Classical Political Thought Through the Prism of Greek Philosophy
Gorgias’ argument in The Encomium of Helen for why Helen of Troy is not responsible for the Trojan War
Among the few complete sophistic texts that have survived until these days, one stands out for its complexity, logical beauty, and neatness of argument. The Encomium of Helen by the greatest and most celebrated rhetorician of his time, Gorgias, is an example of an epideixis. An epideixis is a set-piece speech, a public exercise in persuasion. In the Encomium of Helen, Gorgias seeks to defend Helen of Troy and make a case for her exculpation. This essay argues that by doing that, Gorgias essentially states that no human is responsible for their actions. The Encomium of Helen provides evidence for Socrates’ attack on rhetoric in Plato’s Gorgias.
Before Gorgias, other poets and rhetoricians attempted to exculpate Helen by negating that she escaped to Troy, to begin with. Gorgias does not make use of this version of events and works with the existing narrative. The central argument of the Encomium of Helen is as follows: “Either she did what she did because of the will of fortune and the plan of the gods and the decree of necessity, or she was seized by force, or persuaded by words or captured by love.” Reiterating the citation, Helen had multiple reasons to do what she did, and none of them were a product of her reasoning and autonomy.
By defending Helen, Gorgias undermines human responsibility for their actions. Following his logic, any action can be presented in a way that it would look as if it was produced by force or compulsion. Gorgias’ argument in the Encomium of Helen possesses all the negative characteristics of rhetorics that Socrates pointed out in Plato’s Gorgias. Firstly, Gorgias does not argue from knowledge to the truth: instead, he makes implications from the unknown. Secondly, Gorgias does not tell what is true, but he tells what people want to hear.
To conclude, the Encomium of Helen can be seen as a compelling exercise in denying human responsibility for their actions. Gorgias demonstrates how any action can be explained as if it was caused by anything but a person’s free will. The rhetorician builds his argument on his own imagination about what might have happened to Helen. The speech demonstrates what Socrates was critical of in-rhetorics: arguing from the unknown and pleasing the audience.
Thucydides skepticism over the possibility of morality in politics
The Athenian historian Thucydides is known as the father of the school of political realism that argues that the political behavior of individuals is motivated by the emotions of fear and self-interest. His greatest contribution to history and historiography is the History of the Peloponnesian War that describes the 27-year war between Athens and Sparta. In the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides provides a rather cynical analysis of the status of contemporary politics. This essay argues that Thucidides’s political realism indeed does not exactly allow for the possibility of morality.
First, it should be noted that with the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides did not set a goal of defining what the best polity or the best statesman could be. He confined himself to the exploration and documentation of the political disorder of his era: the war between the democratic Athens and Sparta engulfed in tribal imperialism. Thucydides does not provide any straightforward moral judgment: instead, he seeks to describe the cause-effect relationships between the ongoing events. In a way, Thucydides is a positivist that builds his argument on facts and not ethical notions.
Secondly, Thucydides sees the moral corruption of leaders as an inevitable consequence of rising to power. Even though, on the one hand, he supports democracy in his home state of Athens, he admits that democracy requires leadership to prevent it from becoming chaotic. Later, in the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides states that “leadership depends on superior strength and not on goodwill.” While democracy may promote equity and equality, those who decide to pursue a military or political career do so to serve their own interests. Morality finds itself secondary to power as those who are in power dictate morality.
To conclude, the History of the Peloponnesian War draws a realistic picture of two Ancient Greek states at war. Thucydides takes a rather positivist approach toward narration: he does not provide any moral evaluation but describes the events in minute detail. Upon further analysis, it becomes apparent that the author is rather skeptical about the possibility of morality in politics as he sees corruption as inevitable.
The key points of Aristotle’s understanding of ethical and contemplative virtue
Aristotle’s ethics, or study of character, hinges on the premise that an individual’s happiness is contingent on his or her ability to achieve an excellent character. In Nicomachean Ethics, the philosopher outlines what constitutes ethical and contemplative virtues, both of which are required for personal fulfillment. The relationship between the two virtues has led to some confusion in their interpretation, which might undermine the validity of the entire framework. This essay argues that while Aristotle indeed put forward valuable ideas, his explanation for how to become a virtuous person is far from straightforward or consistent.
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies about twenty virtues that allegedly must help a person to fulfill their human function. The philosopher puts them into two distinct groups: ethical and contemplative virtues that pertain to emotions and the mind, respectively. Each ethical virtue is a mean between the two vices, one of which is caused by excess, and the other is called by deficiency. An example of ethical virtue is courage that exists in the emotional domain of fear and confidence. The lack of courage turns an individual into a coward, while its excess leads to rashness in one’s actions. On the other hand, contemplative virtue encompasses the mental skills or habits of a person that allows them to critically assess reality and distinguish between what is right or wrong.
The first reason why the Nicomachean Ethics struggle to provide a practical explanation for how to be virtuous is their indeterminacy. While Aristotle puts every virtue on a spectrum of its own, indicating its extremes, he does not really tell where to draw the line. This openness to interpretation might be confusing: for instance, using the previously explained example, one may not know when courage becomes rash. Secondly, virtues are not dispositions prescribed to behave in a certain way. They cannot be used as the foundation for situation-specific “know-hows.” Even as overarching principles, they seem to be more of a vague idea rather than a tool for facing reality.
In summation, Aristotle does put forward a compelling ethical theory where he elaborates on different kinds of virtues to be developed for achieving happiness in life. However, not even a classic take on ethics, such as Aristotle’s, is immune to criticism. It is rather difficult to derive any concrete explanation for how to become a virtuous person from the Nicomachean Ethics due to its vagueness and indeterminacy.
Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics, ed., and trans. by Joe Sachs. Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2002.
Gorgias. Encomium of Helen, ed. And trans. by D. M. MacDowell London: Bristol Classical Press, 2005.
Plato. The Gorgias, trans. by James H. Nichols Jr., Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War, trans by Martin Hammond. Oxford: World Oxford Classics, 2009.