Political Speech in Julius Caesar

January 25, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Most humans are inundated with political speech, the current pace of which seems unsustainable (or at least unhealthy to me). I think this has often been the case in other civilizations too. Shakespeare gives us a great example of political speech among chaos in Julius Caesar. Though there are many layers to this play, I want to focus on the speeches given by Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) and Marcus Brutus (Brutus) directly following Caesar’s murder.

First, it is important to understand that Brutus is a statesman. He is of a noble and honorable family. He is well-educated, well-read, and well-spoken. His identity is closely linked to this nobility. Also, it is important to understand that Brutus likes Caesar in many respects. However, something within Brutus makes him distrust Caesar as a leader and popular figure. Shakespeare does not explicitly state what makes Brutus cautious about endorsing his friend. When Cassius questions Brutus as to whether or not he would choose Caesar for his king, Brutus replies only, “I would not, Cassius; yet I love him well” (I,ii,82) and then adds that he loves honor more than death (I,ii,89). Brutus’s character is founded on ideals of justice, honor, and government. Cassius, however, is more ambitious and plants the seeds of Caesar’s demise into Brutus’s head. Cassius’s brilliant, and ultimately convincing speech reads:

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world

Like a Colossus, and we petty men

Walk under his huge legs and peep about

To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

Men at some time are masters of their fates:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?

Why should that name be sounded more than yours?

Write them together, yours is as fair a name;

Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;

Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ‘em,

Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.

Now, in the names of all the gods at once,

Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed

That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!

Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!” (I,ii,135-151)

Cassius knows that nobility, honor, and justice are the keys to convincing Brutus. Cassius reinforces fears that Rome is splintering and being taken over by unworthy and uneducated classes. The fact that Julius Caesar rose from poverty, used plain speech, and created programs for the poor is all slightly absurd to the elite. Cassius knows how much a name means to Brutus, and also how little it means to Caesar. Even though Brutus replies, “I am nothing jealous,” the seed has been planted. And I do believe Brutus, his mission is not out of jealousy or even straight ambition. Rather, I believe he truly abhors the idea of a fallen Rome, one in which anyone can rule, regardless of nobility and lineage. To me, Brutus acts as though he believes himself to be Rome’s savior.

Unfortunately, Brutus does not understand politics, the people, or the time. In Act III, at the moment when Brutus and the conspirators murder Caesar, Caesar faces his friend and murderer. He speaks the famous line: “Et tu, Brute! Then fall, Caesar!” (III,i,77). After Caesar’s death, chaos ensues. Antony decides to appeal to the conspirators and so he sends his servant to Brutus with the message that “Brutus is noble, wise, valiant and honest” (III,i,127). Of course, Brutus admits Antony and the two discuss how to calm the growing crowds. In this meeting, Antony commits two noteworthy acts. First, he asks to be killed along with Caesar. This theatrical display is meant to demonstrate loyalty. The conspirators will have no more blood on their hands, though. Instead, they ask Antony to join them in representing Rome. And quickly, perhaps too quickly, Antony agrees and asks to shake each bloody hand (III,ii). However, Antony is keenly aware of the precarious situation. He appeals to Brutus’s nobility and honor more than anything and then requests to speak at Caesar’s funeral. After agreeing to let Antony speak, Brutus thinks to give himself the upper hand by speaking first. And so it is decided that Brutus will first appeal to the crowd and then Antony may address the public in the way of a formal ceremony.

Brutus gives a perfectly serviceable speech. He speaks with candor and humility. He speaks of friendship and duty. He speaks reasonably. Antony, however, follows with a knockout speech. (Also, watch Damian Lewis perform Antony’s funeral speech. ) He utilizes poetic device, repetition, and emotion. He praises Brutus many times, but ends his speech: “O judgment! Thou are fled to brutish beasts,/ And men have lost their reason” (III,ii,109-10). “[B]rutish” is very nearly Brutus. In other words, those who used to represent the epitome of reason now make no sense. Clearly, Antony knows people whereas Brutus knows the law. But who is to be believed? Did Caesar offer all the money and favors to the poor in earnest? What part of Antony’s speech is theatrics and what part real?

I think it matters very little whether one finds this play more reflective of Shakespeare’s time or Roman times. Though 1,000 years separates Roman speeches from Shakespeare’s play, the characters play large roles still played out today. A number of sources (Plutarch included) have noted Antony’s eloquence and Brutus’s honor, but do they act virtuously? To me, the play demonstrates larger human truths with which we still wrestle (and likely always will): what is justice, virtue or nobility? Who demonstrates it and how are we to judge of honesty?

In hindsight, we also know that in the future, Antony’s passions and ambition will overcome his reason and good-will. These faults only grow larger with his rise to fame. So, we are left with a scenario where either Brutus pursues nobility to a fault or Antony overindulges at everyone’s expense. The irony is that good and bad elements were always present in their characters and in their political rhetoric, but it took time to discover which trait would dominate.

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Discussing de Tocqueville

November 2, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

For the October Quarterly Discussion, we read four chapters from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. As usual, I distributed some questions beforehand intended to help start the conversation. Each discussion lasts 1.5 hours in which I (mostly) lead. I enjoy the responsibility of organizing these discussions because I get to begin with the questions that I have about a specific text. Due to the fact that so much of de Tocqueville’s writings resonate with me, I really struggled to refrain from participating too. His writings also speak to current politics, and therefore, it was doubly hard to avoid participation. I have to thank the participants in Harrison Middleton University’s October Quarterly Discussion who did an admirable job of sticking to the subject.

We began with the formation of political parties in general. He writes, “But when the citizens entertain different opinions upon subjects which affect the whole country alike, such, for instance, as the principles upon which the government is to be conducted, then distinctions arise that may correctly be styled parties. Parties are a necessary evil in free governments; but they have not at all times the same character and the same propensities” (88-9). So, while he finds parties to be a necessary evil, he also does not find them equal in character. From there, we tried to understand de Tocqueville’s delineation between “great” and “small” parties. Despite the way that it sounds, these two types of parties have nothing to do with size. Rather, in de Tocqueville’s mind, the great parties are those that discuss issues and have, what he calls, a “more noble” pursuit. On the other hand, small parties form around an issue or two. The small parties, according to de Tocqueville, care more about a single issue or a private interest than about ideas or the good of society, whereas great parties are concerned with principles and their general application. In 1830, he writes, “America has had great parties, but has them no longer; and if her happiness is thereby considerably increased, her morality has suffered” (89B). According to de Tocqueville, the great parties arose out of necessity and strife, a time when America was suffering. These parties looked at broad issues that would impact all of America. The focus, therefore, was more holistic. However, once these changes were implemented and the need for social cohesion lessoned, special interests overtook the general cohesion of the great parties and replaced them. De Tocqueville describes the effects of the small parties as those which “agitate” society rather than revolutionize it.

Furthermore, de Tocqueville’s use of happiness and morality is of great interest. In this section, he seems to define happiness as a level of individual comfort and perhaps peace. It appears that his version of happiness in America is one which leads to a sort of immorality. He suggests that the more comfortable we are, the more self-involved we are and therefore, less moral. In other words, morality may demand an ethic that lessens our ease of living. In the future, I would like to further investigate de Tocqueville’s idea of happiness by moving outside of this single chapter. I am curious how happiness (in his terms) aligns with morality throughout the text. Furthermore, I wonder how different translators have dealt with this idea. Is happiness the most appropriate word choice for the original French? How have others translated this section? (The Great Books version was translated by George Lawrence.)

From there, we moved into the chapter on Freedom of the Press. De Tocqueville begins this chapter by stating that he has reservations about a free press. He writes, “I confess that I do not entertain that firm and complete attachment to the liberty of the press which is wont to be excited by things that are supremely good in their very nature. I approve of it from a consideration more of the evils it prevents than of the advantages it ensures” (92A). First, he finds that a free press is invaluable to a democracy because information distribution would be limited by a single entity. On the other hand, freedom implies that nearly anyone can create news if they choose to do so. In the first case, news is singular and perhaps biased or incomplete. In the latter, news may lack data, information, facts and anything pertaining to reality. Furthermore, he writes, “[T]he hallmark of the American journalist is a direct and coarse attack, without any subtleties, on the passions of his readers; he disregards principles to seize on people, following them into their private lives and laying bare their weaknesses and their vices. That is a deplorable abuse of the powers of thought” (95A). He continues that, despite the abuse of thought, each individual newspaper carries little weight, which makes many small voices. This cacophony creates the “spirit” of the press. The multitude of voices also ironically removes the danger of a single voice reaching the level of despotism.

These chapters address very complex issues inherent in America’s being. They are worth more than 1.5 hours of discussion. Rather, de Tocqueville addresses so many contemporary issues that the entire volume is worth (re)reading. Additionally, discussing a work like this one is vital to understanding the depth of democracy’s issues. Democracy in America explains some of the foundations of our country in a way that is both poetic and holistic. My gratitude goes to those who spent time in discussion with me. I look forward to our next conversation!

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Tocqueville's Abstract Language

July 20, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville warns that abstract language is like “a box with a false bottom; you may put in what ideas you please and take them out again unobserved” (258). Since I often study poetry and think about how metaphor affects us on every level, from personal and familial to political and global, I wanted to unpack this idea of Tocqueville’s. What is the warning and to whom is it directed? This quote comes from Volume II, Part I in which Tocqueville deals with the “Influence of Democracy on the Intellectual Movements in the United States”. The first chapters of this Volume discuss theater, art, and poetry as they intersect with taste, style, culture, politics and education. He continues, “The abundance of abstract terms in the language of democracy, used the whole time without reference to any particular facts, both widens the scope of thought and clouds it.” (258) I find it ironic that in describing a frustration with the opacity of language, Tocqueville resorts to the metaphor of clouds. Clearly, some situations warrant metaphor while in others, metaphor detracts from meaning.

Since Tocqueville often discusses equality throughout Democracy in America, he uses that term as an example of what he means by abstract language. He writes, “I have often used the word ‘equality’ in an absolute sense, and several times have even personified it, so that I have found myself saying that equality did certain things or abstained from others. Frenchmen in the reign of Louis XIV would never have spoken in that way; it would never have entered the head of any of them to use the word ‘equality’ without applying it to some particular thing, and they would have preferred not to use the word at all rather than turn it into a living being.” (258) In other words, “equality” models the way that language changes. Tocqueville attempts, throughout a number of chapters, to elucidate this term, but he never clearly defines equality. Previous generations could not have done this and still made sense. So, it seems that over time some terms gather enough general meaning as to no longer require specific identifiers. Is this a good or bad thing for language? Does it “cloud” language?

The answer is, of course, not as simple as we would like. According to Tocqueville himself, clouded language is a negative. Yet, he continues to use a poorly defined term such as equality for a large part of his argument. It is only on page 258 (out of 383) that he explains how difficult it is to define abstract language. And yet, his treatise delivers impressive insight about equality itself, which leads me to believe that abstract language, when handled appropriately, can be made useful. Therefore, I would argue that the danger inherent in language is also a part of its strength. More specifically, the ability for a term to stretch, encompass, change and grow can be both a positive or a negative dependent upon its usage. I love that idea, but to be honest, that leaves the audience with a lot of work to do.

In the chapter on “Language” from the Syntopicon, Adler states that “[t]he ideal of a perfect and universal language seems to arise in modern times from dissatisfaction with the inadequacy of ordinary language for the analytic refinement and precision of mathematics or science.” (728B) I can see both sides of this argument. While I agree that we struggle to find language adequate and fitting for quickly evolving technologies, I do not believe that most of our contemporary problems stem from this issue. Rather, more in tune with Tocqueville’s example, words accrue meanings which render them somewhat useless. I like to use the example of green: what began as a color now refers to anything from good gardening skills to novices and environmentalists. The danger that Tocqueville warns of, however, is more appropriately constrained to terms like “equality” which make an impressive sound-bite, but convey little meaning. In other words, metaphor is not the problem, per se, but rather its overuse.

Reading the chapter on “Language” makes me wonder how well we understand types of language. Where is the divide between poetic language, everyday speech, political rhetoric, and workplace memorandums, for example? What, precisely, constitutes clear language in each of these scenarios? It seems obvious that unclear terms damage important conversations, but the parameters of useful language are less clear. For example, when Shakespeare has Mark Antony claim that “they spaniel’d me at my heels,” he certainly does not literally mean dogs. Rather the opposing ships pursued him as hunting dogs pursue their prey. The metaphor surprises the reader by condensing image and action. The use of a noun in the place of a verb helps the audience feel Antony’s fear, surprise and frustration. Shakespeare is masterful at such speech, and perhaps set the tone for much poetic writing. (For more in this vein, listen to Seth Lerer’s Great Course on the History of English Language.) And while this term works well in Shakespeare’s play, what happens when we rely upon metaphor for everything? In my view, the ways in which we define and use language are of tantamount importance and deserve just a little bit more care.

To encapsulate my point, Adler writes:

“Without judging the fundamental issues involved concerning the nature of things and of man and his mind, one point seems to be clear. According as men hold different conceptions of the relation of language to thought (and in consequence assume different attitudes toward the imperfections or misuse of language), they inevitably take opposite sides on these issues. Whether the discipline of language is called semantics or the liberal arts, the standards by which one man criticizes the language of another seem to depend upon what he holds to be true.

“The present work on the great ideas aims, in part, to record the agreements and disagreements among the great minds of the western tradition. It also records how those minds have used the same word in different senses or have used quite distinct words for the same thing. It could not do either unless it did both. This indicates the basic relationship between language and thought which the great books exemplify, even when they do not explicitly make it the basis of their discussion of the relation between language and thought.” (728)

If you are interested in politics, rhetoric, man, nature, culture, or scripture, it might be worth spending a few moments with “Language.”

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