gorgias.two.seventeen (Encomium of Helen) Painting by Nuno Paixão

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Painting: Oil, Charcoal on Wood.

Encomium of Helen

The Encomium of Helen is considered to be a good example of epideictic oratory and was supposed to have been Gorgias' "show piece or demonstration piece," which was used to attract students (Matsen, Rollinson and Sousa). In their writings, Gorgias and other sophists speculated "about the structure and function of language" as a framework for expressing the implications of action and the ways decisions about such actions were made" (Jarratt). And this is exactly the purpose of Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen. Of the three divisions of rhetoric discussed by Aristotle in his Rhetoric (forensic, deliberative, and epideictic), the Encomium can be classified as an epideictic speech, expressing praise for Helen of Troy and ridding her of the blame she faced for leaving Sparta with Paris (Wardy).

Helen – the proverbial "Helen of Troy" – exemplified both sexual passion and tremendous beauty for the Greeks. She was the daughter of Zeus and Leda, the Queen of Sparta, and her beauty was the direct cause of the decade long Trojan War between Greece and Troy. The war began after the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite asked Paris (a Trojan prince) to select who was the most beautiful of the three. Each goddess tried to influence Paris’ decision, but he ultimately chose Aphrodite who then promised Paris the most beautiful woman. Paris then traveled to Greece where he was greeted by Helen and her husband Menelaus. Under the influence of Aphrodite, Helen allowed Paris to persuade her to elope with him. Together they traveled to Troy, not only sparking the war, but also a popular and literary tradition of blaming Helen for her wrongdoing. It is this tradition which Gorgias confronts in the Encomium.

The Encomium opens with Gorgias explaining that "a man, woman, speech, deed, city or action that is worthy of praise should be honored with acclaim, but the unworthy should be branded with blame" (Gorgias). In the speech Gorgias discusses the possible reasons for Helen’s journey to Troy. He explains that Helen could have been persuaded in one of four ways: by the gods, by physical force, by love, or by speech (logos). If it were indeed the plan of the gods that caused Helen to depart for Troy, Gorgias argues that those who blame her should face blame themselves, "for a human’s anticipation cannot restrain a god’s inclination" (Gorgias). Gorgias explains that, by nature, the weak are ruled by the strong, and, since the gods are stronger than humans in all respects, Helen should be freed from her undesirable reputation. If, however, Helen was abducted by force, it is clear that the aggressor committed a crime. Thus, it should be he, not Helen, who should be blamed. And if Helen was persuaded by love, she should also be rid of ill repute because "if love is a god, with the divine power of the gods, how could a weaker person refuse and reject him? But if love is a human sickness and a mental weakness, it must not be blamed as mistake, but claimed as misfortune" (Gorgias). Finally, if speech persuaded Helen, Gorgias claims he can easily clear her of blame. Gorgias explains: "Speech is a powerful master and achieves the most divine feats with the smallest and least evident body. It can stop fear, relieve pain, create joy, and increase pity" (Gorgias). It is here that Gorgias compares the effect of speech on the mind with the effect of drugs on the body. He states that Helen has the power to "lead" many bodies in competition by using her body as a weapon (Gumpert). This image of "bodies led and misled, brought together and led apart, is of paramount importance in Gorgias' speech," (Gumpert).

The Encomium demonstrates Gorgias’ love of paradoxologia. The performative nature of the Encomium requires a reciprocal relationship between the performer and the audience, one which relies on the cooperation between the deceptive performer and the equally deceived audience (Wardy). Gorgias reveals this paradox in the final section of the Encomium where he writes: "I wished to write this speech for Helen’s encomium and my amusement" (Gorgias). Additionally, if one were to accept Gorgias’ argument for Helen’s exoneration, it would fly in the face of a whole literary tradition of blame directed towards Helen. This too is paradoxical. While Gorgias primarily used metaphors and paradox, he famously used "figures of speech, or schemata," (Matsen, Rollinson and Sousa). This included balanced clauses (isocolon), the joining of contrasting ideas (antithesis), the structure of successive clauses (parison), and the repetition of word endings (homoeoteleuton) (Matsen, Rollinson and Sousa). The Encomium shows Gorgias' interest in argumentation, as he makes his point by "systematically refuting a series of possible alternatives," (Matsen, Rollinson and Sousa). It is an encomium of the "rhetorical craft itself, and a demonstration of its power over us," (Gumpert). According to Van Hook, The Encomium of Helen abounds in "amplification and brevity, a rhythm making prose akin to poetry, bold metaphors and poetic or unusual epithets".

From the English Wikipedia page on "Gorgias"


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gorgias.two.seventeen (Encomium of Helen)

Nuno Paixão

Portugal

Painting

Size: 15.7 W x 15.7 H x 1 in

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