GSI: Kuan S. Hwa
A Figurative Analysis of Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen
The Encomium of Helen is written in regards to the Trojan War. Gorgias, the author, crafts a defense of Helen, who was blamed for causing the ten-year war. In the Encomium, Gorgias presents four arguments to prove Helen’s innocence: firstly that it was an act of the gods, secondly that Helen was kidnapped by force, thirdly that it was the power of rhetoric, and lastly that Helen was blinded by love. Paragraphs 5 to 12 showcase Gorgias’ use of repetition, parallelism, and antithesis to draw sympathy to Helen’s cause and logically execute a sound argument proving Helen’s blamelessness with the first three reasons.
In Paragraph 5 and 6, Gorgias conveys his goal to “set out the causes through which Helen's journey to Troy was likely to come about”, and elaborates on his first contention: Helen’s departure from King Menelaus was the plan of gods. In his statement, “For it is not natural for the superior to be hindered by the inferior, but for the inferior to be ruled and led by the superior--for the superior to lead and the inferior to follow,” Gorgias employs an antimetabole in order to show the unreasonableness of human hindrance in the work of gods. The words “superior” and “inferior” are repeated to emphasize the unequivocal, as well as hierarchical, relationship between humans and gods, in which gods possess greater power. This device further proves Gorgias’ first point in defense of Helen’s innocence.
Next, Gorgias builds upon his second argument—that Helen was kidnapped. He explains that if Helen was abducted, the abductor should be blamed. In Paragraph 7, Gorgias uses the polysyndeton “speech and custom and deed” to create parallelism in specific description of how the “barbarian assailant” be punished. According to Gorgias, he “deserves to be blamed in speech, dishonored by custom, and penalized indeed”; each noun in the preceding polysyndeton is repeated and elaborated upon. This parallelism was crafted with intention, as the last word “deed” is cleverly paralleled in the form of the word “indeed”, creating paronomasia that draws attention to the severity with which the abductor should be punished. Another polysyndeton follows this sentence to describe the unfairness of Helen’s situation. By using multiple and’s in listing Helen’s difficulties, Gorgias communicates the seemingly long list of injustices Helen faced, and thus convinces his audience that, as a victim, Helen should be defended and not accused. The sentence ends with the rhetorical question, “…how is she not to be pitied rather than reviled?” to portray Helen’s condemnation as illogical, unreasonable, and unjust. In the concluding sentence of Paragraph 7, Gorgias ends with an antithesis contrasting Helen’s assailant with an innocent Helen to place the fault on the kidnapper.
In Paragraphs 8 to12, Gorgias demonstrates the power of rhetoric. This argument displays slight irony, as the author—one of the greatest rhetoricians—forewarns of the strength of rhetoric in his very own discursive speech defending Helen. He writes, “…discourse is a great potentate, which by the smallest and most secret body accomplishes the most divine works; for it can stop fear and assuage pain and produce joy and make mercy abound.” He draws a connection between discourse and a “body”. This metaphor seeks to portray rhetoric as an unseen yet mighty force. This body can “stop fear and assuage pain and produce joy and make mercy abound.” This polysyndeton emphasizes the strength of discourse through listing four powerful abilities. In representing discourse as a body, discourse’s abilities are personified to show its strength.
In Paragraph 10, Gorgias characterizes effective rhetoric as “trickery”. He ends the paragraph by listing two methods of trickery and “magic”. The usage of the word “magic” in describing discourse is metaphorical because discourse does not contain any supernatural power that stretches beyond established science. However, Gorgias uses the word “magic” to encapsulate the powerful nature of discourse. Magic, which is supernatural, is so powerful that no natural being would be able to fight against it. Similarly, if Helen was persuaded to leave through discourse, she is exempt of blame because she was faced with a force stronger than her: the “magic” of rhetoric. Therefore, this metaphor further validates Helen’s faultlessness.
Gorgias delves even deeper into the effectiveness of discourse in Paragraph 11: “For if all people possessed memory concerning all things past, and awareness of all things present, and foreknowledge of all things to come, discourse would not be similarly similar; hence it is not now easy to remember the past or consider the present or foretell the future…” Gorgias implements a similar method of parallelism seen in Paragraph 7, as well as another polysyndeton. Figurative devices utilized in this sentence derive from artistic choice, as Gorgias’ use of alliteration through the phrase “similarly similar” demonstrates his poetic style. The poetic approach with which Encomium of Helen is written solidifies Gorgias as a rhetorician. This is ironic because this paragraph paints the rhetorician as shrewd, often molding the past, present, or future to reflect his or her opinions. However, it is also clever, because Gorgias uses his own craft as an example of persuasive discourse.
In Paragraph 12, the reoccurring theme of the personification of discourse is seen again as Gorgias capitalizes the first letter of the word Persuasion. The personification of persuasion fortifies Helen’s innocence, because the person who exercised discourse on Helen constrained her through the humanlike strength of persuasion. Gorgias argues that if Helen was constrained, she should not be held accountable for causing the Trojan War. He writes, “He who persuaded (as constrainer) did wrong; while she who was persuaded (as one constrained by means of the discourse) is wrongly blamed,” in order to end with an antithesis that contrasts Helen with the actual wrongdoer, diverting the blame away from Helen.