Life

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Gorgias (GAWR-jee-uhs), who may have been a pupil of the philosopher Empedocles, taught and practiced rhetoric in his native Sicily until he was about fifty. After traveling to Athens with a diplomatic delegation in 427 b.c.e., he became one of the most successful of the mainland Sophists (itinerant teachers of rhetoric). He taught the Athenian orator Isocrates, amassed considerable wealth, and lived to be over a hundred years old. Reliable documentation exists of several of his speeches, including defenses of Helen of Troy (against a charge of adultery) and of Palamedes (for treachery), and a philosophical speech On Nature (alternatively, On Not-Being; only summaries of this speech exist). In the dialogue by Plato named Gorgias (399-390 b.c.e.; English translation, 1804), he appears as a competent and successful rhetor who is nonetheless unable to withstand cross-examination by Socrates. Surviving texts display an exceptionally florid style (called “Gorgianic”) that makes use of unusual vocabulary, many figures of speech, and incantatory formulations. His Encomium of Helen attributes almost magical powers to speech, describing it as “a powerful lord” and comparing its effect to that of a drug.

Influence

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Gorgias, the most celebrated fifth century exponent of a highly stylized type of rhetoric, was long admired for his worldly success and criticized for his philosophical shortcomings.

Additional Resources

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Jarratt, Susan. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Kennedy, George, trans. “Gorgias.” In The Older Sophists, edited by Rosamond Kent Sprague. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972.