Power to the People

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

The heavyweight of all the argumentums, it seems to me, is the argumentum ad populum, the appeal to the crowd, to their passions and biases. If you need your rabble roused and you are an accomplished word man, ad populum will do the trick. What makes it so versatile, as we shall see, is that it often drags in other argumentums, especially ad misericordiam and ad hominem. Long before sociologists began to study crowd psychology, orators knew well how to exploit it. People en masse are easily swayed, their buttons easily pushed.

A simple form of the argument is the so-called bandwagon approach. That’s the bandwagon, all fresh paint and bunting, that everyone wants to jump on, the bandwagon your mother warned you about when you were a teenager desperate for acceptance (“If everybody jumped off a cliff, would you jump, too?”). Bandwagon says that if everybody, or almost everybody, is in favor of something, then it must be true or laudable or whatever. A moment’s reflection will show how, in the course of history, just the opposite was often true. Mark Twain put it best (he always did): “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Fifty million Frenchmen can indeed be wrong. The need for acceptance is going on here and perhaps the belief that somehow, deep down, the common man is wiser—better—than his betters. (On a lighter note, the bandwagon also accounts for trends, fashions. Which is why we are still trying to forget the Seventies.)

What are these buttons to be pushed? Usually those that appeal to patriotism (my country right or wrong), to religious beliefs, to all the old verities, to visions of a simpler and more virtuous past or place.

One of the most famous examples of an ad populum display is the one that Shakespeare provides for Mark Antony (Julius Caesar, III:ii). Caesar has been hacked to death on the senate floor by Brutus and his co-conspirators. Now there will be a reckoning. In the Forum Brutus will speak to the assembled populus to explain and defend himself. And Brutus is no slouch. His speech (“Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more”) is truly masterful, a thing of balanced, clipped clauses, antithesis, appeals to patriotism. In a nice parting touch, he declares himself ready to fall on his own sword “when it shall please my country to need my death.” The crowd is all his. “Live, Brutus, live, live!” they protest. They actually want him to be the new Caesar, he who butchered the old! It would seem to be all over but the shouting.

Then comes Antony. No heroic posturing. No grand periods. Speaking probably in little more than conversational tone and pitch, speaking to these “Friends, Romans, countrymen.”

Already he has struck a bond and, he hopes, a chord. I am no better than you—you the cobbler, you the wine merchant, you the carpenter. I am stricken with grief; help me to understand, for I am but a simple man.

The “noble” Brutus has told you that Caesar was ambitious, a “grievous fault” for which Caesar has paid “grievously.” (That wordplay is called polyptoton.) Brutus, he avers, is an honorable man, and so are “the rest.” Again and again he will come back to that “honourable man” label, until the label becomes a sardonic weapon. The refrain is key here and three times he repeats it:

But [later “yet”] Brutus says he was ambitious
And Brutus is an honorable man.

Not once does he take issue with Brutus’s charge. If Caesar was ambitious, then so be it, and Brutus did what he had to do. But between that refrain he offers three instances showing that Caesar was not ambitious at all, that he cared for Rome and its people (yes, you out there, and you, and you)* and did even “thrice refuse…a kingly crown.” (Quite the game of threes, that magic number, he is playing here.) All I’m asking, he says, is that you do the simple kindness of mourning this man who loved you all and that you all once loved. Finally we see that Brutus’s speech was too crafty (make that craft-y) by half, but this, this Mark Antony, he’s a man like us, as simple and broken-hearted as we. This is the art that undoes art, and if the audience has not got that message yet, they will in the brilliant closing lines:

Bear with me
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar
And I must pause till it come back to me.

That little trick, the “words fail me” trick, is called aposiopesis. Works every time. Antony has turned the tide and things are going to get very hot for Brutus and his posse.

Next week we’ll see some more blatant tactics in an example from our own time. Ad populum is, well, always popular.

*(Come on, tell me you don’t hear Jimmy Stewart by now, George Bailey in a toga!)

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