and rhetoric, he is probably best-known as the antagonist of Socrates’ ideas in the Platonic dialogue that bears his name. Gorgias is, indeed, an appropriate if outstanding representative of the sophists and rhetoricians of the ancient Greek world, and, in spite of the aura of disrepute often associated with these schools, much of his thought seems today strikingly modern, anticipating twentieth century trends in literary theory and epistemology. Both the Gorgias known from the fragmentary remains of his writings and that preserved by Plato are influential and significant for the provocative and skeptical challenges to conventional ideas of truth and poetry and for their positive construction of the role of art in a world of imperfect knowledge.

Gorgias was born in Leontini in Sicily about the year 485 B.C.E. He is said to have been a student of Empedocles and doubtless began his career as a philosopher, including speculating on natural science, but his time and region were the fountainhead of the new discipline of rhetoric, and he turned his attention to language at an early age. His teacher Empedocles is called the founder of rhetorical studies, and Gorgias is also described as a student of Tisias who had learned rhetoric from Korax, the man most often named as the first systematic rhetorician.

The nihilistic theses of Gorgias book on nature may suggest that the author, having devastated scientific positivism, abandoned the pursuit of ultimate truth as inaccessible and turned instead to oratory as an alternative in which unknowability is not necessarily a defect.

When he came to Athens About the year 427 C.E. as leader of a delegation requesting military aid against the Syracusans, he dazzled the local orators with his highly ornamented and rhythmic style of speaking. He was not only successful in persuading the Athenians to make an alliance with Leontini; he had made such an impression that he moved to Athens himself and took pupils, reputedly at a very high tuition. His flai for the spectacular persisted, in his extremely poetic, almost incantatory style and in such gestures as his offering to speak extemporaneously on any subject proposed.

Though he took a good citizen’s active part in political and religious affairs, and a statue of him was erected in a temple of Apollo, his radical philosophic skepticism, his remunerative teaching, and a general suspicion of the deceptive powers of language made him an ideal target for attacks on the new sophistic. Many of the charges unfairly leveled against Socrates in Arisophanes The Clouds, for instance, might with more justice have been directed at Gorgias.

He traveled to other Greek cities, teaching and delivering speeches, but very little of his work remains. He is said to have maintained a very abstemious lifestyle, including remaining a bachelor and refusing invitations to symposia. These austerities may have been salutary, for he is said to have lived well past his hundredth birthday.

The notorious series of propositions first set forth in the lost volume Concerning Nature or What is Not may be conceived as a riposte to Empedocles who had written a text On Nature, but it is thoroughly rooted in Eleatic philosophy. Basing himself on Parmedides and Zeno while adding Protagoras’ insights on the limitations of human knowledge, Gorgias declared first, that nothing can be shown to exist; second that if anything did exist, it could not be known by men; and third, that is anything were known to a person, it could not be communicated to anyone else. Surely a more radical epistemological questioning is difficult to conceive.

While following earlier monistic theories of reality and earlier claims of the relative and limited nature of truth, Gorgias made a distinctly original contribution by extending the doctrine to the inadequacy of language. Here he may be considered the earliest known analogue for such twentiueth century theoreticians as Ferdinand de Saussure who argues the arbitrariness of signs and insisted on the inevitable gap between signifier and signified or Derrida whose deconstruction likewise radically questions the ability of language to bear meaning, but who, like Gorgias, does not conclude the issue with genuine nihilism or barren agnosticism. For, while the accounts in Concerning Nature or What is Not in Sextus Empiricus and in the anonymous De Melisso, Xenophane, Gorgia are almost altogether destructively skeptical (though brilliantly so, recalling Nagarjuna’s Buddhist metaphysics in their uncompromising daring), the Palamedes suggests certain positive principles.

After retstating the claim that truth is inaccessible to the human understanding and that logos could not in any event communicate it, Gorgias goes on to make the surprising claim that this is most appropriate and fitting. The irrational character of the mind answers to the nature of the universal; the ambiguous and contradictory attributes of knowledge are then, in a deeper sense, realistic; and the tragedy of life is best embodied in language. The “fallen” word is not merely adequate, but eloquent in a fallen world.

The Helen elaborates much more fully on these enigmatic ideas. Though Gorgias referred to it as a jeu de’esprit (paignion), the speech hints in artful ways, suggestive rather than dogmatic, at a theory of literature that in some critical points anticipates the Aristotle of the Poetics. Both the authentic verifiable potential and the limitations of language are inherent in this attempt to exonerate Helen. She is innocent, Gorgias argues, if her leaving Menelaus for Paris is due to the will of the gods, to force, to love so great she could not have acted otherwise, or to Paris’ powers of persuasion. It is, of course, this last possibility that most concerns Gorgias.

Admitting that language has the ability to deceive, to beguile, (the Greek is apateo), he nonetheless insists that this is not identical to fraud or lying. In fact, according to Gorgias, the “deceived” man may be wiser than the “undeceived.” Some people, indeed, are too limited, too lacking in humanity to be “deceived.” Tragic drama creates a deception of a sort that embodies reality more fully than everyday perception.

This is a subtle and novel response to an old question. When Hesiod’s muses appeared to him, virtually the first words they said to him were, “we know how to speak many false things as though they were true, but we know, when we want, how to utter truth. Plato’s opposition to the poets was based on this equivocal relation to truth, though balanced by his respect for their potentially divine inspiration, and Aristotle’s claim that poetry “is more worthy of serious attention” than history indicate the importance of the issue for ancient literary theory. The question continued to be debated through Augustine’s grudging allowance of art in support of revelation, medieval didacticism, through nineteenth century “realism” up to such recent formulations as Umberto Eco’s definition of the sign as that which may be used to lie and deconstruction’s profoundly ambivalent attitude toward the truth of the word.

For Gorgias in the Helen, logos is “a great thing,” divine, universal, the source of love for mankind; it is “potent like a drug” (this simile, so richly ambiguous, was mined by Derrida in his Pharmakon). Tragic knowledge, for Gorgias as for Aristotle the primary type of poetic knowledge, is clear and unclouded as contrasted with the seeming reality which constitutes daily human experience. The piece may then be read as a paean to poetry’s powers for penetrating truth, though it is possible to involve this very text in the contradiction it raises by stressing Gorgias’ reportedly light-hearted comment on it and reading it as a cynical exercise in manipulating an audience to vindicate an immoral wrong-doer by pleading the irrational domination of the soul by the same sort of artistic language that constitutes the speech itself.

The same issues form the heart of Plato’s Gorgias, though there the problem is viewed in the perspective of Platonic idealism which will finally allow little room for the aesthetic. Though Socrates treats Gorgias with respect, the skepticism which for him enables and ennobles the role of art is given little expression, and his opinions are thus deprived of their foundation, misrepresented and trivialized. The dialogue features Socrates and his disciple Chaerophon desputing with Gorgias, his pupil and admirer Polus, and Callicles, a politican who serves to take supposedly Gorgian ideas to greater and more easily assailable lengths than could have been attached to the name of Gorgias himself. For Plato the prince[pal object seems to have been to demonstrate the superiority of philosophy over rhetoric from a moral point of view and to insist on the primacy of justice over opportunism in words and deeds.

The dialogue opens when Chaerophon at Socrates’ instance asks Gorgias what he professes to be, thereby inquiring after a definition of rhetoric. Gorgias says that rhetoric is great because it allows to men the very highest power, the ability to work their will in society. Though his admirer Polus calls him “one of the best” at the “noblest of arts,” this definition allows Socrates to relegate it to the sphere of persuasion and attacking it as no art at all, but only a “knack” acquired from experience of how best to manipulate an audience, a variety of flattery and an ignoble part of politics. Socrates further disparages rhetoric’s pretension by likening it to cookery, hardly an art, but rather an learned practice which might sometimes give pleasure. It cannot qualify as an art because it lacks theory and is essentially irrational. Finally, Socrates says that relation between cooking and medicine is analogous to that between rhetoric and justice in that the former term of each pair aims at mere pleasing while the latter aims at the true good. With high seriousness Socrates proceeds to demonstrate that doing wrong is a greater evil than suffering wrong and that the worst misfortune would be to remain without punishment after having committed a wrong. Socrates admits that rhetoric may serve a function, then, in aiding one to expose his own errors and to ask for just punishment and, secondarily, in defending oneself or defending even enemies should they be unjustly accused,
At this point Callicles, the wholly amoral cynical politician of the piece, asks in amazement whether Socrates can be serious.

He then mounts a thorough and self-conscious exposition of the principle that might makes right and that the natural man is altogether selfish, seeking only his own interest in both personal and social arenas. For Callicles law, morality, and social convention are merely for the weak, and a “man of courage” would pay them no heed and pursue only pleasure. Here Gorgias, like Epicurus, is associated with hedonism, although his own pleasures seem to have been highly refined and spiritual. For Socrates, though, pleasure is inevitably identified with goodness, and he proceeds to show that human nature need not be accepted in its natural state but may be cultivated and improved. Callicles remains obdurate, and Socrates reiterates his critical opinions of rhetoric. The dispute is resolved in Socrates’ favor only by a philosophical deus ex machina as Socrates invokes the concept of retributive justice in the afterlife to seal his point, although for him the mythological apparatus only dramatizes the necessity of a virtue which is self-justifying.

The dialogue is quite moving as an idealistic credo, but it wholly neglects the unique powers of language to investigate and formaulate visions of reality. What, after all, is Socrates’ medium when he is not relying on psychic telegrams from his daimon? Historically, the dialogue indicates the depth of distaste for new verbal and intellectual technologies that led to Socrates’ own execution. The same moralistic ideological bias is evident in attitudes toward literature from more modern sources, as well, including some Christians and communists. The suspicion of verbal play and the austere definition of pleasure Socrates present also contrast markedly with his own practice: his delight in confounding his interlocutors and the war, erotic glow that envelops so many scenes of the dialogues. The reductive view of the rhetorician as irresponsible antinomian not only ignores the subtleties in Gorgias’ thought; it also obscures difficulties in Socrates’ train of reasoning. Apart from not questioning the accuracy of words when used for stating philosophic doctrine, Plato also has his Gorgias accept without question the reality of the transcendental categories of truth and justice and the possibility of gaining access to them, and yet still defending rhetoric as the highest art. Still, the Gorgias memorably enacts the collision between idealism and skepticism and, from a partisan point of view, delineates attitudes toward language associated with each position.

Gorgias is a major, if little-recognized, figure in the history of literary criticism. As the individual responsible for transmitting rhetorical theiry to Athens, he helped to lay the foundation for the two millennia of dominance of rhetorical terms in critical thinking about the nature of literature. As a pioneer in developing self-reflection about an art which the Greeks had practiced for centuries, he made numerous specific contributions, among them the elevation of prose to a position potentially equal to that of poetry, particularly through the lavish use of ornaments both in sound pattern and in concepts. His direct influence as a teacher was considerable; Alcibiades, Thucydides, Isocrates, and Antosthenes are numbered among his pupils.

In philosophy he resembles certain modern existentialist authors in taking skepticism almost to the point of nihilism and yet salvaging humanistic values. He extended the Eleatic dialectic to its ultimate logical conclusions, and yet, having eliminated all possibility of meaningful knowledge, managed to reconstitute literature as the sole remaining viable discourse. He was the antagonist whose challenges inspired Plato not only in the Gorgias but in many of the late dialogues. In him can be seen the iconoclastic innovations in thinking that evoked admiration as well as hostility from his contemporaries.

He transformed the practice of rhetoric no less than its theory. His daring use of a superabundance of poetic devices such as antithesis, paronomasia (double meanings), pariosis (repetition of an expression in different connections), and a host of other figures opened the possibilities of artful prose writing forever even as their less effective use led to absurdly labored or tedious compositions. In different ways euphuism, Victorian schoolmaster like Blair, Finnegan’s Wake, and the rhythmic, hypnotice messages of American advertising might be seen as Gorgian. The disputes between those raising the supposedly opposing banners of style and content might be traced to those ancient controversies in which Gorgias played such an important role.

Of Gorgias’ writing we possess only a few fragments. His lost work On Nature or On What is Not is summarized by Sextus Empiricus in in the anonymous De Melisso Xenophane Gorgia. The Encomium of Helen and Defense of Palamedes exist in their entirety while passages are preserved from the Epitaphios and the Olympicus. He is actually most prominent as a reputation (for instance in his appropriation by Plato) and other authors often refer to him either as an example of the nihilistic dangers of sophistry or of the excesses (or extravagant beauties) of language carried to its most elaborate, literature pushed to the limit.

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