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.

Separation | The Third Operation of Alchemy

After calcination and dissolution, the third phase of alchemy is known as separation. In practical or laboratory alchemy, it is the process of extracting what is left over and still has value from calcined and dissolved remains. This is then carried forward into the next phase for further processing through heating, filtering, and sifting through the material. 

During the nigredo, the ego is broken down, burnt down by fire and then dissolved in the waters of our psyche. As this happens, the person undergoing this process starts to become more aware of the complex material within, and is often surprised to find that much of it is contradictory, at odds with other psychic elements and with the conscious personality. 

The third phase of the alchemical process involves the close examination of these psychic contents. Using the power of the logical mind, we engage in a reasonable examination of ourselves to determine what represents our true self, and what is merely an ego adaptation that has arisen as a reaction to challenging circumstances in the outer world. 

Like the others before it, this process can be painful, as it often means recognizing the ways in which we have become inauthentic, betrayed ourselves in order to fit in and please others, or have even hurt others in an attempt to protect our self-concept, our illusions around who we think we are (or should be). 

The final end towards which we work in this stage is the recovery of our higher selves. We seek nothing less than reconnection to what in some traditions has been known as our Holy Guardian Angel or True Will. This part of us is discussed by Carl Jung as the Self (with a capital S, in contrast to our smaller ego-based self). 

James Hillman has elaborated on this further in his book The Soul’s Code, where he refers to it as our personal daimon (as did Plato and Plotinus before him). This is the part of us that transcends our current circumstances, or even this physical incarnation. It comprises our immortal soul, the part of us that is eternal, and which carries the seeds of our destiny into this physical existence when we are born, and guides us through the twists and turns of our individual fate as time goes on. 

Ultimately, the process of separation we engage with here seeks to leave behind the parts of ourselves that are inauthentic. We detach ourselves from the ego structures we once built up to protect ourselves, in order to be reunited with the core of who we truly are. 

Plato

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.

The Archetypal in Astrology

According to Richard Tarnas, the archetypal is the spiritual and energetic. It was originally experienced by human people as “Gods” and “Goddesses,” and described in terms of mythologies.

The archetypal is about the essences and qualities that transcend the human.

These ideas were later expounded upon in Ancient Greece, with the philosophies of Plato and Plotinus, among others. They were forgotten for many years until their recovery by the likes of Nietzsche, Freud, and Carl Jung.

Jung’s depth psychology explored the idea of the archetypal pleroma, the pantheon of archetypal energy, both within and without. It was Jung who recognized that we are in psyche. It informs not only us but all of nature. This is what is meant by the Anima Mundi, or world soul.

It was through myths that man tried to understand and convey its experience of this world soul. Myth, as well as dreams, are the narrative form of archetypal energy. According to Tarnas, this is how the cosmos pours its consciousness through us humans. The archetypes are thus the mediators of the cosmos, the way the Anima Mundi often speaks to us directly of its secrets.

Plotinus says that astrology is like a script that the soul of the sky is writing. Meaning is something that extends and permeates through all levels of reality and existence. We are living in a pan-psychic universe, and if we wish to, we can be active participants with this consciousness or sentience.

The cosmos gives us guidance on how we can participate constructively. The archetypes don’t “cause” human affairs or outer events to occur in some mechanistic way. Instead, it is open to our human participation.

It is as if the universe or nature is providing us with symbols or guideposts regarding the qualitative meaning of our unfolding. We can choose to participate actively in our own evolution by noticing and following the signs provided for us by the macrocosm.

The Sophists

The Sophists were among the first teachers and theorists of rhetoric in Ancient Greece.

They made their living traveling from city to city, teaching the citizens the art of argumentation.

Having experienced a wide variety of local habits and customs during their travels, they saw truth as being relative in nature. They rejected any idea of objective truth or eternal values, favoring instead the position that “truth” was negotiated through language and determined by culture.

As a result, they were looked down upon by their now more famous contemporaries, Plato and Aristotle. This meant they would be regarded with similar contempt by students of philosophy during the many centuries to come.

However, recent decades have seen a renewed interest in the Sophistic movement. As Susan Jarratt, a respected researcher on this subject, notes, the Sophists anticipated the contemporary rhetorical theorists’ recognition of the gap between the sign and the signified, or the word and what it is supposed to mean.

Gorgias especially was ahead of his time in his understanding of language and reality.

I personally am a big fan of Gorgias, especially this famous quote of his: 

“Nothing exists; even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others.” 


So what’s the point, then? Why even bother talking anymore? Should you just stop reading this now?


Well, I can’t say I actually know what Gorgias meant. 

But I’m not sure it’s meant to be taken 100% at face value.

And I think that’s the entire point. It is meant to inspire humility around our use of language. 

I don’t believe it’s wise to be a fanatic believer in any truth or dogma. Unlike Plato, I believe the world is too complex, too infinite to be limited to what we can say in words.

We can’t let ourselves get hooked on the belief that we are in possession of the only Truth, of the one Right way to think or be. It’s dangerous. This arrogance of thought is at the root of all zealotry and much of the world’s violence.

The point is not to reject all attempts at understanding, but to recognize them as just that: attempts, not absolutes.

What is Rhetoric?

According to Aristotle, rhetoric “is the art of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.”

Most modern and contemporary definitions tend to take this classical definition of rhetoric as their starting point.

For example, Kenneth Burke, one of the 20th century’s greatest rhetorical theorists, gave this explanation of rhetoric: “it is rooted in an essential function of language itself… as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols.”

Here, we can see three of the core elements which comprise the field of rhetoric today. In contemporary theory, the study of rhetoric is not contained to persuasion or argumentation, but also encompasses ideas regarding the nature of language itself.


THE 3 KEYS OF RHETORIC

What is Rhetoric?

  1. SYMBOLIC

It is representational. It uses symbols such as letters, images, gestures, etc. that stand for something else. There is not always a direct, 1-to-1 relationship between the symbol and the meaning behind it, with different people perceiving different connotations and meanings for a given symbol.

2. COMMUNICATIVE

It expresses thought or opinion. It may be used in an attempt to express truth or to persuade and convince others.

3.SOCIAL

It occurs in the interaction between people. It involves a rhetor, or speaker, and an audience who will receive and evaluate their message.


So why study rhetoric and magic?

Many of you, I’m sure, have heard the phrase “thoughts become things.”

It is a well-known concept that you attract what you think about [known as the Law of Attraction].

“For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”


If you believe in magic and manifestation, it is wise to also examine your thoughts and the words used to express them.

Human beings are something like a projection machine, and the words and images inside of us are the film. The outer environment is simply the screen that holds the pictures we have chosen to display in front of us.

This means that the study of language and rhetoric can help us become more conscious and intentional about our words and what we will create with them.

What Makes Alchemy Work?

Why has the practice of or interest in alchemy endured for so long?

Many would say it’s because of what is now known as the “perennial philosophy.”

This term was first used by Leibniz to describe the eternal philosophy underlying all religions, and it was later popularized in the 20th century by Aldous Huxley.

It has now come to describe the idea that there are certain underlying principles which form the core of all of humanity’s experiences, in particular with regard to “the nature of reality and the meaning of existence.”

According to this philosophy, the basic tenets of all religions are similar and shared — it is only the cultural and historical additions added by each that cause all of the disagreement.

The following are some “perennial principles”:

  1. The material is just one aspect of reality. Actually, this physical world of materiality can be thought of as being the expression of a higher order or spiritual plane (similar to the Platonic ideal, or world of forms).
  2. Humans are also dualistic in nature: they have an (imperfect) physical body and a (perfect) spiritual body. This is unified by the divine energy inherent in all things: the life force, or what is known in alchemy as the Quintessence (the Fifth Element).
  3. All people have the capacity to perceive both realms, but few try to do so. According to perennial philosophy, this is unfortunate, because it is only in perceiving and using this knowledge of the spiritual or ideal world that men and women “can become who they are truly meant to be and achieve mastery and self-actualization on Earth.”

It is this insistence on duality in the manifestation of the universe, as well as the necessity of realizing the higher to truly understand the lower, that defines perennial philosophy and makes it integral, according to some, to the process of Alchemical Work.

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“Supposing that Truth is a woman–what then?”

Nietzsche asks us to consider the possibility (in his preface to Beyond Good and Evil) that “all philosophers … have failed to understand women,” and by extension, the Truth that she represents.

Maybe a feminine conception of truth will be opposed to the dogmatism of western philosophical history.

A feminist epistemology would approach the nature of truth differently. Instead of looking for one objective Truth, it would acknowledge the many relative Truths that we are able to experience.