Mending Bad Soles

Nothing is more refreshing to my soul than an insightful discussion of a great idea.

On September 10 the 2009/10 apprenticeship met for our first conference call and when I left it I felt as if I had enjoyed a spring shower after a long, miserable March. One of the apprentices spoke of the freedom and the joy of teaching children according to their nature. That makes my life worth living.

In addition, we entered a discussion about Julius Caesar and Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric (in which he was clearly very well trained). The question that propels our reading is “who is the best rhetorician in Julius Caesar?”

I asked, “Who tries to persuade anybody else in Act one and how does he do it?”

We saw that Cassius tries to persuade Brutus, largely through flattery.

We saw that the soothsayer tries to persuade Caesar through an imperative riddle: “Beware the ides of March.”

And we saw that Flavius and Marullus, two senators, try to persuade the common people through a series of questions, followed by an appeal to their emotions.

Persuasion, according to Aristotle, appeals to one or more of three things:

1. Logos, or the message itself, sometimes defined as reason.

2. Pathos, or the emotions, sometimes legitimately, when it is contained within the message by necessity, other times illegitimately, when it is simple manipulation.

3. Ethos, or the character of the speaker.

Pathos is valid when it arises naturally from the logos and ethos is fitting when it matches the logos.

Each persuader will emphasize one of these, but rarely to the exclusion of the others. Cassius, for example, wants Brutus on his side because of his reputation as an honorable man. His ethos will appeal to those who listen to him. But Cassius also wants Brutus to proclaim a message.

In general, the senators regard themselves as above pathos; they believe themselves to be about honor and truth. They think the common people are driven by emotions and they look down on that.

I’ll be watching as we proceed to see how Shakespeare develops that assumption.

In the course of our discussion a lot of ideas came out in really a rather short time. The one that took my breath away was when one of the apprentices juxtapositioned Caesar’s words after the soothsayer issued his warning (“What man is that?”) with the actions and words of the senators as the opening of the first scene. In particular, he showed that they determined to “disrobe the images.”

In other words, as the people were parading through the streets they were putting robes on the statues to celebrate Caesar’s triumph (which was over other Romans, by the way). Flavius and Marullus wanted the robes removed.

I think Shakespeare’s purpose in Julius Caesar is to disrobe the images so the real man can be known. Who was Caesar, apart from his ceremonies? Who was Brutus? What, after all, is a man?

I still make the high school mistake of reading some sections of Shakespeare quickly, even inattentively, as though some lines matter less than others. The apprentices showed me that I had done that yet again in the opening scene, when the senators encounter a cobbler. It seems to me that this encounter may well encapsulate Shakespeare’s self-perception as a craftsman, which is much more than a mere rhetorician who tries to persuade for the sake of persuasion.

The cobbler (which can mean a bumbler or what we mean by cobbler) describes himself to them as “a mender of bad soles.”

Indeed.

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