[journal entry] on Gorgias’ “Encomium of Helen”

In the “Encomium of Helen” (c. 414 BCE), Gorgias wants to show-off the power of language, of logos. “Speech [logos] is a powerful lord,” he announces (45). In order to prove that point, he argues, against all literary and cultural tradition, that Helen was innocent of any complicity in the Trojan War. Whether she was influenced by Fate, seduced by love, manipulated by force, or persuaded by speech, in any case, she is innocent. Each of these powers, but especially speech, could have overcome her will. “[A]gainst her will,” Gorgias says, Helen “might have come under the influence of speech, just as if ravished by the force of the mighty” (45).

But Gorgias seems to enjoy the apparent conflict of both praising Helen when all tradition blames her, as well as of both praising the power of speech (logos) while simultaneously arguing that the one who persuades another by use of speech “does the wrong” (45). Since opinion is “slippery and insecure,” when one uses opinion to persuade, one ends up with an equally “slippery and insecure” accomplishment (45). So, on one hand Gorgias delights in the power of speech, but on the other, he seems to feel a little guilty about it. Throughout the “Encomium,” Gorgias’ tone seems one of playfulness and even exaggeration. He hesitates to repeat some information his listeners may already know because it would afford “no delight” to do so (45). And, of course, he ends by saying that he “wished to write a speech which would be a praise of Helen and a diversion to myself” (46). It is as if he is proud of his own power with language, and of the power of language in itself, but he is also quick to show that he is also smart enough to understand the disadvantages of its powerful effects.

On the other hand, since he does not suggest or imply any other way to increase knowledge, and since he even points to the changing opinions of philosophers, Gorgias does seem to say that speech (i.e., discourse) is the only way to pin down any knowledge. It may be provisional, but it’s all we’ve got. And not only that, he enjoys its power.

Gorgias compares the power of language to the power of drugs and of magic. And so I found it interesting when one of Gorgias’ sentences especially reminded me of a couple lines in one of the Harry Potter books that speak of the power of potions (drugs). Gorgias says,

Speech is a powerful lord, which by means of the finest and most invisible body effects the divinest works: it can stop fear and banish grief and create joy and nurture pity. (45)

Professor Snape, the Hogwarts Potions Master, similarly praises the power of potions:

I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses. I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death… (J.K. Rowling, Philosopher’s Stone 137)

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