Gorgias and Language as Enchantment

For centuries, the Sophistic movement of ancient Greece was either ignored or marginalized, likely due to the negative portrayal they received at the hands of Plato. They were written off as charlatans and frauds who had little to offer of philosophical value. 

Gorgias of Leontini

Of all the Sophists, Gorgias even today remains the most recognized and well known. In contrast to his contemporary Plato, Gorgias did not believe in the possibility of absolute truth. Instead, he believed that the best we can manage is an educated opinion, and that all knowledge is subjective and contextual.

He is famous for the following paradox: “Nothing exists; or if it does exist, we cannot know it; or if we can know it, we cannot communicate our knowledge to another person.”

In the past, some have read this statement either as a parody, or as an excessively resigned and nihilistic take on epistemological reality.

But for Gorgias, this state of affairs was not to be lamented, but rather something to be accepted and worked with.

The impossibility of absolute truth was no cause for despair, but instead simply a recognition of the limitations inherent to human language and cognition.

For Gorgias, the purpose of rhetoric was to allow us to navigate the uncertainties of a reality created by and shared through imperfect language. In a world where truth always remained elusive and uncertain, rhetoric could help us to establish consensus as the basis for action.

The rhetoric of Gorgias is firmly rooted in a relativistic epistemology that views all language and all argumentation as inherently deceptive (in that it obscures the full truth, a position which foreshadows Burke’s concept of the terministic screen).

He even directly compares the power of language to magic, with its capacity to enchant and to cast a spell over the listener. For him, words are creative, rather than merely descriptive. Words are the best tools that we have at our disposal to create a shared consensus reality in a world where nothing is ever certain.

It is better, for Gorgias, to recognize the powerful but limited nature of words as a kind of spell or enchantment–for only then may we hope to retain some measure of control and skill in their use and application.

The Tower of Babel

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” –John 1:1

For most of my life, my greatest passion has been the search for knowledge.

A lonely child, I found refuge in books: in fiction, tales about foreign lands and fantastic creatures; in practical books about science, the earth, and life processes; in languages, philosophy, religion; in the paranormal, occult, and mysterious. You name it, I had to know about it.

I often felt like everyone else had gotten the instruction manual on this thing called Life, and I was the only one left empty-handed.

And so I took this business very seriously. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. Somewhere out there was the answer, one day I would find the truth behind it all, and everything would make sense.

In college, I studied literature and languages, and later went to graduate school for a master’s degree in Rhetoric & Composition. I developed an obsession with epistemology, the study of truth, language, and what we can know.

Eventually I started to think that maybe Socrates had it right all along, and the answer was that we truly can know nothing;  but my obsession now had a life of its own, and the demon inside me demanding answers ate every piece of text and trivia in its path, never satisfied, always hungry for more.

I was building my very own Tower of Babel, and it was destroying me. Every Word was another brick in this tower, growing higher and higher into the sky, and I thought that in this way I would one day touch God.

This tower was not built of truth, but of ego. It was a fortress meant to protect me from this reality: that I was terrified, confused, lost and alone.

As all I had built crumbled in a flash, I saw that each little piece of knowledge, each little fact, each bit of data was a line of defense against the world, against chaos, and against life.

It was awareness that I was seeking, and consciousness that I needed.

Words can be a useful tool in directing thought, in guiding the mind to greater consciousness. The word is creative, it is generative, it directs the manifestation of life, but it is not life itself.


Of all the Ancient Greek philosophers, Plato was the one which had the most influence on subsequent ideas around the role of rhetoric and philosophy. A student of Socrates, he went on to found a school called The Academy, and was known for skepticism about the value of rhetoric.

This skepticism or mistrust of rhetoric likely had much to do with the circumstances surrounding the death of his mentor, Socrates, who was condemned to death by the Athenian court. Plato came to view rhetoric as merely a tool for manipulation. According to him, “Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.”

In this view, rhetoric was not concerned with truth but with persuasion. This was based on the idea that presentation and style mattered more than truth when it came to rhetoric. This put rhetoric is opposition to dialectic, which involved two parties presenting arguments in a discussion with the goal of determining the truth.

Plato was adamant about the opposition between rhetoric and dialectic, and that dialectic was a valuable practice which led to truth, while rhetoric was less honorable and concerned only with persuasion, often resulting in lies.

I’ve never agreed with his take on rhetoric, to be honest. From my understanding, rhetoric and dialectic are much more similar than Plato would admit. In a future post, I’ll get into more detail on the different ideas various philosophers had about the purpose of rhetoric and dialectic.

For now, I’ll say this about Plato: he had an idealistic viewpoint on what constituted truth, and believed that a rhetorician must first KNOW (philosophy) before he is to CONVINCE (rhetoric). Truth was determined through dialectic, or argumentation. Rhetoric was a tool to persuade or deceive, and therefore hardly worthy of the true philosopher.

a small confession

My eyes are often open, but it is rare that they see.

This morning, I saw fear. I thought I didn’t know fear, that I somehow lived bravely. The outcomes in my experience weren’t consistent with that analysis, but I brushed it off. I’m not afraid, it was just that simple.

But maybe I couldn’t see my fear because I was swimming in it. I’ve been floating through life, suspended in a scared world, held up and held back by what I thought I didn’t want.

I have rejected even the acknowledgement of my own desires because I was afraid they could never be fulfilled. I haven’t tried, or even admitted I wanted to.

But I want to live with integrity now. I want to be honest about and with myself.

So I’ll share a dream of mine with you, one that I’ve held for decades now, since I was a child.

As a young girl, my world was filled with books. Like Borges, my heaven was a library (and it still is). When people would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, I knew immediately: I wanted to be a writer.

I’ve pretended for years now that I don’t want that! Maybe it was right for others, but definitely not for me. Come on, didn’t I pretend I was an “epistemological nihilist”? What right I did I have to buy someone’s attention with counterfeit bills of “knowledge”?

Maybe there’s something to those ideas, I really don’t know. But I recognize today that the real reason was not disinterest, but fear.

And I’m still afraid, but I’m going to turn around and walk toward it.

Maybe I still don’t believe I have any Truth worth telling. But I would like to offer you a map, instead, a phenomenology of the territory inside I believe is my soul.

As I dream, images arise: a guiding star, a loving mirror, a bell that awakens. Objects of beauty and agents of change, I will keep you in mind with this first step forward.

The Left Hand of Darkness

220px-thelefthandofdarknessI finally got around to starting Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (find it here as a PDF). I’ve been wanting to read it since a professor of mine mentioned it in a class a year or two ago.

So far I’m only into the first few pages of the novel, but I would already recommend this book to anyone, if only for the brilliant introduction. It’s a wonderful contemplation of the goals and methods of science fiction and literature in general.

Le Guin says that there are two types of science fiction, those which are extrapolative and those which are thought-experiments. Le Guin isn’t interested in writing extrapolitive fiction–it only carries things to its logical extreme, and “almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.”

Instead, Le Guin wants to write thought-experiments. Contrary to popular belief, these thought experiments of science fiction don’t attempt to predict the future; rather, they describe the present, according to the experience and imagination of the author.

That’s what all fiction tries to do, she says: it describes the present reality. How? It attempts to tell the truth by creating a vast web of lies, invented people, places and events that never existed except in the mind of the author.

Later, Le Guin raises an interesting point regarding the supposed purpose of language. She says, “Our philosophers, some of them, would have us agree that a word (sentence, statement) has value only in so far as it has one single meaning, points to one fact which is comprehensible to the rational intellect, logically sound, and—ideally—quantifiable.”

This hints at an age-old philosophical debate, which asks if it is possible for language to truly express reality. For centuries, the entire field of rhetoric has been looked down upon because it would seem that this is not always the case. Plato, for example, distrusted rhetoric, believing it did not always lead to truth, but was more often could be used in the service of dishonesty and lies.

Underlying these assertions is the assumption that words should have a tight and unbreakable bond with what they refer to. The purpose of rhetoric, at least according to Plato’s Phaedrus, is to lead the soul to truth. Aristotle took up a related view, which is that there is a deep reality that underlies our varying experiences of it.

This created the “common sense” view that most people hold of reality: to most, it obviously exists “out there” in the external world. We can experience and know reality through our senses, and words are only useful in that they convey this deep reality to other people.

However, in this past century, the concept of a deep reality that exists objectively has come under fire. With the advances in quantum physics, we became aware that we cannot separate the measured from the measurer. The instrument used “creates” reality just as much as the object being observed.

This isn’t just abstract theory, fun to think about but impractical or even useless in the real world. It’s actually quite the opposite. Our epistemology is absolutely critical to the way we think about and respond to people and events around us. According to Robert Anton Wilson, Aristotelian certainty and assurance of an underlying, objective truth plays a huge factor in every single one of the major conflicts which have occurred in our world, are occurring now, and (most likely) will occur in the future.

Seems like a stretch? Think again. An epistemology that asserts an objective reality that has an independent existence is divisive: it splits the world into those who are “right” and those who are “wrong.” Religion and ideology depend upon us being right, with an accurate appraisal of the real, against those who are “wrong,” apparently either deluded fools or evil antagonists.

Wilson is brave enough to propose an alternative with disturbing ramifications (to many). If we accept a constructivist view of the world, where truth is created by the observer instead of being simply discovered, we might have to accept that our enemies have never been wrong the way we have always believed. When there is no deep reality, there is no “Truth” as commonly believed, only a variety of experiences of the world that vary according to who we are.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anais Nin

Going back to Left Hand‘s introduction, Wilson would probably join Le Guin in opposing those philosophers that are desperate to find certainty in language. Not only is there no certainty in language, there is (most likely) no certainty in what we know as reality, period. Le Guin invites us to be wary of those who need “one single meaning” from our words and our world.

Le Guin is on the side of the artist, the visionaries who intuit a different kind of truth, who have a flexible idea of what the fabric of this truth consists of. It is the artist who opens the way for a multiplicity of meanings, which gives us the freedom to claim our experience as valid and real for us as individuals.

Perhaps Wilson and Le Guin would agree that the world needs more artists, people who have the ability to cast doubt on our certainty and self-righteousness. If we ever hope to resolve our conflicts on any scale, we need this consciousness of the variety of truths that exist among us.

BONUS: Read this commencement address Ursula K. Le Guin delivered to Mills College in 1983! Discussed in this address are the differences between what the author calls “men’s language” and “women’s language.”

Men’s language is “the language of power,” of dominance. In other words, of certainty, of binaries of right/wrong (among others).

She calls on us to abandon our fear of women’s language. We need to be comfortable with uncertainty, and even failure. We need to find hope in the darkness: “What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.”

In sum, it’s a beautiful exploration of the different perspectives men and women tend to have, on two (of probably many) varieties of epistemology and their consequences.