Gorgias of Leontini, a contemporary of Protagoras, started out, like the Sophist, from the position that
nothing can be known, and the pursuit of philosophy is a ploughing of the sand. He is said to have been a pupil of Tisias, and occupies a place between the early rhetoricians and the Sophists usually so-called. Like the former, he studied and taught oratory, but whereas they were only concerned with the struggle for mastery in debate, he entertained, like Protagoras, a broad view of education, and, while continuing to regard rhetoric as the art of persuasion,1
attached more attention to the artistic side than any other educator had done. He became the first conscious artist in prose style.
Like the other Sophists he travelled from town to town giving displays of his art, and gained riches which he spent freely (Isocr., Antid., § 155.
). In 427 B.C. he came to Athens as an ambassador from his native city,2
and produced a remarkable impression on his hearers, not only the multitude before whom he spoke, but the highly educated class who could appreciate his technique. Thucydides owed something to him, and the poet Antiphon showed traces of his influence.3
We hear of his sojourn at Larissa, where the Thessalians, in admiration, coined from his name the word which Philostratus uses to express his exuberant style.4
His first work is said to have been a sceptical treatise on Nature, or the Non-existent.5
This was followed by a
certain number of speeches, the most famous of which was the Olympiac,
in which, like Isocrates at a later date, he urged on the Greeks the necessity of union. The Funeral Oration,
to which we shall recur, is supposed to have been delivered at Athens, but this can hardly have been the case, as such speeches were regularly delivered by prominent Athenian statesmen, and there would be no occasion for calling in a foreigner. A Pythian
speech and various Encomia
are recorded; some on mythical characters, which may be regarded as mere exercises, some on real people, as the Eleans (Arist., Rhet., iii. 14. 12
). He seems not to have written speeches for the lawcourts; his tendency, as in his personal habits, so in his speech, was towards display, and so he originated the style of oratory known as epideictic, which Isocrates in a subsequent age was destined to bring to perfection. Though an Ionian by birth, he instinctively recognized the great possibilities of the Attic dialect, and chose it as his medium of expression; it was not, however, the Attic of everyday life, but a language enriched by the exuberance of a poetical imagination. We possess of his actual work only one noteworthy extract from the Funeral Speech
; but from this, joined to a few isolated criticisms and phrases preserved by commentators, as well as from the language ascribed by Plato to his imitator Agathon,6
we can form some idea of his pompous exaggerations.
He was much addicted to the substitution of rare expressions—γλῶτται
, as the Greek critics called them —for the ordinary forms of speech. His language
abounded in archaic and poetical words, striking metaphors and unusual compounds. He frequently employed neuter adjectives and participles in preference to the corresponding abstract nouns; he liked to use a verbal noun accompanied by an auxiliary in places where a simple verb would be naturally employed. Finally, though he could not aspire to composition in elaborate periods like Isocrates or Demosthenes, he developed the use of antithesis, word answering to word and clause to clause, pointing his antithetical style not only by the frequent use of μὲν
, but by the use of assonance at the ends of clauses, corresponding forms of verbs in similar positions, and by some attention to rhythm and equality of syllabic value in contrasted clauses.
His chief fault was excess; he was a pioneer in expression, and did very valuable work; but he lacked a sense of proportion. The result is that the page of his genuine work which we possess reads like a parody of style, as every characteristic is carried to extreme. But the teacher must indulge in exaggeration, or the pupil will not grasp his points, and the work of Gorgias has a considerable value. It was the first attempt to form a style, and his followers learned partly by imitation, partly by avoiding the faults which were too prominent. The very fact that the fragment preserved is possibly not in his best style makes it the easier to observe his influence on his successors— Antiphon, Thucydides, and many subsequent writers of artistic prose.
In addition to the speeches already mentioned we possess two encomia on Helen and Palamedes, which are attributed to him. Their authenticity is very
doubtful, but Blass, who discussed the question very thoroughly in his Attic Orators
without coming to a conviction, has since decided in favour of their genuineness.7
This is entirely a matter of personal opinion; but, even if not genuine, they are probably able imitations of the Gorgian style and method.
The fragment from the Epitaphios
can hardly be translated in a way that will give a proper idea of its affectations, but as some notion of its most striking faults may be formed from an English version, some extracts are added. In the Greek in some places there seems to be very little sense, and what there is has been entirely subordinated to the sound:
‘What quality was there absent in these men which ought in men to be present? And what was there present that should not be present? May I have the power to speak as I would, and the will to speak as I should, avoiding the jealousy of gods and escaping the envy of men. For these were divine in their valour, though human in their mortality; often preferring mild equity to stern justice, and often the uprightness of reasoning to the strictness of the laws, considering that the most divine and universal law is this—to speak, to omit, and to do the proper thing at the proper time. Two duties above all they practised, strength of mind and strength of body; the one in deliberation, the other in execution; tenders of those who by injustice were unfortunate, punishers of those who by injustice were fortunate. . . . And accordingly, though they have died, our yearning died not with them, but immortal over these bodies not immortal it lives when they live no more.’
Contrast and parallelism are rampant throughout this incredible piece of bombast, which in addition to
the curious jingles produced by such words as γνώμην καὶ ῥώμην; δυστυχούντων, εὐτυχούντων
, shows a poetical vocabulary in such phrases as ἔμφυτος Ἄρης
, ‘the Mars that is born in them,’ ἐνόρλιος ἔρις
, ‘embattled strife,’ and φιλόκαλος εἰρήνη
, ‘peace that loves the arts.’ Antiphon and Thucydides suffered severely from the contagion of this style, and a conscious imitator, the author of the pseudo-Lysian Epitaphios
, has reproduced its florid monotony.