Persuasive Discourse in the Enconium of Helen
(13) Persuasion belonging to discourse shapes the soul at will: witness, first, the discourses of the 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; second, the necessary debates in which one discourse, artfully written but not truthfully meant, delights and persuades a numerous crowd; and third, the competing arguments of the philosophers, in which speed of thought is shown off, as it renders changeable the credibility of an opinion.
(14) The power of discourse stands in the same relation to the soul's organization as the pharmacopoeia does to the physiology of bodies. For just as different drugs draw off different humors from the body, and some put an end to disease and others to life, so too of discourses: 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.
In this passage from Gorgias’ The Encomium of Helen, Gorgias is attempting to persuade his audience that Helen is not guilty of the charges brought against her, and is in fact a victim in this ordeal. He is arguing for the power of persuasive discourse as being stronger than the human will, and because of this, Helen’s decision to leave her home and family behind was out of her control and decided by the discourse used against her. Discourse is treated as though it is alive, a unique being with its own will and desires, and when used properly against another it can be wielded like a weapon to control the decisions of the victim.
One of the first tropes we see in this passage is the use of auxesis when Gorgias builds the importance of discourse by relating it to astronomy, debate, and philosophy. Subjects like astronomy and philosophy seek to discover the truth of all there is, from creation to the afterlife, and encompass the scope of human knowledge within their disciplines. To equate discourse to the extremity of information both known and yet to be discovered within these subjects is to place it at the most fundamental level of human existence. Gorgias is declaring that discourse is the driver of public opinion, making “incredible and obscure things apparent.” Although people are able to come to their own individual conclusions about the world around them, discourse allows truths and commonalities between the masses to become apparent, so that a populous can agree on ideas that would otherwise be “obscure.” This is the glue that holds society together, and without the presence of discourse, civility may not be achieved on a large scale.
At the start of paragraph 14, Gorgias very clearly uses a simile to link mental health to physical health in humans. He says, “The power of discourse stands in the same relation to the soul's organization as the pharmacopoeia does to the physiology of bodies.” A pharmacopeia is used to direct the user as to how properly take and administer medication in order to keep one in a state of good health; in the same sense, he is asserting that persuasive discourse, when used correctly, can dictate the course of a person’s actions and influence the state of one’s mental well-being. Without the clarification provided by a pharmacopeia, a person may have a variety of drugs available to them with no knowledge of how to safely use them, and can easily endanger or end their own life. Though Helen may have experienced a variety of conflicting thoughts pertaining to her decision, if persuasive discourse were used against her, the ideas presented to her would have presented themselves to her as instructive, logical, and foolproof, as if she had followed orders provided by a pharmacopeia in order to preserve her physical well-being. She would have been powerless to deny them, and as is the case made by Gorgias, not to be blamed for her transgressions when following them.
Gorgias draws parallelism between discourse and medicinal drugs, attributing characteristics of chemical reactions from medicine to the mental persuasion possible through discourse. Drugs, when taken into the body, produce an effect that we are unable to control and must concede to; in the same way, Gorgias is arguing that when persuasive discourse is employed properly, as it was against Helen, one is unable to refute its power and can easily be persuaded to act in a certain manner. In this line, Gorgias personifies the power of discourse when he says that it “gives pain… delights… terrifies… rouses… and tricks the soul,” as if it is a person with a specific plan to dominate another in order to get what it wants. If one can give pain, one can also take it away, which allows one being to control another; to delight or terrify is to control the mental state of another. If discourse alone is strong enough to give one person control over another’s mental state, then what possibility did Helen have of fighting its effects when used against her? If persuasive discourse has the ability to “trick the soul,” she may not have been aware of her wrongdoings as they occurred, and therefore cannot be held responsible for her actions.
Through the use of figurative language, Gorgias is able to transform the idea of discourse from the argumentative use of language to a person-like being that is able to wield control over the minds of others. It is notable that his use of persuasive discourse in his defense of Helen serves as a prime example of the power of discourse; though he is arguing on her behalf, the techniques he uses to persuade his audience are the same that he argues Helen fell victim to when used against her. In order to describe the methods used to trick Helen, Gorgias must subtly employ them against his audience to make his point. He does this successfully, absolving Helen of her guilt while tricking his audience into falling for his own persuasive discourse.