PHIL 211 Discussion Helen of Troy

March 8, 2022
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PHIL 211 Discussion Helen of Troy

PHIL 211 Discussion Helen of Troy

Set aside the very interesting rhetorical features of Gorgias’ “Encomium to Helen”, and treat it only as an argument about Helen’s guilt or innocence. How does Gorgias propose rehabilitating Helen? How successful is he in doing so?


PHIL 211 Discussion Helen of TroyAside from the second possibility that Gorgias proposes i.e. that Paris kidnapped Helen and tossed her into the boat bound for Troy – a possibility occasionally entertained in the ancient world – do any of the arguments sketched by Gorgias help in getting Helen off the hook of responsibility? Do they not succeed at all? Do they help but don’t quite do the trick perfectly, or what? All of them? Some of them? None of them?

In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy,[1][2][3] Helen,[4] Helena,[5] (Ancient Greek: Ἑλένη Helénē, pronounced [helénɛː]) also known as beautiful Helen, Helen of Argos, or Helen of Sparta,[6] was said to have been the most beautiful woman in the world. She was believed to have been the daughter of Zeus and Leda, and was the sister of Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux, Philonoe, Phoebe and Timandra. She was married to King Menelaus of Sparta “who became by her the father of Hermione, and, according to others, of Nicostratus also.”[5]

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The usual tradition is that after the goddess Aphrodite promised her to Paris in the Judgement of Paris, she was seduced by him and carried off to Troy. This resulted in the Trojan War when the Achaeans set out to reclaim her. Another ancient tradition, told by Stesichorus, tells of how “not she, but her wraith only, had passed to Troy, while she was borne by the Gods to the land of Egypt, and there remained until the day when her lord [Menelaus], turning aside on the homeward voyage, should find her there.”[7]

Elements of her putative biography come from classical authors such as Aristophanes, Cicero, Euripides, and Homer (in both the Iliad and the Odyssey). Her story reappears in Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid. In her youth, she was abducted by Theseus. A competition between her suitors for her hand in marriage saw Menelaus emerge victorious. All of her suitors were required to swear an oath (known as the Oath of Tyndareus) promising to provide military assistance to the winning suitor, if Helen were ever stolen from him. The obligations of the oath precipitated the Trojan War. When she married Menelaus she was still very young; whether her subsequent departure with Paris was an abduction or an elopement is ambiguous (probably deliberately so).

PHIL 211 Discussion Helen of TroyThe legends of Helen during her time in Troy are contradictory: Homer depicts her ambivalently, both regretful of her choice and sly in her attempts to redeem her public image. Other accounts have a treacherous Helen who simulated Bacchic rites and rejoiced in the carnage she caused. Ultimately, Paris was killed in action, and in Homer’s account Helen was reunited with Menelaus, though other versions of the legend recount her ascending to Olympus instead. A cult associated with her developed in Hellenistic Laconia, both at Sparta and elsewhere; at Therapne she shared a shrine with Menelaus. She was also worshiped in Attica and on Rhodes.

Helen boards a ship for Troy, fresco from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii
Her beauty inspired artists of all times to represent her, frequently as the personification of ideal human beauty. Images of Helen start appearing in the 7th century BC. In classical Greece, her abduction by Paris—or escape with him—was a popular motif. In medieval illustrations, this event was frequently portrayed as a seduction, whereas in Renaissance paintings it was usually depicted as a “rape” (i. e. abduction) by Paris.[a] Christopher Marlowe’s lines from his tragedy Doctor Faustus (1604) are frequently cited: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”

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