Ancient History & Civilisation


Gorgias, from Leontini in Sicily, was classified in antiquity (T1) and, if T2 is accurate, thought of himself too, as a rhetorician, a teacher of rhetoric and composer-speaker of model (epideictic) speeches. He was the most innovative orator of his time, and may be regarded as the first true prose stylist. But opinions about his style differed even in antiquity. In his own day, he seems to have been found very impressive, but even a generation later he began to acquire the reputation which has stayed with him ever since, of being over-florid and excessive in many ways. T1 and T3–5 mention some of the rhetorical techniques he introduced, and F1 and F2 display some of them at work.1 And we hear elsewhere of ghastly figures of speech, such as avoiding the everyday word ‘vulture’ in favour of ‘living tomb’.2 Although most contemporary writers managed to avoid the excesses of his style and diction, certain features which he introduced or made popular were adopted, and are still with us today—things like antithesis, triplets, the gradual accumulation of numbers of syllables in phrases towards a climax, rhetorical questions. But the majority of the poetic features he introduced into prose have vanished.

His fame as a rhetorician should not make us hesitate to count him as a member—an important member—of the Sophistic movement. In the first place, rhetoric was one of the chief features of all the Sophists; most of them taught and/or displayed rhetoric, or some aspects of logos, the spoken word. Indeed, in T7 Aristotle makes Gorgias out to be a paradigmatic teacher of rhetoric. In the second place, Gorgias was not just a rhetorician, but a philosopher. We know this, despite the usual paucity of evidence about the Sophists, from casual asides such as those found in T13 and T14; from the fact that he not only practised rhetoric, but reflected on the subject too (T8–10, F1); from the jurisprudential relevance of some of F1 (particularly its sustained attack on the notion of responsibility, since it is a commonplace from Aristotle onwards that force excludes responsibility); and most particularly from the extraordinary work paraphrased in T11 and T12. So even if Plato is right to say (Meno 95b–c) that Gorgias scorned the other Sophists for claiming to teach virtue (aretē), a claim he never made himself, he still shares enough of the central concerns of the Sophistic movement to belong in this book.3 And even his refusal to claim to teach virtue seems to have been philosophically based:T15suggests that he was a relativist (in a mild, non-philosophical sense of ‘relativism’) about virtue.

His reflections on the spoken word are pretty consistent (T8–10, F1). He stresses its persuasive power, whether that involves a kind of force, or something more gentle; he likens its effect on the mind to that of drugs on the body, argues for its emotive force, and by the very incantatory rhythms of his own prose bears out what he says about the spoken word having the power to bewitch and entrance. The spoken word has the power to persuade and to deceive, and there is a delightful ambivalence to F1, since it makes this point in defence of Helen, but the point also applies to itself. However, there is no reason to think that Gorgias believed that persuasion was necessarily bad. In Gorgias 456c–457c Plato attributes to the Sophist the view that rhetoric is in itself neutral, but may be used for good or ill, and this is probably the implication of Gorgias’ analogy between the effect of rhetoric on the mind and that of drugs on the body. However, Gorgias did believe that words were essentially deceitful: they are not the things themselves that they are talking about (see T11–12). There is the real world, about which our usual condition is one of belief, rather than knowledge. As long as we have only beliefs, we are liable to manipulation by the spoken word.

I include both versions of the epitomes of Gorgias’ treatise On What Is Not, or On Nature (T11 and T12), since although T12 is denser and more compressed, it supplements T11 in important ways, and the two versions need to be put together to arrive at a more complete picture of what Gorgias originally wrote. Broadly speaking, T11 tends to be clearer for the first part of the argument and is definitely clearer for the second, but T12 is better for the third. In this treatise Gorgias claimed to prove that nothing has being (perhaps most naturally taken to mean that nothing exists), that even if it did have being it could not be comprehended, and that even if it could be comprehended it could not be communicated to anyone else. It used to be dismissed as a jeu d’esprit (see, perhaps, the concluding words of F1), but nowadays scholars are more inclined to take it seriously, and to think that it might even have been a work of philosophy in response to the monism of Parmenides and his followers; at any rate, it is a clear implication of Parmenides F3ll. 6–8 (p. 58) that if nothing is, it can neither be known nor communicated. In a number of ways T11 and T12 can be seen to complement a show piece such as his Helen; for instance, in Helen Gorgias argues that philosophers communicate beliefs about things that are unclear, while in On What Is Not he argues that communication is impossible precisely because things are unclear. Of course, just as Helen is self-referential, so is On What Is Not; indeed, it may even be self-refuting, because if Gorgias were to convince us of his theses, communication would have taken place, after all.

Whatever the intent of the piece, it is easy to see how reflections on the relations between existence, thought, and language could come to occupy a Sophist, with his preoccupation with speech and education. But it is legitimate to ask whether Gorgias himself believed in the outrageous theses for which he argues, or whether the piece is, like the Helen, a model, showing the kind of strategy a pupil could adopt. Some of the arguments are so blatantly fallacious that even in the infancy of logic it is hard to see how Gorgias could have intended them to form part of a seriously intended piece of philosophy. Alternatively, the very fact that it is so hard to pin down its intent may be the whole point of the piece. Is it philosophy, or parody, or a model speech? Perhaps it was deliberately intended to be impossible to categorize, and thus fulfils Gorgias’ theory that the spoken word is or can be deceptive and tricky.

Nevertheless, some important philosophical points are made in the course of the argument—for instance, that it is possible to think of things that do not exist; that Eleatic argumentation can be used to ‘prove’ not just that what-is is, but that it is not too; that speech is a second-order phenomenon, arising as a result of our impressions of the sensible world. The third section, arguing for the inexpressibility of things, is the most compressed, but seems to proceed by establishing a series of unbridgeable gaps between things, such that communication is impossible. First, there is a gap between the proper objects of one sense and another: we cannot hear visible things, nor see audible things. Second, there is an ontological gap between the spoken word and the event which is being spoken of. Third, since sense-impressions are infallible (see also T13), then since there is a gap between the spoken word and the event, but there is no gap between the appropriate sense and the event, there is therefore a gap between the spoken word and sense-impressions. Fourth, there is a gap between sense-impressions and the corresponding thoughts. Fifth, from this it follows, since the spoken word expresses thoughts, that we cannot communicate our sensory experience, which is in any case entirely private to ourselves. And therefore, sixth, there is an unbridgeable gap between one person’s thoughts and another. Hence communication is impossible.

A related philosophical issue concerning Gorgias arises with F3. It has been claimed that this shows that Gorgias is a relativist—that like Protagoras he holds that there is no such thing as real existence, only appearance. In actual fact, though, F3 is bad evidence for this interpretation, since it seems to mean that we can know that something exists, since everything that exists has an appearance. This is not to equate existence with appearance in a relativistic fashion, because the second half of the fragment implies that appearance offers only feeble evidence for the existence of anything, and this means that Gorgias accepts a full-strength distinction between reality and appearance, such that reality must exist for him.4

Returning now to On What Is Not, it is relevant to note that its main topics—the existence of things, knowledge of things, and whether that knowledge can be communicated—are precisely topics with which Gorgias is concerned elsewhere. F3 shows that he accepts the real existence of things, and F1 explicitly talks of ‘the nature each one actually has’; F1 also implies that one can know the nature of things, but few do, and as long as people do not, but have only opinions, they are subject to manipulation by the spoken word; and one might well think that Gorgias’ whole enterprise as an orator implies that he thought he could communicate—unless he was entirely sceptical, but we have found no evidence of that.

So the fact that the conclusions of On What Is Not contradict views Gorgias states elsewhere need some resolution. Perhaps the model for Gorgias’ way of arguing in On What Is Not was Zeno’s paradoxes. When Zeno argued, for instance, that Achilles could never overtake the tortoise, he was saying that this is so on a certain view of space and time. Given certain assumptions, paradoxical conclusions follow. The pattern of Gorgias’ argumentation in On What Is Not could well be taken to be similar reductiones ad absurdum. For instance, on the assumption only perceptibles exist, it turns out to be impossible to communicate; remove the assumption, and the conclusion need have no force for you. This, I suggest, is what Gorgias is up to in T11 and T12.

T1 (DK 82A4) The delegation [from Leontini to Athens, in 427 BCE] was headed up by the orator Gorgias, who was by far the most skilful person of his generation at speaking. He was also the inventor of rhetorical techniques and, as a Sophist, was so far ahead of everyone else that he was paid 100 minas by his pupils. After arriving in Athens, he went before the popular Assembly and spoke to them about the possibility of entering into an alliance, and his speech impressed the Athenians, who were an intelligent and cultured people, with its innovative use of language. For he was the first to make use of extravagant and extraordinarily contrived figures of speech, such as antithesis, isocolon, evenly balanced clauses, homoeoteleuton, and so on—things which were found acceptable in those days because of their artful novelty, but which nowadays seem futile and often appear ridiculous and excessively contrived. He eventually persuaded the Athenians to enter into an alliance with the people of Leontini, and then, once he had secured a high reputation in Athens for his rhetorical skill, he returned to Leontini. (Diodorus of Sicily, Universal History 12.53.2–5 Vogel)

T2 Socrates. Or rather, Gorgias, won’t you tell us yourself what your area of expertise is, and so what to call you?

Gorgias. It’s rhetoric, Socrates.

Socrates. We’d better call you a rhetorician, then?

Gorgias. A good one, Socrates, if you want to call me what (as Homer puts it) ‘I avow I am.’

Socrates. I’ll gladly do so.

Gorgias. Then that’s what you can call me.

Socrates. What about training other people in rhetoric too? Should we attribute this ability to you?

Gorgias. Yes, that’s what I offer to do, here in Athens and elsewhere as well.

(Plato, Gorgias 449a2–b3 Burnet)

T3 (DK 80A26) [Socrates speaking] And shall we leave Tisias* and Gorgias to their sleep, who saw that probabilities were to be preferred to truth, and by the power of their speech make small things seem large and large things small, and put new things in an old way and vice versa, and discovered how to express anything at all with concision or at infinite length? (Plato, Phaedrus 267a6–b2 Burnet)

T4 (DK 82A25) Gorgias did the same, they say, in writing speeches designed to praise or criticize particular objects, because it was his opinion that it was especially relevant for an orator to be able to amplify a subject by praising it and, on the other hand, to deflate it by criticizing it. (Cicero, Brutus 12.47.1–5 Friedrich)

T5 (DK 82A29) The poets were generally held to have gained their fame, despite speaking nonsense, because of their style, and so the first prose style to have been developed was poetic, like that of Gorgias. (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1404a24–6 Ross)

T6 But to date no rhetorician or philosopher has produced the definitive treatise about timing; the person who first set about writing on the subject, Gorgias of Leontini, wrote nothing valuable about it. In fact, it is the nature of the subject itself that it is not liable to a comprehensive and systematic treatment: timing is, in general, not something that is susceptible to knowledge, rather than to one’s personal judgement. (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, On Literary Composition 12.32–8 Roberts)

T7 (DK 82B14) The paid teachers of eristic argumentation used a form of training for their pupils which closely resembled Gorgias’ approach. For they gave them speeches to learn, which were either rhetorical or those which questioned an opponent’s position, and whichever kind of speech they gave their pupils they invariably supposed that the other kind was included among them. (Aristotle, On Sophistic Refutations 183b36–184a1 Ross)

T8 (DK 82A26) [Protarchus, a pupil of Gorgias, speaking] Well, Socrates, when I heard Gorgias speak he often used to say that the art of persuasion is easily the most outstanding science, the reason being that it enslaves everything in voluntary, unconstrained submission to itself; it is, in other words, the most noble science by a long way. (Plato, Philebus 58a7–b2 Burnet)

T9 Gorgias. I’m talking about the ability to use the spoken word to persuade—to persuade the jurors in the courts, the members of the Council, the citizens attending the Assembly—in short, to win over any and every form of public meeting of the citizen body …

Socrates. Gorgias, I think you’ve finally come very close to revealing what you think rhetoric does. If I’ve understood you correctly, you’re saying that rhetoric is the agent of persuasion—that persuasion is the sum total and the fundamental goal of all its activity.

(Plato, Gorgias 452e1–453a3 Burnet)

T10 (DK82C2) [Socrates speaking] But if the slaves drop for us frequent dew in goblets small (if you’ll pardon the Gorgianism), then, instead of being forced into intoxication by the wine, we shall reach a more playful mood through gentle persuasion. (Xenophon,Symposium 2.26.4–7 Marchant)

F1 (DK 82B11) The Encomium of Helen.* The glory of a city lies in the quality of its men, of a body in beauty, of a mind in wisdom, of an object in excellence, and of a speech in truth. The opposites of these qualities constitute blemishes. If a man, a woman, a speech, a deed, a city, and an object deserve praise one should honour them with praise, but if they do not one should apply blame. For there is no difference between the error and the ignorance of criticizing the praiseworthy and praising the blameworthy. It is the job of one and the same man to speak up when something must be spoken and to refute the detractors of Helen, a woman in whose case there is unison and unanimity between the beliefs of those who heed the poets and the omen of her name, which has become a reminder of misfortune. I would like, by means of the logic with which I shall inform my speech, to free both the slandered woman from the charges against her and her detractors from their ignorance, by demonstrating the falsity of their views and by revealing the truth …

She did what she did either because of the desires of Fortune, the decisions of the gods, and the decrees of Necessity, or because she was abducted by force, or because she was persuaded by the spoken word, or because she was overwhelmed by love. Now, if it was because of the first reason anyone who accuses her deserves to be accused, since it is impossible for human premonition to impede divine predilection. It is not in the nature of things that the stronger should be impeded by the weaker, but that the weaker should be ruled and guided by the stronger—that the stronger should lead and the weaker follow. God is stronger than man in might and wisdom and all other respects. Therefore, if responsibility is to be assigned to Fate and to the gods, Helen is to be acquitted from her ill reputation.

If she was abducted by force, unlawfully violated, and unjustly assaulted, obviously it was her abductor who did wrong, since he committed the assault, while she, the abductee, suffered misfortune, since she was the victim of the assault. Therefore, it is the savage who undertook an undertaking of verbal, legal, and actual savagery who deserves to meet with verbal accusation, legal disenfranchisement, and actual punishment. But she, who was treated with violence, deprived of her homeland, and robbed of her loved ones–would it not be reasonable to think that she deserves pity rather than defamation? He was the perpetrator of terrible crimes, she was the victim. By all rights, then, she should be pitied, and he should be hated.

But if it was the spoken word that persuaded her and deceived her mind, it is not hard to come up with a defence for this too and to dissolve the charge as follows. The spoken word is a mighty lord, and for all that it is insubstantial and imperceptible it has superhuman effects. It can put an end to fear, do away with distress, generate happiness, and increase pity. I will now prove that this is so, and I must also prove it to my audience with their beliefs.

‘Speech with metre’ is my designation and description of all poetry. When people hear poetry they are affected by fearful terror and tearful pity and mournful longing, and at the successes and setbacks of others’ affairs and achievements the mind feels its own personal feelings, thanks to the spoken word. And now I shall turn from one argument to another.

Inspired incantations use the spoken word to induce pleasure and reduce distress. When the power of the incantation meets the beliefs of a person’s mind, it beguiles, persuades, alters it by its sorcery. The twin techniques of sorcery and magic have been discovered—techniques which cause the mind to err and deceive beliefs. So many people have persuaded or do persuade so many others about so many things by forging false speech! For if everyone could remember everything that had happened in the past, could understand everything that was happening in the present, and could foresee everything that would happen in the future, the spoken word would not have the power that it has. But as things are it is not easy to remember the past or keep one’s mind on the present or divine the future, and so in most cases most people make their beliefs the counsellors of their minds. But since beliefs are treacherous and insecure they bring those relying on them treacherous and insecure success. What is there, then, to rule out the idea that Helen, too, came under the influence of the spoken word just as unwillingly as if she had been abducted by the violence of violators? For thought is banished by persuasion. Indeed, persuasion may not have the appearance of compulsion, but it has the same power. For the spoken word, the persuader of her mind (which is what it persuaded), compelled it both to obey what was being said and to approve what was being done. So it is the persuader who does wrong, since he wielded compulsion, while she, the persuaded, is falsely slandered, since she was the victim of compulsion by the spoken word.

The supervention of persuasion on the spoken word also moulds the mind as it wishes. To see this, one only has to appreciate, first, how words spoken by astronomers do away with one belief and instil another instead, and so make the eyes of belief see things which are unbelievable and unclear. Secondly, there are the inevitable conflicts which are mediated by means of the spoken word, where one of the arguments involved pleases and persuades a large crowd, not because it was spoken honestly, but because it was skilfully composed. Thirdly, there are philosophical debates, using the spoken word, which demonstrate how quick thinking makes the conviction on which beliefs rest fickle and changeable.*

The power of the spoken word bears the same relation to the arrangement of the mind as that of drugs does to the constitution of bodies. For just as various drugs expel various humours from the body, and some put an end to illness while others put an end to life, so some words cause distress, others pleasure, and others fear, while some arouse courage in those who hear them, and others drug and bewitch the mind by some evil persuasion.*

… If it was love that did all this, she will easily escape the charge of the crime she is alleged to have committed. For the things we see do not have the nature we want them to have, but the nature each one actually has, and through the organ of sight the mind receives an imprint even in its characteristics. For instance, when the organ of sight gazes on hostile figures and an array, hostile with hostile weaponry, of bronze and iron, some for attacking, some in the form of shields, it is disturbed and it disturbs the mind, and the upshot is that often people flee the danger which is looming as if it were actually present … So if Helen’s eye found pleasure in Alexander’s body and transmitted the eager flirtatiousness of love to her mind, why should that be found surprising? If Love is a god and has the divine power proper to the gods, how would the weaker party be able to repel it and ward it off? On the other hand, if it is a human ailment and a mental deficiency, it should not be regarded as a culpable crime, but as a misfortune. For when it comes, it comes as a result of Fortune’s snares rather than planned decisions, and as a result of Love’s compulsions rather than contrived preparations.

How, then, should one consider it fair to blame Helen, when she did what she did either because she was enamoured by what she saw or persuaded by the spoken word or forcibly abducted or compelled by divine compulsion? Whichever of these is the case, she is not guilty of the charge brought against her.

By means of the spoken word I have saved a woman from infamy; I have kept to the plan I set myself at the start of the speech; I have tried to dispel the injustice of blame and the ignorance of men’s beliefs; I wanted to write the speech as an encomium of Helen and as an amusement for myself.

F2 (DK 82B6) In the second book of his On Types of Style the elder Dionysius says about Gorgias: ‘… Here is an example of the style of his speeches, taken from a passage where he is praising those Athenians who displayed outstanding bravery in war: “For which of those qualities that men should possess was not possessed by these men? And which of those qualities men should not possess was possessed by them? May I be able to say what I want, and may I want to say what I should, while avoiding divine retribution and escaping human envy. For though the mortality of these men was human, their virtue was divine. Often they preferred gentle fairness to inflexible justice, often proper argument to legal precision, since it was their opinion that the most divine and universal law is to speak and to leave unspoken, to act and to leave undone, what one should and when one should. Above all they cultivated two essential qualities—intelligence and strength—using the one for planning and the other for achievement, as they tended the innocent losers and punished the guilty winners, inflexible about expediency but not over-rigid about propriety, using their intelligence to check stupidity, treating the insolent with insolence, the decent with decency, the fearless with fearlessness, and grimly enduring grim situations. To bear witness to these qualities they set up trophies of victories over their enemies as tokens of Zeus’ glory and tributes to their own honour. Not unversed were they either in native prowess or in legitimate passion or in armed strife or in noble peace. With their morality they showed reverence for the gods, with their care they showed respect for their parents, with their fairness they showed justice towards their fellow citizens, with their trustworthiness they showed loyalty towards their friends. Therefore, though they are dead, the example they set has not died with them, but immortal in a world of mortal bodies lives on, though they do not live.” ‘(Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in Planudes, Commentary on Hermogenes’ ‘Rhetoric’ 5.548 Walz)

T11 (DK 82B3) Gorgias of Leontini shared the starting-point of those who did away with the criterion, but did not follow the same line of attack as Protagoras. In his work entitled On What Is Not or On Nature he constructs arguments under three headings, one after another: (1) that nothing has being; (2), that even if it did have being, no human being could apprehend it; (3) that even if it was apprehensible, still it could not be expressed or explained to our neighbour.*

(1) His reasoning for the conclusion that nothing has being is as follows. If something has being, it is either something with being, or something without being, or both something with being and something without being. But (a) he will go on to establish that it is not the case that something with being has being; (b) he will show that something without being has no being either; (c) he will demonstrate that it is not the case that both something with being and something without being have being.

(b) First, then, that nothing without being has being. If something without being has being, it will simultaneously have and not have being, in the sense that qua conceived as not being it will not have being, but qua being something without being it will, on the other hand, have being. But since it is completely absurd for something simultaneously to have and not have being, it follows that nothing without being has being. Besides, if something without being has being, then something with being will not have being, since they are opposites to each other, and if being turns out to be an attribute of something without being, then not being will turn out to be an attribute of something with being. But in fact it is not the case that something with being does not have being, and so it is equally not the case that something without being will have being.

(a) But then again, something with being does not have being either. For if something with being has being, it must either be eternal or created or both eternal and created. But it is neither eternal nor created nor both, as we will show, and from this it follows that something with being does not have being. If it is eternal (taking this proposition first), it has no beginning, because anything created has a beginning, but qua uncreated something eternal has no beginning. Since it has no beginning, it is infinite, and since it is infinite, it is nowhere, because if it is somewhere, then that in which it is is different from it, and so something with being will no longer be infinite, given that it is contained within something. For the container is greater than the contained, but there is nothing greater than what is infinite, which means that something infinite cannot be anywhere. But neither is it contained within itself. For if this is so, the container and the contained will be identical, and the thing with being will become two, both place and body (the container being place and the contained being body). But this is absurd, and therefore something with being is not within itself either. The outcome of all this is that if something with being is eternal, it is infinite, and if it is infinite, it is nowhere, and if it is nowhere, it has no being. And so, if something with being is eternal, it has no being at all.

But neither can something with being be created. For if it was created, it came into being either from something with being or from something without being. But it did not come into being from something with being, because something with being already has being and does not come into being. And neither did it come into being from something without being, because nothing without being is capable of generating anything, since in order for anything to generate anything else it necessarily has to partake of existence. Therefore, something with being is not generated either.

By the same token, it is not both eternal and created at the same time, because these two are mutually exclusive, so that if something with being is eternal, it did not come into being, and if it came into being, it is not eternal. And therefore, if something with being is neither eternal nor created nor both, then something with being has no being.

Besides, if it has being, it is either single or multiple; but since it is neither single nor multiple, as will be demonstrated, then something with being does not have being. For if it is single, it is either a discrete quantity or a continuum or a magnitude or a body. But if it is any of these, it is not single: if it is a quantity it will be divisible, and if it is a continuum it will be severable. Likewise, if it is conceived as a magnitude, it will not be indivisible. And if it is in fact a body it will be threefold, because it will possess length, breadth, and depth. But it is absurd to say that something with being is none of these things, and from this it follows that something with being has no being. Nor is it multiple, because if it is not single, it is not multiple either, because anything multiple is a compound of singles. Therefore, if there is nothing that is single, there is nothing that is multiple either.

And so it is evident that neither does something with being have being, nor does something without being have being. (c) And, next, it is easy to work out that it is not the case that both something with being and something without being have being. For if something without being has being and something with being has being, then in respect of being something without being it will be identical to something with being. And this is why neither of them has being. For it is a given that something without being has no being, and it has been shown that something with being is identical to something without being, and so something with being will therefore have no being. Moreover, if something with being is identical to something without being, the two of them cannot have being. For if there are the two of them, they are not identical, and if they are identical, they cannot be two.

From all this it follows that nothing has being. For since neither something with being has being, nor does something without being have being, nor do both have being, and since nothing else can be conceived except for these, then nothing has being.

(2) Next it must be demonstrated that even if something does have being, it is unknowable and incomprehensible to any human being. For, Gorgias says, if the objects of thought are not things with being, then something with being is not an object of thought. And this makes sense, because if it were the case that objects of thought were white, it would also be the case that only white things were objects of thought, and by the same token if it were the case that objects of thought were things without being, it would necessarily be the case that things with being would not be objects of thought. Therefore it is perfectly sound and logical to say: ‘If the objects of thought are not things with being, then something with being is not an object of thought.’ But objects of thought (to start with this) are not things with being, as we will show. And from this it follows that something with being is not an object of thought. Now, it is evident that objects of thought are not things with being. For if objects of thought were things with being, then everything that one thinks of, however one thinks of them, would have being. But this is nonsensical. For it is not the case that if one thinks of a man flying or a chariot being driven in the sea, then there immediately is a man flying or a chariot being driven in the sea. And so it is not the case that objects of thought are things with being.

Moreover, if objects of thought are things with being, then things without being will not be objects of thought. For opposites are characterized by opposite attributes, and being is opposite to not being. Hence it inevitably follows that if being thought is an attribute of being, not being thought is an attribute of not being. But this is absurd, because Scylla and Chimaera* and plenty of things without being are thought of, and so it is not the case that something with being is the object of thought. Just as objects of sight are said to be visible because they are seen, and objects of hearing are said to be audible because they are heard, and it is not the case that we reject objects of sight because they are not heard, nor do we dismiss audible things because they are not seen (for each object should be assessed by its proper sense and not by any other), so also in the case of objects of thought, even if they are not seen by the eyes or heard by the ears, they will still have being, because they can be grasped by their proper criterion. So if one thinks of chariots being driven in the sea, even if one does not see them, one ought to believe that there are chariots being driven in the sea. But this is absurd. Therefore it is not the case that something with being is the object of thought and is apprehended.

(3) Even if it were to be apprehended, it could not be expressed to anyone else. If things with being are visible and audible and, in general, perceptible—that is, if they are external substances—and if those of them that are visible are apprehensible by sight and those of them that are audible are apprehensible by hearing, but not the other way round, then how could one communicate them to someone else? The spoken word is our means of communication, but the spoken word is not the same as substantial things and things with being. Therefore, it is not the case that we communicate things with being to our neighbours; what we communicate is the spoken word, which is different from these entities. Just as something visible cannot become something audible, and vice versa, so since something with being is an external substance, it cannot become our spoken words, and since it is not the spoken word it cannot be explained to anyone else. Speech, according to Gorgias, is formed when external events—that is, perceptible things—impinge on us. It is from meeting with flavour that there arises in us the spoken word which is expressive of that quality, and the spoken word which is expressive of colour arises from encountering colour. But if this is so, it is not the spoken word that is indicative of something external, but something external that becomes revelatory of the spoken word. Moreover, it is impossible to claim that the spoken word is the same kind of substantial entity as things which are visible and audible,* and so that it is possible for substantial entities and things with being to be communicated as a result of its being a substantial entity and a thing with being. For even if the spoken word has substance, Gorgias says, it is still different from every other substantial entity, and there is an enormous difference between visible bodies and spoken words; that which is visible is grasped by one organ and the spoken word by another. Therefore, the spoken word cannot communicate most substantial entities, just as they too cannot demonstrate one another’s natures. (Sextus Empiricus,Against the Professors 7.65.1–86.11 Bury)

T12 (DK 82B3a [Untersteiner]) Gorgias says (1) that nothing has being, (2) that if it did have being it would be unknowable, and (3) that even if it did have being and was knowable, it could not be communicated to others.

(1) In order to demonstrate that nothing has being, he gathers together the ideas of all the other thinkers who apparently contradicted one another in what they said about things with being (since some said that they were one and not many, others that they were many and not one, and some proved that they are uncreated, others that they have undergone creation), and draws up a conclusion in the form of a dilemma. He says that if there are things with being they must be neither one nor many, and neither uncreated nor created; and so there must be nothing with being, for if there were something with being, it would have one or the other of these attributes. And so, that they are neither one nor many, and neither uncreated nor created, he attempts to demonstrate along the lines of both Melissus and Zeno, after his first proof, which is peculiar to him, in which he claims that it is impossible for it either to have being or not to have being. For, he says, if not being is not being, then it has being just as much as something with being does, in the sense that something without being is something without being just as much as something with being is something with being. And so things no more have being than they do not have being. But if not being is, then its opposite—that is, being— is not; for if not being is, then being must not be. Therefore, he says, it turns out that nothing has being, unless being and not being are the same. And even if they are the same, still there would be nothing with being, because not being has no being, and so if being is the same as not being, it too has no being. This is his first argument …

His next argument is as follows: if anything has being, it is either created or uncreated. If it is uncreated, he assumes, on the basis of Melissus’ principles, that it is infinite. But what is infinite is not anywhere, since it is neither in itself nor in anything else, which is ruled out because in that case there would be two infinite things, the container and the contained. And since it is nowhere, it is nothing, as Zeno showed in his arguments about space. Hence it is not uncreated, but it is not created either, since nothing comes into being either from something with being or from something without being. For if something with being were to change, it would no longer be something with being, just as also if something without being were to come into being it would no longer be something without being. Nor, on the other hand, could it come to be except from something with being, since if something without being has no being, nothing could come to be out of nothing, and if something without being has being, it could not come to be out of something without being for the same reasons that it could not from something with being.

[There follow some lines of corrupt text on unity and plurality, presumably arguing that something with being must be either one or many, but cannot be either one or many, and therefore there is nothing with being.]

Nor, he says, can anything change, since if it were to change it would no longer be as it was before, but something with being would fail to have being, and something without being would come to have being. Besides, if it moves and, though one, changes location, then it is not continuous, and therefore something with being is divided and fails to have being in that place. And therefore, if it moves everywhere, it is divided everywhere, and if this is so, it fails to have being everywhere, since, he claims, it is defective just there, where it is divided …

(2) If there is nothing with being, then, he says, demonstrations are deceptive. For every object of thought must have being, and something without being, if it has no being, cannot be an object of thought. If this is so, there would be no such thing as a lie, not even, he says, if someone were to speak of chariots racing in the sea, because all such things would have being. For instance, visible and audible things have being because they are objects of thought. But if this is not why they have being—if what we see does not have being any the more because we see it—then the same goes for what we think. For just as in the case of sight the objects seen by a plurality of people would be indistinguishable, so in the case of thinking the objects thought by a plurality of people would be indistinguishable [a few corrupt words follow], but it would be unclear which are the true objects of thought. And the upshot of this is that even if things have being, they are unknowable by us.

(3) And even if they are knowable, he says, how could anyone communicate them to anyone else? How could anyone use the spoken word to express what he has seen? How could what he has seen become clear to someone listening to him, who has not seen it? For just as sight does not recognize sounds, so hearing does not hear colours, but sounds. And a speaker speaks spoken words, not colours or events. How, then, will a person gain a conception from someone else, either by means of the spoken word or some other form of communication, of something he does not have in his mind? This could only happen if it was colour and he saw it, or if it was noise and he heard it. But a speaker does not speak noise or colour, but the spoken word. And so it is not possible to think of colour, only to see it, and it is not possible to think of sound, only to hear it. Even if it is possible to know something and to speak what one knows, how could your audience gain the same conception? For it is not possible for the same thing simultaneously to be in more than one distinct place, since this would make what is single twofold. In any case, he says, even if it were possible for the same thing to be in more than one person, there is no reason why it would not appear different to them, since they are not the same people in all respects and do not occupy the same place; for if they did occupy the same place, they would be one person, not two. Besides, it looks as though not even a single person, on a single occasion, perceives things which are similar, because he perceives different things by means of sight and hearing, and what he perceives now is different from what he perceived before. So it is hardly likely that two people perceive the same things.

And so nothing has being; even if something had being, it would be unknowable; and even if it were knowable, no one can communicate it to anyone else, because events are not spoken words, and because no two people’s conceptions are the same. All these difficulties arise out of the work of earlier thinkers, so that in examining their views [i.e. the views of Melissus and Xenophanes] I have to investigate what Gorgias said too. (Ps.-Aristotle, On Melissus, Xenophanes, and Gorgias 979a12–980b21 Bekker)

T13 (DK 82B5) When something is ignited by reflecting sunlight off a mirror or from specially polished bronze and silver surfaces, this does not happen, as Gorgias and some others think, because the fire is passed on through the channels. (Theophrastus, On Fire73.1–10, Gercke p. 20)

T14 (DK 82B4) Socrates. You and Gorgias believe in Empedocles’ theory of emanations, don’t you?

Meno. Certainly.

Socrates. And you maintain that there are channels into which and through which the emanations travel?

Meno. Yes.

Socrates. And some of the emanations fit some of the channels, while others are too small or too large?

Meno. That’s right.

Socrates. Now, you acknowledge the existence of sight, don’t you?

Meno. Yes.

Socrates. So you can use this to ‘understand my meaning’, to quote Pindar. Colour is an emanation from the surfaces of things which is commensurate with sight and is perceptible by it.

(Plato, Meno 76c7–d5 Burnet)

T15 (DK 82B18) The issue [virtue, aretē] is more likely to be illuminated by a piecemeal approach. To spout generalities and say that virtue is a good mental condition, or correct action, or something of this order, is to deceive oneself. Those like Gorgias who enumerate the virtues have a better case than those who come up with this kind of definition. (Aristotle, Politics 1260a24–8 Ross)

F3 (DK 82B26) Existence is unknown unless it acquires appearance, and appearance is feeble unless it acquires existence. (Proclus, Commentary on Hesiod’s ‘Works and Days’ 760—4, Pertusi p. 232)

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J. D. Denniston, Greek Prose Style (London: Oxford University Press, 1952).

R. L. Enos, ‘The Epistemology of Gorgias’ Rhetoric: A Re–examination’, Southern Speech Communication Journal, 42 (1976), 35–51

B. E. Gronbeck, ‘Gorgias on Rhetoric and Poetic: A Rehabilitation’, Southern Speech Communication Journal, 38 (1972), 27–38.

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G. Kennedy, The Art of Persuasion in Greece (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963).

G. B. Kerferd, ‘Gorgias on Nature or That Which Is Not’, Phronesis, 1 (1955), 3–25.

—— ‘The Interpretation of Gorgias’ Treatise ImageImage, Deucalion, 9 (1981), 319–27.

D. M. MacDowell, Gorgias: Encomium of Helen (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1982).

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J. Poulakos, ‘Gorgias’ Encomium to Helen and the Defense of Rhetoric’, Rhetorica, 1.2 (1983), 1–16.

J. M. Robinson, ‘On Gorgias’, in [28], 49–60.

T. J. Saunders, ‘Gorgias’ Psychology in the History of the Free–will Problem’, Siculorum Gymnasium, 38 (1985), 208–28.

W. J. Verdenius, ‘Gorgias’ Doctrine of Deception’, in [27], 116–28.

R. Wardy, The Birth of Rhetoric: Gorgias, Plato and their Successors (London: Routledge, 1996).

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