Know Your Rhetoricians! – Gorgias, Nothing, and Magic Words

It’s Friday, so it’s time for “Know Your Rhetoricians.” We’ll take a look at a famous rhetorician of the past and how some of his or her philosophies could be pertinent to your Tabletop RPG experience.

How do I describe blue? Since my eyes don’t work in words, how can I then compose something that will give you the impression of blue through your ears? I could make comparisons, but you may not perceive colors in exactly the same way that I do. Perceptions vary from person to person, and yet, they are what we use when trying to understand the world. On a related note, if words are all I have to work with, can I construct them in such a way as to take away your free will or ability to reason? Con men use a combination of fast talk and pressure tactics to get us to make ill-informed and badly reasoned decisions, but is that our fault for falling for it, or are well-put together words so potent as to rob us of our capacity to refute them? Both of these questions, among others, were touched on by Gorgias of Leontini, one of the first rhetoricians and a member of the Sophist movement.

Gorgias was reportedly born sometime in the early 5th century, B.C.E. He was born in Sicily and established his reputation as a speaker there. He was nearly 60 when he traveled to Athens to ask for Athenian intervention for Sicily against Syracuse. His oratory proved so popular that he stayed in Athens and taught rhetoric, becoming incredibly wealthy, as well as incredibly unpopular with philosophers whose words have survived better than Gorgias’ own. Plato, in particular, assailed the Sophists in a dialogue titled Gorgias. Plato’s version of Gorgias wasn’t much more than a straw man for Socrates (acting as Plato’s POV character) to eviscerate, as Plato condemned rhetoric as nothing more than flattery.

As you might have guessed from the above paragraph, we don’t have a lot of Gorgias’ work to refer to anymore, as much of it has been lost. Two partially surviving documents gives us two ideas to work with in our games. On the Non-Existent, or On Negation, is one we have fragments of that posits a negative concept of absolute truth. One of his speeches, the Encomium of Helen, is a defense of the lady with the thousand-ship-launching face of Trojan War fame. In it, Gorgias argues that speech can have a drug-like power to take over our minds and lead us to place we would not have otherwise chosen to go.

The Nothing Problem

In On the Non-Existent, Gorgias makes a three-part argument about existence – that is, existence apart from what our senses perceive.

1) Nothing exists.

2) Even if something existed, we could not perceive it.

3) Even if we could perceive it, we could not express anything about it or explain it.

The idea is that our senses make up our whole knowledge of the world, and our senses are imperfect and ruled by our subjective mind. As a result, there cannot be objective, transcendental truth. I have mentioned before the problems of trying to portray relativistic morality in games like Pathfinder or D&D, where good and evil are forces that manifest themselves in the powers displayed by people, as well as in creatures that are, in and of themselves, manifestations of those otherwise unseen forces. Of course, a Gorgias-like skeptic, who mistrusted senses, would have several questions – the Paladins claim to be able to detect evil, as do the clerics of the many churches. Why do we believe them? Why do they ascribe the name “evil” to the force they detect? Isn’t it curious that the “evil” always seems to be people in opposition to the church?

If you’re not feeling like breaking down D&D cosmology, the concepts of Gorgias on nothingness are probably more pertinent when you’re playing a game in a world that looks more like our own. If our conception of the world is derived through our senses and our senses can’t be objective, how do we get close enough to knowledge to function? Gorgias and the Sophists challenged their students to argue all sides of an issue until they came up with the things that would be a workable truth for them. Even if you’re not interested in that deep a dive into rhetorical clash, spending time asking yourself what your PC believes is a worthwhile exercise. In Gorgias’ view, their beliefs would come from what they had seen. Tying your beliefs to your experiences is one of the simplest ways to both fill out your character’s background and their worldview simultaneously.

The Power of Words

In the Encomium of Helen, Gorgias states, “discourse is a great potentate, which by the smallest and most secret body accomplishes the most divine works; for it can stop fear and assuage pain and produce joy and make mercy abound.” In other words, speech can stop and start a whole host of emotional reactions, taking charge of the hearer and leading them around. For role-players, sometimes words are essential, but most games also include mechanical skills for the exchanging of words, where, when dealing with NPCs, those exchanges can often reach seemingly mystical powers of persuasion.

Consider this thread over at the Paizo forums, where the poster asserts that a sufficient series of Diplomacy checks should acquire his PC magic items from a shop at cost, as though Diplomacy was enough to make the arcanist in question utterly devalue his own labor. The abstraction of rhetorical skills in game can periodically blur the line between good argument and magical enchantment. And that’s nothing when it comes to the PCs themselves. Most games draw the line at letting the PC with all their skill points invested in pretty talk use that ability to make the PCs dance to their tune, but not all of them – Green Ronin’s Song of Ice and Fire game makes social encounters run on a similar mechanic to combat ones, with the words flying like ripostes and thrusts until one person is worn down and concedes the argument.

Personally, I am ashamed to say I am still on the fence about this point. On the one hand, I absolutely believe that people without a natural gift of gab should be able to play charismatic PCs and reap the benefits of spending their points that way. On the other hand, I understand concerns about overreach in terms of rhetorical power, as well as legitimate worries about player agency. Mark me down as “It Depends” for this one, even if Gorgias wants us to believe that Paris’ sweet-talking of Helen means that she was blameless in fleeing to Troy.

Questions of relativism or the power of speech can seem incidental when it’s time to get after the dragon, but they are a huge part, even today, of exploring the human condition. There’s no reason why we can’t get a little wiser with our dungeon crawl or Elysium intrigue. If nothing else, a Sicilian who convinced the Athenians to make a solid gold statue of him is probably worth a consideration every now and again.

The Hazards of Positive Thinking

If Superman did not exist today, could we even invent him or would he be anything other than the half dozen or so postmodern critiques of Superman that have appeared from the pens of cynical authors? Role-playing games often end up trailing a lot of modern conceptions, in large part out of an overblown sense of nostalgia, but one postmodern concept keeps coming back to bite us, and that bite seems to get a little sharper every time: moral relativism.

The grand old dame in the room, D&D, is the very essence of positivist morality. The alignment system doesn’t simply exist as a roleplaying guide, but as something that exerts itself within the game. Ironically, the concept of evil as a force unto itself has even been heretical in the Catholic Church for 1500 years, but it’s been part of the D&D canon since they laid down the concept of detect evil. Evil and Good are forces that can be measured, weighed, invoked, or even abjured. As 20th century writers became more and more relativist in their outlook, this has become an increasingly significant challenge to game writers. I mentioned the problems that some gamers have with the misogynist agrarian god, Erastil, in Paizo’s home setting of Golarion, but the problem of positivist morality has raised its head in other places as well. Every time a writer takes on depicting the culture of an “evil” race – Drow, Orcs, Hobgoblins, etc. – the question inevitably rises again about how, where, and why it is justifiable to wander into the subterranean or fortress homes of these creatures, kill them all, and take their stuff. R.A. Salvatore has started digging into this a little in the ongoing adventures of Drizzt Do’Urden, whose dwarven allies have begun working out the terms of living alongside orcs, rather than hunting them all down. Such themes are interesting and show a broader panoply of moral consideration, but also diverge from that fundamental truth of the game – evil exists. If evil exists, is it ok to simply let it exist? We have, fortunately for the sociologist-gamer, come out of the time period where bestiary entries included such eugenic gems as “always chaotic evil,” as though the forces of anarchy and diabolism were encoded in the DNA, but we seem to keep whistling past the graveyard in the hopes that our XP-winning exercises in genocide don’t earn us reputations as psychopaths.

So alignment is a problem, at least if you’re not a believer in absolute terms of right and wrong, but D&D is hardly the only offender in this class, and the ever-growing field of what should be considered rhetorical has raised certain questions on the nature of the dramatic story itself. Vampire: The Masquerade seemed to postulate that a lack of empathy and kindness eventually led to degeneration into cannibalistic psychosis, but that only seemed to apply to Vampires – Werewolves and Mages were free to be unfeeling twerps – so maybe it’s a proto-Twilight thing. Mage: The Ascension was perhaps the closest to modern academic conceptions of truth and fact, arguing that reality itself was consensual. The problem with absolute relativity, at least in an RPG, is the implication for agency: It is, in theory, legitimate for me to defend my own agency and resist forces that attempt to impose their will on me, but is it ever legitimate for me to impose my will on another, even through something as seemingly innocuous as argument? If not, is any dramatic interaction involving competing drives morally justifiable?

If postmodern ethics make most of world history appear to be the acts of sociopathic hegemons, it makes most RPGs appear to be the power fantasies of would-be petty tyrants. To that end, I say – to the rubbish heap with most of postmodern ethics. We are perfectly capable of establishing ethics that respect the agency of most, while restraining those who would do us or others harm. Right and wrong, good and evil – these need not be punchlines for the “evolved” thinker (who is facing his or her own existential crisis as the notion of “progress” is challenged by the same critiques that launched the term “progressive”). We can, and we should, evaluate and re-evaluate what we believe in light of new evidence, but that doesn’t mean that the newest thought or critique invalidates all that has come before. The positivist outlook does carry some baggage, and introducing concepts of our own presumptions of intolerance in the form of orcs, kobolds, and the like can make for really good stories. We need not, however, dispense with the entire notion of right and wrong – that’s a baby that need not go out with the eugenic bathwater.