The Encomium on Helen, by Gorgias (LaRue Van Hook translation)

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The Encomium on Helen, by Gorgias (1913)
by Gorgias, translated by LaRue Van Hook
Gorgias3238221The Encomium on Helen, by Gorgias1913LaRue Van Hook

[1] Embellishment to a city is the valor of its citizens; to a person, comeliness; to a soul, wisdom; to a deed, virtue; to discourse, truth. But the opposite to these is lack of embellishment. Now a man, woman, discourse, work, city, deed, if deserving of praise must be honored with praise, but if undeserving must be censured. For it is alike aberration and stultification to censure the commendable and commend the censurable.

[2] It is the duty of the same individual both to proclaim justice wholly, and to declaim against injustice holily, to confute the detractors of Helen, a woman concerning whom there has been uniform and universal praise of poets and the celebration of her name has been the commemoration of her fame. But I desire by rational calculation to free the lady’s reputation, by disclosing her detractors as prevaricators, and by revealing the truth to put an end to error[1].

[3] That in nature and nurture the lady was the fairest flower of men and women is not unknown, not even to the few, for her maternity was of Leda, her paternity immortal by generation, but mortal by reputation, Tyndareus and Zeus, of whom the one was reputed in the being, the other was asserted in the affirming; the former, the greatest of humanity, the latter, the lordliest of divinity.

[4] Of such origin she was endowed with godlike beauty, expressed not suppressed, which inspired in many men many mad moods of love, and she, one lovely person, assembled many personalities of proud ambition, of whom some possessed opulent riches, others the fair fame of ancient ancestry; others the vigor of native strength, others the power of acquired wisdom; and all came because of amorous contention and ambitious pretention.

[5] Who he was, however, who won Helen and attained his heart’s desire, and why, and how, I will not say, since to give information to the informed conduces to confirmation but conveys no delectation. Passing over in my present discourse the time now past, I will proceed to the beginning of my intended discussion and will predicate the causes by reason of which it was natural that Helen went to Troy.

[6] For either by the disposition of fortune and the ratification of the gods and the determination of necessity she did what she did, or by violence confounded, or by persuasion dumbfounded or to Love surrendered. If, however, it was against her will, the culpable should not be exculpated. For it is impossible to forestall divine disposals by human proposals. It is a law of nature that the stronger is not subordinated to the weaker but the weaker is subjugated and dominated by the stronger; the stronger is the leader while the weaker is the entreater. Divinity surpasses humanity in might, in sight, and in all else. Therefore, if on fortune and the deity we must visit condemnation, the infamy of Helen should find no confirmation.

[7] But if by violence she was defeated and unlawfully she was treated and to her injustice was meted, clearly her violator as a terrifier was importunate, while she, translated and violated, was unfortunate. Therefore, the barbarian who verbally, legally, actually attempted the barbarous attempt, should meet with verbal accusation, legal reprobation and actual condemnation. For Helen who was violated and from her fatherland separated and from her friends segregated should justly meet with commiseration rather than with defamation. For he was the victor and she was the victim. It is just therefore to sympathize with the latter and anathematize the former.

[8] But if it was through λόγος’s reception and the soul’s deception it is not difficult to defend the situation and forefend the accusation, thus. Λόγος is a powerful potentate, who with frailest, feeblest frame works wonders. For it can put an end to fear and make vexation vanish; it can inspire exultation and increase compassion.

[9] I will show how this is so. For I must indicate this to my hearers for them to predicate. All poetry I ordain and proclaim to be composition in meter; the listeners of which are affected by passionate trepidation and compassionate perturbation and likewise tearful lamentation, since through discourse the soul suffers, as if its own, the felicity and infelicity of property and person of others.

[10] Come let us turn to another consideration. Inspired incantations are provocative of charm and revocative of harm. For the power of song in association with the belief of the soul captures and enraptures and translates the soul with witchery. For there have been discovered arts twain of witchery and sorcery, which are consternation to the heart and perturbation to art.

[15] Now, it has been shown that, if Helen was won over by persuasion, she is deserving of commiseration, and not condemnation. The fourth accusation I shall now proceed to answer with a fourth refutation. For if love was the doer of all these deeds, with no difficulty will she be acquitted of the crime attributed to her. The nature of that which we see is not that which we wish it to be but as it chances to be. For through the vision the soul is also in various ways smitten.

[19] If, then, the eye of Helen, charmed by Alexander’s beauty gave to her soul excitement and amorous incitement, what wonder? How could one who was weaker, repel and expel him who, being divine, had power divine? If it was physical diversion and psychical perversion, we should not execrate it as reprehensible but deprecate it as indefensible. For it came to whom it came by fortuitous insinuations not by judicious resolutions; by erotic compulsions, not by despotic machinations.

[20] How, then, is it fair to blame Helen who, whether by love captivated, or by word persuaded, or by violence dominated, or by divine necessity subjugated, did what she did, and is completely absolved from blame?

[21] By this discourse I have freed a woman from evil reputation; I have kept the promise which I made in the beginning; I have essayed to dispose of the injustice of defamation and the folly of allegation; I have prayed to compose a lucubration for Helen’s adulation and my own delectation.


  1. The text of Section 2 is unsound.

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This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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