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.