Encomium on Helen.
2. Encomium on Helen.
[Or. X.]—In § 14 Isokrates praises ‘the writer on Helen’ for his choice of a subject, but finds one fault with his work—viz. that it is less an encomium than an apology. He then says that he will endeavour to show this writer how the subject ought to have been treated; and that he will avoid topics already handled by others.
It is probable, if not certain, that the allusion
The Encomium ascribed to Gorgias.
here is to the Encomium on Helen
extant under the name of Gorgias. The criticism of Isokrates exactly applies to this composition, which is, in fact, a defence,—with the apologetic character indeed
. Further, the Isokratic encomium keeps clear of the ground traversed in the encomium ascribed to Gorgias. The chief topics of Isokrates are (1) Theseus, who loved Helen: §§ 18— 38: (2) the preciousness of Helen shown by the choice of Paris and by the expedition against Troy: §§ 39—53: (3) the power of Beauty generally: §§ 54—60: (4) the divinity of Helen: §§ 61—66. The other writer, after some introductory remarks (5) devotes the rest of his composition to the various theories by which Helen's desertion of her home can be explained. She may have been taken to Troy (1) by divine agency: (2) by violence: (3) by persuasion: (4) by love: and, on any
of these suppositions, says the writer, is excusable: §§ 6—20. Thus the work attributed to Gorgias answers both conditions of the case. It is called an encomium, while it is really an apology; and its special topics are not the topics of Isokrates.
But was Gorgias indeed the author? After
Question of its authorship.
censuring Gorgias by name in § 3, it would have been strange if Isokrates had praised him in § 14 without naming him. Besides, the language of § 3 implies that Gorgias is dead; the language of § 14 implies that the unnamed writer is alive. Nor does the so-called encomium bear any distinctive marks of the style of Gorgias. Spengel2
would ascribe it to Polykrates. But then if Polykrates had been
the author, Isokrates either would have addressed him, as in the Busiris
, or would at least have named him. The author of the Argument rejects the notion that Polykrates is meant; remarking that, instead of Isokrates attacking Polykrates, it was Polykrates who attacked Isokrates for this work: and concludes that the allusion is probably to Anaximenes of Lampsakos; ‘a speech by whom is
Was Anaximenes the author?
extant which is rather a defence of Helen than an encomium3
.’ It appears not improbable that Anaximenes may have been the real author of the work ascribed to Gorgias; and that it is Anaximenes of whom Isokrates speaks. But on this point we must be content with conjecture4
Two indications help to fix the time at which
Isokrates wrote. 1. From § 3 it may be inferred that Gorgias was dead5
; and Gorgias died about 380 B.C. 2. In § 1 there is an allusion to the three
chief Sokratic sects—the Cynics, the Academy, the Megarics. These sects must have already been mature. The language implies further that Antisthenes, founder of the Cynics—who died in 376 B.C. —is still alive. The Encomium
may probably be put about 370 B.C.6
‘There are persons who pride themselves on being able
to treat tolerably some paradoxical thesis;—as that one cannot lie; that courage, wisdom, justice, are the same thing —namely, knowledge; that nothing exists; that the same things are at once possible and impossible. This style of discussion has not even the charm of novelty. Who does not know the paradoxes of Protagoras and Gorgias, of Zenon and Melissos? The experts in this jugglery would do better if they took subjects which had some bearing on practical life. But in fact their only aim is to get money from young men, whom these subtleties amuse. The pupils have an excuse; the teachers have none. Some of the impostors go so far as to maintain that beggars and exiles are more enviable than other men. Preference for such themes is a sure sign of weakness. If a man wishes to prove himself a good athlete, he does not go to a palaestra which he will have all to himself. A panegyrist of bees or of salt7
has no difficulty in appearing equal to his subject. But it is harder to rise to the height of a great argument. On this ground I give all
praise to the writer on Helen—for celebrating one who was brilliant beyond compare in birth, beauty and fame. One point, however, has escaped him—that, while he professes to have written an encomium, he has, in fact, offered a defence. And—lest I seem to be doing what is so easy—blaming the work of others without showing my own—I will myself attempt to speak of Helen, omitting all that has been said by others (§§ 1—15).
‘Of all the children whom Zeus begat, the dearest to him were those of whom Alkmene and Leda were the mothers. Herakles and Helen were both destined by him to deathless life in heaven and deathless fame on earth; but to Herakles he gave strength—to Helen, that beauty which vanquishes the strong (§§ 16—17).
‘Her first lover was Theseus, called the son of Aegeus, but in truth the son of Poseidon. He fell in love with her when she was yet a young girl; and when Tyndareus rejected his suit, bore her away from Lacedaemon toAphidna in Attica.
‘Now the man who thus loved her stands alone in
completeness of merit, having not some great qualities, but all. Contemporary with Herakles, he rivalled him. Both were athletes in the cause of human life; but with a difference;— the exploits of Herakles redounded more to his own glory— those of Theseus, to the good of others. Many deeds prove his courage and his reverence for the gods. His wisdom and moderation were proved by this,—that he was the first who joined Monarchy to Political Equality; gathered scattered villages into one town; and opened to all its citizens a free career, making their goodwill his bodyguard8
‘When Theseus descended with Peirithoos to Hades, Helen returned to Sparta. The oath taken by her suitors— that he who won her should, if robbed of her, be helped by the rest—showed their foresight of the strife which she must cause. That foresight proved true, though the private hope of each was baffled. Alexander, son of Priam, was chosen
umpire of beauty by the goddesses. Hera offered him the
sovereignty of Asia,—Athene, victory in war,—Aphrodite, the hand of Helen. He could not tell which goddess was fairest; but he knew which offered the best gift. He chose Helen; desiring not her beauty alone, but to be allied with Zeus. Have those who, looking to the sequel, blamed his choice, a judgment better than that to which gods deferred? Or do they blame him for electing to live with her for whom demigods were content to die? (§§ 39—48).
‘And who would have scorned wedlock with her for whose
sake all the Hellenes went to war as if Hellas had been ravaged? They regarded the issue as lying, not between Alexander and Menelaos, but between Europe and Asia. The land which held Helen must be most blest. As thought men, so thought the gods. Zeus sent his son Sarpedon, Eos sent her Memnon, Poseidon sent Kyknos, Thetis sent Achilles, to a fate which they foreknew, but which, they deemed, could not be more glorious (§§ 40—53).
‘And naturally: for Helen was endowed beyond compare
with beauty—the most august, the most honoured, the most divine of all things; the quality for which, if absent, nothing can make up; which, where it is present, wins goodwill at first sight; which makes service sweet and untiring, which makes tasks seem favours; beauty, the profanation of which by those who possess it we deem a crime more shameful than any wrong which they can do to others, while we honour for all their days those who guard it sacred as a shrine (§§ 54—58).
‘Before beauty Zeus himself is humble—approaching it
by craft often, never with violence; it is beauty which has raised most mortals to the gods (§§ 59—60).
‘Helen's power was proportionate to her supremacy in this gift. She became not only immortal but omnipotent. When her brothers were already the prisoners of Death, she lifted them to heaven; and in token of the change, set in the sky that star to which storm-tost sailors pray. To Menelaos, too, she gave deliverance from earthly troubles, and a place in heaven at her side; and at this day, at Therapnae in Lacedaemon, Helen and Menelaos are worshipped, not as blessed spirits only, but as gods. When
Stesichoros blasphemed her, she struck him blind; and when he recanted, gave him back his sight. Some of the Homeridae say, too, that it was Helen who stood by Homer in the night, and bade him sing the War of Troy. Seeing then that she can punish and can reward, let rich men honour her with gifts, wise men with praise (§§ 61—66).
‘More than has been said remains untold. Besides the arts, the ideas, the other gains which Greece owes to her and to the Trojan War, it owes its very freedom from the barbarian. Before that time, Greece was a refuge for unlucky foreigners—for Danaos, for Kadmos, for Pelops, for the Karians who settled in the islands. After the war, our race grew strong enough to conquer towns and territory from the alien. If others choose to work out this theme, they will find no lack of matter for past praise of Helen’ (§§ 67—69).
The Encomium on Helen
is, as a composition, greatly superior to the Busiris.
The effort to adorn an ungrateful theme renders the Busiris
constrained and somewhat frigid; here, there is more freedom and more glow. But the principle of the two pieces is the same. Isokrates conceived that dignity and gravity might be added to encomia of the conventional type by connecting with mythical subject-matter some topic of practical interest, political or moral; and he was willing to allow to such topic a greater prominence than its bearing on the special subject could warrant. This purpose is served in the Busiris
by the discourse on the institutions of Egypt; in the Helen
by the devotion of a large space to the reforms of Theseus.