Encomium of Helen
Gorgias of Leontini
Gorgias, the most famous rhetorician of the late fifth-century, composed this speech as for his own pleasure, using perhaps as an example of argument for his pupils. In the speech he attempts to vindicate Helen of Troy, absolving her of blame in causing the famed Trojan War. Helen —according to the populace’s belief— was seduced and taken from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta, by the Trojan prince Paris. You can enjoy Gorgia's speech as he wrote it; we usually know Gorgias because of Plato's dialogue Gorgias--which isn't the same thing.
The following is my adaptation of Gorgia's Encomium of Helen into contemporary English.
(1) What is becoming to a city is order, to a body beauty, to a soul wisdom, to an action virtue, to a speech truth; unbecoming to all these are their opposites. A man, woman, speech, deed, and object should be honored with praise if they are praiseworthy and blamed if unworthy, for it is equally a mistake to blame the praiseworthy and to praise the blamable.
(2) An upright man has the duty to speak what is right and refute what is unfairly spoken. Therefore it is right to refute those who malign Helen —a woman about whom the testimony of inspired poets has become univocal and unanimous— since the mere mention of her name bears a reminder of misfortunes. For my part, by introducing some reasoning into my speech, I wish to free the accused Helen of blame and, having reproved her detractors show them as liars, freeing her from their ignorance.
(3) Now it is well known to all that in nature and in birth the woman who is the subject of this speech is the most preeminent among preeminent of all men and women. It is clear that her mother was Leda, and her rather was in fact a god, Zeus; though an alleged mortal, Tyndareus, legend says is also her father. The former was shown to be her father because indeed he was and the latter was disproved. Tyndareus was the most powerful of men and Zeus the Lord of all.
(4) Born from such stock, she had a goddess-like beauty, which was not concealed but revealed. In many she aroused much desire for her, and her one single body was the magnet for bringing together many bodies of men full of great thoughts, of great deeds, many of whom had had greatness of wealth, others the glory of ancient nobility, still others the vigor of personal agility, and some the command of acquired knowledge. And all came because of a passion which longs to conquer and an unconquerable desire for honor.
(5) Who it was and why and how he sailed away, taking Helen as his love, I shall not say. To tell the knowing what they know shows it is right but brings no pleasure. Having gone beyond the time set for my speech, I shall go on to the beginning of my future speech, and I shall propose the likely reasons for Helen's voyage to Troy.
(6) Either by will of Fate, or the decision of the gods, or vote of Necessity, Helen did what she did, or she was forced, seduced by words, or possessed by love. Now if through the first, it is right for the responsible one to be blamed and not Helen, for god's predetermination cannot be hindered by human premeditation. For it is the nature of things that the strong cannot be hindered by the weak, but for the weaker to be ruled and drawn by the stronger, and for the stronger to lead and the weaker to follow. God is a stronger force than man in might and in wit and in other ways. It follows then that one must place blame on Fate and on a god—one must free Helen from disgrace.
(7) But if she was raped by violence and illegally assaulted and unjustly insulted, it is clear that the violator, as the insulter, did the wronging, and the raped, as the insulted, did the suffering. It is right then for the barbarian who undertook a barbaric undertaking in word, law, and deed deserves blame in word, exclusion in law, and punishment in deed. And surely it is proper for a woman raped and robbed of her country and deprived of her loved ones to be pitied rather than slander. He did the dreadful deeds; she suffered them. It is just therefore to pity her and to hate him.
(8) But if it was speech which persuaded her and deceived her heart, it isn’t difficult to defend her and to erase blame as follows. Speech is a powerful master which by means of the finest and most invisible body achieves the most divine works: it can stop fear and banish grief and create joy and nurture pity. I shall show how this is the case.
(9) I must offer proof to change the opinion of my hearers: I both perceive and define poetry as speech with meter. Fearful shuddering and tearful pity and grievous longing come upon its hearers, and at the actions and physical sufferings of others in good fortunes and in evil fortunes, through the agency of words, the soul is caused to experience a suffering of its own. But come, I shall turn from one argument to another.
(10) Sacred incantations sung with words are bearers of pleasure and banishers of pain, since in merging with opinion in the soul, the power of the incantation works to beguile it and persuade it and alter it by enchantment. In the discovered twin arts of witchcraft and magic: one consists of errors of soul and the other of deceptions of opinion.
(11) Many men persuade people of things to do by crafting a false argument. For if all men on all subjects had both memory of things past and awareness of things present and foreknowledge of the future, speech would not be same as we know it, since as things are now it is not easy for them to recall the past nor to consider the present nor to predict the future. So that on most subjects most men accept opinion as counselor to their soul, but since opinion is slippery and insecure it casts those employing it into slippery and insecure successes.
(12) What reason then prevents the conclusion that Helen, similarly against her
will, might have come under the influence of speech, just as if ravished by the force of a violent violator? For it was possible to see how the force of persuasion prevails; persuasion has the form as compulsion, but it does not have the same power. For speech constrained the soul, persuading it both to believe the things said and to approve the things done. The persuader, like a constrainer, is the wrongdoer and the persuaded, like the constrained, is the victim because she was compelled by speech.
(13) To understand that persuasion, when added to speech, is bound to impress the soul as it wishes, one must study: first, the arguments of Astronomers who, substituting opinion for opinion, taking away one but creating another, make what is incredible and unclear seem true to the eyes of opinion; then, second, logically necessary debates in which a single speech, written with art but not spoken with truth, pleases a great crowd and persuades; and, third, the verbal disputes of philosophers in which the swiftness of thought is also shown to alter the belief based on opinion.
(14) The effect of speech upon the condition of the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nature of bodies. For just as different drugs dispel different secretions form the body, and some bring an end to disease and others to life, so also in the case of speeches, some distress, others delight, some cause fear, others make the hearers bold, and some drug and benumb the soul with a kind of evil persuasion.
(15) It has been explained that if Helen was persuaded by speech she did not do wrong but was unfortunate. I shall discuss the fourth cause in a fourth argument. For if it was love which did all these things, there will be no difficulty in exonerating her of the charge of the sin which is alleged to have taken place. For the things we see do not have the nature which we wish them to have, but the nature which each actually has. Through sight the soul receives an impression even in its inner features.
(16) When rivals in war buckle on their warlike accouterments of bronze and steel, some designed for defense, others for offense, if the sight sees this, immediately it is alarmed and it alarms the soul, so that often men flee, panic stricken from future danger as though it were present. For strong as is the habit of obedience to the law, it is ejected by fear resulting from sight, which coming to a man causes him to be indifferent both to what is judged honorable because of the law and to the advantage to be derived from victory.
(17) It has happened that people, after having seen frightening sights, have also lost presence of mind momentarily; in this way fear extinguishes and excludes thought. And many have fallen victim to useless labor and dread diseases and hardly curable madnesses. In this way the sight engraves upon the mind images of things which have been seen. And many frightening impressions linger, and what lingers is exactly analogous to what is spoken.
(18) Moreover, whenever pictures perfectly create a single figure and shape from many colors and figures, they delight the sight, while the creation of statues and the production of works of art furnish a pleasant sight to the eyes. Thus it is natural for the sight to grieve for some things and to long for others, and much love and desire for many objects and figures is engraved in many men.
(19) If, therefore, Helen’s eyes were pleased by the figure of Alexander (Paris), and touched her soul with eager desire and struggled for love, what is so odd about it? If, being a god, Love has the divine power of the gods, how could a lesser being reject and refuse this god? But if Love is a disease of human origin and a fault of the soul, it should not be blamed as a sin, but regarded as an affliction. For Helen came, as she did come, caught in the web of Fate, not by the plans of the mind, or by the constraints of love, or by artful devices.
(20) Since she is utterly acquitted of all charge, how then can the blame of Helen be just? Whether she did what she did through falling in love, or persuaded by speech, or ravished by force, or compelled by divine intervention—she is free of all blame.
(21) By means of my speech I have removed this woman’s disgrace; I have followed the rules which I set up at the beginning of the speech; I have tried to end the injustice of blame and the ignorance of opinion; I wished to write a speech which would be a praise of Helen as well as a diversion to myself.