26 November 2016
Figurative Reading: Gorgias, Encomium of Helen
In absolving Helen from responsibility for the events of the Trojan War in the Encomium of Helen, Gorgias lays out four potential causes of her leaving for Alexander, the third of which is persuasive discourse. To justify Helen’s innocence in the case or her persuasion, he relies on an analogy between discourse and a pharmacopoeia.
Before discussing the implications of discourse as pharmacopoeia, Gorgias first criticizes the objective interpretation of memory and discourse, arguing that memory is inherently imperfect and incomplete, and that as a result, “Those who have persuaded and do persuade anyone about anything are shapers of lying discourse” (par. 11). This serves to establish knowledge as incomplete, creating room for Helen to have been convinced by this persuasive discourse without even being made aware of the implications of her actions, potentially absolving her of any explicit wrongdoing. This conception of memory and knowledge is furthered by the metaphor of opinion as an advisor to the soul. As Gorgias states, “…most people on most subjects furnish themselves with opinion as advisor to the soul. But opinion, being slippery and unsteady, surrounds those who rely on it with slippery and unsteady successes” (par. 11). This metaphor imagines people’s decision-making processes not as the result of some objective consideration of the information before them, but rather as mobilized by a subjective understanding of the world that is inherently flexible and fluid.
The implications of this understanding of opinion as an advisor are further developed in Gorgias’ examples of how discourse can shape the soul, particularly for the first and third examples. The first describes how the discourses of astronomers “setting aside one opinion and building up another in its stead make incredible and obscure things apparent to the eyes of opinion” (par. 13). This exemplifies Gorgias’ notion that opinion is an ever-shifting form of understanding the world, showing that entire systems of viewing reality can be replaced by specific discourses. The third example discusses competing arguments of philosophers and how their discourse “renders changeable the credibility of an opinion” (par.13), highlighting the fluidity within particular opinions and the extent to which they fall short of being objective.
These conceptions of opinion lay the groundwork for the discussion of the power of discourse, by laying out examples of its influence and by weakening the understanding of knowledge and decision-making as resulting from objective calculations. The comparison of discourse to pharmacopoeia serves to cement this understanding by providing the framework with which the viewer is to understand the mechanisms by which discourse acts. Gorgias states: “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” (par. 14). This description, first of all, provides a clearer illustration of discourse in action, describing it in more clearly understandable terms that can be visualized in relation to a visual body. He also posits the soul as comparable to the body, imagining a passive entity that can be altered by particular external factors. This separates Helen’s action from any particular will or inherent badness that might be attributed to her; instead, she is portrayed as helpless and succumbing to the same kind of persuasion that any individual would also face. In the same way that medicine would have equivalent effects on most people, discourse is presented as a tool to be wielded to create particular alterations in the soul.