Gorgias

Gorgias was an ancient Greek philosopher born in Sicily in 490 BC. Along with Protagoras, he was one of the first sophists. Sophists were teachers who would travel around the cities of ancient Greece giving talks on subjects like rhetoric (public speaking) for money. Gorgias gained a reputation for being able to speak eloquently on any topic requested by his audiences. He is known for arguing positions that are very hard to defend in order to prove his skills of “making the weaker appear stronger.” He is pictured as a character in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias.

Gorgias first came to Athens as an ambassador seeking military assistance for his hometown Leontini from the Sicilian city-state Syracuse. In Athens, he won over many fans with his eloquent speeches, which led him to become a traveling teacher (sophist) throughout Greece. He spoke at many famous places including the Panhellenic festivals. He also wrote several works to demonstrate his argumentative skills including On the Nonexistent and the Encomium on Helen.

In On the Nonexistent, Gorgias strives to show that the conclusion “things exist” which seems utterly obvious and impossible to refute can actually be argued to the contrary. This belief, expressed as “it is,” had been put forth by Parmenides, who saw all of reality as One. Gorgias shows how this simple belief actually contains a logical contradiction. In order for thing to exist, existence must either be eternal or have come from nonexistence. If it’s eternal, then it is without limit. Without limit, existence is “nowhere” and therefore can’t say to exist since everything that exists must be “somewhere.” If, on the other hand, existence came from “nonexistence”, then nonexistence is “something.” Therefore, existence is both coming from something and nothing, another contradiction.

Likewise, Gorgias is critical of Parmenides belief that reality is but One thing. He says that if it is just one thing, it is clearly divisible (since there are many things in the world) and therefore it can’t be one. At the same time, he explains that reality can’t be “many” either, because if it were many then it would be a “composite of separate entities” and therefore no longer existence itself. This attempt to show how both sides of something can be argued equally well is known as “antilogic.” Like his speeches, Gorgias wrote these works to show how skilled he was at antilogic, which is similar to what is done in today’s mock trial and debate teams.

For this reason, Plato and Aristotle would consider Gorgias eristic (i.e. “fond of wrangling”), rather than a true philosopher whose goal is the search for truth. Because, along with the other sophists, Gorgias was paid for his services, “sophistry” acquired a bad name. Nevertheless, he succeeded in weakening Parmenides‘ seemingly irrefutable position, and therefore showing that while logic can be persuasive, it isn’t necessarily helpful in determing the fundamental nature of reality (metaphysics). He confronts people with the following trilemma (i.e. in either of these three cases it’s problematic): 1. nothing exists 2. Even if existence exists, it cannot be known 3. And even if it could be known, it still could not communicated. In this way, Gorgias’ rhetorical abilities put forth a skeptical philosophy (i.e. cast doubt on how much we can really know).

In his Encomium on Helen, Gorgias takes up the unpopular position that Helen of Troy wasn’t really responsible for the Trojan War. He argues that she was compelled to leave with Paris because either he forced her, or because she was in love (eros), or because he had persuaded her (logos). Things such as eros and logos were seen as overwhelming forces. Gorgias called his rhetoric (logos) and referred to it as a “powerful lord” and says the effects of speech on a person can be like a drug. Just as in a courtroom or the Assembly (democratic meeting place), in philosophy because the topics are frequently obscure, Gorgias understood that the philosophical position that is most persuasively argued will be the one that is embraced.

Gorgias and the sophists would come to be viewed negatively by other philosophers including Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In his comedic play Clouds, Aristophanes makes fun of him, meanwhile Xenophon referred to the sophists as whores because they would sell their wares to any buyer Nevertheless, Gorgias brought attention to many philosophical questions including what humans can known (epistemology) and what is the proper method for making philosophical arguments. This would be the context in which Socrates would develop his own method (the Socratic Method) in response.