Julius Caesar was dead, assassinated by no fewer than 60 Roman Senators, some of whom he considered close friends. Rome was in turmoil when Marc Antony, Caesar’s ally, was tapped to give his friend’s eulogy. What he said was shocking.
“It is not fitting, citizens, that the funeral oration of so great a man should be pronounced by me alone, but rather by his whole country.”
Antony then read a series of decrees and pledges from all over Rome extolling Caesar’s distinctive virtues, recalling his unparalleled achievements, and mourning his immeasurable loss.
What’s so shocking about Antony’s speech is that he didn’t say anything particularly shocking. There’s no full text of the eulogy (Shakespeare’s fanciful reconstruction notwithstanding), but it was reportedly fairly conventional — full of praise for the deceased and mourning for a life taken too soon.
What’s also shocking is that Antony’s speech is as relevant as ever in 21st century America. In fact, Antony’s eulogy exemplifies a kind of rhetoric — called “epideictic” — that illuminates how political persuasion functions in the 21st century and why it’s so threatening to democracy.
Soon after Caesar was assassinated, Antony’s funeral oration became the textbook example of epideictic rhetoric. Epideictic (pronounced: eh-puh-dike-tik) is a kind of ceremonial rhetoric designed for praise or blame. Heap praise on a loved one at their funeral, for example, or cast blame on the villain who murdered them.
Antony’s speech is notable because he didn’t blame Caesar’s murderers, many of whom actually attended the eulogy. He focused instead on praising the deceased, magnifying Caesar’s attributes to god-like levels and lamenting all of Rome’s suffering.
Amplified praise is the appropriate form of epideictic for a traditional eulogy because it intensifies emotion and allows audience members to mourn together as a community.
Famously, however, the Romans who listened to Caesar’s eulogy didn’t simply commune in their grief. Deeply moved by Antony’s praise for Caesar, they revolted against the conspirators, burning buildings and attempting to murder Caesar’s murderers.
Epideictic rhetoric like that found in eulogies is often thought of merely as a form of display or performance. Something to be watched and experienced almost like spectators in a theater.
But as Antony’s speech demonstrates, when epideictic moves away from ceremonial speech and into a charged political arena, it can become more than a spectator sport. It can inspire extreme reactions — even mob violence.
Americans are not Romans, but we’re living in an era of epideictic rhetoric. In the past two decades, praise and blame have increasingly displaced standard forms of political rhetoric — deliberative rhetoric and judicial rhetoric.
Deliberative (legislative) and judicial (legal) rhetoric are designed to produce slow, measured, and methodical decision-making.
By contrast, epideictic rhetoric is designed to intensify emotions, distinguish heroes from villains, and motivate direct, immediate, passionate responses. It can even be used to attack slow, measured, and methodical decision-making, and that’s what’s happening in American politics.
Attempt at Blame
Take, for instance, the Trump–Ukraine scandal for which former President Donald Trump was impeached in 2020. Trump surrogates, including Attorney General Bill Barr and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, pressured Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Trump’s political opponent, Joe Biden, in exchange for American military aid.
The scandal was that a sitting US president tried to pressure a foreign government to declare a (sham) investigation in order to circumvent established political processes and undermine his political opponent.
The method was epideictic. If there was truly cause for investigation, the proper responses should have been legislative and judicial.
But Trump gambled that announcing a foreign investigation — even if it was never conducted — would convince voters that Biden was corrupt. It was a complicated, coordinated, calculated attempt at blame.
Similar instances of epideictic are occurring throughout American politics. What should be deliberative or legislative decisions — about voting rights, public health, or bodily autonomy, for example — are being overwhelmed or short-circuited by praise and blame rhetoric, especially (if not exclusively) by Republicans and conservative activists.
Epideictic is most obvious when debates about the merits of legislation, laws, or human rights are drowned out by praise and blame rhetoric. And when epideictic is made to override democratic institutions and processes, democracy is systematically weakened.
Praise to Gather Support
Of course, epideictic rhetoric is not necessarily bad. It can be an important means of gathering support in a democracy.
Take, for another instance, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. HR 1 began as the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019. But one week after John Lewis died, Democrats renamed the bill in honor of the civil rights icon.
The aim of renaming the bill was epideictic — an act of praise by association, with the hope that Lewis’s sterling civil rights legacy would persuade legislators and citizens to fight for the legislation. In this case, epideictic is supposed to support the legislative process, not overwhelm or destroy it.
But epideictic cannot be allowed to usurp legislative and judicial rhetoric in politics and the government. Left unchecked, it’s downright dangerous.
A major challenge ahead for democracy’s defenders is rebuilding the eroded legislative and judicial processes that make American democracy functional. That’s not going to be easy.
But an important first step is recognizing how prevalent epideictic rhetoric has become in places where legislative and judicial rhetoric belong. If we fail to recognize the influence of epideictic rhetoric — including in our own actions — there’s no chance we’ll ever be able to root it out of the places where it doesn’t belong.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.