Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Encomium of Helen (perfomance version not available)

Encomium of Helen

Gorgias was a great speaker that “came to Athens in 427B.C.E” (37). “He quickly became one of the most influential of the sophists, a group of itinerant teachers who went from city to city earning their living by instructing others in subtle argumentation” (37). Gorgias believed that “one should make men skillful at speaking” and he “aims to persuade through performance” (37). “Gorgias likens the power of speech to persuade to the power of magical charms or drugs to alter the mind or body” (37).

The Nutshell

It is said that Helen of Troy was the most beautiful woman of the day. There were many men that pursued her glance and failed. She married Menelaus not for love, but it is said to have been an arranged marriage. Gorgias never mentions that in his speech, but it is a very important detail to analyze for once the “jury” discovers this information it reduces the possibility of her being “abducted” by Paris. A Prince of Troy named Paris was in search of the love of his life. There was an argument as to who the most beautiful goddess was and “Zeus proclaimed that Paris… thought to be the most beautiful man alive, would act as the judge”( He chose Aphrodite as most beautiful and in return she “owed him one”. She told him that he could have any woman he chose, and he chose Helen. It is said that Helen and Paris ran off together, which in turn started a war.

The Encomium of Helen is an attempt by Gorgias to come to “the defense of Helen of Troy, a character long vilified by poets…” (37)


The Encomium of Helen is an interesting argument, but it is flawed. The speech lacks punch, and its powers are diminished for it is merely a passionate speech in the form of words on paper. Gorgias utilized much more than just words on paper to artfully arrange the hearts intended for his persuasion. We cannot witness Gorgias’s masterful performance that must have accompanied these words from the pages. He must have made these words come to life and pull the listeners from their foundations to build a new. We cannot see the subtle expressions in Gorgias’s face as he confidently pleaded his case to the audience that gathered in the street. Words were only half of Gorgias’s arsenal for he was a man that could “persuade through performance” (37). A master of speech such as he would have utilized ethos, eunoia, and arête to compliment his performance and win over the hearts of the stubborn listener. He would certainly understand human desires, and emotions, and be able to push the buttons of the potential jury that intently listened. He would have to observe the reactions from the audience and gauge his tone appropriately to formulate the most effective way to implant his belief through the performance he gives, and the words he speaks.

The Emcomium of Helen can be read today. It can be mimicked and performed. But it can never be witnessed. For Gorgias is long gone, and his ability to persuade never to be captured, felt, or fully understood. The words are but a mere skeleton of his ability to persuade through “subtle argument” (37) and to realize this is to feel loss, for how can one critique just words on paper when they are only half of the argument available.

Vocabulary Words

Itinerant (454) – adj.- Traveling from place to place to perform work

Works Cited

Gorgias of Leontini. "Encomium of Helen". ed. Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2010.

“itinerant.” The American Heritage Dictionary. 4th Ed. New York: Bantom Dell, 2001.454.

Mortal Women of the Trojan War
The Women of the Trojan War in Latin Literature


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