The Encomium of Helen, as we understand it today, is a speech performed by the Sicilian sophist, Gorgias. It acts as an op-ed in The Philosophy Times, so to speak, as it contrasts the Platonic stronghold of the Greek philosophia, the love of wisdom, and in turn interjects with a not-so-serious style, demonstrating the possible contradiction of mainstream discourse through persuasion, a style we might know today as rhetoric. Gorgias assumes the position of the inherently attractive Helen of Troy, who in mythology is the cause of the Trojan War. In her defense, Gorgias shows the audience that she is not to blame, whether she was persuaded by the gods, by physical force, by love, or by speech—all which conveniently serve as possibilities for Gorgias to expose the fallacies of mainstream philosophy and subsequently delineate the significance of persuasion and rhetoric itself. Passages twelve through fifteen specifically serve as a bridging point for Gorgias’ assertion of connectivity between love, persuasion and the hands of time. This feat is disturbing to the core public figures of Greek philosophy, because it renders the ‘love’ of wisdom as possibly insincere.
The possibility that Helen was ‘constrained by means of discourse’ is raised by Gorgias in section twelve. Not just physical assault, but force of persuasive language upon her is enough to justify her innocence, as she may have been a victim of such deception via the ‘mind of Persuasion’—which isn’t specifically defined in the text, but as it is, serves as a reminder of the eclipsing power of (big P) Persuasion, which doesn’t seem to have a human origin, making it even more capable of overriding Helen’s capacities to object. When it comes to finger pointing however, Gorgias does declare that, ‘he who persuaded’ Helen did wrong, while Helen ‘is wrongly blamed’. So, according to Gorgias, although the strength of persuasion does hold Helen in unjustifiable positions, the opportunity for blaming does exist, but these situations require a reassessment of power structures and the uncovering of lesser-known factors at play, which may have persuaded he who persuaded Helen.
Gorgias continues to elaborate on several examples of the hidden strengths of persuasion in discourse, starting in section thirteen, first being of astronomers ‘who by setting aside one opinion and building up another in its stead make incredible and obscure things apparent to the eyes of opinion.’ Here Gorgias begins to introduce the concept of sight, but interestingly he also introduces the concepts of time and paradigm. Astronomy does rely on the disproval of facts and the new discoveries which replace them, but these are not the fate or cause of man alone, but of the human senses and the unpredictability of nature in the sequence of time and context of space. Furthermore, Gorgias validates the strength of persuasion by juxtaposing it with wisdom of the most distanced kind— the cosmos, the ornaments of earth. This could also be viewed as one way Gorgias is universalizing the concept of ‘otherness’ or the ‘unknown’— mainstays of the negative portrayal of sophists by philosophers. Second, he speaks of ‘necessary debates’ that are ‘artfully written but not truthfully meant’ which please and convince many. This is arguably Gorgias’ stab at the status quo of philosophy, mainstream opinion, or otherwise the public figures who choose to assert mastery over the uneducated general population with amusing content lacking substantial inquiry, for reasons unclear, except maybe that the masses enjoy being proved right of matters already known, building trust in the administrator of stagnant ‘wisdom’ and reinforcing resistance to change and marginal opinions.
Yet again Gorgias continues to defend and compare ‘the power of discourse’ to another respected discipline, pharmacopoeia. In section fourteen he explains how both discourses and drugs can have effects on the body and soul, ranging from death to delight. This is a critical piece of the Encomium of Helen, in terms of universalizing persuasion into empathetic resonance, because he is now pairing physiology in sequence following the previously mentioned astronomy, two parts which easily add to a wholeness of the individual and collective and deemphasize the ‘other’. Considering Helen was supposedly the cause of the Trojan War, Gorgias’ rejection of this narrative creates space for the audience to consider the denial of those who blame Helen for the horrors of war instead of owning up to it themselves and acknowledging their powerlessness as victims of discourse.
Gorgias points out in section fifteen that, ‘it has been said’— which is interesting because he is not owning up to this statement— that if Helen was ‘persuaded by discourse, she did no wrong but rather was unfortunate.’ Considering that to be fortunate or misfortunate can be explicated as a state which relies upon chance and time, Gorgias is continuing to leave a breadcrumb trail for us to see our logical relation to time and space. First introduced in section thirteen, Gorgias incorporates the sense of sight into his argument again also, when he prompts that if love was the culprit of Helen’s alleged sin, she is still not to blame because ‘the soul receives an impression on its own ways through the sight.’ Here is another example of how Gorgias is complicating the meaning of love for philosophers, because if we cannot know exactly how the soul comprehends our sight and we also cannot predict the future, we are victims to the unknown nature of the true relationship between our own physiology, other people and the world— which again, relies on time and space to even begin to comprehend.
Returning to his comparison in section fourteen of pharmacopoeia to discourse and the polarized results of each (‘some give pain, others delight, others terrify, others rouse the hearers to courage, and yet others by a certain vile persuasion drug and trick the soul’), Gorgias continues to allude to persuasion as a precursor and cohort of war, that which Helen is wrongfully blamed. Gorgias returns to the sense of sight to portray the battlefield realistically— it is not a fantastical or glorified account of war. He describes how hostile armored bodies of war are ‘often panic-stricken men [who] flee future danger <as if it were> present’ after beholding visuals of brutality. Essentially he is describing post-traumatic stress disorder, which again circles back to his position on discourse being like pharmacopoeia— it affects the soul and body in ways via the senses that we do not fully comprehend; therefore, discourse can only be trusted in the sense that it can’t be trusted, even in times of fear or love. These sections in total are part of what is arguably a central theme in the Encomium of Helen: that discourse is not that serious; it is not possible without persuasion, which reaches beyond what is known to be called wisdom.