The Logic and Validity of Emotional Appeal in Classical Greek Rhetorical Theory
by Bryan Register
Date: 1 May 99
Forum: University of Texas at Austin
Copyright: Bryan Register
In this chapter, I very briefly discuss the practices of the sophists. The sophists are seen as an expression of cultural tendencies already alive in Athenian culture. While they then express some of the noble sentiments of their age, they are seen by their conservative opponents - not entirely without justification - as responsible for the disastrous war against Sparta. Gorgias's Encomium to Helen is then examined as the example of sophistic theory of rhetoric which is most taken up by later scholars.
Section 1: The Sophists and Athens
The recent history of Athens, before Plato's time and Aristotle's, was not a happy period. After leading the Greek defeat of Persia, the Athenians squandered their position of leadership on the imperialism which leads to war. Let me give some of the flavor of this period.
As the war against Persia was moving toward its successful conclusion, those city-states in and around the Aegean Sea formed an alliance known as the Delian League. Sparta had been a dominant power in the fight against Persia, but Athens was asked by the cities to be the leading state of the alliance. Athens had military command and the authority to make grand strategic decisions such as who would build ships, who would pay how much tribute to the alliance, and so forth. Initially, the alliance (which is to say, Athens) made few demands on the members. The alliance was a success; many states in the central Aegean, some states north of Athens, and most of the Greek colonies in Asia Minor joined immediately. The Delian League was thus a maritime force.
While it is unclear exactly when things went wrong, and how, we know some of the outlines of the empire which Athens fashioned out of the League. Hornblower writes that "The administrative and political checks on the allies were numerous and ubiquitous: they consisted of several hundreds of Athenian officials, governors, 'supervisors' – and garrisons." (Hornblower, p. 29) Foreigners sued by Athenians were compelled to travel to Athens to face trial. Athenians could not trade corn anywhere but Athens, and could not lend money outside of the city. Athenians took holdings of land from League cities quite illegally. And nothing could be done by the allies, because Athens had the power to force compliance. As the Persian Wars truly concluded, military campaigns were even waged "in response to allied discontent at the way the league was turning into a machine for policing its own members." (Hornblower, p. 34)
These changes occurred simultaneously with the rise within Athens of new political forms. The upper body of the Athenian government was deprived of its power which was invested in the Assembly, the 500+ member legislature for which members were selected at random. Moreover, "...each meeting of the Assembly was different in composition from all others; personal oratory and ascendancy, not party organization, decided the issues..." (Hornblower, p. 37) Athens did more or less what its finest orators told it to do, and there was no structure in the city to slow decision-making and allow reconsideration. Citizenship was limited to those who could claim Athenian descent from both paternal and maternal lines; thus the spoils of empire would be less divided.
Some of the tribute of the League, ostensibly the funding for the defense against Persia, was spent by the Athenians on public works projects. Seung notes that the Acropolis building program
Involved large sums of money, beginning with the initial allocation of 30,000,000 drachmas (almost eleven tons of pure gold), which was followed by an additional allocation of 18,000,000 drachmas.... These huge sums of money had been extracted from the subject states of the Athenian Empire. [Athens] reinstated the tribute system more than once, and the subject states became virtual slaves who were allowed no voice in this matter." (Seung, p. 4)
War with Sparta was triggered when Athens imposed sanctions on the city of Megara; an act of unprovoked aggression. While the sanctions were ostensibly religious in nature, Hornblower argues (Hornblower, p. 91-92) that they were a brutal economic blockade in flimsy disguise. When the Spartans demanded that the Megaran Decree be revoked, Athens refused and Sparta declared war.
With a loose and crude kind of democracy ascendant in imperialist Athens, who imposed her will on her "allies", those allies sought liberation. Thus, "At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War the Greek world looked to Sparta as liberator." (Hornblower, p. 99) Athens's goal was to maintain her empire, Sparta's to destroy it.
Sparta won the disastrous three-decade engagement. The Athenians, inheritors of a melted world, wondered why. Who was to blame? Where had they gone wrong? The sophists, many decided, were to blame; Athens had gone wrong in listening to them.
A glimpse at some Athenians' view of the sophists is afforded us by Aristophanes's comedy The Clouds . While the play mistakenly takes Socrates as one of the sophists, we can ignore the poor naming of the chief villain and glance at Aristophanes's barbs at the teachers. Strepsiades, a man encouraging his son to study under Socrates so that he can get Strepsiades out of debt, says of the sophists that
They have, people say, two Logics, the Better,
whatever that is,
And the Worse. That latter teaches a man to speak unjustly
And win. If you learn that Unjust Logic, not a penny
Of what I owe on your account would I have to pay. (Aristophanes, p. 105)
Alas for poor Sprepsiades, his son Pheidippides learns the Worse Logic all too well. When he comes back home after his tenure as a student, he begins to beat his poor father, arguing in self-justification that
I'll now proceed to demonstrate 'twas right my father to thrash.[...]
Did you beat me when I was a boy? That is now the question.
[Strepsiades answers yes]
Is it then not right for me that function to fulfill?
Surely if a beating is to be counted a caress,
If I failed to beat you I would be remiss.
I too am a Greek free-born, entitled to immunity;
Shall children then be whipped and fathers enjoy impunity?
Perhaps you'll counter by denying that children have the privilege:
Twice over childish, I reply, is the silliness of senile age.
Old men are more culpable far because of their experience;
'Tis justice then to beat them worse. There you have my evidence.
[Strepsiades points out that beating one's father is illegal]
Was he more than mortal, of different clay, who that law legislated?
Have we not the same good right by persuasion to innovate,
To allow sons who have beaten been on their sires to retaliate?
For old-law whippings we have got a moratorium we'll declare.–
Consider roosters and other beasts – do they their fathers spare?
How do such creatures differ from us except that they write no decrees? (Aristophanes, pgs. 139-140)
Four features of the above are worth noting. The first is the sophists' indifference to the truth or falsity of what they train their students in saying. Thus they have both the Better and the Worse Logic, but they will cheerfully teach either and are much better known for the latter – Strepsiades doesn't know what the Better Logic is, but knows well the Worse Logic by its reputation. Second is the denigration of the laws of the city. Pheidippides is unconcerned with the illegality of his action, because the makers of the laws have no particularly special status. This leads to the third point: persuasive power yields up the right to do what one wishes: "Have we not the same good right by persuasion to innovate?" If Pheidippides can persuade someone that he is right, he may as well be right. Finally, the overarchingly important fact about the sophists is that they are evil. Someone can master rhetoric (even the Worse Logic), can be indifferent to the conventions of the city, and can think that persuasion makes things true, without being a monster. Pheidippides, however, turns the convictions and methods of the sophists into a defense of arbitrary brutality. Aristophanes is trying to show us that the sophists' theories and methods are nothing but a cover and a trick for their underlying program of hedonistic cruelty.
Guthrie points out that, for the sophists, "Law, then, and moral standards enforced by public opinion, are not god-given as was formerly believed. They are something imposed by man on his fellows, or at best created by agreement to set a limit on the freedom of each individual." (Guthrie, p. 59) Beyond supporting the second thesis from Aristophanes, Guthrie helps to establish the first. Thus, while "All save Gorgias would admit to being teachers of areté [virtue]..." (Guthrie, p. 45), since they were generally agreed that virtue was merely conventional, none of them could claim that they could teach any kind of objective ethical truths. Thus they could not hope to really instruct their students in the correct use of rhetoric as opposed to the incorrect, because correctness was a matter of subjective convention, and the conventions could change due to effective rhetoric. Indeed, this power to change the conventions of the city is one reason why rhetoric was such an important discovery and so disturbing to those who did like its practitioners' policies.
The notion of 'convention' is key to understanding the sophists. On the one hand, the Athenians had conventions which the sophists critiqued, but on the other hand, the sophists seem to have regarded all moral appeals (such as those in rhetoric) as appeals to convention. The difference between the sophists and their opponents lies in their assessment of the status of convention. Such critics as Aristophanes and Plato believed that (at least many) of the conventions of the city were true, while the cosmopolitan bent of many of the sophists led them to question the conventions of any one particular city because different peoples had different conventions. So for the sophists, appeals to convention could only establish belief in an audience, but could not prove the truth of a moral claim. The sophists would then be crippled in any effort to teach ethics to their students, because they have subjected the known ethical conventions to a critique but not constructed an alternative.
As for the last two points which were pulled from Aristophanes, we should bear in mind the relatonship between Pericles and the sophists. Pericles was the leader of Athens in the days leading up to the Peloponessian War and in its first phase. Kerferd notes that Pericles's "intellectualism is not to be doubted. His closest associates and, it would seem, his only personal friends, were artists, intellectuals and philosophers. One of the sophists, the Athenian Damon, a friend of Socrates and the constant associate of Prodicus, was spoken of as his 'trainer and teacher in politics'..." (Kerferd, p. 18) Pericles was also associated with such figures as Anaxagoras and Protagoras. Moreover, Hornblower notes evidence which shows "Pericles [as] the first to take a written speech into court..." (Hornblower, p. 124) The leadership of Athens had fallen under the spell of the sophists.
A last example should help establish these points. Seung notes that
The Athenian imperialists used brutal power in dealing with recalcitrant neighbors. For example, when the inhabitants of Melos, a neutral island, refused to surrender to the invading Athenian forces, they were starved into submission. After the surrender of the island, all its male adults were executed, and all women and children were enslaved. The Athenians told the Melians that they had the right to do whatever they wanted to do with the vanquished, because nature always compels gods and men alike to rule over those they can control. (Seung, p. 6)
We see here the Athenians appealing to the conventionalism and authoritarianism of the sophists. The Athenians, under their tutors, learned that power, including persuasive power, justified its actions. And they gave vent to their lousiest imperialist urges.The sophists must, however, be paid their due. It would be a one-sided distortion of the facts to claim that the sophists were the free cause and Athenian imperialism a determined effect. Poulakos (pgs. 11-71) argues persuasively that the sophists emerged in Athens partly due to the replacement of aristocracy by middle-class democracy, and that their theories were heavily influenced by the competitive culture of spectacle which pre-dated them and which they affirmed and to which they thus contributed. Moreover, it was Athenian cosmopoitanism which allowed the sophists to congregate there and have such an influence on the intellectual life of the city. Thus the lines of influence were bidirectional; Athenian cultural practices and new social needs prepared the ground for the sophists' teachings, and the sophists encouraged the social forms which had prepared the way for them.
Moreover, it would be a simplification to ignore the progressive elements of this change in Athens and the part that the sophists played in it. A cultural movement which questions appeals to tradition is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when some of those traditions involve slavery and other unsavory social forms. Moreover, the change from aristocracy to democracy, despite its clumsiness, can be seen as a progressive change. Since democracies rest on communication and public agreement for their legitimacy and effectiveness, the sophists' theories of communication and the training they offered were a crucial part of the move to democracy.
But the sophists do not seem to have offered a road between traditional and religious ethical precepts on the one hand and thorough-going relativism on the other. Rather, while they participated in a movement away from tradition which was partly healthy, they were not able to develop a new ethical approach which would govern the new democracy. Though the sophists trained many of the Athenian democratic leaders, and criticized many old traditions, the other side of the coin is that they armed Athenians raised in a culture of competition with a weapon to legitimate imperialism, while at the same time removing the constraints of traditional ethics. In this sense, the positive aspects of the sophists' teachings were very much compromised by their failure as constructive ethical philosophers. Gorgias's Encomium to Helen is an example of this failure - and of the brilliance of some of the sophists - so we shall turn to an interpretation of that work.
Section 2: The Encomium to Helen
Gorgias of Leontini's Encomium to Helen is an intensely compressed document which contains the outline of a psychology, a politics, and a rhetoric. The structure of the Encomium is a four-part argument, to the effect that if Helen was swayed by fate, by force, by words, or by love, she is innocent of any wrong-doing because she was not in control of her actions. The stated goal is to defend Helen from the traditional charge of faithlessness. But as Gorgias admits in the last clause of the work, he has written as much for his own amusement as for any jurisprudential reason. Moreover, nothing in reality hinges on the guilt or innocence of Helen. We are thus free to read the short text as a theoretical work in philosophy and/or rhetoric.
Gorgias seems to provide a theory of rhetorical power and a theory of emotions which undergirds his rhetorical theory. After discussing these, I will touch on Gorgias's hints toward a political theory, and his implicit comparison between natural and conventional justice. It must be noted from the outset that Gorgias believes that rhetoric is an overwhelmingly powerful tool for the control of persons in groups. (All quotes from Gorgias are from the MacDowell translation and cited by his line numbers unless otherwise noted.)
Gorgias's view of emotion goes along with the model of perception which has been dominant in the recent Western tradition, the representationalist model. In this model, the subject is aware, not directly of external objects, but rather of internal representations of objects. The representations are made by some mental faculty, such as the senses. We can see that Gorgias shares this model when he says that terrible things happen to some people "...so deeply does sight engrave on the mind images of actions that are seen." (17) The terrible things of which Gorgias had been speaking happen, not because sight engraves images on the mind, but because of the depth of the engraving. Thus, the engraving itself is emotionally neutral and can be abstracted from the discussion of emotion. Sight makes engravings on the mind; if these engravings are sufficiently deep, the subject can become radically distraught. But a shallow engraving would have no such effect. Thus Gorgias, with much of the Western tradition (including many of his contemporaries), believes that the senses - sight - report impressions to the mind.
There is another good reason to believe that Gorgias held a representationalist model of perception. When discussing speech, Gorgias notes that rhetoric would not have its awesome power "if everyone, on every subject, possessed memory of the past and understanding of the present and foreknowledge of the future." (11) Since this condition doesn't hold, "most men make belief [that is, opinion] their mind's adviser. But belief, [is] slippery and unreliable..."(11) Note that Gorgias places memory, investigation, and prophecy in the same list of difficult things. Unless he wishes to suggest that prophecy is easier than one might think, he is probably suggesting that memory and investigation are fantastically more difficult than they are usually regarded. (Wardy 1996a, p. 42) Why might investigation be difficult? If we have direct access to reality, then investigation should not be plagued by 'in-principle' difficulties at all, however fallible and practically difficult investigation may be. But if the mind's access to the world is mediated by the senses - which have their own agenda, as we will see - then investigation would be more difficult.
Gorgias's theory of the emotions takes this model and goes beyond it. For Gorgias, not only impressions but emotions are communicated to the mind (or soul) by the senses. He observes that "Things that we see do not have the nature which we wish them to have but the nature which each of them actually has; and by seeing them the mind is moulded in its character too." (15) Why is the mind moulded in its character too? What was moulded in its character before the mind, so that the mind could additionally be moulded? Gorgias continues: "...when the sight surveys hostile persons and a hostile array of [weapons], it is alarmed, and it alarms the mind..." (16) The sight is alarmed, and then alarms the mind. Thus it is sight, the senses, which was moulded in its character before the mind was, and which in its turn moulds the mind. Gorgias says that "...when [fear] befalls..." (16) it has a certain effect. If fear befalls one, one is not in power over it. Further, he says that "Many things create in many people love and desire of many actions and bodies. So if Helen's eye, pleased by [Paris's] body, transmitted an eagerness and striving of love to her mind, what is surprising?" (18-19) It is, again, the eye which transmits the eagerness to the mind.
In Gorgias's model of the emotions, the senses not only convey impressions of the external world to the mind (as in the common representationalist model of perception), but the senses also evaluate those impressions and report those evaluations to the mind, which automatically shares the evaluation. The entire section on the emotions is unequivocal in this regard.
Let me introduce the metaphor of 'communication' between the senses and the mind. Recall that the mind has no direct access to external reality but is dependent on the senses for impressions, and also that evaluations are made not by the mind but rather by the senses. When the senses report an impression to the mind, we can think of this as the senses showing the mind a picture. The senses 'photograph' external reality and then show the photograph to the mind; this is one mode of their communication. But when the senses evaluate an object, we cannot resort to the picture metaphor. We do not see fearfulness or loveliness as in the things which we fear or love in the same way that we see redness or bookness in the things which we regard as red or books. Thus the structure of the evaluation which the senses communicate to the mind cannot be the same as the structure of an image.
Let me examine this distinction more closely. When we are aware of objects, we can directly observe some features of them, while other features must be inferred. We experience features such as color in one way, while such features as being old must be inferred (albeit sometimes very quickly, easily, and subconsciously) from directly experienced features. Those properties which can be directly observed follow a kind of spatio-temporal logic: something cannot be red and not red at the same point in space and at the same time; the redness has a specific location. Such features as being old, on the other hand, have a different kind of logic: while something cannot be both old and not old at the same time, it is not possible to specify when the oldness of the thing is (though it is possible to specify when the thing became old) or where the oldness of the thing is (though it is possibile to specify where the old thing is). Our awareness of these features of things take a different structure.
Value-features, such as being good or bad, are features of the second type. Goodness is not a spatial, temporal feature of a thing in the same way that color is. We can say immediately where and when the color of something is, but its goodness is not locatable in this way. So our experience of such features must take a different structure than our awareness of the first kind of feature.
Gorgias is developing an analogy between the senses and the mind on the one hand and the speaker and his audience on the other. The senses report impressions to the mind, but the mind has no direct access to reality. Likewise, the speaker creates appearances for the audience, which has no knowledge of the reality in question. And just as the audience is under the control of the speaker, so the mind is swayed by the senses. This analogy suggests the structure of the relation between the senses and the mind which yields emotions: the senses pass on their evaluations in the form of propositions, just as the speaker persuades by means of propositions cleverly arranged.
But even without the analogy to draw from, one might assume that Gorgias accepts another major traditional conviction of Western philosophy: the mind works fundamentally in the propositional structure. The work of the mind has traditionally been regarded as logic, and logic works with systematically arranged propositions. Thus something that does not take the form of an image is liable to take the form of a proposition.
One might also argue that evaluations are necessarily propositionally structured by their very nature, and that Gorgias can be assumed to have said the right thing. To evaluate is to regard something as good or bad, but this must take the form of predicating 'good' or 'bad' of the thing, in a proposition.
Thus Gorgias's model of the emotions is as follows. The senses come into contact with objects. They show images of those objects to the mind (as in the representationalist model), but they also communicate propositionally structured evaluations of those objects to the mind. The senses themselves evaluate; the mind is passive and 'moulded' by the activity of the senses. This forms an analogy with his view that the speaker moulds a passive audience which automatically accepts his appearances and believes his evaluations.
Let me explain why I have put so much effort into proving that Gorgias held a view of the emotions as propositional. Rhetorical arguments are sets of sentences, typically though not always propositional sentences. Propositions interact with one another in a number of ways, but one of them is by having lines of logical implication between one another. If emotions are propositionally structured, then they can have this logical relation with the propositions of rhetorical arguments. This would explain how rhetoric can manipulate the emotions.
Gorgias holds that rhetoric is a superhuman power: "Speech is a powerful ruler." (8) Gorgias moves quickly and repeatedly to tie the power of rhetoric to manipulation of the emotions: speech is "able to stop fear and to remove sorrow and to create joy and to augment pity." (8-9) Poetry can cause "fearful fright and tearful pity and mournful longing..." (9) Incantations are "inducers of pleasure and reducers of sorrow..." (10) Finally, he remarks that "some speeches cause sorrow, some cause pleasure, some cause fear, some give the hearers confidence..." (14) But nowhere does Gorgias say that speech interacts with reason or yields knowledge. Gorgias removes the power of the mind to critically analyze things said in an unbiased manner; he holds that speech, as a persuasive medium, is biasing.
In discussing the emotions, Gorgias spends some time developing the example of fear and its disruptive effects on human consciousness. He limits himself to fear in battle, and concludes that "as far as frightening things are concerned, many are omitted, but those omitted are similar to those mentioned." (17) He has left out many examples of fear which are similar to those he has discussed. This is rather obvious and doesn't need saying; no one could expect Gorgias to provide an exhaustive listing of things to be afraid of. Why, then, does he say it? Gorgias is calling our attention to the fact that the Encomium is itself a speech, and, as a speech, has the causal power of all speeches. The power of speech heretofore, in the Encomium, has been to affect the emotions of the listener. Gorgias is making out that he is refraining from discussing other frightful things as a courtesy to his audience; lest his speech about fearful things arouse fear in us. On the one hand, this is an additional example of the emotional power of speech; he is pulling punches to avoid accidentally hurting his audience. On the other, it points toward the claim that speech is always persuasive; persuasive in virtue of being speech.
According to Gorgias, no form of speech is not persuasive in orientation. Gorgias considers three cases to show that "persuasion, when added to speech, also moulds the mind in the way it wishes..." (13). The cases, which I will now discuss, are scientific disputation, jury trial, and philosophical argumentation.
Scientists – in this case astronomer-meteorologists (those who study the sky) – in their disputation "substitute... belief [opinion] for belief [opinion], demolishing one and establishing another, make the incredible and obscure become clear to the eyes of belief..." (13) Science, for Gorgias, does not make progress, but rather shifts from one unjustified opinion to the other by linguistic trickery. Consider the phrase 'the eyes of belief' in light of the discussion of the emotions above. The eyes themselves do not literally believe, it is the mind which believes. The mind does not survey facts in the world but images presented by the senses. To try to make something clear to 'the eyes of belief', then, is to make presentations to the mind. Moreover, we can expect that that which is most clear to the mind is that which is more 'deeply engraved', to draw on Gorgias's analogy in the discussion of emotions. Thus, scientific disputation plays on the same mechanism as emotional persuasion. We can get to this conclusion by another path as well. Since Gorgias regards scientific change not as the replacement of opinion with knowledge, or of knowledge with deeper, better knowledge, we can assume that when scientists "make the incredible and obscure become clear to the eyes of belief" Gorgias does not believe that they are not engaging in the clarification which yields true knowledge. He is talking about tricking people into thinking that what is bizarrely contorted is lucidly correct. But this process is almost certainly not a rational one; we can conclude that it is probably emotional in some way. Gorgias seems to allow no place for objectivity in science. (Of course, science is sometimes subjective and can be misused. But to admit this is not the same as claiming that science is in principle subjective.)
When Gorgias speaks of "compulsory contests conducted by means of speeches" (13), he is talking about jury trials. (Wardy 1996a, p. 45) The defendant in a trial is forced to be present on the day of his defense. Gorgias notes that in such contests "a single speech pleases and persuades a large crowd, because written with skill, not spoken with truth..." (13) Trials are not really about the truth of guilt or innocence, but aboue jury. Gorgias seems to be suggesting that there is no objectivity in law.
Finally, Gorgias addresses "conflicts of philosophical speeches, in which it is shown that quick-wittedness too makes the opinion which is based on belief changeable." (13-14) Conflicts of philosophical speeches are no more truth-oriented than science or law. What is interesting is that here, quick-wittedness is the distortive agent which eliminates real discourse. Science tries to trick us into believing the obscure; legal speeches try to trick us into believing the pleasurable; philosophy tries to trick us into believing whatever is said by the cleverest person. (It is surely a coincidence that these appeals are, roughly, to twisted reason, malleable emotion, and impressive personality – logos, pathos, and ethos gone wrong.)
Gorgias systematically reduces the distinction between speech and force. He argues that there is no "reason... against Helen's also having come under the influence of speech just as much against her will as if she had been seized by violence of violators..." (12) Even more explicitly, he says that "persuasion, though not having an appearance of compulsion, has the same power." (12)
When Gorgias had addresses, earlier in the Encomium the possibility that Paris took Helen by violence, he had argued that if Paris did so then it is he who violated her and is guilty of a crime. Here, he suggests that "For speech, the persuader, compelled mind, the persuaded, both to believe what was said and to approve what was done. So the persuader, because he compelled, is guilty; but the persuaded, because she was compelled by his speech, is wrongly reproached." (12) Thus there is an identical structure of blame-shifting in the section on violence, to which I will now turn, and the section on speech.
The first two sections of Gorgias's argument provide the rudiments of a politics and it is here that the use of rhetoric's power is to be justified. Here Gorgias shows that Helen is to be acquitted if Paris took her because she was fated to be taken, or if he stole her away by force.
Gorgias argues that "A god is a stronger thing than a human being, both in force and in wisdom and in other respects. So if the responsibility [for Helen's abduction] is to be attributed to Chance and God, Helen is to be released from the infamy." (6) One might argue that even the gods can do wrong, despite their power. But Gorgias has introduced his claim that a god is stronger than a human as the minor premise of an argument the major premise of which was that "It is not natural for the stronger to be hindered by the weaker, but for the weaker to be governed and guided by the stronger, and for the stronger to lead and the weaker to follow." (6) This is a general principle: according to nature, the strong lead and the weak follow. It just so happens that gods are stronger, so according to nature, if a god willed Helen's adbuction, then she is not responsible.
In the second section, Gorgias says that Paris is the unjust party if he took Helen violently: "But if she was seized by force and unlawfully violated and unjustly assaulted, clearly the man who seized or assaulted did wrong... So the barbarian who undertook a barbaric undertaking in speech and in law and in deed deserved to receive accusation in speech, debarment in law, and punishment in deed..." (7) Paris's violence exempts Helen of any charge of wrongdoing.
But compare the two passages. In the first, Gorgias argues that the strong naturally rule the weak. Now, if Paris took Helen by force, he was clearly stronger than she. Thus, it is natural for him to have abducted her. But in the second, a violent abduction is unlawful, unjust, and wrong. Quite aside from the blame of Helen, what are we to do with Paris, natural but unjust?
Gorgias is setting up a contrast between what we may call natural and conventional justice. In the conventions of civilized society, violent abduction is wrong. But that wrongness is merely conventional; in nature, the strong rule regardless of convention. Thus, while we are right to say of Paris that he was unjust by convention, we must not make the mistake of believing that some kind of natural justice underlies and validates our judgment.
Consider also that Gorgias concludes his attack on Paris's injustice by saying that he should "receive accusation in speech, debarment in law, and punishment in deed..." (7) This is the process of indictment, trial, and conviction. But let us now view this passage through the lens of the section on the power of rhetoric. If there is no difference between force and persuasion, then Paris is responsible for Helen's act and is unjust either way. But, if he was unjust through speech and should be put on trial, he must escape punishment because his speech is so powerful (unless, of course, Helen was more easily swayed than the jury). If Paris is the strong, and the accuser less strong, then Paris must surely be the victor on his day in court. Natural 'justice' will defeat conventional justice, even in a trial situation which is designed for the enforcement of conventional morality. Moreover, Gorgias will also observe in the section on rhetoric (13) that trials do not involve truth but rather persuasive speech. Thus he implies at two places that the strong will triumph in court, thus blunting conventions of justice.
Gorgias implies that even the effective speaker in democratic assembly is a tyrant. His speech is no less a powerful lord for taking place under the auspices of democracy. But there is a yet further implication: if Paris was a barbarian if he took Helen by force, and there is no difference between force and persuasion, then Paris was a barbarian if he convinced her with rhetoric, as well. But then, are not all who persuade barbarians? Gorgias has broken down the distinction between force and persuasion, why not the disinction between Greek and barbarian as well? Greek and barbarian, democrat and tyrant, are equally playing the natural power game condemned by conventional morality which must suffer defeat in any conflict with the naturally powerful. Rhetoric is the trump card of the powerful because it defeats its enemies in assembly and in court.
Let me conclude with a turn from politics to the bedroom. Gorgias develops a few sexual analogies which are intriguing. Consider that the specific emotion which may have moved Helen to abandon her husband was love. Moreover, when Gorgias is praising Helen for her beauty at the beginning of the Encomium, he points out that "In very many she created very strong amorous desires; with a single body she brought together many bodies of men who had great pride for great reasons... and they all came because of a love which wished to conquer..." (4) Helen's body possessed the remarkable power to cause others to congregate, but they congregated to conquer. Both Helen and the men who fought over her were involved in the exercise of power: Helen drew men near herself without, one may take it, doing so on purpose, while the men wanted to control her. Helen thus persuaded in a way natural and not conventional, without intending to do so. This is analogous to the sincere democrat who speaks in assembly: he does not have in mind to tyrannize his enemies, but he does so anyway through the power of speech which is never innocent.
In discussing emotions, Gorgias asks
So if Helen's eye, pleased by [Paris's] body, transmitted an eagerness and striving of love to her mind, what is surprising? If love is a god with a god's power, how would the weaker be able to repel and resist it? But if it is a human malady... it should not be blamed as an impropriety but considered as an adversity... (19)
Whether love is a god or an illness, it is natural and not chosen. It conquers those too weak to withstand it. Moreover, if Paris's body alone can compel love, then love must mean sexual desire, as natural a thing as one might imagine. Sex is another natural force which conquers the weak.
Consider also that Gorgias writes "For speech, the persuader, compelled mind, the persuaded, both to obey what was said and to approve what was done. So the persuader, because he compelled, is guilty; but the persuaded, because she was compelled by his speech, is wrongly reproached." (12, underlining added) Wardy (Wardy 1996a, p. 45) points out that, in Greek, 'persuasion' is a masculine word while 'mind' is a feminine word. Thus 'speech, the persuader' is as much the referent of 'he' as Paris is, and 'mind, the persuaded' as much the referent of 'she' as is Helen. Thus, speech is masculine and mind feminine not only in the grammatical sense, but thanks to Gorgias's arrangement, speech is the trait of the dominant. If you aren't an accomplished speaker, you're liable to end up being raped in some sense, just as accomplished speakers can do whatever they wish and defend themselves successfully.
Gorgias's is a determinist and relativist view of the relations between persons. Whatever is done successfully must be done by someone powerful enough to do it, and that means that it is natural. The means by which we try to bring individuals' behavior in line with conventional morality are all defeasible by the powerful speaker. And we are not really in control of our emotions, so we are not to blame for our actions – while ostensibly defending Helen, Gorgias actually defends us all.
Surely the burden of proof for the naturalness of conventional morality lies on its advocates. We can thus accept, for the sake of argument, Gorgias's moral relativism. But his view of the power of rhetoric is not ultimately successful. We have examined his theories both of emotions and rhetoric, and have bent over backward in an attempt to interpret Gorgias as claiming that the emotions are propositionally structured. We have also noted that Gorgias views rhetoric as powerful because it manipulates emotion. But Gorgias fails to bring the two views into contact. Even if we accept my interpretation of the emotional theory as taking a communicative structure, so that speech may easily interact with the emotions, Gorgias does not take the further step of showing the nature of the interaction. His argument for the power of rhetoric thus rests only on a series of analogies between speech and powerful controlling agents such as violence and drugs.
Go to next section.
Find Enlightenment at enlightenment.supersaturated.com.