It is an interesting thing to approach a field of study when one’s background lies elsewhere. Though I am currently pursuing a PhD in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English, my BA was in English Creative Writing and my MA more interdisciplinary English, emphasizing writing and literature. Thus, my exposure to classical rhetoricians has been piecemeal at best, even erratic. (If not for my Writing Center work, I am uncertain how much rhetoric I would ever have read at all.) So, in reading The Rhetorical Tradition, I am constantly making new and interesting discoveries. Today, I read my first selection by Gorgias, a first-generation Sophist whose use of language and rhetoric has been likened to a magical phenomenon. The text in question was the Encomium of Helen, speaking in defense of the virtue of Helen of Troy. Notably, I am responding to a translation by George A. Kennedy.
While the logic of the piece is often circular and tends to make outlandish claims to support its assertions (such as noting that Helen was “in fact” a daughter of Zeus), I found his use of style very compelling and, indeed, the term “spellbinding” does seem apt. I found myself compelled to read the text aloud to feel the (English translated) effect of the rather poetic prose; it repeats and doubles back on itself often, rhyming or setting up (often paradoxical) structural echoes or parallels. The argument itself hinges on several defensive claims in Helen’s favor: that her disappearance could have been the result of the machinations of the gods, for which she cannot be blamed; that she might have been carried off by force, for which she can similarly not be blamed; that she might have been swayed by persuasion, in which case she should be forgiven because of the persuasive power of language; or that she may have acted out of love, in which case she should be forgiven for being moved by a powerful human emotion. While these claims are all interesting, I found the argument about being forced most compelling–after all, even today there are those who seek to place blame for a sexual assault on the victim. How appropriate that an early Sophist would have the wisdom to refute even modern-day idiocy.
In the end, a single text by the author is hardly sufficient to draw any broad conclusions, and this particular selection is so short that without an in-depth analysis it offers relatively little material to work with. As such an analysis lies beyond the scope of this writing, I will simply note that the piece is quite engaging and artfully written, as well as tremendous fun to read aloud. I look forward to seeing how it compares to other texts from the same period.