ElAnt v3n6 - The Identity of Gorgias in Isocrates' Helen

Volume 3, Number 6
February 1997


Terry Papillon,
Department of Foreign Languages,
Virginia Tech,
Virginia 24061,
e-mail: Terry.Papillon@vt.edu

'Death is the mother of beauty,' said Henry.
'And what is beauty?'
'Well said,' said Julian.  'Beauty is rarely soft or consola-
tory.  Quite the contrary.  Genuine beauty is always quite 
. . . . .  . . . .
'And if beauty is terror,' said Julian, 'then what is desire?
We think we have many desires, but in fact we have only one.
What is it?'
'To live,' said Camilla.
'To live *forever*, ' said Bunny, chin cupped in palm.
The teakettle began to whistle.

The Secret History: A Novel
Donna Tartt


Helen remains one of the most recognizable figures from the world of Greek myth. She has inspired creativity from the poetry of Homer to Edgar Allen Poe, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and H.D. Her influence is far reaching in time and also in genre. Not only in poetry, but in prose too Helen casts her shadow. Herodotus had to deal with her in the opening of his history of the Greeks' war with the Persians. Famous among students of Greek literature is the defense of her attributed to Gorgias of Leontini, that master of oratory and teacher of rhetoric in the late fifth century. Less popular today is the speech about Helen by the fourth century Athenian orator and philosopher Isocrates, who sought to praise her for the influence she had on those around her. He set his treatment in contrast to another speech on Helen, when he simultaneously praised and criticized the 'the one writing about Helen' as part of the preface to his own version (10.14) (1). Scholars have long assumed and hoped that the rhetor referred to is Gorgias, since we have the speech attributed to him that seems to fit the criticisms laid out by Isocrates. (2)

What is the relationship between Isocrates' speech for Helen and the speech in defense of her attributed to Gorgias? That is the topic of this inquiry, at least nominally. It seeks to show that the treatment by Isocrates reveals a very self-conscious awareness of and reaction to the earlier discourse. In addition, however, and perhaps more importantly, it discusses Isocrates' approaches to the presentation of myth. I originally planned to prove that the Gorgianic speech is the one addressed in Isocrates' text by showing that Isocrates treats the same four issues as Gorgias, namely fate, force, words, and love.(3) I am now less sure that I can prove this, but I am more firmly convinced that it is true: my thesis then is that Isocrates does indeed criticize the speech that we have extant under the name of Gorgias. I will offer here some observations about the relation of the two speeches and the approaches of the two authors. This will lead to the issues of how Isocrates saw his task as a rhetor and his use of myth.

The speech in defense of Helen attributed to Gorgias exemplifies the stunning style brought to Athens by the great Sicilian rhetor in 427 BCE. After having served as an ambassador from his native Leontini to Athens, he began to teach the youth of Athens. We do not know the exact date of the speech on Helen, but it is likely that it was a part of Gorgias' presentation to the Athenians while he taught there. The speech may have served as an advertisement for his education as well as a teaching tool in his curriculum. The speech on Helen exemplifies the compact example speeches for which sophistic rhetoric is known. As a paradigm of the kind of argumentation to be learned by the student, it may in fact crystallize possible arguments and serve as a kind of oratorical thesaurus for students to use as a source.(4) Gorgias sets forth arguments in this speech which show how Helen might be defended. Certainly it can be considered proven that Helen should not be faulted if the gods willed her action, or if she was raped, or if she was tricked by words, or by visions. It is stunning to see how effectively and completely Gorgias limits the options; there are four, and only four, possible explanations in his system. But Gorgias could be faulted for his argumentation: we don't know if the gods really exist or if they intervene in our lives; we don't know if Helen was forced; we don't know if she was open to deception by words or images, or even if any words or images are deceptive.

These questions about Gorgias' argument relate to the issues Hekabe brings up in Euripides' play The Trojan Women of 415 BCE.(5) The play painfully dramatizes the plight of the Trojan women after the Greeks have captured the city. Hekabe, Cassandra, and Andromache endure the lot of victims. We also see the confrontation of Helen and Menelaos as Hekabe and the Trojan women look on. Helen defends herself before Menelaos with the familiar argument that the gods willed her departure (945- 50). But the issue seems to be open to other possibilities as well, and the bulk of her defense finds other humans responsible. Helen argues, by turns, that Hekabe is responsible (919), or Priam (920- 22), or Paris (923-32) or Menelaos (937-944). The argument from divine intervention closes her argument for her innocence in leaving Sparta, as if it were added to insure acquittal. When Hekabe replies to Helen's self-defense, she will have none of Helen's transference of responsibility. She does not even dignify with a response Helen's accusations against the human agents Priam, Menelaos, or herself. Hekabe attacks Helen's view of the gods, faulting the whole story of the judgment of Paris from the view, not of Paris' choice, but of how the goddesses are presented (971-82). She spends the bulk of her time showing that Helen is responsible for her actions, and responsible precisely because of her questionable character, which is greedy, hypocritical, and arrogant (991-1028).(6)

Isocrates apparently recognized that the two earlier treatments do not present Helen as effectively as they could. Although he chose to treat Helen in a completely different manner, the bulk of the speech treats topics that are very similar to those of the speech of Gorgias, for Isocrates too addresses the issues of fate, force, speech, and love.(7) The treatment of these four issues confirms the common assumption that Isocrates' Helen reacts to the speech we have under Gorgias' name and can thus help settle the question of whether Isocrates refers to that speech in Helen 14. This approach to the question is appropriate because Isocrates makes the comparison explicit in the introduction. He asks the audience to see his speech as a response to an earlier attempt. If we test the thesis that the speech of Gorgias is Isocrates' object by setting the two speeches side by side, we can observe interesting parallels and can draw the conclusion that Isocrates has this particular speech in mind. More importantly, however, this study can point out some interesting characteristics of Isocratean discourse. Hence, after brief comments about organization and vocabulary, I will look at each of Gorgias' four arguments and how Isocrates treats them. This will allow some observations on differing characteristics of the two authors.


Gorgias follows an organization in his speech that could be called judicial: it has an introduction (1-2), a narration [of her lineage] (3-5), a division (6a), a proof (6b-19), and a peroration (20- 21).(8) Isocrates, on the other hand, uses a pattern that will later become standard for epideictic oratory, using topics set out chronologically: parentage (16-17), youth (18-38), adulthood (39- 60), (death and) afterlife (60-67), and influence (68-69).

We may take the presentation of the lineage of Helen as a first example of Isocrates' response to Gorgias. For Gorgias, Helen is the offspring of Leda, Zeus (in actuality), and Tyndareus (in reputation). This lineage results in Ñs“qeon k£lloj , and causes the events around her, the two quite distinct actions of arousing desire and gathering a force of men.(9) For Isocrates, on the other hand, two differences should be noted: First, Isocrates focuses on Zeus, giving no real attention to either Leda or Tyndareus. As the offspring of Zeus, Helen is linked with Herakles, and Isocrates is more interested in introducing Herakles as a foil than in giving a full and accurate genealogy as Gorgias does. Isocrates wants to tell us that Helen here surpasses the greatest of Greek heroes.(10) Second, we should note that Isocrates describes Zeus' own reaction to her, not the consequences of her actions. Zeus honors her above all other children, even over Herakles. In this, Isocrates follows a Homeric approach, seen in the teichoskopia, of proclaiming her beauty through the reaction of others, not through direct description.(11) It is thus a more rhetorical and less biographical approach which Isocrates finds appropriate for praise.

While there seems to be some thematic correspondence between Gorgias' and Isocrates' treatments of Helen, there is very little explicit verbal reference by Isocrates to the Gorgianic speech. Isocrates does not copy Gorgias' vocabulary, but rather introduces new vocabulary which is less characteristic of judicial contexts and more characteristic of praise. He points this compositional idea out as he makes the transition from his criticism of Gorgias to his own speech (10.15):

Discourse does not (all) come from the same concepts or treat the same events, but quite the opposite. Defense is appropriate for those who are charged with injustice; praise for those whole excel in some good thing.

Isocrates says that vocabulary based on defense, causality, and injustice (with stems such as ¢polog- aÑti- or ¢dik- ) are characteristic of one genre (Gorgias' defensive or judicial manner), while vocabulary based on praise, nobility, and superiority (with stems such as ôpain- ¢gath- or diafer- ) are characteristic of another (his own epideictic manner).(12) When there is overlap of vocabulary, the vocabulary is transformed. Isocrates uses the very ¢diköw only in the introductory section (10.15); in the body of the speech he prefers positive words like dÖkaiwj or dikaios⁄nh and n“mimwj . He uses dishonor ( ¢tim- ) only once, but uses forms of the positive version ( tim- ) frequently.(13) Even when he does use a stem like lawless ( ¢nomoj ), he is careful to use it of characters in no way worthy of praise, such as the minotaur (10.27, 28). Given Isocrates' own statements about his logos, it is not surprising that his diction differs from that of Gorgias.(14)


Isocrates elsewhere transforms Gorgias' vocabulary in interesting ways. For example, the will of the gods is a major issue in the passages on lineage, (Gorgias 4-6, Isocrates 10.16-17), and the verbal parallels dependent on the root boul- are suggestive: Gorgias' first option is that Helen did what she did by 'the intentions ( boulömasi ) of Tyche and the purposes ( boule⁄masi ) of the gods' (6). Isocrates says the Zeus intended to immortalize the bodies of Helen and Herakles and to leave behind immortal reputations: [Zeus] boul“menoj ... eÑj qeo›j ¢n£gagein (17). For both authors, the will of the gods is an important issue. For Gorgias, the issue is abstract. His point is that the weaker will cannot expect to deny the stronger will. If the gods will it, how is a mortal able to resist? Isocrates, on the other hand, takes a more mythic approach on the will of Zeus. He develops the point by telling the mythos, not by abstract argumentation as in Gorgias' judicial proof. Zeus wished to immortalize the two. The verbal allusion here points out the contrasting methods of the two rhetors. Isocrates prefers to tell mythoi; Gorgias prefers abstract, almost metaphysical argument.

Another verbal parallel refers to the gathering of bodies: Gorgias says that Helen gathered all bodies into one body for battle úni dù sÓmati poll¶ sÓmata sunªgagen (4). Isocrates tells how Zeus intended to bring the bodies of Helen and Herakles to the gods to be immortalized: t¶ sÓmata eÑj qeo›j ¢n£gagein (17). These references to sÓmata appear in quite different contexts and mean different things, yet the very differences themselves are instructive. In Gorgias, Helen brings about the marshaling of the armies for battle. In Isocrates, it is Zeus who brings the bodies (of Helen and Herakles) into immortal contact with the divine realm. Once again, we see Isocrates' characteristic technique of narrating others' actions in relation to Helen, not her own actions. She may be more passive in Isocrates' version, but the effect is certainly stunning.

One further thing should be noted about the first part of each speech: Gorgias has moved from his description of her lineage, past a brief division, into a treatment of the first issue of divine will. Where Gorgias, therefore, has presented a narration, a division, and then a proof, Isocrates has covered the elements of narrative and proof together by presenting Zeus' interest in Helen. That is, Isocrates followed Gorgias without following the judicial pattern; he used a more topical and unified approach. Helen is to be praised, Isocrates would have us believe, because of the divine parentage and parental will. Her lineage and her greatness, not to mention her eventual immortality, are to be taken together. Zeus' attention will make her superior not only to all other offspring of Zeus, but especially superior to the great hero Herakles.(15) Concentration on Zeus unifies this section, and allows Isocrates to bring several topics together.


Gorgias says that if Helen's disappearance was by force, then she is not responsible (7).

ei de biai herpasthe kai anomos ebiasthe kai adikos hybristhe, delon hoti ho harpasas e hybrisas edikesen, he de harpastheisa e hybristheisa edustychesen.

But if she was seized by force and unlawfully violated and unjustly assaulted, clearly the man who seized or assaulted did wrong, and the woman who was seized or assaulted suffered misfortune.

This is certainly true; the one who uses force is the faultable one in a court of law. And Gorgias uses vocabulary that is at home in legal contexts, words like harpazo, bia, biazo, hybrizo . The concept of hybris demonstrates this tendency particularly, being a legal term for a particular public case of outrage against a person (hybriseos graphe), more serious than battery ( dike aikeias ). The term is difficult to define, and extant laws are vague about the precise meaning of hybris (MacDowell 1978.129-32, 1990.16- 23), but it is particularly useful because of the flexibility inherent in that vagueness. The term is commonly used in legal cases, even if they are not directly on a charge of hybris , because it can act as an additional persuasive element. In Demosthenes' speech Against Conon , for example, the charge is a private one of battery, but hybristheis is the first word of the speech. This rhetorical ploy (along with the twenty other occurances of the word in the speech) elevates the sense of seriousness by making it sound like a public issue. So too in Demosthenes' speech Against Midias. Although it is a case of probole , Demosthenes uses forms of hybrizo 89 times in order to bring further popular prejudice against Midias for his wanton acts of arrogance.(16)

But force can be treated in many ways, and Isocrates seeks to treat force as it pertains to Helen in an epideictic manner, not in the judicial argumentation of Gorgias. Isocrates mentions force all through the speech, but it is especially prevalent in the long digression on Theseus. He uses different vocabulary to talk about it, vocabulary such as lambano, nikao, krateo . These words allow Isocrates to talk more positively about Theseus' approach. Force is an arete which Theseus displays.(17) Theseus overcomes many things in the narrative: the Lapiths, the Minotaur, even Helen. And his use of prowess (even superior to Herakles) is to be praised. This is the answer given to Gorgias: Isocrates does not contest Gorgias' claim that the wanton violence of rape exonerates Helen, but he is not interested in innocence. He wants to show how force can be used in a very different way to bring praise to Helen. Isocrates could have taken the safer legal approach (following Gorgias),(18) but he chose to use the more positive, if problematic approach. This is a significant difference: Gorgias is interested in innocence and Isocrates is interested in praise. Isocrates' goals are quite different, more forward-looking and therefore deliberative than Gorgias, who is more judicial or backward-looking.(19)


Isocrates and Gorgias share ideas on discourse. Their working system is to recognize the limits of knowledge and focus on doxa .(20) Both Gorgias and Isocrates differ from the Platonic notion that words can reach for and represent essences or truth. Still, Gorgias and Isocrates differ: Gorgias' presentation on logoi focuses more on the process of logoi, while Isocrates focuses on the results of logoi. Gorgias' interest is in the theory of the magical and physiological workings and effects of speech.(21) He may discuss what logos accomplishes, but only in the most theoretical way:

Speech is a powerful ruler. Its substance is minute and invisible, but its achievements are superhuman; ... For speech, the persuader, compelled mind, the persuaded, both to obey what was said and to approve what was done. So the persuader, because he compelled, is guilty; the persuaded, because she was compelled by his speech, is wrongly reproached. ( Helen 8, 12)

Gorgias stresses the physical nature of language in the images he presents in section 8. He also focuses on the innocence of the hearer. But when Isocrates praises logos, as he does in Nicocles (2.5-9, repeated in Antidosis 15.253-57), he highlights what logos does and reveals; he does not discuss how it works. Isocrates' approach is to show that it resulted in civilization.

Since there is innate in us the ability to persuade each other and to reveal to ourselves the things we wish, not only have we put off the life of wild beasts, but we have come together and founded cities; we have established laws and discovered arts, and for nearly all the things we have contrived, logos had been our fellow worker. ( Nicocles 6)

This approach to logos is parallel to his treatment of Helen, for both Helen and logos are praised for what they reveal about us and for what they are able to bring about (Poulakos 1989.311).

Isocrates presents his ideas on words in several places. He talks about logos in the Antidosis (15.253-57) and the Panegyricus (4.47-50). His speech Against the Sophists (13.1-20) criticizes others' use of discourse in a manner similar to the Helen. Yet there are differences between the speech Against the Sophists and the Helen in his treatment of logos and other teachers. These differences may indicate that Isocrates has a specific focus in the Helen, tailoring the remarks of this speech to address a specific aspect of Gorgias' speech. In the speech Against the Sophists, a programatic statement of opposition to other teachers, Isocrates criticizes three groups: first the eristics (wranglers with words), second, the teachers of political discourse,(22) and third, the writers of technai focusing on judicial manipulation. The eristics are hypocritical in their claims and lifestyle, the teachers of political discourse foolishly claim that the process depends solely on the teaching of precepts, and the technai writers are only teachers of polypragmosyne and pleonexia .

In the Helen Isocrates focuses on the issue of usefulness when he attacks two groups. He first deals with earlier philosophers as a category of troublesome sophists. The issue for him here is their uselessness. In the first seven sections of the Helen , Isocrates repeatedly comments on the uselessness of what they do, contrasting his own useful ideas, and demanding that they should turn to useful pursuits.(23) The second group criticized in the Helen are Isocrates' contemporaries, who are encouraged by the success of the earlier group and treat paradoxical or trivial subjects. Here Isocrates' interest is on the triviality of the issue and the charge that they do this partially because it is the easy thing to do. The subjects that they treat are easy because there is no competition; no one else deems such subjects worthy of consideration. In contrast, one needs to take serious subjects, ones by nature of their seriousness and popularity more difficult to treat well. Isocrates' criticism of this group also adds an element which is one of the most basic and one of the oldest: not only are their words trivial, but these men do not (and indeed cannot) demonstrate their usefulness through actions based upon their words (10.9). Praise should come to those who are doers of deeds and speakers of words, as Homer had demonstrated long ago.(24)

Isocrates focuses specifically on the triviality of logos that he sees in those around him. The discussion of ease, triviality, and impracticality are criticisms of contemporary sophists of the day. But it should be noted here that Isocrates is not criticizing Gorgias. I exclude Gorgias from this criticism for two reasons. First, Isocrates criticizes those who claim to teach political science but who do not demonstrate it (10.9). Gorgias would not fall into this category, since he actively served his city as ambassador. Secondly, when Isocrates treats the topic of speech in the Helen , he attacks those who are presenting useless and trivial topics. But Isocrates does not believe that he will present a useless or trivial topic when he discusses Helen, nor does he believe that the 'one writing about Helen' presents a useless or trivial topic (10.14). Isocrates does not fault the writer for the topic, but for the genre. A speech on Helen can be immensely useful to Athens when written in the correct manner, as Kennedy (1958), Poulakos (1986), and Papillon (1996) have tried to show. It is only the tone of defense that concerns Isocrates. Thus the issue in the Helen is the issue of usefulness specifically, and this shows a more focused approach than that seen in Against the Sophists . He focuses on useful topics and in this instance praises Gorgias' choice of topic for this very reason.(25)


Gorgias is at his weakest when he tries to refute the argument that love led Helen astray. In fact, he does not focus on eros so much as opsis . He begins by distancing Helen through a discussion of the science of sight, that sense which he thinks arouses desire. The contribution of sight to the arousal of desire is certainly important, but it does not save Helen from blame, and needs help to be effective. Herein lies the trouble. Gorgias claims that objects of vision are external to the viewer, not a construct of the viewer; to this extent sight is an external agent, much like speech was in his earlier argument. But he also describes how a viewer reacts based on his own perception of the object, not what the object actually is: 'often people flee in panic when some danger is imminent as if it were present' ( Helen 15-16). He does not explain how the external nature of a viewed object relates to this idea of perception, and thus does not clarify the apparent inconsistency of viewers reacting to what they (mistakenly) perceive.

Gorgias adds a final section to this argument about the divine status of Eros in an attempt to solidify the argument. It only undercuts it, however. To the extent that Love is a divinity, Gorgias can return to the ideas of the first argument (one can't fight a superior force) and be safe. This is a fair claim, if somewhat repetitive. But he closes the love section with a very dangerous option. Love is either a divinity or a human malady and incapacity (19b). His defense against the second possibility is very weak. If it is a human thing, it comes through snares of the soul and compulsions of love ( psyches agreumasin and erotos anagkais ), not will of the mind or plans of an art ( gnomes bouleumasi ... technes paraskeuais ). Gorgias describes the viewer as the hunted ( agreumasin ), and this helps. Nevertheless, he does not argue how this is so, and the phrase erotos anagkais becomes circular, taking the argument back to the power of the gods. The lack of reasoning and circularity on a difficult causal relation make this Gorgias' most dangerous maneuver.

Isocrates recognized the problem in this argument and jettisoned the treatment of love completely. The argument about sight was sufficient for him, and he uses images of sight to praise Helen. Just as Isocrates focused on the result of sound/logos, avoiding Gorgias' interest in the physical/external explanation of sound, so he will focus here on the result of sight. His approach is to make the power of sight a recurrent theme, but in a different way; being overwhelmed by the sight of someone's beauty is his focus. Theseus is overcome by Helen's beauty (10.18). Paris is overcome by sight of the goddesses (10.42). Even Zeus (10.59) and the goddesses (10.60) are overcome by mortal beauty. And their desire, as a result of catching sight of beauty, overwhelms all of these figures. Beauty is responsible -- and for our purpose Helen's beauty specifically is responsible -- for all events. It is a proof of Helen's greatness that the greatest of men and gods act as a result of seeing her beauty. This is a cause for praise not censure. In a wonderful reversal, Isocrates presents exactly the opposite approach to Gorgias: you are very responsible for what you see. He then looks at those who see Helen and presents the results of her beauty.

We must return here to an important claim of Isocrates: that one must trust the judgment of contemporaries about a given topic (10.22). Thus the judgment of Theseus, Paris, and other suitors has more value than our judgment; Isocrates wants to point out what happened in an earlier time. This is important, for Isocrates seeks to find out why Helen's contemporaries were so enamored with her, and much of their motivation is tied in with earlier Bronze Age or Homeric ideas of kleos , kallos , and arete .(26) The struggle for possession of Helen fits in with the search for kleos and immortality that is characteristic of Bronze Age warriors. Her beauty ( kallos ) is what motivates those around her. Her kallos really is the dynamis which offers kleos and immortality to persons. Isocrates points this out toward the end of his speech when her dynamis (which results from her kallos ) can immortalize others (10.60-66). And this is one of the important points of the section on the immortality of Helen: It is not her immortality that is important, but what it does for those around her. This concentration on the motivations of the ancients is why war, deceit, even rape are all evidence of Helen's greatness. Isocrates returns to the motivations of Helen's time, the motivations of a heroic warrior, not the motivations of a fifth or fourth century litigious Athenian. Innocence in a court of law won't bring praise to Helen. The recognition of her excellence by others will. In this Isocrates is very different from Gorgias.

Thus, Isocrates saw the importance of Gorgias' recognition of the power of sight and agreed with him. That is, Isocrates too thinks that the power which the thing seen has on the viewer is important. He disagrees, though, in the implications. Where Gorgias tries to assert that the viewer is not to blame since the images are external to the viewer, Isocrates says that the viewer is responsible for how he reacts to what he sees. Theseus and Paris are very responsible for what they do in response to what they see. Yet there is still a further change. We do not see Helen reacting to visions of Paris. Hekabe will use the argument of Helen's reaction to seeing Paris in Euripides' Trojan Women, but Isocrates will not put her in such a position. Rather, we see others' reactions. The emphasis is on the implications she and her beauty have for their heroic behavior. The affect this has on her own greatness is made explicit by Isocrates in section 38 when he shows the reason for the digression on Theseus:

How can one not praise and honor and think this woman to surpass all others ever born, this woman who was born from Zeus and who was able to hold sway over ( kratesasan ) such marvelous excellence and wisdom [as that of Theseus].

We have returned to the idea that praise by one's contemporaries is best, and attention by the best is evidence of her greatness.

Isocrates' reaction to Gorgias on the issue of love can be seen in another way as well. When Gorgias treats beauty -- and this is actually what he discusses when he treats eros in sections 15-19 -- he steps back from the narrative of Helen's story and discusses the background to the issue of beauty when he brings up the external aspects of sight and the importance of perception. When Isocrates comes to treat beauty, he too steps back and looks at the issue of perception:

Helen possessed the largest share of beauty, which is the most hallowed, most honored, and most divine of all things. And it is easy to recognize its power. For while many things which do not possess courage or wisdom or justice are much more honored than each of these, we find that nothing that lacks beauty is loved. Rather, everything is despised except in so far as it shares in this concept. Excellence ( arete ) is valued therefore because it is the most beautiful ( kalliston ) of pursuits. Someone would recognize the extent to which it is superior to other things, by how we are disposed toward each of them. For of all other needs we wish only to get them, but we experience nothing beyond this wish regarding them. But there is a desire for beautiful things innate in us and our force of desire is proportional to the greatness of the thing. (10.54-55)

This is a rather philosophic, even Platonic,(27) consideration of the relationship of kallos and arete . Beauty is the most hallowed, most honored, and most divine of all things and it brings marvelous results.

To close the discussion of love and beauty, one notable verbal reference by Isocrates to the speech of Gorgias should be considered. Gorgias says that Helen, born from divinity, obtained a god-like beauty and then went on to cause the war: isotheon kallos, ho labousa ... (4). Isocrates says that Helen obtained a god-like power from the gods ten dynamin isotheon labousa (10.61). This is a marked repetition of the adjective isotheos .(28) In Gorgias, it is her beauty that is god-like, but in Isocrates it is her power to make others immortal. But he has just finished saying that her immortality is a result of her beauty (10.60). Isocrates seems to say here that her beauty is her power; this is recognized by all, and affects all who become captivated by her: Zeus, Theseus, Paris, and the suitors. This section on the effects of her immortality is really just a continuation of the treatment of her beauty.


I suggested above that Gorgias' speech presents a model; it can even be seen as a condensed version of the kinds of argumentation that could be used. The students would memorize it, and use pieces of it in composing their own speeches. This would help to explain the abstract nature of Gorgias' points. Isocrates, not particularly given to abstraction, moved these topics back into the realm of life and its affects. He set his speech in apposition to that of Gorgias, and took up all four points from the source text, taking even some of the arguments offered there. Isocrates recognized that all four issues were pertinent, even if some of the specific claims were not.(29) The change in the treatment of each issue indicates the different approach of Isocrates. Where Gorgias looks to the judicial goal of acquittal using fifth century ideas of argumentation and speculation, Isocrates prefers the epideictic goal of praise, using a narrative revealing Homeric sensibilities.

Also, it should be pointed out that while the methods of the two orators are quite different, the goals are similar. Gorgias says that he wrote a praise of Helen and a diversion, a paignion, for himself. As a paignion, was it meant to be an example of the sophistic tendency to take a difficult situation and make the most of it? Isocrates despised such speeches (10.8-9). If Isocrates were criticizing Gorgias for this, it would be astounding that he should attribute to Gorgias such a small error (10.14). But Isocrates limits his censure, I think, because he recognizes the basic seriousness of Gorgias' speech. In spite of Gorgias' protestations, Gorgias himself knew that he was doing something serious and challenging, even if it looked like a showpiece. That is, Gorgias throws out the word paignion as a dare, knowing that it may be viewed as a trivial showpiece.(30) Gorgias knew, however, that such 'showpieces' are actually important logoi. Isocrates saw the challenge, recognized the important issues from Gorgias' speech, and addressed them. Isocrates speech is not a paignion either, in the sense of a trivial showpiece, in spite of its appearance; it is a serious attempt to show how logos should be done.

We might, then, summarize by rehearsing some of the aspects of Isocratean discourse which become highlighted when we consciously set his speech against the speech attributed to Gorgias. First and most obviously, Isocratean discourse is less interested in judicial discourse than in what tradition has called epideictic, and what I have called elsewhere hypodeictic discourse (Papillon 1995. 158-9). Isocrates seeks to use praise to present a topic. Secondly, Isocrates focuses on results. This can be seen in the narrative technique of showing how reaction to Helen caused action. It can also be seen in Isocrates' desire to see results. His approach is very practical and goal-oriented (Poulakos 1989). He eschews oratory used only for display and seeks discourse that will promote action, just as he chooses characters from myth who create or cause action. He looks to the result, not the process, of action and composition. For these reasons, discourse treating myth works with discourse which encourages action in the more traditional manner of deliberative oratory.

Isocrates clearly separates what we call judicial discourse from what he is doing (10.14). There is a clear separation between what happens in the courtroom and what happens outside of the courtroom. The compartmentalization of discourse outside of the courtroom was a later phenomenon, very likely the product of Aristotle (Kennedy 1980.72-3, 1994.58; Barilli 1989.12; Schiappa 1996.67-74). Such a separation does not serve Isocrates' larger notion that non-courtroom discourse is narrative and argument designed to create action and results. Isocratean discourse offers examples of deliberative and epideictic discourse (to use these later terms as a shorthand) working together in order to have the allure ofepideictic contribute to the call for action. The Philip or Panathenaicus serve as examples, with the latter's epideictic genre calling for a leadership role for Athens or the former's deliberative stance supported by the mythic argument of Herakles' greatness. The allure of a story, especially a story about beauty as in the Helen speech, is only valuable when its goal is to bring about action. Judicial discourse is trivial because it looks to the past; discourses only for praise also trivialize communication, although they awkwardly often receive the title epideictic. But the beauty and allure of epideictic can be used to encourage action, and this wedding of beauty and results is the goal Isocrates seeks.(31)

		Laforgue replied: 'There is nothing wrong with the 
love of Beauty.  But Beauty -- unless she is wed to something 
more meaningful -- is always superficial.  It is not that your Julian 
chooses solely to concentrate on certain, exalted things; it is that he 
chooses to ignore others equally as important.'

The Secret History
Donna Tartt


1. The text of Isocrates' Helen is the Bude edition of Bremond. Translations are my own. The text and Translations of Gorgias' speech are from the edition of D.M. MacDowell (1982).

2. Though the authorship of the speech attributed to Gorgias is not unproblematic -- Spengel would suggest Polykrates; the ancient hypothesis to Isocrates' Helen and Jebb (2.102) suggest Anaximenes -- there is for the most part a consensus that the author is Gorgias. I will thus refer to Gorgias as the author of the extant speech in this discussion, especially since the focus here is less on the author and more on the speech itself.

3. Pace Jebb, who says of the speech attributed to Gorgias (2.101): '...its special topics are not the topics of Isokrates.'

4. A good example might be Gorgias' emphasis on the topic of the greater/lesser in section 6. It is meant to be noticed, memorized, and then used in transformed ways by the pupils. On the educational technique of the sophists, see Aristotle De Sophisticis Elenchis (183b36-184b8) and Kennedy (1994.17-21). I thank Andrew Ford for his thoughts on this possibility.

5. Though the chronological relation of the Gorgias speech and the Euripidean play is not sure, for the purpose of this discussion I assume the priority of the text of Gorgias.

6. The religious skepticism of this passage and the passage attacking Aphrodite's responsibility (983-990) represent a theology characteristic of sophistic speculation during Euripides' time. This skepticism on the part of certain Greeks is well documented and can be seen in such texts as the famous fragment from the satyr play Sisyphus attributed to Critias or Euripides (DK 88.B25, translated in Freeman 157-8 or Sprague 259-60) or from the ideas of Xenophanes (DK 21.B11-16, translated in Freeman 22).

7. Isocrates is aware of the Euripidean version of Helen's defense, as sections 67-9 show, with their allusion to Helen's claim that Greece should be grateful to her for bringing victory and freedom to the Greeks (cf. Euripides' Helen 914-65). Isocrates does not develop this argument himself, perhaps because he rejects this approach. Certainly the topics in Helen's defense of herself found here and in Euripides focus more on Greece and less on her own responsibility, and this may lead Isocrates away from such an approach. On the importance of focusing on Helen in Isocrates' version, see Papillon (1996).

8. For an interesting treatment of the judicial nature of the speech, see Biesecker (1992.104-5).

9. The phrase ten dunamin isothoen will appear later in Isocrates (10.61). I will argue below that Helen's kallos is her dynamis in Isocrates' speech.

10. This praise by association is a characteristic of Pindaric encomiastic victory odes and is a continual theme in this speech. On the use of foils in Pindar, see Bundy (1986). Examples include the parallelism of Hieron and Pelops in Olympian 1 and Theron and Herakles (with Helen) in Olympian 3 (especially 3.36-45). Isocrates pushes the idea by having the laudanda (Helen) overshadow the foil (Herakles), something Pindar usually doesn't do; an exception can perhaps be seen in the superiority of the boy Thrasydaios of Thebes over Agamemnon in Pythian 11 (Nisetich 47-50). That Helen is capable of overshadowing other heros in Isocrates may be a sign of her strength and a hint at her immortal nature.

11. This recalls a familiar pattern in the later struggle between the verbal and visual arts where the verbal arts claim superiority because they can describe reactions, not just physical attributes. See Edmund Burke (171-172) and A.S. Becker (9-22).

12. The vocabulary of defense, common in Gorgias' speech, either appears only in the framing sections of Isocrates' speech (outside of the example speech he offers) or is used in a different sense. Of the stems like aiti- (responsible), atim- (dishonor), *zemi- (punishment), apolog- (defend), anom- or paranom- (lawless), and adik- (unjust), the only one to appear in the example speech is atim- in section 58, a section I find among the weakest of the whole speech. It strikes me as pushing too hard on a topic that could in fact get Helen into trouble.

13. tima- (38, 54, 58, 66), time (35, 43, 47, 61), timios (54), filotim- (2), protima- (16, 60). He uses epitima- several times (7, 15, 30, 45) and atim just the once (58). The uses of epitima- are outside of the actual example speech (30 and 45 are in asides, outside of the main discussion).

14. Notable or distinctive vocabulary words from Gorgias' speech are not usually used. I might point out, however, the remarkable collocation of poetic compound adjective from the middle of Gorgias' speech to describe logos (9): periphobos (very- fearful), polydakros (much-weeping), philopenthes , (lament- loving). Isocrates does not overtly copy them, but he does come up with his own cluster of distinctive vocabulary to describe Herakles' life and Helen's nature: epiponos, philokindynon, periblepton, perimacheton (17). The fact that these are all gathered together in one section recalls the Gorgianic collocation.

15. Herakles had been a Peloponnesian hero early and was co- opted during the Peisistratid tyranny at Athens for political reasons (Boardman 1989; Carpenter 1992.117-8). We know that Theseus was used to assert Athenian strength in the fifth century (Shapiro 1989, Carpenter 1992.160), and his aid to a variety of heros, including Herakles, in tragedy shows the Athenian attempt to make him superior. Now in the fourth century, Isocrates carries on the diminution of Herakles under the influence of the Athenian Theseus and even under the Peloponnesian Helen. Here perhaps is a second example of Athenian attempts to re-use Peloponnesian figures, much as Peisistratus did with Herakles. On the Peloponnesian Helen at Therapne, see Larson (80-81).

16. Forms of hybrizo are used 179 times in the Demosthenic corpus, 10 times in deliberative speeches and 169 times in judicial speeches. This demonstrates the predominance of the term for judicial contexts in Demosthenes. Notice that over half the occurances of the term (109 of 169 in judicial speeches) occur in these two speeches which deal with wanton physical attacks. MacDowell (1990.16-23) fully discusses the nature and problems with the definition of hybris.

17. The same vocabulary will be used later about beauty, since it too is an arete , and often seen in (or as a motivation for) martial and agonistic contexts.

18. Safer in the sense that rape places the responsibility on Paris. Hekabe's claim of seduction would be more damning for Helen, since voluntary action on Helen's part would be very difficult for Gorgias to argue away. On the greater seriousness of adultery over rape, see Carey.

19. On Isocrates' interest in a mixture of deliberative and epideictic to look toward the future, see Poulakos (1986), Bons, and Papillon (1996).

20. Segal (110-114) does a good job of setting out this idea for Gorgias.

21. For evidence of the scientific interests of Gorgias, see DK 82.A17, B4, and (perhaps) B31.

22. Political discourse in the very wide sense of public discourse; what Aristotle would term both deliberative and judicial.

23. The terms opheleo and chresimos are common. What is useful as opposed to troublesome is commonly discussed (1b, 2b, 5, 5b, 6b). Even the analogy he uses in sections 9-10 on the athlete is a commentary on whether one is involved in something good (worthwhile for the population) or not.

24. At Iliad 9.443 Phoenix describes Peleus' hopes for Achilles: to be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds Pindar shares the interest in the need for both, but in spite of his agreement with Homer on this, he (ironically) criticized Homer for obstructing such accomplishment with his epic story-telling ( Nemean 7.20- 32).

25. It might be useful to ask whether there is yet more to be seen here. Perhaps Isocrates reacts to the paignion reference at the close of Gorgias' speech as well. However much Gorgias may claim that his work is a paignion, Gorgias is seriously at work on ideas of communication (Schiappa 1991, 1995). Gorgias talks about speech in terms of physical particles and magic (8); Isocrates speaks in terms of triviality and uselessness. Is Isocrates critical of such a non-rhetorical approach to speech? If Gorgias' approach here leads Isocrates to think more about what speech is, then his answer (again) may be to recast the question.

26. Note that Paris is very specifically said to be motivated by posterity and immortality (10.42). It sounds a little odd for Paris to be so motivated by thoughts of his (future) children.

27. It would seem that Isocrates' ideas on beauty made an impression on Plato, for Plato uses these ideas later on when he composes the Phaedrus. Though the dating of the Phaedrus is uncertain, it is usually considered to be in the latter part of the middle dialogues (Hackforth 7, Vlastos 46-7) and not likely to be before 380, the dating for the Helen according to Bremond. Even Jebb's unconvincing dating of the Helen (following Blass) to 370 would allow Isocratean precedence. If Isocrates' thoughts influenced Plato, is this why Plato has Socrates say there that Isocrates has hope for a philosophic mind? It might be that Socrates is sincere. Since the dating is unsure, the argument is only a provisional one. Another possibility is that both Isocrates and Plato got the ideas from contact with Socrates.

28. The use of labousa helps confirm the intentional reference.

29. Claims such as the divinity or humanity of Eros.

30. For a different, but very stimulating reading of Gorgias' paignion, see Vitanza. He shows a keen awareness of the playfulness of Gorgias, which is very useful if we consider playfulness in light of the famous phrase from Plato ( Timaeus 22b4-5: Hellenes aei paides este : 'You Greeks are always at play'). Plato's Egyptian meant to refer to the youth of the Greeks and their limited sense of history. It can also demonstrate the idea that the the Greeks had the curiosity and energy of children ( paides ), since they made this attitude a foundation of their paideia . This offers a useful way to approach the concept of paignion in Gorgias (and Isocrates' reaction to it). Play can be serious work.

31. An earlier form of this paper was presented to the International Society for the History of Rhetoric at its biennial meeting in Turin in 1993. Andrew S. Becker and Coulter George made very helpful comments on earlier versions of the paper and are due my thanks.


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Terry Papillon
e-mail: Terry.Papillon@vt.edu

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Electronic Antiquity Vol. 3 Issue 6 - February 1997
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