Gorgias is a man of whose powers and merits it is extremely difficult for us now to form a clear or impartial notion. This is not, however, because the portrait of him in Plato is so vivid. Nothing more distinguishes Plato from later satirists of like keenness than his manner of hinting the redeeming points of the person under dissection; and, whenever Gorgias comes in—whether in the dialogue that bears his name or elsewhere—it may be discerned (I venture to think) that Plato's purpose was to bring out an aspect of the man—that aspect which he considered most important—but that he allowed, and was writing for those who knew, that there was another side to the picture.
This other side is suggested by the fact that Gorgias had at least some influence on a man of such intellectual power as Thucydides, on one so highly cultivated as the tragic poet Agathon, and on so shrewd a judge of practical ability as Jason of Pherae. The difficulty of now estimating Gorgias comes from this,—that he was an inventor whose originality it is hard for us to realise, but an artist whose faults are to us peculiarly glaring. Gorgias of Leontini was born about 485 B. C. Tradition made him the pupil of Empedokles; but their nearness in age makes this unlikely. That they knew each other is probable enough. Gorgias, like Protagoras, began with natural philosophy; and, after employing Eleatic methods to combat Eleatic conclusions, turned from a field of which he held himself to have
The province of Gorgias, neither Dialectic nor Rhetoric,
proved the barrenness. The practical culture to which he next addressed himself differed both from that of the Eastern Sophists and from that of the Sicilian Rhetors. It was founded neither upon
Dialectic nor upon a systematic Rhetoric. Its basis was Oratory considered as a faculty to be developed empirically. Whether Gorgias left a written Art or not, is doubtful; it seems more probable that he did not1
; and his method of teaching—which reappears a century and a half later with the beginnings of Asianism2
—rested on the commission to memory of prepared passages. These passages were especially such as might serve to magnify the speaker's theme (αὔξησις
) or to bring out the enormity of a wrong (δείνωσις
). Beautiful and effective expression (λέξις
was the one great object. Gorgias seems to have given little or no heed to the treatment of subjectmatter,—to invention or management; or even to that special topic of Probability which was already engaging so much of the attention of Rhetoric. He was himself a man with a brilliant gift for language. His general conception was simple enough, but, for his own day and world, both bold and original. If the faculty of expression is cultivated to the right point, and is combined with a certain amount of general information, it will carry all before it. Just in the spirit in which Vivian Grey is described as saying to himself ‘knowledge is power’, Gorgias said to himself, ‘expression is power.’ He considered the gift in its relation to victory, and this victory not to be such narrow and painful success as was prepared by the pedantries of the rhetors, but dazzling and world-wide. Everything recorded of the man suggests his immense self-confidence, his capacity for sustained work, his exuberant vitality, and, above all, his power of doing what a new style would not have done without other gifts—setting the fashion to the ambitious among the rising generation, or even exciting a popular enthusiasm. In
His first visit to Athens.
427 B. C. the Leontines sent an embassy to Athens, praying for help in their war with Syracuse. ‘At the head of the envoys,’ says Diodoros3
, ‘was Gorgias the rhetor, a man who far surpassed all his
contemporaries in oratorical force. He astonished the Athenians, with their quick minds and their
love of eloquence, by the foreign fashion (τῷ ξενίζοντι
) of his language’—and by figures which the historian proceeds to enumerate. Now Gorgias appears to have always spoken and written in the Attic dialect—not in the ordinary Sicilian Doric, nor in the Ionic of Leontini4
. The τὸ ξενίζον
of Diodoros is that ‘foreign’ air which Aristotle in his Rhetoric calls τὸ ξενικόν5
, and which, for Athenians at least, was capable, when rightly used, of being a charm in oratory. There is no word which will exactly translate it, but it is nearly akin to what we mean by ‘distinction.’ That which was, to the Athenians, τὸ ξενίζον
, or the element of distinction,
in the Sicilian's speaking, was its poetical character; and this depended on two things—the use of poetical words, and the use of symmetry or assonance between clauses in such a way as to give a strongly marked prose-rhythm and to reproduce, as far as possible, the metres of verse. The only considerable fragment of Gorgias extant is that from the Funeral Oration—for the Palamedes
and the Helen
are now generally admitted to be later imitations. A few
Specimen from his Epitaphios.
sentences from this will give the best idea of his manner:—
μαρτυρίας δὲ τούτων τρόπαια ἐστήσαντο τῶν πολεμίων, Διὸς μὲν ἀγάλματα, τούτων δὲ ἀναθήματα, οὐκ
ἄπειροι οὔτε ἐμφύτου Ἄρεος οὔτε νομίμων ἐρώτων οὔτε ἐνοπλίου ἔριδος οὔτε φιλοκάλου εἰρήνης, σεμνοὶ μὲν πρὸς τοὺς θεοὺς τῷ δικαίῳ, ὅσιοι δὲ πρὸς τοὺς τοκέας τῇ θεραπείᾳ, δίκαιοι πρὸς τοὺς ἀστοὺς τῷ ἴσῳ, εὐσεβεῖς δὲ πρὸς τοὺς φίλους τῇ πίστει. τοιγαροῦν αὐτῶν ἀποθανόντων ὁ πόθος οὐ συναπέθανεν, ἀλλ᾽ ἀθάνατος ἐν οὐκ ἀσωμάτοις σώμασι ζῇ οὐ ζώντων6
It may be hard now to understand how such
His great popularity at Athens— how it is to be understood.
a style can have moved to transports of delight men who lived among the works of Pheidias and Iktinos, who knew the prose of Herodotos, and whose ears were familiar with Homer, with Aeschylos and with Sophokles. It is more difficult still, perhaps, to realize that the invention of this style was a proof of genius. Gorgias was the first man who definitely conceived how literary prose might be artistic. That he should instinctively compare it with the only other form of literature which was already artistic, namely poetry, was inevitable. Early prose necessarily begins by comparing itself with poetry. Gorgias was a man of glowing and eager power; he carried the assimilation to a length which seems incredibly tasteless now. But let it be remembered that the interval between Gorgias and Thucydides, in some passages of the historian's speeches, is not so very wide. And if the enthusiasm of the Ekklesia still seems incomprehensible, let it be remembered that they felt vividly the whole originality of the man, and did not at all see that his particular tendency was mistaken. It was only by and by, and after several compromises, that men found out
the difference between τὸ ἔρρυθμον
and τὸ εὔρυθμον
, between verse and rhythmical prose; namely, that rhythm is the framework of the former but only the fluent outline of the latter. If a style is new and forcible, extravagances will not hinder it from being received with immense applause at its first appearance. Then it is imitated until its originality is forgotten and its defects brought into relief. In the maturity of his genius, Lord Macaulay pronounced the Essay on Milton to be ‘disfigured by much gaudy and ungraceful ornament.’ Gorgias was the founder of artistic prose; and his faults are the more excusable because they were extravagant. Granting the natural assumption that prose was to be a kind of poetry, then Gorgias was brilliantly logical; and, as the event proved, his excesses did good service by calling earlier attention to the fallacy in his theory.