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Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, by Kathleen Freeman, [1948], at


Gorgias of Leontîni: latter half of fifth century B.C.

He wrote one of the earliest Handbooks on Rhetoric; an essay On Being or On Nature; and a number of model orations, of which parts have survived: from the Olympian Oration, the Encomium on Helen, and the Defence of Palamêdês.

1. (Isocrates: Gorgias had the hardihood to say that nothing whatever exists).

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2. (Olympiodorus: Gorgias wrote a treatise 'On Nature', not without skill, in the 84th Olympiad). 1

3. (Sextus, from 'On Being' or 'On Nature'):

I. Nothing exists.

(a) Not-Being does not exist.

(b) Being does not exist.

i. as everlasting.

ii. as created.

iii. as both.

iv. as One.

v. as Many.

(c) A mixture of Being and Not-Being does not exist.

II. If anything exists, it is incomprehensible.

III. If it is comprehensible, it is incommunicable.

I. Nothing exists.

If anything exists, it must be either Being or Not-Being, or both Being and Not-Being.

(a) It cannot be Not-Being, for Not-Being does not exist; if it did, it would be at the same time Being and Not-Being, which is impossible.

(b) It cannot be Being, for Being does not exist. If Being exists, it must be either everlasting, or created, or both.

i. It cannot be everlasting; if it were, it would have no beginning, and therefore would be boundless; if it is boundless, then it has no position, for if it had position it would be contained in something, and so it would no longer be boundless; for that which contains is greater than that which is contained, and nothing is greater than the boundless. It cannot be contained by itself, for then the thing containing and the thing contained would be the same, and Being would become two things—both position and body—which is absurd. Hence if Being is everlasting, it is boundless; if boundless, it has no position ('is nowhere'); if without position, it does not exist.

ii. Similarly, Being cannot be created; if it were, it must come from something, either Being or Not-Being, both of which are impossible.

iii. Similarly, Being cannot be both everlasting and created, since they are opposite. Therefore Being does not exist.

iv. Being cannot be One, because if it exists it has size, and is therefore infinitely divisible; at least it is threefold, having length, breadth and depth.

v. It cannot be Many, because the Many is made up of an addition of Ones, so that since the One does not exist, the Many do not exist either.

(c) A mixture of Being and Not-Being is impossible. Therefore since Being does not exist, nothing exists.

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II. If anything exists, it is incomprehensible.

If the concepts of the mind are not realities, reality cannot be thought: if the thing thought is white, then white is thought about; if the thing thought is non-existent, then non-existence is thought about; this is equivalent to saying that 'existence, reality, is not thought about, cannot be thought'. Many things thought about are not realities: we can conceive of a chariot running on the sea, or a winged man. Also, since things seen are the objects of sight, and things heard are the objects of hearing, and we accept as real things seen without their being heard, and vice versa; so we would have to accept things thought without their being seen or heard; but this would mean believing in things like the chariot racing on the sea.

Therefore reality is not the object of thought, and cannot be comprehended by it. Pure mind, as opposed to sense-perception, or even as an equally valid criterion, is a myth.

III. If anything is comprehensible, it is incommunicable.

The things which exist are perceptibles; the objects of sight are apprehended by sight, the objects of hearing by hearing, and there is no interchange; so that these sense-perceptions cannot communicate with one another. Further, that with which we communicate is speech, and speech is not the same thing as the things that exist, the perceptibles; so that we communicate not the things which exist, but only speech; just as that which is seen cannot become that which is heard, so our speech cannot be equated with that which exists, since it is outside us. Further, speech is composed from the percepts which we receive from without, that is, from perceptibles; so that it is not speech which communicates perceptibles, but perceptibles which create speech. Further, speech can never exactly represent perceptibles, since it is different from them, and perceptibles are apprehended each by the one kind of organ, speech by another. Hence, since the objects of sight cannot be presented to any other organ but sight, and the different sense-organs cannot give their information to one another, similarly speech cannot give any information about perceptibles.

Therefore, if anything exists and is comprehended, it is incommunicable.

4. (Plato in the 'Meno', 76A sqq.: colour is an effluence from objects, fitting the passages of the eyes).

5. (Explanation of the power of the burning-glass): The fire goes out through the pores.

5a. (From the 'Funeral Oration'. Extravagant expressions):

Xerxes, the Persian Zeus.

Vultures, living tombs.

5b. (From the 'Funeral Oration'). Trophies (victories) against

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barbarians demand hymns of praise, but those against Greeks, lamentations.

6. (From the 'Funeral Oration': typical passage of antitheses): For what did these men lack that men should have? What did they have that men should not have? Would that I could express what I wish, and may I wish what I ought, avoiding divine wrath, shunning human envy! For the courage these men possessed was divine, and the mortal part (alone) was human. Often, indeed, they preferred mild reasonableness to harsh justice, often also correctness of speech to exactitude of law, holding that the most divine and most generally applicable law was to say or keep silent, do or not do, the necessary thing at the necessary moment. They doubly exercised, above all, as was right, mind and body, the one in counsel, the other in action; helpers of those in undeserved adversity, chastisers of those in undeserved prosperity; bold for the common good, quick to feel for the right cause, checking with the prudence of the mind the imprudence of the body; violent towards the violent, restrained towards the restrained, fearless towards the fearless, terrifying among the terrifying. As evidence of these things, they have set up trophies over the enemy, an honour to Zeus, a dedication of themselves: men not unacquainted with the inborn spirit of the warrior, with love such as the law allows, with rivalry under arms, with peace, friend of the arts; men showing reverence towards the gods by their justice, piety towards their parents by their care, justice towards their fellow-citizens by their fair dealing, respect towards their friends by keeping faith with them. Therefore, although they are dead, the longing for them has not died with them, but immortal though in mortal bodies, it lives on for those who live no more.

(From the 'Olympian Oration')

7. (The Conveners of the Festival) deserve admiration from many, men of Hellas!

8. Our struggle demands two virtues, courage and wisdom: to courage belongs endurance of danger, and to wisdom, the knowledge of (the right way to tackle it). 1

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8a. (Gorgias advised the Greeks on Concord in his 'Olympian Oration,' but could not bring about concord between himself, his wife and his maid).

9. ('Pythian Oration': no remains).

10. (Opening sentence of the 'Encomium on the Eleans'): Elis is a fortunate city.

11. ('Encomium on Helen': summary)

(1) The glory (cosmos) of a city is courage, of a body, beauty, of a soul, wisdom, of action, virtue, of speech, truth; it is right in all circumstances to praise what is praiseworthy and blame what is blameworthy.

(2) It belongs to the same man both to speak the truth and to refute falsehood. Helen is universally condemned and regarded as the symbol of disasters; I wish to subject her story to critical examination, and so rescue her from ignorant calumny.

(3) She was of the highest parentage: her reputed father Tyndareus was the most powerful of men; her real father, Zeus, was king of all.

(4) From these origins she obtained her divine beauty, by the display of which she inspired love in countless men, and caused the assemblage of a great number of ambitious suitors, some endowed with wealth, others with ancestral fame, others with personal prowess, others with accumulated wisdom.

(5) I shall not relate the story of who won Helen or how: to tell an audience what it knows wins belief but gives no pleasure. I shall pass over this period and come to the beginning of my defence, setting out the probable reasons for her journey to Troy.

(6) She acted as she did either through Fate and the will of the gods and the decrees of Necessity, or because she was seized by force, or won over by persuasion (or captivated by love). If the first, it is her accuser who deserves blame; for no human foresight can hinder the will of God: the stronger cannot be hindered by the weaker, and God is stronger than man in every way. Therefore if the cause was Fate, Helen cannot be blamed.

(7) If she was carried off by force, clearly her abductor wronged her and she was unfortunate. He, a barbarian, committed

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an act of barbarism, and should receive blame, disgrace and punishment; she, being robbed of her country and friends, deserves pity rather than obloquy.

(8) If it was speech that persuaded her and deceived her soul, her defence remains easy. Speech is a great power, which achieves the most divine works by means of the smallest and least visible form; for it can even put a stop to fear, remove grief, create joy, and increase pity. This I shall now prove:

(9) All poetry can be called speech in metre. Its hearers shudder with terror, shed tears of pity, and yearn with sad longing; the soul, affected by the words, feels as its own an emotion aroused by the good and ill fortunes of other people's actions and lives.

(10) The inspired incantations of words can induce pleasure and avert grief; for the power of the incantations, uniting with the feeling in the soul, soothes and persuades and transports by means of its wizardry. Two types of wizardry and magic have been invented, which are errors in the soul and deceptions in the mind.

(11) Their persuasions by means of fictions are innumerable; for if everyone had recollection of the past, knowledge of the present, and foreknowledge of the future, the power of speech would not be so great. But as it is, when men can neither remember the past nor observe the present nor prophesy the future, deception is easy; so that most men offer opinion as advice to the soul. But opinion, being unreliable, involves those who accept it in equally uncertain fortunes.

(12) (Text corrupt) Thus, persuasion by speech is equivalent to abduction by force, as she was compelled to agree to what was said, and consent to what was done. It was therefore the persuader, not Helen, who did wrong and should be blamed.

(13) That Persuasion, when added to speech, can also make any impression it wishes on the soul, can be shown, firstly, from the arguments of the meteorologists, who by removing one opinion and implanting another, cause what is incredible and invisible to appear before the eyes of the mind; secondly, from legal contests, in which a speech can sway and persuade a crowd, by the skill of its composition, not by the truth of its statements; thirdly, from the philosophical debates, in which quickness of thought is shown easily altering opinion.

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(14) The power of speech over the constitution of the soul can be compared with the effect of drugs on the bodily state: just as drugs by driving out different humours from the body can put an end either to the disease or to life, so with speech: different words can induce grief, pleasure or fear; or again, by means of a harmful kind of persuasion, words can drug and bewitch the soul.

(15) If Helen was persuaded by love, defence is equally easy. What we see has its own nature, not chosen by us; and the soul is impressed through sight.

(16) For instance, in war, the sight of enemy forms wearing hostile array is so disturbing to the soul that often men flee in terror as if the coming danger were already present. The powerful habit induced by custom is displaced by the fear aroused by sight, which causes oblivion of what custom judges honourable and of the advantage derived from victory.

(17) People who have seen a frightful sight have been driven out of their minds, so great is the power of fear; while many have fallen victims to useless toils, dreadful diseases and incurable insanity, so vivid are the images of the things seen which vision engraves on the mind.

(18) Painters, however, when they create one shape from many colours, give pleasure to sight; and the pleasure afforded by sculpture to the eyes is divine; many objects engender in many people a love of many actions and forms.

(19) If therefore Helen's eye, delighted with Paris's form, engendered the passion of love in her soul, this is not remarkable; for if a god is at work with divine power, how can the weaker person resist him? And if the disease is human, due to the soul's ignorance, it must not be condemned as a crime but pitied as a misfortune, for it came about through the snares of Fate, not the choice of the will; by the compulsion of love, not by the plottings of art.

(20) Therefore, whichever of the four reasons caused Helen's action, she is innocent.

(21) I have expunged by my discourse this woman's ill fame, and have fulfilled the object set forth at the outset. I have tried to destroy the unjust blame and the ignorant opinion, and have chosen to write this speech as an Encomium on Helen and an amusement for myself.

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11a. (The 'Defence of Palamêdês': summary). 1

(1) This trial is concerned not with death, which comes to all, but with honour: whether I am to die justly or unjustly, under a load of disgrace.

(2) You have the power to decide the issue; you can kill me easily if you wish, whereas I am powerless.

(3) If the accuser Odysseus were bringing the charge because he knew or believed me to be betraying Greece to the barbarians, he would be the best of men, as ensuring the safety of his country, his parents and all Greece, as well as the punishment of the traitor; but if he has concocted this charge through malice, he is equally the worst of men.

(4) Where shall I begin my defence? A cause unsupported by proof engenders fear, and fear makes speech difficult, unless truth and necessity instruct me—teachers more productive of risk than of the means of help.

(s) The accuser cannot know for certain that I committed the crime, because I know for certain that I did not. But if he is acting on conjecture, I can prove in two ways that he is wrong.

(6) First, I cannot have committed the crime. Treasonable action must begin with discussion; but discussion implies a meeting, which was impossible since no one could come to me and I could not go to anyone, nor could a written message be sent.

(7) Nor was direct communication possible between myself, a Greek, and the enemy, a barbarian, since we did not understand each other's language, and an interpreter would have meant having an accomplice.

(8) But even supposing communication could have been arranged, it would have been necessary to exchange pledges, such as hostages (which was impossible),

(9) or perhaps money. A small sum would not have sufficed in such a great undertaking; a large sum could not have been transported without the help of many confederates.

(10) Conveyance of money would have been impossible at night because of the guards, and by daylight because all could see. Nor could I have gone out, or the enemy have come into the camp. Nor could I have concealed any money received.

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(11) But suppose all this achieved—communication established and pledges exchanged—action had then to follow. This had to be done with or without confederates. If with confederates, were they free or slaves? If any free man has information, let him speak. Slaves are always untrustworthy: they accuse voluntarily to win freedom, and also under compulsion when tortured.

(12) Nor could the enemy have entered by my help, either by the gates or over the walls, because of the guards; nor could I have breached the walls, as in camp everybody sees everything. Therefore all such action was completely impossible for me.

(13) What motive could I have had? Absolute power over yourselves or the barbarians? The former is impossible in view of your courage, wealth, prowess of body and mind, control of cities.

(14) Rulership over the barbarian is equally impossible. I could not have seized it or won it by persuasion, nor would they have handed it to me voluntarily: no one would choose slavery instead of kingship, the worst instead of the best.

(15) Nor was wealth my motive. I have moderate means, and do not need more. Wealth is needed by those who spend much; not by those who are masters of their natural pleasures, but by those who are enslaved by pleasures, or wish to buy honour with riches. I call you to witness that my past life proves me not to be one of these.

(16) My motive cannot have been ambition: honour accrues to virtue, not to a betrayer of Greece. Besides, I had honour already, from you for my wisdom.

(17) Safety cannot have been the motive. The traitor is the enemy of all: law, justice, the gods, his fellow-men.

(18) Another motive could be the desire to help friends and injure enemies; but I would have been doing the reverse.

(19) The remaining possibility would be a wish to avoid trouble or danger. But if I betrayed Greece, I should have betrayed myself and all that I had.

(20) My life would have been unbearable in Greece; and if I stayed among the barbarians, I would have thrown away all the rewards of my past labours, through my own action, which is worst.

(21) The barbarians too would have distrusted me; and if

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one loses credit, life is intolerable. The loss of money or throne or country can be retrieved; but the loss of credit is irretrievable. It is thus proved that I neither could nor would have betrayed Greece.

(22) I now address my accuser: do you base your accusation on knowledge or conjecture? If on knowledge, either this is your own or hearsay. If it is your own, give exact details of time, place, method; if hearsay, produce your witness.

(23) It is your place to produce witnesses, not mine: no witness can be produced for what did not happen; but for what did happen, it is easy and essential to produce witnesses. But you cannot produce even false witnesses.

(24) That you have no knowledge of your accusations is clear. Hence they must be conjectural, and you are the most villainous of men, to bring a capital charge relying on opinion—which is a most unreliable thing—and not knowing the truth. Conjecture is open to all in everything, and you are no wiser than anyone else in this. One must believe, not conjecture, but truth.

(25) You are accusing me of two opposites, wisdom and madness: wisdom in that I am crafty, clever, resourceful; madness in that I wished to betray Greece. It is madness to attempt what is impossible, disadvantageous, disgraceful, injurious to friends and helpful to enemies, and likely to make one's life intolerable. But how can one believe a man who in the same speech, to the same audience, says the exact opposite about the same things?

(26) Do you consider the wise to be foolish or sensible? If you say 'foolish', this is original but untrue. If 'sensible', then sensible men do not commit the greatest crimes, or prefer evil to the good they have. If I am wise, I did not err. If I erred, I am not wise. Therefore you are proved a liar on both counts.

(27) I could bring counter-accusations, but I will not. I would rather seek acquittal through my virtues than your vices.

(28) (To the jury): I must now speak of myself, in a way that would not be suitable except to one accused. I submit my past life to your scrutiny. If I mention my good deeds, I pray that no one will resent this: it is necessary in order that I may refute serious charges with a true statement of merits known to you.

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(29) Above all, my past life has been blameless. My accuser can bring no proof of this charge, so that his speech is unsubstantiated obloquy.

(30) I claim also to be a benefactor of Greece, present and future, by reason of my inventions, in tactics, law, letters (the tool of memory), measures (arbiters of business dealings), number (the guardian of property), beacon-fires (the best and swiftest messengers), and the game of draughts as a pastime.

(31) I mention these things to show that in devoting my thoughts to them I am bound to abstain from wicked deeds.

(32) I deserve no punishment from young or old. I have been considerate to the old, helpful to the young, without envy of the prosperous, merciful to the distressed; not despising poverty, nor preferring wealth to virtue; useful in counsel, active in war, fulfilling commands, obeying the rulers. But it is not for me to praise myself; I do so under the compulsion of self-defence.

(33) Lastly I shall speak of you to you. Lamentations, prayers, and the petitions of friends are useful when judgement depends on the mob; but before you, the foremost of the Greeks, I need not use these devices, but only justice and truth.

(34) You must not heed words rather than facts, nor prefer accusations to proof, nor regard a brief period as more instructive than a long one, nor consider calumny more trustworthy than experience. Good men avoid all wrong-doing, but above all what cannot be mended; things can be righted by forethought, but are irrevocable by afterthought. This happens when men are trying a fellow-man on a capital charge, as you now are.

(35) If words could bring the truth of deeds clearly and certainly before their hearers, judgement would be easy; since this is not so, I ask you to preserve my life, await the passage of time, and pass your judgement with truth. You run the great risk of a reputation for injustice; to good men, death is preferable to a bad reputation: one is the end of life, the other is a disease in life.

(36) If you put me to death unjustly, you will bear the blame in the eyes of all Greece, as I am not unknown and you are famous. The blame will be yours, not my accuser's, because the issue is in your hands. There could be no greater

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crime than if you as Greeks put to death a Greek, an ally, a benefactor of yours and of Greece, when you can show no cause.

(37) Here I stop. A summary of a long speech is worth while when one is speaking to a jury of inferiors; but before the leaders of Greece it is uncalled-for, as is the exhortation to pay attention or to remember what has been said.

12. One must destroy one's adversaries’ seriousness with laughter, and their laughter with seriousness.

13. (No one, not even Gorgias who first wrote on the subject, has defined the art of 'the right moment').

14. (Gorgias gave his pupils model speeches to learn by heart).

From unspecified writings

15. Beggarly toadying bards, who swear a false oath and swear it well.

16. Affairs are pale, tremulous and anaemic; you have sown in this a shameful seed, and will reap an evil harvest.

17. (My) matter never fails (in speaking).

18. (Gorgias enumerated the virtues instead of defining them).

19. (Plato, Meno 71E: examples of enumeration of virtues after the teaching of Gorgias).

20. Cimon acquired money in order to use it, and used it to acquire honour.

21. A friend will expect his friend to do only just actions in helping him; but he himself will serve his friend with many actions that belong to the category of unjust also.

22. Not the looks of a woman, but her good reputation should be known to many.

23. Tragedy, by means of legends and emotions, creates a deception in which the deceiver is more honest than the non-deceiver, and the deceived is wiser than the non-deceived.

24. (The 'Seven against Thebes' of Aeschylus): Full of Ares.

25. (Homer's descent traced to Musaeus).

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26. Being is unrecognisable unless it succeeds in seeming, and seeming is weak unless it succeeds in being.

27. Threats were mixed with supplications, and lamentations with prayers.


28. (Graeco-Syrian Maxims: Gor(gon)ias said): The surpassing beauty of something hidden is shown when skilled painters cannot depict it with their tried colours. Their work and their effort affords a wonderful proof of the hidden magnificence. And when the separate stages of their work come to an end, they give to it the crown of victory in that they are silent. But that which no hand grasps and no eye sees, how can the tongue express it or the ear of the hearer receive it?

29. Those who neglect philosophy and spend their time on ordinary studies are like the Suitors who desired Penelope but slept with her maids.

30. Orators are like frogs: the latter sing in the water, the former to the water-clock.

31. The sun is a molten mass.


128:1 444-441 B.C.

130:1 πλίγμα 'hold in wrestling', emendation of Diels from MSS. αἴνιγμα, 'riddle'.

134:1 This speech has at first sight little philosophical interest; but its influence on forensic oratory, and therefore doubtless on education, cannot be over-estimated.

Next: 83. Lycophrôn 'The Sophist'