Notes to “Encomium of Helen” and Dissoi Logoi

Gorgias: Encomium of Helen

Gorgias—best known of Sophists; specialized in ceremonial oratory; style has been characterized as overly antithetical and symmetrical in structure as well as overly alliterative and assonant in sound; his oratory proves language that consciously makes all three kinds of appeals can be effective.

Encomium of Helen

Argument for totalizing power of language, almost to point of self-destruction.

1. Established topic of debate: denunciation of Helen’s choice to leave with Paris is troublesome because it misplaces blame

2. Sets up dialectic: either Helen sailed away with Paris because of fate and decision of gods or by persuasion of words or love.
3. Claims if Gods’ fault, they should be to blame, not Helen
4. Claims if kidnapped, it’s kidnappers fault
5. Claims if persuaded, then it’s persuaders fault, not the persuaded.
6. Persuader persuades by a.) using words and knowledge to make what is unclear and suspicious seem true in eyes of opinion; and b.) delivers non-truth with great style; and c.) verbal disputes are convincing
7. claims if persuaded by love, then she should not be blamed for committing a sin, but for her affliction.
8. concludes with summary

doesn’t try to persuade audience of one point; instead offers alternative possibilities and then suggests change in attitude. Very structured, I agree. Appeals to logos and pathos.

Irony: using speech to point out deception of speech

Is the depiction of Helen a comment on human nature? Language is lord.

Is Sophism tied to postmodern?

Language is uncontrollable. Persuader isn’t controlling and neither is audience. Rhetoric is simply an exchange. We are all trapped by language. Our identities are only constructions of the language that defines us.

Why doesn’t he identify persuader as Paris?

Language is autonomous???????

Why did Gorgias choose topic of Helen? Helen was a culturally significant. By disrupting view of her, he shows how one person talented with language, can come along and disrupt all of our views.

How does this speech relate to immediacy of time?

Is her objectification intentional? If so, what is he trying to accomplish with that? Can a woman who is objectified be in control of how she is perceived?

If our whole system of belief is based upon notion that Helen is cause of war, what happens when we complicate, nullify, collapse that belief?

He is making the worst case the better. Opening possibilities.

What about ending? He suggests at end it was a diversion to self; I’ve just played a game and persuaded you, and none of this matters all that much. Therefore, argument about nature of tradition and myth and history is both pointless and significant.

Language creates reality but reality you come to doesn’t really exist in a permanent state.

Language is indeterminate.
Anonymous: Dissoi Logoi (Opposing Arguments)

Author is unknown, but definitely a Sophist and probably trained by Protagoras


First five sections: presentation of opposing arguments on a number of topics–
Second three sections (6-9) investigage in order questions of whether “wisdom and moral excellence” can be taught, political offices should be assigned by lot, what good rhetoricians should have, and how one’s memory must be trained. Text lets audience determine value.

Wants to encourage the exploration of all sides of a question. Rhetoric as exploration.

I. On good and bad:
Sets up debate
Shows how what is good for some is bad for others and vice versa and how what
is good at one point can be bad at another point for same person.
They aren’t same but are different.

II. On Seemly and Shameful
Sets up debate: are they always different? Or always the same?
Gives examples to prove they appear to be different but then uses cross cultural examples to establish cultural relativism. “the right moment takes the same things and makes them shameful and then changes them round and makes them seemly.”
Demonstrates that the same things are shameful and seemly
Collapses binaries
Consequently, is everything seemly?
Questions if essence of things change, or just our opinions.

If it is seemly to give pleasure in poetry, is it shameful to propound truth? Or in some cases is it okay to propound truth and seemly to give pleasure? Or are these always distinct?????

3. On Just and Unjust
Sets up debate: is what is just and what is unjust always different or the same?
Attempts to prove latter
Says those who attempt to use arts to disprove the latter use arts that have no place in discussion; for poets never write their poems to propound truth but to give pleasure.
Uses endings to confuse reader and encourage to keep thinking. Just exploration, not search for truth

4. On Truth and Falsehood
Sets up debate: are true and false statements always different or the same
Says they are the same?????????? Because two statements are expressed in same words and whenever statement is made, if event has happened it’s true, and if not, it is false

5. The demented, sane, wise and ignorant say and do the same things.
In some ways they do, and in some they do not.

6. On Whether Wisdom and moral excellence are teachable.
Debate: wisdom and moral excellence can be neither taught nor learnt.
Works to dispel proofs that attempt to say they most certainly are. Doesn’t answer major premise but instead works to dispel the evidence which supports premise.

7. should offices be assigned by lot (random)?
Uses analogous questions to answer this question. For those who say assigning by lot is more democratic, he demonstrates danger in thinking so.

8.argues through assertions and if-claims that talented rhetoricians who know everything should be able to converse in brief questions and answers, know truth of things, plead one’s cause correctly, speak in public, and teach people about the nature of everything.

9. memory is useful and making connections between words and images or familiarities is helpful when memorizing.

Use of questions and if-claims allow audience to explore his assertions and decide for themselves if they agree. Presents a case rather than makes a yes/no argument. Takes opposing arguments and works through them logically. Emotional appeals are subtle.
Ethical appeals are established through line of reasoning.

Reading work aloud, one can pick up on rhythm of reasoning. Repitition of words and sentence structure develop rhythm and alliteration. Language is playful. Very few commas. When reading aloud, easier to understand how sentences are intended to be read.

What you believe to be true is not always true. Showing how we need to turn ourselves inside out in order to see the complexities of all subjects and to truly be able to consider another point of view.


1 Comment

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One response to “Notes to “Encomium of Helen” and Dissoi Logoi

  1. Thank you for this post! I just read those two articles on my college’s database. It is refreshing to see bullet points both loose and specific. You write like how I think; thank you.

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