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Is rhetoric philosophy? Does
being a better speaker improve the meaning of one's words? Is rhetoric reality? These were the
questions posed by the work of Gorgias of Leontinoi (now Lentini), a town
near Syracuse, in
the fourth century BC (BCE). This gifted Sophist travelled around the Greek
world, and is credited with introducing the Greek dialect of Sicily to Attica.
At public gatherings he invited audience participation, responding to various
hypothetical and rhetorical queries.
Rhetoric wasn't Gorgias' only focus. Some of his ideas foreshadowed ancient
and modern existentialism and even the work of Ayn Rand. He posited that
perhaps "Nothing exists." Furthermore, "in the case that
anything could exist, nothing of it can be known to us." Worst of all,
"even if something could be known of it, this knowledge could not be
made known to others." This thesis, unorthodox or at least eccentric
even for its time, may have been a cynical, ironic response to a work of
Parmenides which argued the issue from the opposing side.
It has been suggested that Empedocles was the
mentor of Gorgias, though this is far from certain. In the event, Gorgias,
who was born in 487 BC, is considered a great "pre-Socratic" philosopher
and rhetorician. Aristotle counted Isocrates among his students, and later
authors suggest that Pericles, Critias, Alcibiades and the Sicilian historian
Thucydides studied under him too. (The bust shown here is Gorgias' detractor,
Plato; few contemporary images of Gorgias are known with certainty to have
Paradoxical thought and expression formed the basis of Gorgias' work,
earning him the appellation "father of sophistry." Few of his
works have come down to us. Best known of those which survive are part of
his Technai, which includes the Encomium of Helen, the Defence
of Palamedes (both probably complete), Epitaphios and On Non-Existence
(only partially preserved).
Making an absurd, debatable (and usually unpopular) position seem credible
characterised Gorgias' expertise, but some of his ideas are more widely
accepted today. His philosophy had a quasi-mystical aspect, and Gorgias
theorised that "magical incantations," actually a rudimentary
form of meditation, could heal certain psychological problems by improving
the emotions. He never directly advocated the unequivocal concept of arete
(virtue). He doubted that there was any pure excellence or arete, but that
it was relative. By way of example, a servant's simple sense of virtue might
not be considered virtue in a learned citizen.
Gorgias' firm belief that rhetoric, if narrowly defined as the art of
persuasion, was the most important of sciences (because it could be used
to persuade or even manipulate others into doing almost anything), would
have found favour with Hitler and Mussolini. Not surprisingly, Plato was
not a great advocate of Gorgias, partly because he believed that the "rhetoric"
of the latter, when used to manipulate a group, might provide an otherwise
ignorant individual to seem more knowledgeable than a bona fide expert.
In a vehement response to one of Socrates' criticisms, Gorgias responded,
"Rhetoric is the only 'expertise' one needs to learn. One can ignore
all else and still defeat the experts!" Dictators aside, the craft
of today's politicians owes much to Gorgias' craft.
Of course, the largely illiterate and uneducated populace of antiquity was easily
influenced and controlled; nowadays, when learning and information are more readily available,
most (but certainly not all) people are less easily deceived by charlatans. In his
Gorgias, Plato adroitly defines the
difference between philosophy and rhetoric, describing Gorgias as a masterful
orator --but little else-- who merely entertains without seeing any need
to learn actual scientific or philosophical truth. Hence, according to Plato,
even though On Non-Existence is supposedly a philosophical work,
Gorgias is not to be viewed as a true philosopher. Gorgias, on the other
hand, considered philosophy to be nothing more than a means of seduction,
though he does acknowledge the important social role of philosophers.
Aristotle was perhaps still more critical of Gorgias, branding him an
opportunist Sophist whose public performances created the illusion of cleverness
and wisdom for the sake of a quick profit.
Cagliostro (and most of today's dishonest Sicilian
politicians and pseudo-intellectuals) owe a debt of gratitude to Gorgias
--whether they know it or not. Some historians believe that Gorgias was
a hundred years old at the time of his death, in Thessaly in 376 BC. The
rumour of his longevity may have been his final illusion.
About the Author: Ignazio Lo Verde lectures on Greek classics and other subjects.