Gorgias and the Psychology of Persuasion

Article excerpt


Although the stated objective of Gorgias' Encomium of Helen may be doubted (1) --to free Helen from blame for leaving her home and husband to go to Troy with Paris (2)--it surely contains a serious point. The speech seems more accurately an encomium of the logos, than Helen, leading Charles Segal to conjecture that it 'may even have served as a kind of formal profession of the aims and the methods of his art' (1962:102). Some regard it as one of our best insights into the state of late fifth century rhetorical theory (Kerferd 1981:78).

The present essay aims to re-construct the rhetorical theory described in and exemplified by Encomium of Helen. This reconstruction is offered as an alternative to the seminal and still orthodox interpretation developed by Charles Segal in 1962. Although Segal's account is extraordinarily comprehensive, it will be shown that it fails to satisfactorily accommodate the essential doxastic element in Gorgias' analysis of persuasion.

Gorgias' rhetorical theory may be analysed into three components: a theory of the soul; a theory of the logos; and an account of the relation between logos and soul. This bare analytical framework is developed in the essay as follows: [section]2 analyses the psychological concepts in terms of which Gorgias develops his rhetorical theory; [section]3 discusses Gorgias' conceptualisation of the logos, and argues that Segal's explanation of its persuasive mechanisms is incomplete; [section]4 offers an alternative account, and [section]5 outlines and responds to an objection to the proposed interpretation.


Although the Helen does not present an explicit theory of the soul--it is, after all, an epideictic encomium, and not a psychological treatise--some elements of what may be a broader psychological theory can be extracted from the speech. Gorgias' treatment of the soul is given in terms of two 'physical' metaphors which are juxtaposed and interwoven in the text (Segal 1962:104). The first of these compares the character and affectations of soul to those of the body: just as different kinds of drugs produce different effects on the body, so too different sorts of logoi have different effects on the soul (14). The second physical metaphor involves the application of language drawn from sculpture and engraving to the soul. For example, in (13), persuasion ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is said to come in with words, and mould ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) the psyche as it wishes. The root verb here is the physical [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which carries the sense of impressing, stamping, forming, or modelling. Similar terms are employed in (15), where Gorgias offers a short analysis of perception and aesthetic experience. The word used is once more [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] but now [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] with reference to dispositions ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of the soul. And again, at (17), the receptiveness of psyche is portrayed in the language of writing or engraving: 'Sight engraves ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) upon the mind images of things which have been seen'. (2)

In addition to the application of physical metaphors to the soul, the Helen makes repeated reference to--what we would regard as--psychological states and powers. While it is uncertain whether Gorgias' use of such concepts are informed by a broader psychological theory, the psychological states and powers appear carefully arranged into the categories of cognition, conation, emotion, and affect.

The basic cognitive concepts employed in the Helen are doxa and pistis. Gorgias distinguishes between doxa and pistis, or, at least, combines the terms in such a way that they cannot be regarded as synonyms. For example, at (13), the meteorologists make what is 'incredible and unclear' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) seem true to the eyes of opinion ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); and later in the same section, the philosophers are said to make 'belief in an opinion' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) 'subject to easy change' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). …