Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spirited: A Quick Note on Gorgias

I have an absolutely absurd amount of Μήδεια to translate on account of my math exam and general laziness but I thought I would spout out a few remarks.
Encomium of Helen (BCP Greek Texts) (English and Greek Edition)
First, in the final stretch of my reading of Gorgias' Encomium of Helen, I found his style easier to translate, even if I continued to have some problems understanding his meaning (or the particular definition of a word to chose when translating one of his phrases). I assume that part of this was because I was better prepared and I have been reading Gorgias for a while, but there is also something to the fact that as he went on his arguments had more similarities to arguments made by Plato, with which I am familiar.

Second, these foreshadowing of Platonic arguments are truly striking. The most obvious one is the use of φαρμακόν as a metaphor for speech. Gorgias says that speech acts on the soul/mind (ψυχή) as drugs/remedies/poisons (φαρμακόν-- or φαρμακά in plural) act upon the body. This is similar to Plato's move in Phaedrus where Socrates [1] states that writing is a φαρμακόν. By this odd statement Socrates is primarily referring to the deficiencies of writing: it may look like it says something profound, but it cannot correct a reader who makes a mistake or ask for clarification and it does not necessarily impart understanding to anyone who reads it. In doing so, writing may look like an aid to memory or understanding, but it can act as either a remedy or a poison (both meaning of φαρμακόν) to the mind, depending upon the reader and the use Gorgias means that rhetoric can alter and affect the soul in the same way as a drug in that it can cause certain symptoms and affect the mood or emotions of a person. The rhetorician has the same ability to control a person as a doctor. Plato does make similar claims, but he refers to this ability of the orator as leading the soul rather than using the metaphor of a doctor and a φαρμακόν, which strikes me as an interesting contrast. Propertius II reminded me that Derrida claims in "Plato's Pharmacy" that in Plato's φαρμακόν metaphor, writing stands in for both speech and writing. I am going to keep ponderng it...

  1. For the sake of clarity, I when I say Socrates I mean Plato's Socrates as he speaks in the Phaedrus. I make no claims about the historical Socrates or a general trend of Plato's portrayal of Socrates.

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