Sunday, February 27, 2011

Appetitive: Classical Encomia

Encomium of Helen (BCP Greek Texts) (English and Greek Edition)
I have recently started reading Gorgias' Encomium of Helen with Propertius II. This encomium comes from a long tradition of encomia and exemplifies many of the characteristics of sophistic encomia. An encomium is an often-formal speech of praise and the term comes from the Greek ἐν+κῶμος (in+merry-making) [1]. Encomia were typically written praising gods and noble men. In order to demonstrate their rhetorical skill, the sophists turned the encomium on it's head and wrote encomia to insignificant things like mice and salt and to ignoble things. Gorgias' Encomium of Helen praises a Helen, a character commonly reviled in the Greek world. Isocrates, in response, wrote his own "Encomium of Helen."

I first learned about encomia in my class on Plato's Phaedrus. At the beginning of the Phaedrus, Phaedrus delivers Lysias' encomium of the unsmitten pederast and Socrates responds with two encomia of his own: one on the same subject and one on the value of love tempered by philosophy. One of the general theories on the strange form of the Phaedrus, an oddly organize text on rhetorical strategy, is that it provides a proof to the sophists that Plato's philosophy can beat them at their won game before going on to analyze rhetorical strategy [2]. At the end of the text, it makes fun of Isocrates, who ran a school that was the main rival of the Academy and taught rhetoric.

Gorgias' encomium uses a lot of the same tropes one might expect from a sophist: careful word choice, puns, meta-discourse on speech, and simple but manipulative language. Although the text we have is somewhat corrupt, the reader can sense the precision of his repetition and the strategy behind the work. The characterization of sophists in Plato seems very accurate.

  1. This etymology comes from Merriam Webster's Online Dictionary. Interestingly enough, ὁ κομμός is a lamentation. 
  2. All of this information comes from my memory of this class. If my professor happens to read this, I hope he forgives any mistakes I might make in my representation.

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