The Role of Aristotle’s Rhetoric in Marc Anthony’s Oration
Marc Anthony’s speech during Julius Caesar’s burial is an effective incorporation of Aristotle’s rhetoric, which helps him persuade his audience to shift allegiance from Brutus’ and his co-conspirators’ side to Julius Caesar’s. An extensive examination of Aristotle’s rhetoric will reveal the techniques used by Marc Anthony in his speech. The diction in an argument can be very powerful that it can first disguise its original intent until it has already achieved it.
In Book I of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Aristotle compares rhetoric to dialectic. Dialectic is defined as “discussion and reasoning by dialogue as a method of intellectual investigation,” while rhetoric is identified as “the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion.” (Merriam-Webster) Aristotle believes that the two are “mirror images” because they can both be used in formulating a solid argument and in arguing common knowledge topics instead of “specialized sciences” (Murphy et al 62).
Rhetoric is considered an art because it can be taught and therefore, can be learned.
Rhetoric appeals to the emotions and can be used as an alternative defense against physical attacks. Once all the means of persuasion has been used and the audience is still not persuaded, the rhetoric is not considered a failure (Murphy et al 62). However, the speaker has to be well aware of the emotions that are involved in the argument, especially the emotions of the audience, in order to know how to handle the issue to his or her advantage.
According to Aristotle, rhetoric can be used in discussing political topics such as revenue, war and peace, national defense, trade, and legislation. The mental exercise is important in ensuring that the government or any political party receives necessary checks that will prevent corruption or mismanagement. Moreover, rhetoric is used in discussing ethical topics, which are abundant, as people continue to classify whatever is good or bad for humanity. Aristotle further discusses the use of different emotions used in rhetoric, in which in the case of Marc Anthony’s speech, the focus will be on two emotions: pity and anger. Aristotle regards the emotions as temporary and believes that the orator can present the right emotion at the right time to achieve the needed reaction from the audience. In “law courts,” “emotional states” play an important role in winning a case (Murphy et al 62).
When discussing the emotion of anger, one of the theories that Aristotle discusses is that anger becomes a more common reaction to the unexpected. Anger flares more if the cause is brought about by a friend rather than an enemy; it is unexpected, and has potential to cause more pain. In Aristotle’s rhetoric, anger has many causes. Belittlement of self and beloved people results to anger, because it affects the ego of the person who regards himself or herself superior (Murphy et al 92). If he or she is not given the expected treatment, his pride will be wounded. What this means is that if a person is particularly proud of one of his or her qualities, and this quality has become disparaged, the resulting emotion will be anger or more specifically, becoming indignant due to an insult. Indignation is said to be the opposite of pity (Murphy et al 91) which will be discussed later. Aristotle further suggests that humiliation in front of particular persons can generate the most anger. These persons refer to “rivals”, people “revered” or “admired’, people that the humiliated person may wish to “revere” or admire him. The anger can be justified in front of a judge by proving the cause(s) (Aristotle Rhetoric, II 2,1377a – 1380b). Anger can fuel a person’s will to win his argument because it has become a personal fight wherein there is a need for revenge, and in the mind of the slighted person, a need to uphold justice.
Pity, on the other hand, is said to be a feeling directed towards a person who apparently does not deserve whatever fate has brought him or her. The emotion is felt by someone who feels that his or her situation is superior to that of being pitied. The person who is feeling the pity is not in a hopeless or vulnerable state. However, the emotion is more thoroughly felt by those who have been in the same situation. Moreover, a man can empathize with someone he feels is deserving of pity by merely dreading the fate that has befallen the other. If anger can be felt against those who have belittled or caused harm against a loved one, pity can be felt towards the one who has been harmed. Also, if anger becomes a result of something unexpected, pity can also be felt for someone who has experienced an unexpected misfortune. Aristotle suggests that people feel pity most especially if the situation is close to home: the misfortune has been brought on friends, family or a neighbor who is known for his goodness. Possible causes that can lead to a piteous state are destruction that may come in the form of death, sickness or famine, chance which includes anything brought by fate, and causes that may appear good at first but has caused harm (Murphy et al 91). An appeal to pity when producing a sound argument can be a strong arsenal (Aristotle, Rhetoric II 8, 1385b – 1386b). Pity felt towards the one who has experienced misfortune may turn into anger towards the one responsible for that misfortune. This is what Marc Anthony is trying to utilize in his oration.
With the correct use of rhetoric, and with adequate knowledge of people’s emotions, an orator can generate his or her desired effect. In law courts, lawyers undergo the necessary research for the case. They know the right words to say, and when to say them.
“Enthymeme is Aristotle’s technical term for rhetorical arguments from premises. In actual discourse it almost never occurs in any form that a logician will recognize. Assumptions are concealed; conclusions are abbreviated; often a rhetorical question is used to rush the listener to a conclusion without time for reflection (Murphy et al 68).
Providing premises is to make the background of the situation clear as an additional support to the conclusion the orator is trying to arrive with the audience. The argument as a whole is called an enthymeme. Without the audience knowing it, they are being pushed to a certain conclusion by the orator. They are more likely to agree to the conclusion being planted to their subconscious because of the premises which they can prove to be true. For indeed, if “the less probable event has occurred, so has the more probable.” (Murphy et al 100) Truthful statements provide the introduction leading to more contrived rhetoric. Marc Anthony makes use of enthymeme when he speaks before an audience during Julius Caesar’s burial:
“He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff” (3.2.90-4)
In this particular segment of the speech, Marc Anthony begins with the air of trying to merely provide information to his audience. He creates an image of heroism and generosity for Caesar, which is apparently supported by the first line where Caesar brings “captives home to Rome.” Then, Marc Anthony attacks with a rhetorical question, in which he does the concluding for his audience. The image of Caesar weeping is made to generate pity for the murdered leader and to see him as a human affected by emotions just like everybody else. The last line of the segment is a fact in itself which adds to the whole argument for the dead Caesar; it concludes that he is not ambitious at all. Since Caesar is described as unassuming and capable of tears, the pity felt towards him may turn into anger towards his murderers.
According to Murphy et al, an interpretation of the segment can be read as such:
“No leader who brings captives home and donates their ransoms to the treasury is an ambitious man. Caesar was a leader who brings captives home and donates their ransoms to the treasury. Caesar was not an ambitious man.”
Before Marc Anthony argues for Caesar’s generosity and unassuming humanity, he prepares his audience to his speech:
“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.” (3.2.76-9)
Marc Anthony introduces his oration with the assurance that he will treat Caesar as he will treat any man who is to be buried. He is trying to obtain the attention and the confidence of his audience, by claiming that he will not praise Caesar or cover his dead friend’s flaws. Beginning the speech this way is necessary, because prior to Marc Anthony’s oration to the Romans, Brutus and his co-conspirators have the support of the people. Marc Anthony must present sincerity and not aggression. If he had started his speech with anger, he may not have the effect desired. At any rate, anger and anguish are expected of him; abandoning blatant praises for subtle build up of character is not.
“The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.” (3.2.79-82)
Marc Anthony gives the impression of entertaining the possibility of Caesar’s ambitious nature. He presents a conditional argument. He says that since the “noble Brutus” claims that Caesar was ambitious, then it must be true. However, his subsequent arguments reveal Caesar as an unassuming and empathizing leader. This will conclude then that Brutus is not noble, after all.
Marc Anthony proceeds by repeating the phrase “For Brutus is an honorable man” in his subsequent arguments. He is not just making the audience absorb this, but also leading them to question Brutus’ honor to which all the arguments of the conspirators depend on. The members of the audience have been persuaded to view Julius Caesar’s death as a result of a necessary crime because the honorable Brutus is one of the murderers. The conspirators have established Caesar as a tyrant who deserves to die. If Marc Anthony proves otherwise, pity will be turned towards the helpless Caesar who has been murdered by a group of men, which includes his trusted Brutus. The murderers of the helpless leader will then face the wrath of the people.
“And Brutus is an honorable man…
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious” (3.2.96-100)
The above portion of Marc Anthony’s speech further solidifies Caesar’s image as the complete opposite of what Brutus and his co-conspirators claim him to be. Caesar is presented as undeserving of such a brutal murder. Indeed, nobody deserves to be murdered as Caesar was. His is an unexpected death, with “none so poor to do him reverence,” (3.2.122-124); it is violent, making use of daggers, with the last stab from his “well-beloved Brutus” (3.2.178). According to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, finding a person to be undeserving of misfortune can lead to pity towards that person. This pity is a sign of empathy and therefore, a sign that Caesar has earned the concern of the Roman people. Through Anthony’s words, the Roman people fall as Caesar has fallen; they have internalized the sufferings of Caesar. How can they doubt Caesar when he has made them his family through making them his heirs? (3.2.193, 241-3) He has become a martyred hero whose life has been cut off short. Not only does Marc Anthony provide his friend a noble image, he also tries to show Brutus as Caesar’s antithesis. He moves from “Brutus is an honorable man,” to “Brutus says he was ambitious.” The first line seems to affirm Brutus as an honorable man; the last line questions Brutus’ judgment. With further use of the phrase “honorable man,” the audience feels the irony in the choice of words to describe Brutus.
“I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.” (3.2.102-9)
The final eight lines of Marc Anthony’s speech form an appeal to the emotions. He claims that he is not trying to disprove Brutus’ statements, but his other accounts are saying otherwise. He expresses the sorrow that he feels for Caesar’s death and the injustice that he believes has befallen his friend, in order to incite the same emotions from those who have come to see, but not to mourn Caesar.
Marc Anthony has cleverly used Aristotle’s rhetoric as it should be used. He utilizes the technique effectively as he is able to attain his goal: to turn the crowd against Brutus and his co-conspirators and towards supporting Caesar. Moreover, he has exaggerated the gap between the two sectors, by almost deifying Caesar and proving the others to be murderers with no just cause. This is through the skillful manipulation of the two emotions, anger and pity, which when aroused can affect the judgment. The audience is swayed through Marc Anthony’s clever use of words in his rhetorical questions and repetitiveness that they no longer need further physical evidence to substantiate the claims. Marc Anthony’s own display of anguish seem to prove his sincerity and furthermore, his truthfulness.
Aristotle, Rhetoric II: 2, 1377a – 1380b and 8, 1385b – 1386b
Murphy, James Jerome et al. A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric. London: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, 1996. 62-8.
Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2 November 2007
Shakespeare, William. “Julius Caesar.” The Illustrated Stratford Shakespeare. New York:
Sterling Publishing Co., 1993. 765-6.
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