Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar has many memorable lines, but none more so than “Beware the Ides of March.” As it is, today, the 15th of March, I would like to highlight one of the most important themes of the play, which is the dilemma of Brutus.
Ancient, Medieval & Modern
One of the reasons that Shakespeare’s plays are so justly famous is that he managed to express in the most wonderful prose and poetry the clash of values between the medieval world that was just ending and the modern world that was barely visible on the horizon of time. In this play he also has reference to the ways of the ancient classical world that many in his day took as a spource of example. The stories of the great heros of those earlier days continued to inspire and, sometimes perplex, and they still do. Shakespeare was both ahead of his time and an apologist for what was being lost and he performed both parts with genius.
One of my enduring themes in the teachings that I have been giving recently is that of highlighting the difference between the values and thinking of different ages. What was considered virtue by the ancients was different from what was considered so by medieval people and they again differed from us moderns. Our forebears were not always wrong and we are not always right. The clash of value systems occasions deep dilemmas for individuals, and in this magnificent play, just such a dilemma is made plain. Does one have a stronger duty to one's friends or to one country, to those one loves or to one's principles?
In the play, Shakespeare follows actual history, as best we know it, very closely. The scene is ancient Rome 44BC. A couple of years earlier, Julius Caesar, returning to Rome after making many conquests and then defeating Pompey in a civil war, had found himself to be in a position of almost absolute power. The senate had made him life-long dictator. Until this point Rome had been a republic since the expulsion of the kings many centuries before.
What Was at Stake
In 44BC, the institutions of the Roman republic were still in place, but had become ineffectual due both to the exigencies of war and the rivalries between influential families. Caesar was seen by many as a saviour who could bring stability as well as restore national pride. Nonetheless, he still faced some opposition, basically from two factions in uneasy alliance, that are dramatised by Shakespeare in the figures of Cassius and Brutus. Cassius is jealous of Caesar. He feels himself to be superior to Caesar in many ways, yet it is Caesar who is getting attention as though he were a god upon Earth. Brutus, on the other hand, is a man of principle. He believes in the republican system of government and laments what is happening politically. He loves Julius Caesar as a friend, yet sees him becoming the instrument of the overthrow of all that he believes in politically.
The position is rather like many political situations where there is a messy mix of people with high ideals, people with personal ambition, opportunists, people with other ideals, and a great many people who do not know what to think nor what they want, but are likely to follow anything that moves so long as it does so with luck and confidence. The fickleness of the crowd is well portrayed.
Brutus’ Inner Conflict
The dilemma of Brutus, therefore, is the clash between loyalty to a friend and to principle. If your best friend had broken the law, would you phone the police? Would you testify in court against him or her? How bad would the crime have to be before you turned against them? Or would you be eternally loyal no matter what they had done? Where is your line? This is the dilemma of Brutus, a gentle, principled man who fears that his best friend is about to over-throw democracy and become an absolute monarch.
The Ides of March
Cassius persuades Brutus to join a plot to assassinate Caesar on the Ides of March when Caesar comes to address the senate. Much is made in the play of ominous portents that give forewarning that a tragedy is about to unfold. The soothsayer warns “Beware the Ides of March,” there are storms and unnatural occurrences during the night, Caesar’s wife has a nightmare and begs him not to go. Caesar hesitates, but does not want to be seen to be a coward, so goes to the senate. The conspirators gather round and stab him. Caesar turns to his friend Brutus for aid, but Brutus also plunges in his sword. Caesar dies saying “Et tu Brute, then fall Caesar.”
Sparing Your Executioner
Because he is basically a gentle and principled man, Brutus has persuaded the conspirators to keep bloodshed to a minimum. Consequently, only Caesar has been killed and his supporter Mark Antony has not. Mark Antony then gives the funeral oration for Caesar and by skilful rhetoric stirs up the crowd to such a pitch that a mob forms and goes hunting the conspirators who are forced to flee Rome.
The subsequent history is that Mark Antony forms an alliance with Octavius who is Caesar’s adopted son. Antony and Octavius defeat the conspirators. Brutus and Cassius commit suicide dying by the same swords that killed Caesar. Octavian and Antony divide the empire between them, Antony taking the richer Eastern part where he marries Cleopatra. War breaks out between the two halves of the empire and at Actium Octavian defeats Antony and Cleopatra. Octavian then becomes Augustus Caesar the first emperor of Rome.
So was Brutus right to do what he did? In the event Rome did go on to become an empire with an emperor and enjoyed its period of greatest glory, so Brutus' attempt to defend democracy failed. Does this make any difference to whether what he did was right or not? A commentator in Shakespeare’s time might well see this as showing the virtue of monarchy, the incoherence of democracy, and view the whole thing as a misguided man doing an evil deed and getting his comeuppance. Many modern people, on the other hand, might think that Brutus did the right thing, defending democracy, over-riding his personal sentiments in order to do so, and dying a tragic hero in the service of progress and liberation. Again, what about the other characters? Was Caesar the hero or the villain of the piece. What about Mark Antony or Octavius? Right at the end of the play when Brutus is defeated and dead, Brutus and Octavius both honour him as a great Roman. nonetheless, they fought and destroyed him. What's right and what's wrong?
We Have All Been There
The dilemma of Brutus is something that we all face from time to time, though generally not in such extreme form. Rarely is one of the options for us to assassinate a best friend, but verbal assassination may well come into it. When is it right to support and when to criticise, and how much and in what manner? Often it is easier to be wise after the event than at the time. We might try to live by a set of principles, but no principle fits every case.
Is Our World Better or Worse?
In former days, personal loyalty counted for more than seems to be the case today. Similarly, we now live in a world of less clemency. The Buddha protected Angulimala and the raja accepted him doing so, but if the same story unfolded today the authorities would imprison or hang him. If Osama Bin Laden or Gaddafi had been rendered powerless, it is difficult to imagine them being allowed clemency whereas when the dictator Idi Amin fell from power he was allowed to live out his days in Saudi Arabia. Are war crimes trials a way of making the world a kinder place or a form of victor’s vengeance? These are all question upon which a variety of sometimes strong views can be held and defended. "I was being loyal to my friend would not be an acceptable defense in a modern court, though it might sometimes have been in former ages and cultures.
Right and Wrong is Not Always Clear
The dilemma of Brutus is not amenable to a simple solution. It illustrates the kind of conflict of conscience that is unavoidable. To live an enlightened life cannot be a matter of finding the right formula. It is more a matter of being fully alive in each step of the path. Two equally enlightened masters in identical situations will not necessarily always do the same thing, nor arrive at the same decision.
On the other hand, it is not the case that matters of this kind are inconsequential. One cannot say, Oh, well, it didn’t matter what he did. Had Caesar lived he might have ruled well or he might have become a terrible tyrant. Who knows? If Brutus had let Antony be killed as well, the republic might have been restored and Brutus might have gone on to be a hero of Roman history and a champion of democracy. Is ruthlessness sometimes right? Do the ends justify the means? When one is in the thick of a tense situation one does not have the benefit of knowing the future - one can only do one’s best and it may even not be that clear what the best is, just as it was unclear for Brutus, but he still had to commit himself one way or the other and consequences then follow.
Noble Even in Defeat
I think that many people involved in spiritual practice these days think that they can arrive at perfect answers to these questions that will always stand them in good stead. Such answers may be essentially passifistic. If one does nothing one cannot get one's hands dirty. However, this is not really true. It is a maxim of the law of equity that "silence gives consent". By doing nothing one often implicitly aids and abets a course of action. We might think that, unlike these characters from history, we are never involved in anything so dire as killing anybody, yet we are all implicated in mass killing by the armed forces of the countries that we live in. Whatever opinion one holds about the Middle East at the moment one is probably in support of some group that is going to do a fair amount if killing and if you try to avoid the issue by never reading an newspaper one is still implicated just be being European or North American or whatever.
We can do our best, but perfect moral solutions are not to be had. What a wonderful play like Julius Caesar - and many others by Shakespeare - does is to help us to have empathy for all the characters involved. It is possible to see something of oneself in each of them. We may not get everything right in our lives, but will we live in such a way that, when our end comes, it could be said of us, as his enemy says of Brutus, This was a man! (female readers can make suitable adjustment of phraseology).
Some of the Notable Quotes from the Play
- Beware the Ides of March
- poor Brutus, with himself at war, forgets the shows of love to other men.
- the eye sees not itself, but by reflection.
- I do fear the people do choose Ceasar for their king.
- If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his.
- Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.
- tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition.
- 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.
- There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.
- I was born free as Ceasar
- Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus; and we petty men walk under his huge legs, and peep about
- The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.
- A very pleasing night to honest men.
- Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
- I rather tell you what is to be fear’d than what I fear, - for always I am Caesar.
- Cowards die many times before their deaths
- danger knows full well that Caesar is more dangerous than he.
- Hence! wilt thou lift up Olympus?
- Et tu Brute? Then fall Caesar!
- (about a comment by Cicero) it was Greek to me.
- O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth
- Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war;
- Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones
- So are they all, all honourable men.
- Ambition should be made of sterner stuff
- If you have tears prepare to shed them now
- Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel; judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him! This was the most unkindest cut of all
- mischief, thou art afoot. Take thou what course thou wilt.
- [of Brutus] This was the noblest Roman of them all… His life was gentle, and the elements so mix’d in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, This was a man!
A really thoughtful piece, David. Thank you for the reference to English/Western traditions in so many ways. The concepts of linear time and space as declared by Newton gave rise to cause and effect thinking and a sense of morality that resided in good, as a standard above and beyond the merely physical and bad in the same way. In other words, Shakespeare's writings reflect the belief in a standard to which we must rise, a standard almost Platonic in its reverence for the "Good" way to conduct behaviour, or the "Bad" way. I don't remember him listing Possibilities, or Ambiguities as one of the Forms!
Yet in our time, with quantum physics and particularly non-locality, it becomes very important to examine the details of one's life, after the events have taken place. For instance, instead of having a preset notion of what constitutes "Good" in any situation, we must wrestle with our own demons and angels after an event has transpired in order to sift out whatever notions that enlighten have fallen into the bits of dirt of daily life. We must spend time with Contextual Ethics, develop a sense of morality based in Context which changes. While all changes and continually vibrates at the quantum level, yet certain discernible patterns emerge for each individual. Those patterns show themselves well when, having enacted a certain behaviour, we find synchronistically or chaotically other signals from the material world rising that help us understand our behaviour in deeper, more wise terms as either successful, or not.
All this means no institution, no group, no leader can enunciate in our times what morality constitutes for each person. This leads of course to much disruption and throws extraordinary weight upon the individual to duke it out with her own conscience, her own heart and to discuss with others who are doing the same.
Which is what you are doing here and I much appreciate it!
Thank you, Charlene.