From the older handbooks to the more recent scholarly literature, Gorgias's professions about his art (not to say about reality) are taken literally at their word: conjured up in all of these accounts is the image of a hearer irresistibly overwhelmed by Gorgias's apagogic and psychagogic persuasions. Gorgias's own description of his art, in effect, replaces our description of it. "His proofs... give the impression of ineluctability" (Schmid-Stählin). "Thus logos is almost an independent external power which forces the hearer to do its will" (Segal). "Incurably deceptive," logos has an "enormous power" that acts upon opinion, which is "easy to change" (Kerferd). Surprisingly, the urge to describe or paraphrase Gorgias's art has caused commentators to overlook the very best witness of it that we have: its enactment, which is to say the performative value of Gorgias's writings, especially the speeches. For if Gorgias's literary remains do nothing else, they demonstrate how one can do things with words without being explicit about what is being done, even if this means contradicting, performatively, what is being said-as for instance in his statements, so unconvincingly made, about the ostensible aims of rhetoric. Was Gorgias persuasive in practice? Was persuasion even the goal? Is logos the solitary arbiter of reality that it is so often made out to be? Through close examination of Gorgias's Helen and parts of On Not-Being, I attempt to show that persuasion is manifestly not the goal of his arguments, which in the first instance are aporetic paradoxes that expose the difficulties of defining the nature of either language or reality, and which in the last instance are instruments of cultural demystification. The only deception at work in Gorgias's writings is that of the self-deception of their audience. It is this that gives these curiously revealing documents of fifth-century Greek culture their "dissuasive," not persuasive, character.
- Copyright 1993 The Regents of the University of California