Gorgias on Knowledge and the Powerlessness of Logos
2. The Limits of Speech
How many people have persuaded how many about how many things by molding false speech!5 For if everyone, concerning everything, had memory [mnēmēn] of the past, <awareness> [ennoian] of the present, and foresight [pronoian] of the future, speech would not similarly be like it is in actuality, now that it is not easy to remember [mnēsthēnai] the past, examine [skepsasthai] the present, or divine [manteusasthai] the future. So concerning most things most people take belief [doxan] as their soul’s guide. But belief [doxa], being slippery [sphalera] and unstable [abebaios], involves those relying on it in slippery and unstable fortunes.(11; trans. modified)
That persuasion proceeding via speech impresses the soul however it wishes can be seen by studying: first, the speeches of the cosmologists who snatch away one belief and replace it with another [doxan anti doxēs], making untrustworthy [apista] and unclear [adēla] things appear to the eyes of belief [doxēs]; second, the compelling competitions of speeches in which one speech, written with skill though not spoken with truth, delights and persuades the crowd; and third, the speech contests of philosophers, in which quick thinking shows how easily changed [eumetabolon] is the trust in belief [tēn tēs doxēs pistin].(13; trans. modified)
Do you accuse me as someone who has precise knowledge or merely an opinion [eidos akribōs ē doxazōn]?... That you do not have knowledge [ouk oistha] of what you are accusing me of is apparent. Accordingly, since you do <not> know [<ouk> eidota], you merely believe [doxazein]. Further, you most audacious of men, do you have the audacity to prosecute a man on a capital charge by trusting in opinion [doxēi pisteusas], a most untrustworthy [apistotatōi] thing, without knowing the truth [tēn alētheian ouk eidōs]? What do you actually know [sunoistha] of the accused having done such a deed? And again: everyone has an opinion about everything [to ge doxasasi … hapasi peri pantōn]; they have that in common, and you are no wiser [sophōteros] than anyone else in that respect. But we must not trust [pisteuein] those who merely believe [tois doxazousi], but those who know [tois eidosin], nor think that belief [tēn doxan] is more trustworthy than truth [tēn doxan tēs alētheias pistoteran nomizein], but on the contrary that truth [tēn alētheian] is more trustworthy than opinion [tēs doxēs].(22–24; trans. modified)
3. The Epistemology of Rhetoric
If I were being tried for some criminal acts [praxeis] I should not have been able to produce the acts themselves for you to see [idein]. Rather, you would have had to guess [eikazontas] what happened [tōn pepragmenōn] on the basis of what I said [tōn eirēmenōn] and pass judgment to the best of your ability. But since I am charged with offending by my words [tous logous], I think that I shall be in a better position to make the truth manifest [emphaniein tēn alētheian] for you; for I shall present in evidence the actual words which I have spoken and written, so that you will vote on them not from mere belief [ou doxasantes], but clearly knowing [saphōs eidotes] their nature.(Antidosis 53–54)
4. Logos and Knowledge in Gorgias
And even if things are knowable [gnōsta], he asks, how would anyone communicate them to another? How could anyone, he says, put what he saw [eide] into words? Or how could something be made manifest [dēlon] to a hearer who did not see [akousanti...mē idonti]? For just as sight does not know sounds, so hearing does not hear colors, but sounds. And a speaker speaks, but not a color or an object. Thus how does one person get into his mind [ennoei] what he did not have in his mind from another by a speech or some other sign of the object, except by seeing [idōn] it if it is a color <or hearing it if it is a sound>?...Even if it is possible to know [gignōskein] and to speak what one knows [gignōskēi], how can the hearer [ho akouōn] get the same thing in his mind?...The same person clearly does not even perceive [asithanomenos] the same things at the same time, but different things by hearing and by sight, and different things at different times. So one person would hardly perceive [aisthoito] the same thing as someone else.(980a20–b18; trans. modified)33
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All translations of Gorgias are by Daniel W. Graham, with my own modifications.
An important recent exception is Mann (2021), who provides an illuminating discussion of the apparent weakness of logos in the Palamedes. His account differs from mine, however, both in its focus and in the fact that he takes the Helen to contrast with the Palamedes by affirming the power of speech unequivocally, whereas my account takes both texts to acknowledge aspects of its powerlessness. Relatedly, Mann focuses only on the second of the two kinds of weakness that I address.
The arguments of this paper require no assumptions about whether, or to what extent, Gorgias actually endorses the view of logos presented in the Helen and in his other works. My main claims stand as an interpretation of the conceptions of speech and knowledge delineated by his works, whatever his own attitude toward them might have been. On the question of the seriousness of the Helen and of Gorgias’s works in general, see Barnes (1982, p. 173), Barney (2006, p. 93, n. 30), and Caston (2002, p. 207). For doubts about Gorgias’s endorsement of the Helen’s analysis of logos, see Gagarin (2001, pp. 279–80) and Pratt (2015).
On this translation of the sentence, see Bermúdez (2017, p. 7, n. 10) and Mann (2021, p. 58, n. 14). Most interpreters, however, read the sentence declaratively, taking the repetition of ὅσοι...ὅσους...ὅσων (in its sense of “as many” rather than “how many!”) to indicate that all persuasion results from false speech. For various versions of this reading of the text, see Jarratt (1991, pp. 23, 56), Kerferd (1981, pp. 80–82), Rosenmeyer (1955, p. 232), Segal (1962, p. 112), and Shaffer (1998, pp. 254–55). For a reply to Segal, see Valiavitcharska (2006).
Note, however, that this turns out to be a relatively minimal constraint for practical purposes, for in both speeches Gorgias characterizes knowledge as much rarer and more difficult to achieve than belief. While the power of speech is conditional on the listener’s possession of belief rather than knowledge, therefore, it is a condition that is met in most cases. Speech is indeed powerless against those who know, but on Gorgias’s view, few people actually do.
I take it, then, that from the perspective of Gorgias’ theory, Palamedes’ aim is to instill true belief in his innocence in the jurors. Likewise, we could characterize the internal aim of the Helen as that of providing true belief about Helen’s blameworthiness to the listeners.
The term “folk” is not intended to suggest anything dismissive, only that the empiricist ideas at play are ones that many or most ancient Greeks took for granted without necessarily thinking about the underlying philosophical details of them.
Consigny (2001, chp. 1–2) defends an anti-foundationalist interpretation according to which there is no true account of the world; rather, truths are evaluated in reference to intersubjective community practices and criteria (pp. 72–73). Many commentators interpret Gorgias through the lens of a Protagorean-relativist reading of On Not Being. Barney (2006, p. 94), for example, writes: “Gorgias and Protagoras can plausibly be seen as forming a united front of deflationary anti-realism...There is no reality beyond appearance, and no hope for any knowledge which would be different in kind from our fallible opinions”. Guthrie (1969, pp. 51, 196, 211, 272–73) similarly perceives alignment between Gorgias and Protagorean relativism, commenting that for Gorgias, “There can be belief, but never knowledge”. De Romilly (1992, pp. 66–77, 97) takes the Helen to express reservations about the possibility of knowledge, which On Not Being takes to their Protagorean extreme. By contrast, Mourelatos (1987, p. 164, n. 2) denies that Protagorean relativism plays any role in Gorgias’s conception of speech and communication, and Caston (2002, pp. 217–18) even interprets On Not Being as a direct contradiction to Protagorean relativism. Cf. Untersteiner (1954, p. 162) and Woodruff (1999, pp. 305–6).
Notably, all four authors discussed below—Thucydides, Alcidamas, Isocrates, and Antisthenes—were reputed to have been taught or influenced by Gorgias. On Gorgias’s alleged relationship to these and other prominent fifth and fourth century figures, including Meno and Hippocrates, see Bett (2002, p. 258), Consigny (2001, p. 7), Gagarin (2001, p. 283), Grote (1971, p. 41), Guthrie (1969, pp. 308–12), De Romilly (1992, pp. 61–65), Schiappa (1990, p. 465), Tompkins (2015), and Too (1995).
Cf. Antidosis 271.
For another example of the belief/knowledge distinction expressed in the empiricist language of personal experience, see Antiphon, On the Murder of Herodes 74–5.
See Pindar, Nemean Odes 8.23–34; cf. 7.20–27.
This also makes sense of the ease with which cosmologists use logoi to change beliefs. As Mourelatos (1987, p. 157) notes, “Since theoretical entities are not accessible to observation, the language we employ in introducing and describing such entities cannot be based directly either on the things of the familiar and manifest world or on our repertoire of experiences”.
Note that Palamedes acknowledges a third possibility that seems to tell against my interpretation: “or by learning from an accomplice (ē tou <metechontos> puthomenos)?” (22). The apparent implication is that he might have acquired secondhand knowledge (not mere belief) on the basis of verbal communication from someone with firsthand knowledge. Despite that prima facie implication, however, at least three considerations tell against taking it as indicative of any deeper commitment on Gorgias’ part. First and most importantly, in the collective interpretive data from the Helen and Palamedes, it clearly represents the noise and not the signal. By far the preponderance of evidence, especially the unequivocal remarks at Section 35 of Palamedes, tells in favor of the distinction between knowledge and belief that I have defended concerning their transmissibility by logos. Second, because forensic rhetoric does not demand the same kind of verbal precision as a philosophical treatise, the fact that in this one-off instance Gorgias applies the term “knowledge” more loosely than he allows elsewhere in the speech does not undermine my overall interpretation. It is also significant that the possibility of learning from an accomplice is the third item in a series—the first two of which are being an eyewitness or being an accomplice oneself—and that the verb “to know” appears only once at the beginning of that series. In other words, use of the term might be governed more by its proximity to the first two terms than by any deliberate intention by Gorgias to contradict his later claim about verbal communication (i.e., at 35). Finally, the remarks that immediately follow backtrack on the implication in question. If Odysseus learned from an accomplice, Palamedes says, then the accomplice should reveal himself and testify to the jurors himself, since such testimony would make the accusations more trustworthy (pistoteron) (22). This constitutes a retreat from the idea that an eyewitness can convey knowledge through speech, since the accomplice’s testimony would not provide the jurors with certainty, but only with a higher degree of believability.
Drake (2021, pp. 250–51) and Jouanna (2012) discuss the parallel between Gorgias’s conception of logos and the Hippocratic account of breath. Di Piazza and Piazza (2016) address points of kinship between medicine and rhetoric generally, and in particular the epistemic conditions of uncertainty under which both operate. For present purposes, it is noteworthy that Hippocratic texts often identify sense-perception as the source of knowledge while acknowledging the rarity of precise knowledge (e.g., Ancient Medicine 9).
Barney (2016, p. 12) similarly notes that the Meno provides further evidence of a materialist theory of sense-perception of the sort hinted at in the Helen, but rightly notes that the argument of the latter does not hang on the particular scientific theory suggested by Plato. Drake (2021, pp. 253–54) also connects the physicalist theory of the Helen to effluence theory.
Segal (1962, pp. 113–14) and Consigny (2001, p. 58) present a potential challenge for my interpretation, arguing that for Gorgias sense-perception is a subjective experience in which our own psychology, especially our emotions, affect what and how we perceive. Perception, on this view, is on the same epistemological footing as communicative logos when it comes to providing cognitive access to objects: “In neither case do men transcend the medium and reach ‘pure’ Being, but their knowledge of the world inevitably involves an admixture of their own...psychological patterns” (Segal 113). This has a basis, moreover, in the physiology of sense-perception: our emotional states can affect our pores themselves, which in turn affect what we perceive by way of the effluvia (Consigny 58). There are a few responses to this line of argument. First, it misrepresents the relationship between our emotions and our perceptions that Gorgias is keen to emphasize. For him the direction of influence runs exactly the other way: our perceptions cause us to have certain kinds of emotions, not the other way around. We see the invading army, and then we feel fear because we see it. Second, sense-perception can be partly subjective and a reliable source of knowledge nonetheless, so long as its subjective component does not interfere with all of the sensory experience’s content. And that condition is plausibly met. Our emotions might affect certain aspects of how we perceive an enemy army, but they cannot affect our perception that the army is there in front of us, for instance. This is related to a third point, which is that we need not assume sense-perception gives us complete cognitive access to the “pure being” of external objects and events, only that it reliably and accurately reveals at least some true things about them—like the fact that something is present in front of us or that an event is taking place. In a legal context, for example, having witnessed a murder up close provides the viewer with the knowledge that the murder occurred and/or a reliable memory to that effect.
On the surface, this is perhaps an unlikely place to find support for a folk empiricist epistemology. After all, one of its main theses is precisely the denial that human beings can know anything, whereas the folk view takes for granted that people know the things they perceive. However, even if Gorgias endorses the conclusions of the first two sections of On Not Being (I take no stand on whether he does for present purposes), the counterfactual conditions that the treatise’s third section imagines are precisely the commonsense ones that the Helen and Palamedes take for granted—namely, that some things exist and are knowable. The third section of the treatise is informative, therefore, because it shows us what kind of epistemology is on the table if we assume—as Gorgias does in the Helen and Palamedes—that knowledge is possible.
Barney (2006, p. 94) concurs with Mourelatos (1987) that the arguments of the Helen and the third section of On Not Being are complementary: the latter shows what language cannot do; the former shows what it can do. My friendly amendment to their view is that the Helen, too, weighs in on some of what speech cannot do.
Mourelatos (1987, p. 146): “That noein and aisthanesthai should be allowed to shift back and forth between “mentally picture” and “have a sensory impression of” reveals an assumption which is common to Gorgias and (as he sets things up) to those he addresses in his elenchus. It is the assumption familiar to us from classical empiricism, that ideas or thoughts have their origin and basis in sensory impressions”.
This fits well with the Empedoclean pore-theory of perception attributed to Gorgias by Plato. Cf. Guthrie (1969, p. 198). Mourelatos (1987, pp. 137, 148), however, denies that the argument of On Not Being draws on any such theory, on the grounds that Gorgias’s arguments need to rest on “ordinary intuitions or commonly held beliefs” rather than speculative theory in order to have force. I think we can concede this point, however, and at the same see how pore-theory provides a useful foundation for the folk position.
Likewise, the fact that written speech is something seen with the eyes does not entail that a written description of something brings us any closer to actually seeing it than if we heard the same speech.
Although I do not emphasize Gorgias’s conception of speech’s power in this essay, my understanding of it is in line with previous commentators who view it in terms of its psychological and behavioral effects. Although logos cannot duplicate sensory experience, it can cause us to imagine objects and events in the world in vivid ways, which can in turn cause the same sorts of psychological effects (desires, emotions) as perception itself, which can, finally, cause us to act in certain ways. Cf. discussion in Bermúdez (2017, pp. 4–5), Poulakos (1983, p. 13), and Woodruff (1999, p. 308).
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Wilburn, J. Gorgias on Knowledge and the Powerlessness of Logos. Humanities 2023, 12, 9. https://doi.org/10.3390/h12010009
Wilburn J. Gorgias on Knowledge and the Powerlessness of Logos. Humanities. 2023; 12(1):9. https://doi.org/10.3390/h12010009Chicago/Turabian Style
Wilburn, Josh. 2023. "Gorgias on Knowledge and the Powerlessness of Logos" Humanities 12, no. 1: 9. https://doi.org/10.3390/h12010009