Gorgias (ca. 480-ca. 376 B.C.) was a Greek sophist and rhetorician. He believed that prose should rival poetry as a vehicle of persuasive and lofty expression and made important contributions to the development of epideictic, or ceremonial, oratory.
Gorgias was born in Leontini on the island of Sicily and is said to have lived more than 100 years. He went to Athens in 427 B.C. at the head of a delegation from his native city and caused a great stir with his new rhetorical style. His fame became immense throughout the Greek world, and according to Isocrates, his pupil, he was able to make a handsome fortune through the fees he charged. Noteworthy among the honors he received were invitations to deliver a funeral oration at Athens and to speak on Hellenic unity at Olympia. He was permitted to have a golden statue of himself erected at Delphi. Although he was popular, he was not without enemies, among whom was Aristophanes, the Athenian comic poet, who lampooned him and his extravagant rhetorical style in at least three comedies. Gorgias never married and left no direct descendants.
Writings and Ideas
Gorgias's writings include a single philosophical essay, listed by Sextus Empiricus as either On Being or On Nature, and Gorgias also wrote a Handbook of Rhetoric (now lost) and several speeches of which extensive fragments remain. The main points of the philosophical essay as preserved by Sextus are: nothing exists; if anything does exist, it is unknowable; if anything can be known, knowledge of it is incommunicable. In the tradition of Parmenides and Zeno of Elea, who developed certain types of rigorous logical arguments, Gorgias pursues an indirect kind of argumentation to arrive at an extreme conclusion.
More important than his contributions to philosophy are Gorgias's rhetorical works. His lost rhetorical treatise probably contained extensive examples of various types of arguments and rhetorical devices with little or no theoretical discussion (a fault of all of the handbooks before Aristotle). But if Gorgias published no elaborate theory, it is nevertheless evident from the extant Encomium of Helen that he had strong theoretical arguments for the power of the logos, and the importance and effect of his innovations could be readily seen in his successes as a speaker and teacher.
Gorgias's influence was immediate and widespread. His prose, which made lavish use of poetic diction, symmetrical clauses, various rhythms, and musical effects, revealed new possibilities to writers and speakers.
Further Reading on Gorgias
The surviving fragments of Gorgias's works are collected in Hermann Diels, ed., Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, translated by Kathleen Freeman in Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers (1946; 3d ed. 1953) and discussed by her in The Pre-Socratic Philosophers (1946; 3d ed. 1953). Assessments of Gorgias's importance are given in George Kennedy, The Art of Persuasion in Greece (1963); C. S. Baldwin, Ancient Rhetoric and Poetic (1965); and Albin Lesky, A History of Greek Literature (trans. 1966).