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*Gorgi/as), of Leontini, a Chalcidian colony in Sicily, was somewhat older than the orator Antiphon (born in B. C. 480 or 479), and lived to such an advanced age (some say 105, and others 109 years), that he survived Socrates, though probably only a short time. (Quintil. iii. ]. § 9; comp. Xenoph. Anab. 2.6.16; H. Ed. Foss, de Gorgia Leontino, Halle, 1828, p. 6, &c. ; J. Geel, Histor. Crit. Sophistarum, in the Nova Acta Literaria Societatis Rheno-Trajectinae, ii. p. 14.) The accounts which we have of personal collisions between Gorgias and Plato, and of the opinion which Gorgias is said to have expressed respecting Plato's dialogue Gorgias (Athen. 11.505), are doubtful. We have no particular information respecting the early life and circumstances of Gorgias, but we are told that at an advanced age, in B. C. 427, he was sent by his fellow-citizens as ambassador to Athens, for the purpose of soliciting its protection against the threatening power of Syracuse. (Diod. 12.53; Plat. Hipp. Maj. p. 282; Timaeus, apud Dionys. Jud. Lys. 3.) He seems to have returned to Leontini only for a short time, and to have spent the remaining years of his vigorous old age in the towns of Greece Proper, especially at Athens and the Thessalian Larissa, enjoying honour everywhere as an orator and teacher of rhetoric. (Diod. l.c.; Plut. de Socrat. Daem. 8 ; Dionys. l.c.; Plut. Hipp. Maj. p. 282b., Gorg. p. 449b., Meno, p. 71, Protag. pp. 309, 315; comp. Foss, p. 23, &c.) Süvern (Ueber Aristoph. Vogel, p. 26, in the Memoirs of the Royal Acad. of Berlin) endeavored to prove that Gorgias and his brother Herodicus, a physician of some note, settled at Athens, but there is not sufficient evidence for this opinion. As Gorgias did not go as ambassador to Athens till after the death of Pericles, and as we have no trace of an earlier journey, we must reiect the statement that the great Athenian statesman and the historian Thucydides were among his disciples. (Philostr. Vit. Soph. p. 493, Epist. 13, p. 919; comp. Dionys. Epist. ad Pomp. 2, Jud. de Thuc. 24.) But his Sicilian oratory, in which he is said to have excelled Tisias, who was at Athens at the same time with him, perhaps as ambassador from Syracuse (Paus. 6.7.8; Plat. Phaedr. p. 267), must have exercised a considerable influence even upon eminent men of the time, such as Agathon, the tragic poet, and the rhetorician Isocrates. (Plat. Symp. p. 198; Dionys. de Isocrat. 1, de Compos. Verb. 23; Isocrat. Panath. i. p. 334, ed. Lange.) Besides Polus, who is described in such lively colours in the Gorgias of Plato, Alcibiades, Critias, Alcidamas, Aeschines, and Antisthenes, are called either pupils or imitators of Gorgias. (Philostr. p. 493, &c., comp. p. 919; Dionys. de Isaeo, 19; D. L. 2.63, 6.1.)

In his earlier years Gorgias was attracted, though not convinced, by the conclusions to which the Eleatics had come: but he neither attempted to refute them, nor did he endeavour to reconcile the reality of the various and varying phaenomena of the world with the supposition of a simple, eternal, and unchangeable existence, as Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and the atomists had done. On the contrary, he made use of the conclusions of the Eleatics, for the purpose of proving that there was nothing which had any existence or reality; and in doing this he paid so much attention to externals, and kept so evidently appearance alone in view, instead of truth, that he was justly reckoned among the sophists. His work, On Nature, or On that which is not, in which he developed his views, and which is said to have been written in B. C. 444 (Olympiod. in Plat. Gorg. p. 567, ed. Routh.), seems to have been lost at an early time (it is doubtful whether Galen, who quotes it, Opera, vol. i. p. 56, ed. Gesner, actually read it); but we possess sufficient extracts from it, to form a definite idea of its nature. The work de Xenoph. Gorgia et Melisso, ascribed to Aristotle or Theophrastus, contains a faithful and accurate account of it, though the text is unfortunately very corrupt: Sextus Empiricus (ad v. Math. 7.65, &c.) is more superficial, but clearer. The book of Gorgias was divided into three sections: in the first he endeavoured to show that nothing had any real existence ; in the second, that if there was a real existence, it was beyond man's power to ascertain it; and in the third, that existence could not be communicated, even supposing that it was real and ascertainable. The first section, of which we have a much more precise and accurate account in the Aristotelian work than in Sextus Empiricus, shows on the one hand that things neither are nor are not, because otherwise being and not being would be identical; and on the other hand, that if there were existence, it could neither have come to be nor not come to be, and neither be one nor many. The first of these inferences arises from an ambiguity in the use of the term of existence; the second from the fact of Gorgias adopting the conclusion of Melissus, which is manifestly wrong, and according to which existence not having come to be is infinite, and--applying Zeno's argument against the reality of space--as an infinite has no existence. Gorgias further makes bad use of another argument of Zeno, inasmuch as he conceives the unit as having no magnitude, and hence as incorporeal, that is, according to the materialistic views, as not existing at all, although with regard to variety, he observes that it presupposes the existence of units. The second section concludes that, if existence were ascertainable or cognizable, everything which is ascertained or thought must be real ; but, he continues, things which are ascertainable through the medium of our senses do not exist, because they are conceived, but exist even when they are not conceived. The third section urges the fact, that it is not existence which is communicated, but only words, and that words are intelligible only by their reference to corresponding perceptions ; but even then intelligible only approximatively, since no two persons ever perfectly agreed in their perceptions or sentiments, nay, not even one and the same person agreed with himself at different times. (Comp. Foss, pp. 107-185.)

However little such a mode of arguing might stand the test of a sound dialectical examination, yet it could not but direct attention to the insufficiency of the abstractions of the Eleatics, and call forth more careful investigations concerning the nature and forms of our knowledge and cognition, and thus contribute towards the removal of the later scepticism, the germs of which were contained in the views entertained by Gorgias himself. He himself seems soon to have renounced this sophistical schematism, and to have turned his attention entirely to rhetorical and practical pursuits. Plato at least notices only one of those argumentations, and does not even speak of that one in the animated description which he gives of the peculiarities of Gorgias in the dialogue bearing his name, but in the Euthydemus (p. 284, 86, &c.). Isocrates (Helen. Laudat.), however, mentions the book itself.

Gorgias, as described by Plato, avoids general definitions, even of virtue and morality, and confines himself to enumerating and characterising the particular modes in which they appear, according to the differences of age, sex, &c., and that not without a due appreciation of real facts, as is clear from an expression of Aristotle, in which he recognises this merit. (Plat. Meno, p. 71, &c.; comp. Aristot. Pol. 1.9.13.) Gorgias further expressly declared, that he did not profess to impart virtue--as Protagoras and other sophists did--but only the power of speaking or eloquence (Plat. Meno, p. 95, Gorg. p. 452, Phileb. p. 58), and he preferred the name of a rhetorician to that of a sophist (Plat. Gory. p. 520 a, 449, 452); but on the supposition that oratory comprehended and was the master of all our other powers and faculties. (Ib p. 456, 454.) The ancients themselves were uncertain whether they should call him an orator or a sophist. (Cic. de Invent, 1.5; Lucian, Macrob. 23.)

In his explanations of the phaenomena of nature, though without attaching any importance to physics, Gorgias seems to have followed in the footsteps of Empedocles, whose disciple he is called, though in all probability not correctly. (D. L. 8.58; Plat. Meno, p. 76, Gorg. p. 453 ; comp. Dionys. de Isocrat. 1.)


The eloquence of Gorgias, and probably that of his Sicilian contemporary Tisias also, was chiefly calculated to tickle the ear by antitheses, by combinations of words of similar sound, by the Symmetry of its parts and similar artifices (Diod. 12.53; Cic. Orat. 49, 52; Dionys. passim), and to dazzle by metaphors, hypallagae, allegories, repetitions, apostrophes, and the like (Suidas; Dionys. passim); by novel images, poetical circumlocutions, and high-sounding expressions, and sometimes also by a strain of irony. (Aristot. Rh. 3.17, 8; Xenoph. Symp. 2; Aristot. Rh. 3.1, 3, 14; Philostr. p. 492; Dionys. de Lys. 3.) He lastly tried to charm his hearers by a symmetrical arrangement of his periods. (Demetr. de Elocut. 15.) But as these artifices, in the application of which he is said to have often shown real grandeur, earnestness, and elegance (μεγαλοπρέπειαν καὶ σεμνότητα καὶ καλλιλογίαν, Dionys. de Admir. vi Demosth. 4), were made use of too profusely, and, for the purpose of giving undue prominence to poor thoughts, his orations did not excite the feelings of his hearers (Aristot. Rh. 3.3, 17; Longin. de Sublim. 3.12; Hermog. de Ideis, 1.6, 2.9; Dionys. passim), and at all events could produce only a momentary impression. This was the case with his oration addressed to the assembled Greeks at Olympia, exhorting them to union against their common enemy (Aristot. Rh. 3.14; Philostr. p. 493), and with the funeral oration which he wrote at Athens, though he probably did not deliver it in public. (Philostr. p. 493 ; and the fragment preserved by the Schol. on Hermogenes, in Geel, p. 60, &c., and Foss, p. 69, &c.) Besides these and similar show-speeches of which we know no more than the titles (Geel, p. 33 ; Foss, p. 76, &c.), Gorgias wrote loci communes probably as rhetorical exercises, to show how subjects might be looked at from opposite points of view. (Cic. Brut. 12.) The same work seems to be referred to under the title Onomasticon. (Pollux,9.1.) We have besides mention of a work on dissimilar and homogeneous words (Dionys. de Comp. Verb. p. 67, ed. Reiske), and another on rhetoric (Apollod. apud Diog. Laert. 8.58, Cic. Brut. 12; Quint. Inst. 3.1.3; Suidas), unless one of the before-mentioned works is to be understood by this title.

the Apology of Palamedes
, and
the Encomium on Helena

Respecting the genuineness of the two declamations which have come down to us under the name of Gorgias, viz. the Apology of Palamedes, and the Encomium on Helena, which is maintained by Reiske, Geel (p. 48, &c.), and Schönborn (Dissertat. de Authentia Declamationum, quae Gorgiae Leontini nomine extant, Breslau, 1826), and doubted by Foss (p. 80, &c.) and others, it is difficult to give any decisive opinion, since the characteristic peculiarities of the oratory of Gorgias, which appear in these declamations, especially in the former, might very well have been imitated by a skilful rhetorician of later times.


The works of Gorgias did not even contain the elements of a scientific theory of oratory, any more than his oral instructions; he confined himself to teaching his pupils a variety of rhetorical artifices, and made them learn by heart certain formulas relative to them (Aristot. SE 2.9), although there is no doubt that his lectures here and there contained remarks which were very much to the point. (Aristot. Rh. 3.18; comp. Cic. de Orat. 2.59.)

[A. Ch. B.]

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  • Cross-references from this page (13):
    • Aristotle, Politics, 1.1260a
    • Aristotle, Rhetoric, 3.1
    • Aristotle, Rhetoric, 3.18
    • Aristotle, Rhetoric, 3.8
    • Aristotle, Rhetoric, 3.14
    • Aristotle, Rhetoric, 3.17
    • Aristotle, Rhetoric, 3.3
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 12.53
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.7.8
    • Diogenes Laertius, Vitae philosophorum, 6.1
    • Cicero, On Oratory, 2.59
    • Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, Book 3, 1.3
    • Cicero, Brutus, 12
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