Monday, June 22, 2009

The Antony Gambit

An essay on a literary theme

O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.
---Mark Antony,
Julius Caesar III.ii

Rome: The Forum, shortly after the death of Caesar. Restless and uncertain, troubled by the suggestion of civil chaos, a crowd has gathered. Brutus, one of the chiefs among the conspirators, speaks from the pulpit in defense of their actions. He says the conspirators killed Caesar in order to preserve the republic of Rome---that Caesar was too ambitious, that he would become a king. The crowd is pleased and would make Brutus, too, king. This, he refuses. Stepping down, ending his workmanlike speech, he leaves them with Mark Antony. Antony has begged a chance to eulogize his fallen friend, and the conspirators, in an act of calculated beneficence, have allowed this.

Turning to the crowd, Antony says he comes to bury Caesar. But what does he raise in Caesar's place! Cutting, quick, eloquent, not needing instruction from any rules, Antony knows what to do: pick a target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. With withering irony, he begins to assail the conspirators, those honorable men (so honorable they would plot to murder a man). His lugubrious attention to the body of Caesar complements his attacks upon the conspirators. He dwells on the bloody remains of the fallen dictator with an intensity that would make any local news station proud. Here is Caesar's mantle, here is the rent made by Casca, here the one made by Brutus ("the most unkindest cut of all"). The sympathy for the dead, the great narrative of betrayal, becomes the catalyst for Antony's domination of the crowd.

"Freedom" is not a word on Antony's lips. He does not speak to the crowd of the future preservation of republican liberty. He turns them backward, praises Caesar's great generosity (even if that generosity is purchased with Roman sweat and blood) to them, the bequests of his will: seventy-five drachmas to each citizen and orchards and arbors for the public enjoyment. Brutus spoke of liberty and a commonwealth, poor substitutes for the hard facts of coins and trees.

So Antony speaks, and it is the seeming voice of renewal with a sentiment of violence at its core. Antony does not seek to calm. He does not seek to clarify. He seeks to feed the rage of the people, to inflame their fears, to stoke their avarice. Antony aims to bring the assembled crowd to a white-hot wrath, and to pour that furious liquid into the molds of a sword and of a crown.

Creating a vast sense of longing and sorrow in his listeners, bringing them to the peak of emotion, Antony pushes them over the cliff into terror. The crowd spreads through Rome in seething wrath. Mobs run wild, destroying property and killing men. The tide has turned against the conspirators. Now, they must flee.

The whirlwind of that polarization and radicalization will engulf Rome once more in war. And this war is not for republican liberty or civic defense or even civic profit; it is a war for the gratification of the ambition of would-be princes. Antony and Octavius, Caesar's heir, defeat the conspirators in battle. A new triumvirate is formed to rule over Rome; like earlier triumvirates, this one falls, leaving Octavius the sole ruler. Octavius's ascent to the title of Augustus and toppler of the republic begins with this speech.

So for seventy-five drachmas would the citizens of Rome become handmaidens to tyranny. What is freedom compared to an orchard by the Tiber?

The sentiments and rhetorical techniques Antony used in his invective against the conspirators have a long history with the decline of republican liberty. It is fitting that Antony spoke in the penultimate minute of Rome's long republican twilight (an instant perhaps far too late for even the most idealistic efforts of any democratic Brutus or Cicero to reverse the course of). As democracy corrodes, public enthusiasm is used as a substitute for public rationality. Vengeance takes the place of hope (even as the placard of "hope" may be lifted high). Wrath takes the place of reason.

In such a time of decline, the people come to look upon government---and, as time goes on, the particular officers of government---as a force for mere provision. Instead of seeing the republic as a common enterprise that requires a common effort for its maintenance, the citizens come to view it as a sort of vague deity, which rewards supplication and submission with daily bread and circuses (it's no wonder many of the Roman emperors were deified). The people would accept the at-first comfortable fetters of servitude, whose velvet veneer soon rubs away in the toiling years ahead. But, once the locks have closed, they are so hard to open. The vase of the free republic, once shattered, remains a fragmented challenge for recovery.

Let us beware those post-modern Antonys, who enrage the public in order to enslave them, for whom the flash of anger is the sole light down the dark and twisted ways of the world. They use rage as a way of disabling critical thought and make scorn a substitute for analysis. Antony may have shown himself to be a master of political hardball, but, at a certain point, this hardball becomes an aggravating symptom of republican decay.

Those Antonys can be faced with a spirit of cheerful rationality and a dogged pursuit of the truth. Their mellifluousness may need to be countered with an eloquence of another kind---one that speaks to the highest principles, that cracks the strangling false dogmas of a moment to open the mind's vistas, that seeks to use passion not to enslave a man but as a way of opening his eyes to freedom.

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