Julius Caesar Rhetoric Essay (teacher-written model)
Flawed Logic: Brutus as Naïve Orator
In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, those conspiring against Caesar fear that if he is crowned king he will become an ambitious autocrat and infringe on the freedoms of the Roman republic. Brutus, despite much internal conflict over his loyalty and friendship to Caesar, joins the conspiracy for what he believes to be the good of Rome and proves himself a principled, if not overly-idealistic, leader of the conspiracy: by not swearing an oath with the conspirators, he gives the collusion the appearance of honorability; by arguing against the killing of Mark Antony, he prevents the murder from being a massacre; by giving good reasons to the Roman people, he makes his betrayal seem like the just and proper response to tyranny. Brutus’ purpose in his oration at Caesar’s funeral is to maintain the order and calm of the republic by providing a reasonable explanation for Caesar’s assassination. His speech would have been effective if not for the invalidity of his argument and his naïve trust in Marc Antony.
Brutus makes his purpose clear in the first line of the speech. By beginning his address with “Romans, countrymen, and lovers [of Rome]” (3.2.13), he immediately focuses on Rome’s importance; the good of the city being a central tenet in his argument for killing Caesar. Also, when he commands the audience to “be silent, that [they] may hear” (3.2.14), he is establishing a superior, authoritative presence capable of controlling the unruly crowd. However, he also uses ethos to build trust with the audience. When he says, “Believe me for mine honor” (3.2.15) he is reminding the audience of his reputation of being a virtuous man, a man who has good intentions for the citizens of Rome. Another way Brutus achieves his purpose of controlling the crowd is by using the hypothetical tense. Brutus says, “If there be any [dear friend of Caesar’s] in this assembly… If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar…” (3.2.17-20). Brutus knows that the Roman people love Caesar, but he uses the word “if” to place doubt in the audience’s mind about how many friends of Caesar’s are present –“if” they are among people who are not friends to Caesar, they should behave cautiously. The qualification of “dear” friend also reminds the audience that they were not really close to Caesar at all –he was their leader, not their friend –and therefore their response to his death should not be overly emotional. Brutus’ primary purpose in the beginning of the speech is to manage the crowd’s vehement response to the news of Caesar’s death and make them open to hearing his explanation.
Once Brutus has the crowd’s attention, he uses logos to try and convince them of the rational motives behind the conspiracy. He speaks in prose form instead of verse because prose is the language of argumentation and reason, not language used to evoke strong emotions. He first requests that the crowd “censure [him] in [their] wisdom, and awake [their powers of reasoning], that [they] may the better judge” (3.2.16-17) his reasons for killing Caesar. Not only does this make the commoners feel like intelligent, capable citizens, but Brutus is also outlining the sole criteria for their judgment: if he provides a valid argument, an argument in which the conclusion (killing Caesar) follows logically from the premises, then the conspirators should not be blamed and there should be no reprisal. The reason Brutus gives for rising against Caesar is, “Not that [he] loved Caesar less, but that [he] loved Rome more” (3.2.21-22). Here Brutus attempts to rationalize his love for Caesar with his love for Rome, but his love for the latter wins out. His use of antithesis (the contrast of ideas in a parallel sentence structure) shows that the reason he has presented to the public is “balanced” and rational. By putting the contrasting “loves” in a parallel sentence structure, it makes Brutus seem like he weighed both options equally and came to an unbiased conclusion. Focusing on rationality is also Brutus’ way to maintain order. Caesar’s death has caused panic and chaos and Brutus is attempting to squash violent opposition through rhetorical antithesis, bringing balance and stability back to Rome.
Additionally, Brutus uses logos when he makes it seem like killing Caesar was a logical consequence of his ambition. Brutus says, “as [Caesar] was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honor him; but as he was ambitious, I slew him” (3.2.24-26). The reasonable response of a good person would be to celebrate someone’s happiness and success and to praise someone’s courage. Placing Caesar’s murder among these other examples shows that Brutus wants the audience to believe that killing someone for being ambitious is also the reasonable response of a good person. Brutus continues, “There is…joy, for his fortune; honor, for his valor; and death, for his ambition” (3.2.26-27). Brutus has essentially restated his previous point but this time the first person pronoun “I” is absent which removes any potential for the audience to detect a personal bias or motive. Instead Brutus uses the demonstrative pronoun “there is” which makes his proclamations seem like objective facts and again emphasizes the logical necessity of killing a person because of his ambition.
Though throughout his speech Brutus attempts to use logos to convince the audience that the conspirators were justified in killing Caesar, the logic of his argument is flawed. Brutus questions the people, “Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?” (3.2.22-23). The argument here is: If Caesar had lived then you would all be slaves. Caesar did not live. Therefore, you are all free men. This argument makes it seem as if the only way the Roman people could maintain their freedom would be for Caesar to die, but there is an unstated warrant in this argument: That if Caesar had lived, he would have become a tyrant. This is an assumption for which none of the conspirators provide evidence. Since previously in the speech Brutus asks the audience to judge his action against Caesar based solely on powers of reason, if the commoners truly possessed those powers, they would realize that Brutus did not in fact have very good reasons for killing Caesar.
Despite, or maybe because of, Brutus’ flawed logic, he ends his speech strongly with the rhetorical appeals of pathos and ethos. When he asks the audience, “Who is here so base … Who is here so rude … Who is here so vile, that will not love his country?” (3.2.28-31), he is manipulating their feelings of patriotism in order to shame them into agreeing that the truly despicable thing for a true Roman to do would have been to let Caesar live. The rhetorical question makes it impossible for anyone to answer Brutus in the negative without he or she also conceding that they are wretched haters of Rome. Though the rhetorical question by definition needs no answer Brutus demands one when he “pause[s] for reply” (3.2.33) and the crowd enthusiastically responds that, no, Brutus hath not offended. Brutus again forcefully takes control of the crowd and leaves no room for anyone to doubt him. Finally, as Brutus departs from the Capitol he makes one last appeal when he cries, “as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself, when it shall please my country to need my death” (3.2.43-45). Not only does Brutus make his treason against Caesar sound like a personal sacrifice, he also leaves the audience with the impression that they truly hold the power, that the senators are there to serve and “please” them. By using the word “need” Brutus again makes Caesar’s death sound like a necessity and not a choice. Because of Brutus’ rhetorical choices he leaves the Capitol with the love and respect of the people.
In conclusion, Brutus effectively achieves his intended purpose of controlling the crowd and providing a good reason for the death of Caesar, though he achieves the latter only due to the crowd’s dimness. He then loses control over the people when he makes the grave mistake of leaving the crowd unattended to listen to Marc Antony’s speech. Overall, Brutus may have had good intentions and been a decent orator, but Marc Antony quickly preys on Brutus’ flawed logic and naïve trust.